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No, this article is not about predicting the upcoming Uttar Pradesh (UP) Assembly election. It is about something deeper and more significant for UP’s future, especially for its women and girls. Were it a country, UP would be the fifth largest in the world. What happens in UP has a disproportionate impact on the country’s development picture.

UP is often seen as populous and poor. It is frequently in the news for extreme violence against women, ranging from highly-publicized rapes cum murders and high rates of domestic violence. Women and girls in the state are considered especially disempowered due to rigid patriarchal norms that grant them little freedom or agency. With a historically skewed sex ratio, high son preference and high fertility, low levels of girls’ education, low female labour force participation and the practice of seclusion, UP has been no place for women.

Against this background, the findings of the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 2020-21, are surprisingly uplifting and spell hope for girls and women in the state. Several indicators focusing on married women in the age group 18-49 shed light on women’s changing status. The reference period is between two surveys, 2015-16 to January 2020-April 2021, enabling us to see the change as well as the pace of change.

A major shift appears to have taken place in the state’s sex ratio, a crucial indicator for women’s status. UP now has more women than men in its population: its overall sex ratio improved from 995 females per 1,000 males, to 1,017. However, this could by male migration to other states for work. The crucial indicator of whether girls are wanted is the sex ratio at birth (SRB); the SRB also tells us how many girls are being ‘allowed’ to be born and how many were killed in utero.

According to the survey, the SRB has shown a stunning improvement in the female/male ratio, which increased from 903 to 941, which is close to the norm of 950. If the numbers check out once unit level data is released, this would be cause for huge celebration, signalling a much earlier reversal of daughter discrimination than anticipated. Has UP seen the light of day before many other northern states with terribly skewed sex ratios? UP’s neighbour, Bihar, hasn’t done quite as well: its SRB deteriorated from 934 to 908 with rural areas outdoing urban areas in giving birth to fewer girls.

It is however sanguine to remember that due to a combination of son preference, availability of sex selection technologies and its rapid fertility transition, UP is still contributing the largest number of girls ‘missing at birth’ to India’s total.

Fertility trends are another important indicator of improvement in women’s well-being. Fewer women between the ages of 20-24 are marrying before the age of 18 and the adolescent fertility rate has also declined; both help with fertility decline.

The survey also shows that more women are using family planning methods and the unmet need for contraception has gone down. Government efforts are bearing fruit in enabling women to gain control over their bodies and their reproductive choices, in the face of stiff resistance from patriarchal males.

Significant improvements in the neonatal mortality rate (NNMR) by nearly 10 percentage points, the infant mortality rate (IMR) by 13 points and the under-five mortality rate (U5MR) by a thumping 19 points are likely to translate into higher girl child survival.

Women’s empowerment and violence experienced by women are key aspects of evaluating women’s overall worth in society. India has seen remarkable strides in women’s inclusion in education, with nearly 50% of students in colleges and universities being women. In UP, the proportion of married women with more than 10 years of schooling increased from 33% to nearly 40% . What is even more impressive is that nearly 47% of women have their own mobile phones and 30% of women have used the internet. While that’s lower than the all-India average, UP is no longer an outlier. Phones and internet, technologies that provide women with knowledge and access to better communication, when combined with education, ensure that they are less likely to experience violence and have more control over choices.

Headlines generally give us the sense that UP is utterly unsafe for women and there is a large grain of truth in this impression. Studies have testified to pervasive gender and sexual violence in the state. Thus, it is heartening to note that spousal violence “ever experienced" declined from 36.7% to 34.8% and violence experienced during pregnancy went down from 4.3% to 3.7% (all India numbers are 29.3% and 3.1%). That nearly 35% married women in the state still report spousal violence shows that challenging normalization of everyday violence and unequal power in marriage should be topline agendas in the women’s movement.

Gender equality at home is crucial for women’s and household welfare. Involvement in household decision-making has increased by 6 percentage points. However, more, and equally significant, women who declared that they owned a house alone or jointly with others increased by 18 points; women who operate their own bank accounts went up by a robust 21 points, no doubt an effect of policies that give tax breaks to couples declaring joint ownership of property, and a government push to put money into women’s hands.

Many of the stories related to violence against women have been associated with lack of access to sanitary facilities; homes with improved sanitation facilities show a remarkable near doubling from 36% to 69%. Equally impressive is the huge jump of 26 percentage points in women’s use of hygienic methods of protection during their menstrual periods. This is a small but very insightful indicator that women in UP now have more access to their household’s discretionary spending and resources.

NFHS gender data thus shows a major improvement in UP. And when a populous and poor state begins to experience large positive shifts, it gives women in India something to cheer about.

Ravinder Kaur is professor of sociology and social anthropology, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

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