Long road to gender equality in India

Gender budgeting has helped but women need more economic freedom and better access to public goods


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

India formally adopted gender budgeting in 2005. In that year, finance minister P. Chidambaram included in the budget documents a separate statement on spending programmes that benefit women in particular. It was his predecessor Yashwant Sinha who began the preparatory work for a shift to gender budgeting.

Every Indian budget since 2005 has a statement that lists out schemes meant specifically for women. There are two types of schemes that are included—those in which the entire provision is for women and those where at least 30% of the money is meant for women. Sixteen states have also embraced gender budgeting over the past decade.

Has gender budgeting just been for show or has it had a real impact? A new research paper by economists at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) uses data from the states to check whether a focus on gender budgeting has made a difference in those states that have adopted it.

Their empirical model shows that states which have adopted gender budgeting have tended to move towards greater gender equality measured by female to male enrolment ratios at different levels of schooling. The impact is more intense when it comes to primary rather than secondary schooling. The IMF economists also show that gender budgeting has a significant impact on spending on infrastructure.

Specific programmes targeted at women do make a difference. One of the best examples is the decision of some state governments to give free bicycles to girls going to school. It is also widely accepted that the lack of safe toilets for girls in schools is one big reason why so many drop out. A lot also depends on the nature of political power. Economist Esther Duflo has shown in her research that village panchayats controlled by women tend to spend more on public goods such as drinking water which are closer to the concerns of women rather than men.

Such interventions are undoubtedly welcome. However, gender budgeting alone is unlikely to solve the massive problem of gender inequality that not only prevents women from living a full life but also hurts economic growth.

For example, India has the lowest level of female participation in the labour force when compared to most other regional economies. Indian women enter the labour force only when there is economic distress while they retreat back into their homes once the situation improves—a rare case of employment going down when the economy improves.

There are two other issues that also need public policy attention—economic freedom and public goods. In its latest report on economic freedom in the world, which was released in September, the Fraser Institute draws a link between the economic freedom of individual countries with the level of economic freedom its women enjoy. The Fraser Institute has developed an index to measure the legal barriers women face when it comes to exercising the same economic freedom available to men in their countries. There are five components to the index of gender disparity—freedom of movement, property rights, financial rights, freedom to work and legal status.

In the Indian case, these legal rights are protected by a liberal constitution but social norms do prevent women from exercising these freedoms. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on target when he said this in his speech to the nation on 15 August 2014: “I want to ask every parent that you have a daughter of 10 or 12 years age, you are always on the alert, every now and then you keep on asking where are you going, when would you come back, inform immediately after you reach. Parents ask their daughters hundreds of questions, but have any parents ever dared to ask their son as to where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are.”

The other big issue is public goods. These by their very nature are accessible for all citizens because their consumption is neither exclusive nor rival. Yet, the lack of certain core public goods such as safe streets or lack of clean drinking water are more likely to hurt the economic prospects of women more than men. The argument for safe streets is almost self-evident. The lack of clean drinking water on tap in effect means that women in many parts of the country spend several hours every day walking in search of water.

India is still a laggard when it comes to gender equality, and changing this situation is an urgent task.

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