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Home / Opinion / Online-views /  The ugly realities of gender discrimination in india

Two young girls stepped out of their home in a village located in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh one evening in May. They went towards the fields because there was no toilet at home. That was the last time they were seen alive by their family. The two girls were raped and strangled to death. Their bodies were found the next morning hanging from a tree.

This horrific crime has once again focused attention on the rampant gender violence in many parts of India. It has also sparked off a subsidiary debate about how the lack of modern toilets makes a daily routine so dangerous for millions of Indian women.

Gender equality is to be valued for its intrinsic merit. No society that gives half its population an unfair deal can claim to be decent. But the empowerment of women is also important for economic growth.

The position of women in countries such as India has gradually improved even though it is far worse than even in many comparable countries.

One indication of this is school attendance. There used to be a huge gap between the enrolment rates for boys and girls in primary and secondary schools in India even as recently as two decades ago, but that gap has been more or less closed. The ratio of girls to boys in schools climbed from 67% in 1989 to 98% in 2011, though the biggest gains have been made in the fourth and fifth income quintiles; the enrolment gap is as high as five percentage points in the first quintile.

There is always an element of inevitability in the narrowing gap between the school enrolment rates of boys and girls. The enrolment rates of boys cannot grow once every boy is in school. What this means is that even a very gradual increase in the proportion of girls going to school will reduce the gap. But there are other statistics that do not suffer from this problem. For example, the maternal mortality rate has dropped from 560 deaths per 100,000 births in 1990 to 190 deaths in 2013.

However, these advances mask the persistence of gender discrimination in India. There are several indicators of this sorry state of affairs. Take a look at the situation in the labour market. The labour force participation rate for females (or the percentage of women above 15 years of age who supply labour outside the home) is very low in India: 29% as compared with 60% in China). The Economist reported in 2007 that the entry of millions of women into the labour force in developed countries has done more for global economic growth in recent decades than China has.

The recent employment data shows that the participation of women in the workforce sometimes surges during droughts—women take up work outside the home when there is distress but then are pushed back into the kitchen once the bad year is over.

The relative lack of physical mobility for women as well as the demands of managing the house restricts the employment choices of women. The Indian labour market resembles that of several other underdeveloped countries: men tend to pick occupations outside of agriculture while women remain on the farm. This has been described as the feminization of agriculture. Women are more generally trapped in low-productivity work. But the story does not end there. Indian women get paid far less than men even when they are doing similar work: 62 cents to women for every one dollar for men, according to some global studies.

The discrimination in the labour market is similar to what happens in homes. There is ample data to show that men get preference over women when it comes to nutrition. The child mortality rates for girls are scandalous. One major reason for the massive malnutrition problem in India is the fact that pregnant mothers do not get adequate supplementary nutrition (while the lack of toilets leads to stomach infections that reduce the ability of people to absorb nutrients).

Indian women have made gradual progress in recent years—but gender discrimination is still rife. There are no quick fixes. Women face barriers at home, at work and on the streets. There have been attempts to give them more voice in decisions. The food security law identifies the woman as the head of the household; the ration card will be in her name so that she has a say in household decisions. The proposed Bill to reserve one-third of seats in the Indian parliament for women seeks to do the same thing in collective choice.

It is debatable whether such legal interventions will actually give women a greater voice in India. The most difficult challenge is the social norms that have evolved over centuries. They are gradually changing for sure—but states such as Uttar Pradesh seem to be caught in a time warp. The Badaun rapes are another reminder of the ugly realities of gender discrimination in India.

(Data for this article has mainly been taken from the World Development Indicators published by the World Bank.)

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