Indian women still have miles to go

By Liz Mathew, IANS

New Delhi : India got its first woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, 40 years ago and its first woman president, Pratibha Patil, this year. But theirs is not the story of the common Indian woman.

Support TwoCircles

The past 60 years are a story of missed opportunities – where despite a legal framework, women have been reined in by a rigid, patriarchal society.

Around 245 million Indian women cannot read or write, making up the world’s largest number of illiterate women in a single country. The sex ratio of 933 females per 1,000 males is one of the worst in the world. And women make up only four percent of the organised workforce.

The progress of women in India, a largely patriarchal society, has at worst been slow and at best steady – though the government says the picture is not all dismal.

“Since Independence, the condition of women in the country has changed to a significant extent,” National Commission for Women (NCW) chairperson Girija Vyas said.

“Not only Pratibha Patil but also women working as heads of local bodies in villages and remote areas have brought respect and glory to the women community,” she said.

Vyas is not wrong.

The Indian constitution guarantees women equality of opportunity and wage and disallows gender bias by the state. The 73rd amendment, providing for 33 percent reservation for women in Panchayati Raj institutions, has brought more than a million women into active grassroots politics.

Local women – the vast majority of them illiterate and poor – have come to occupy as much as 43 percent of the seats at the village and district and other civic bodies.

If the female literacy rate in 1951, shortly after independence, was only seven percent – as against 25 percent for males – it has risen to 54.16 percent now. The male literacy rate, according to the 2001 census, is 75.85 percent.

“In the post-Independence era, with the help of social reformers and strong women’s movements, the Indian woman has started recognising her true potential,” said Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women.

The Indian woman has started questioning the rules laid down for her by society, has begun breaking barriers and there are shining examples of those who have excelled in various fields – from Sania Mirza in sports and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw in business to Mayawati in politics and Arundhati Roy in literature.

Raja feels this was possible because of “the strong intervention of women organisations and movements in the country”.

But that is only a part of the picture. The fact is that policy-making bodies still do not have a significant presence of women. Their representation in the Indian parliament and state legislatures is not more than 10 percent.

So far Indian lawmakers have been unable to agree on a proposed law for one-third quota for women in parliament and legislatures. “But we have managed to put the women quota as a part of every major political party’s manifesto. Although the women development is not in the same pace as that of the country’s development, things are happening,” Raja said.

Vyas agreed with Raja. “Though women are scaling new heights, a lot of work still has to be done for their uplift and overall development. Women are still struggling to create a niche in a male-dominated society.”

Dowry deaths and rape cases are still reported daily, even from metropolises, and the sex ratio is skewed against them. India’s maternal mortality is the second highest in the world.

According to the British journal The Lancet, more than 10 million girls in India have gone “missing” due to sex selection and abortion in the last one decade; this despite the government having banned foetal sex selection technologies in 1994.

Violence against women, at homes and outside, continues to be a serious problem.

According to the National Crimes Report Bureau, 150,000 crimes against women are registered annually out of which nearly 50,000 are related to domestic violence.

“Nothing has changed. My mother used to be beaten up by my father and now my sisters are under the same threat from their husbands. I was forced to drop my studies as my elder brothers refused to take care of me,” said Pushpa, a 33-year-old woman from Kerala who now works as a housemaid in Delhi.

“I don’t know what the words Independence and Republic mean. I just know that the mentality of men and society towards us is unchanged,” she said.

More than 50 percent of girls drop out by the time they are in middle school.

Maternal mortality in India is estimated to be between 385-487 per 100,000 live births. Almost 125,000 women die from pregnancy and pregnancy-related causes each year. Eighty percent of women are anaemic.

Two-thirds of deliveries still take place at home, with only 43 percent supervised by health professionals.

Leading women’s activist Mohini Giri said: “The biggest challenge Indian women face is the inequality in education, health and employment opportunities and social stigmas.”

“The law itself is not enough in this male-dominated society. If we want to make real changes there has to be awareness. People in power should ensure effective implementation of the law,” Giri said.

Census data shows that Indian women work as hard outside the house as inside, but much of it goes unacknowledged. Rural women engaged in agriculture form 78 percent of all women in regular work. But they get 30 percent lower wages than men.

Many Indian women, like nurses from the southern states, are not only the backbone of their families but also contribute considerably to the country’s foreign exchange earnings

In the last 60 years, there have been important policy decisions in favour of women – but much of it has not been reflected in reality.

As recently as last year, Indian lawmakers unanimously voted in favour of the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Bill – ensuring a giant step for equal rights to inherited property for Hindu women – and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Bill.

What made the second bill noteworthy was that women in marriages and live-in relationships and those living in a shared household related by ‘consanguinity or adoption’ were included in its ambit.

There are also in place to prevent sexual harassment of women at work place. The central government has also started gender budgeting in an attempt to bring in parity in opportunities.

The last 60 years of independence have brought positive change for women. Pictures of young girls in school uniforms cheerfully going to school are not at all uncommon.

But India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s words still linger, “You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women.”