India climbs six places on WEF’s gender index

India has jumped to 108th spot, courtesy political representation, but remains laggard on economic, health fronts


India fell five places in terms of women in the workforce to hit nearly the bottom of the rankings at 139 of 145 countries, its worst rank in this category since 2006. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
India fell five places in terms of women in the workforce to hit nearly the bottom of the rankings at 139 of 145 countries, its worst rank in this category since 2006. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

New Delhi: At 108 out of 145 countries, India’s ranking in the global gender index, compiled every year by the World Economic Forum (WEF), has climbed six places, primarily on account of political representation, but continues to be abysmal on the economic and health fronts.

India’s improved overall ranking (up from 114 of the 142 countries examined last year) reflects the fact that there are more women in positions of political leadership, particularly ministers and members of Parliament. With the number of women ministers jumping from 9% to 22% of the cabinet, India ranks among the most improved countries in the region in terms of political representation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet has six women ministers, including in the key portfolio of external affairs. The 16th Lok Sabha also saw a rise in the number of women parliamentarians from 11.4% to 12.15%.

That’s the good news.

Equally, there are many causes for concern.

India fell five places in terms of women in the workforce to hit nearly the bottom of the rankings at 139 of 145 countries, its worst rank in this category since 2006.

Indian women have also regressed in terms of health and survival, placed at a lowly 143 out of 145. India is one of the three countries that have declined the furthest on the health and survival sub-index, the other two being China and Albania.

The WEF’s assessment of India’s ranking in terms of sex ratio at birth (143), a sub-indicator in the health and survival category, is unchanged from last year and is ahead only of China and Armenia.

On educational attainment—a fourth parameter in the overall gender index after political representation, economy and health—India has improved marginally, going up one place from 126 in 2014 to 125 this year.

The report said the female to male ratio in India’s labour force participation is 0.35 now against 0.36 last year. Income disparity is also high, with women earning an estimated average of $2,257 per year, compared with $9,175 for men. While South Africa has narrowed its labour force participation gap by 18% and Japan by 11%, in India, the gap has widened by 7%.

Overall, India’s fall in rank is not only relative to other countries, it also marks a decline in absolute terms—the gap is wider today than 10 years ago.

Ironically, even as India’s gender ranking in education reflects an improvement—119 in primary education enrolment, 118 for secondary and 104 for tertiary education—women continue to be missing from the workforce.

At 53 percentage points, India has one of the worst gender gaps in the world when it comes to labour force participation, 2015 World Bank data shows. Not only other countries in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa) grouping, but other emerging economies in Asia such as Indonesia fare much better than India when it comes to employing women, according to the World Bank data.

India’s female labour force participation rate fell nearly seven percentage points to 22.5% between 2004-05 and 2011-12, according to India’s NSSO data (http://bit.ly/1jenLeB), Mint reported in November 2013.

In a paper titled Labour Force Participation of Women in India: Some Facts, Some Queries, published by the London School of Economics’ Asia Research Centre, Surjit Bhalla and Ravinder Kaur point out that discrimination against women, starting from practices such as sex-selective abortion, is a possible reason for poor participation of women in the workforce.

In addition, the lack of safety and supporting infrastructure plays a role in deterring many educated, urban women from pursuing careers.

“India is a very peculiar case where despite increases in incomes and the economy, female labour-force participation has declined. Barring a few metros and some companies, workspaces are not women-friendly. Lack of safety and infrastructural issues have been reasons why women are staying away,” said Shamika Ravi, a fellow at Brookings India, a think tank.

Some have questioned the WEF’s methodology, which they say is anomalous because it looks at political empowerment through representation even though Parliament itself has failed for 20 years to pass a bill seeking to reserve 33% parliamentary seats for women.

“I am not sure how much weightage can be given to having a female prime minister or president as there is no direct link with women in power and feminist notions of empowerment,” said Mary E. John, senior fellow and associate professor, Centre for Women’s Development Studies at Delhi University.

Globally, the gender gap has closed by 4% in the 10 years since WEF began measuring the global gender gap in 2006.

The economic gap has closed only by 3% with wage equality and labour force parity stalling from 2009-10.

The WEF estimates that at this rate, the economic gender gap worldwide will not be bridged until 2033.

As with India, globally, too, the area where the most progress has been made over the past decade is political representation.

For 2015, the top 10 ranked countries in terms of gender include the Scandinavian trio of Iceland, Finland and Norway.

One African country, Rwanda, comes in at No 7 and an Asian country, the Philippines ranks 9.

The Asia-Pacific top 10 include two South Asian countries—Bangladesh at 64 and Sri Lanka at 84.

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