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Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Bridging the great Indian gender divide

The gender debate in the country has to become wider in its scope rather than focus merely on law enforcement

The launch of the second edition of the reality show, Satyamev Jayate, anchored by actor Aamir Khanand shown on the Star Plus channel, has brought the spotlight back on the horrors that confront women in India.

The issue of violence against women gained salience in India in the wake of the spontaneous and widespread outcry over the Delhi gang-rape on 16 December 2012, and attracts greater attention today than it did ever. While this has led to a welcome debate on women’s safety and police reforms, the deep-rooted gender inequality that lies at the root of misogyny and sexual violence has not received the attention it deserves.

Violence against women may be the most extreme manifestation of patriarchy but several other indicators point to a very unappealing picture about the social status of women in India.

India’s low sex ratio at birth and the underlying preference for a son, even in urbanized and well-off sections, is one obvious indicator that attests to the low social status of women. An extraordinarily high child malnutrition rate is a not-so-obvious indicator of the same phenomenon. Nearly half of India’s malnutrition burden owes to low birth-weight babies born to under-nourished women. A majority of Indian women are anaemic and the proportion of women with low body mass index is among the highest in the world.

The unprecedented growth of the Indian economy over the past two decades has improved the life chances of everyone, irrespective of gender. 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, leading to stasis in many of India’s development indicators.

A key reason why even modern India views women through medieval patriarchal glasses is the limited economic role of women. 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. According to World Bank data, India ranks 10th from the bottom in female labour force participation rates (LFPR).

The absence of women from paid work causes India’s overall labour participation rates to be much below what is usual for an economy of India’s size, and limits the economy from reaping a demographic dividend. Raising the levels of female employment to male levels can add as much as 27% to India’s gross domestic product, according to a recent Catalyst Inc. report, by lowering fertility levels, by raising the tenure of employment, and by improving the health and educational attainments of their children over the long term.

At the moment though, India seems to be caught in a vicious cycle, where few women work 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 even as rising crimes against women act as a deterrent to women’s autonomy and mobility.

Given the complex roots of gender inequality, there are no easy solutions. Still, a mix of gender-friendly and gender-neutral policies can help accelerate social change. A June special issue of the Finance and Development journal on gender inequality published by the International Monetary Fund showed how reservations for women in local bodies in West Bengal changed local perception about women leaders and raised 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.

The gender debate in the country needs to encompass these issues now rather than focus merely on law enforcement.

Is the focus of gender debates in India too narrow? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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