The outcry over the Delhi gang-rape has sparked a furious debate on the horrors that confront women in India. While the debate has put a spotlight on the inadequacies in India’s rape laws and policing, and exposed misogynist Indian “leaders”, the deep-rooted sexual inequality in the country that lies at the root of the misogyny and sexual violence has not received the attention it deserves. The power imbalance between the sexes, and the toll it takes on the nation, must be debated more openly and widely.
Sexual violence is not unique to India, as Owen Jones pointed out in the Independent. What is exceptional about India though is the extraordinarily low social status of women, which manifests itself in a range of poor social outcomes, and prevents decisive action against sexual offenders.
There are both obvious and not-so-obvious indicators that attest to the relatively low social status of women in India. A below-average sex ratio of 940 females per 1,000 males and a maternal mortality rate of 212 per 100,000 births are some of the obvious indicators that show how we undervalue women.
A not-so-obvious indicator is India’s dismal malnutrition rate. Roughly one in two Indian children is malnourished, and the physical impairment associated with malnutrition costs the economy 2-3% of its gross domestic product each year, according to World Bank estimates. The child malnutrition rate in India (and much of South Asia) is nearly double that of sub-Saharan Africa although poverty rates are lower and child survival rates are much higher here.
The key to the paradox lies in the low social status of women, which has persisted for generations and leads to low birth weights. Nearly a fourth of Indians are born with low birth weights, which is 40% higher than for sub-Saharan Africa. Vulimiri Ramalingaswami, a former director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi and among the first to write about this, observed that intra-household food-sharing norms were traditionally much more equal in sub-Saharan Africa than in South Asia. Although women’s dietary intake and health have a much larger externality than of men’s, it is common even today to find males receiving more attention at an average Indian dining table, with women eating later, and even less than what they should.
Sexual inequality starts at home, as Tabish Khair pointed out in an eloquent essay and much of it has to do with our conception of work. Women may slog long hours to take care of their families, but such work fails to gain recognition both within the family and in national statistics. And Indian women continue to be under-represented at the workplace, despite years of rapid growth and improvements in female literacy rates. It is not mere coincidence that the average female labour force participation rate (LPR) in sub-Saharan Africa, at 64%, is more than twice that in India, according to data from the World Bank.
As economist Jayan Jose Thomas argued in a recent research paper, the absence of women from work causes our LPR to be much below what is usual for an economy of India’s size, and limits the economy from reaping a demographic dividend. India seems to be caught in a vicious cycle where women hesitate to join the work-force because of existing social mores, and the lack of women workers tends to reinforce those mores.
Changing social mores is not as easy as changing legislation or lighting candles. But for the sake of its women and for the sake of its men, for the sake of ethics and for the sake of economics, India needs to become friendlier towards women. The long distance that the nation has to travel is apparent from the fact that even after such a huge outcry, prominent Indians of various hues continue to make sexist comments with impunity.