Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Essay | What statistics can’t reveal

The fight for gender rights in modern India has a long and rich history that goes back to the glorious days of our freedom struggle. Many of our earliest freedom fighters were also the greatest champions of women’s empowerment.

Since then, the debate on gender inequality appeared to have lost steam until about a year ago. After actor Aamir Khan’s unexpected success in sparking a debate on India’s skewed sex ratio through a reality show and the widespread outcry over the Delhi gang rape late last year, the voices for women’s freedom have gained ascendancy.

But issues concerning women are still not priority in a democracy that has had universal adult franchise since its birth.

One answer to this is that there aren’t simply enough women as men. The overall sex ratio has seen a steady fall over the 20th century. Women in most parts of the world outlive men. The natural female survival advantage is so high that females outnumber men in Western nations. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, the sex ratio is close to unity. For most of independent India’s history, our society has been an exception to such norms. Gender inequities in health and nutrition combined with high rates of female infanticide or sex-selective abortions led to relatively high death rates for females in India. Of late, it is the latter factor of sex-selective abortion, which is most worrying. While there has been a modest reversal in the trend of declining sex ratios over the past two decades, the latest census results of 2011 reveal an alarming drop in the child sex ratio to 914 girls per 1,000 boys, from 927 girls per 1,000 boys in 2001.

In the early 1990s, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen famously coined the term, “missing women" to refer to the victims of gender bias in developing Asian economies such as India and China. The World Bank puts the number of missing women every year at four million, with the two Asian giants accounting for the bulk of them.

The phenomenon of “missing women" is one aspect of gender inequality. But for each missing woman, there are many more who fail to get an education or secure a job that they would have obtained had they been men. Women who do have a job typically earn less, and are much less likely to rise to leadership positions. The absence of women from work, and from key leadership positions means there are fewer advocates of gender rights in positions of power.

Economic prosperity has improved life chances of everyone, irrespective of gender, over the past two decades. India has also made rapid strides in narrowing the gender gap in educational attainments over the same period. But this has scarcely changed how society values women. Thus, while improved access to health care and a decline in the maternal mortality rates have pulled up the survival rates of older women, raising the sex ratio, the use of sex-determination tests and sex-selective abortions have had the opposite effect. As a result, in the average overall sex ratio, India stands much below the global average. The child sex ratio is even lower.

The low sex ratio at birth and the underlying “son preference", even in urbanized and well-off sections, reflect the profound impact of patriarchy in modern India. Seen in the context of three other indicators, it points to a very unappealing picture about the social status of women in India. First, most Indian women are under-nourished: a majority of women are anaemic and the proportion of women with low body mass index (BMI) is among the highest in the world. Second, the past few years has seen a rapid shrinking of the women workforce. The female labour force participation rate fell from 29.4% in 2004-05 to 22.5% in 2011-12, according to the National Sample Survey Office survey data, placing India near the bottom of the global league tables. The global average of female labour force participation rate is around 50%. Third, the past decade also saw a sharp increase in crimes against women.

The fall in the proportion of working women, at least in rural areas, is partly because more women are studying than before. Higher educational attainments and awareness levels may also be driving more women to report crimes than earlier although it is difficult to disentangle the effect of such a reporting bias from the actual increase in crimes. There are also many instances of women defying gender stereotypes to enter roles hitherto enjoyed only by men, and that may in part be provoking a violent backlash in some parts of the country.

Gender disparities impose heavy economic and social costs on the nation. Some of the costs are quite obvious. As Jayan Jose Thomas, labour economist and assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, points out in his writings, the absence of women from work causes our labour participation rates to be much below than what is usual for an economy of India’s size, and limits the economy from reaping a demographic dividend. Given that a majority of urban educated women are out of the workforce, the sheer waste of talent is without parallel.

Then there are the not-so-obvious costs. Research by development economists such as Jean Drèze, Reetika Khera and others show that districts with the greatest gender skews also tend to be most prone to crime. Malnutrition is another hidden cost of the low social status of women. Nearly half of India’s malnutrition burden, for instance, is directly attributable to under-nourished mothers who give birth to low birth weight babies. Such children not only face the risk of early stunting, the consequences of which can be irreversible, but also face the risk of obesity-related disorders much later in life. The total costs of malnutrition can be as high as 8-11% of the gross domestic product (GDP) each year for a country such as India because of productivity losses, according to experts.

Gender inequities of different kinds tend to feed into each other, generating a vicious loop. For instance, women hesitate to join the workforce because of existing social mores, and the lack of women workers tends to reinforce those mores. The extraordinarily low social status of women also allows impunity for sexual offences, and rising crimes against women act as a deterrent to women’s autonomy and mobility. It does not appear to be a coincidence that the proportion of working women, the proportion of females to males in the population, the proportion of normal weight births, and the proportion of well-nourished women and children are all significantly higher in sub-Saharan Africa than in India. As Sen puts it, women’s “agency" to improve their lot is sorely lacking in India.

Given the complex roots of gender inequality, there are no easy solutions. Nonetheless, a mix of gender-friendly and gender-neutral policies can help accelerate social change. A June special issue of Finance and Development journal on gender inequality published by the International Monetary Fund illustrates how reservations for women in local bodies in West Bengal changed local perception about women leaders and helped drive up parents’ aspirations for their daughters. Gender-neutral policies such as public provisioning of potable water can help women save time on water-related chores in rural areas and in urban slums, and allow them greater freedom to take part in the workplace.

We need more debate and more outrage to confront one of the greatest civilizational challenges India faces.

Pramit Bhattacharya is a staff writer atMint.

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