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Home >Opinion >Views >Address the silent crisis of India’s gender deficit

Gender discrimination pervades India’s socio-economic pyramid. At its upper reaches, we encounter anecdotes of single women entrepreneurs finding it difficult to get bank loans. At the other extreme, in the poverty-ridden ‘red corridor’ that runs along a belt from Jharkhand to Andhra Pradesh, injustices of the most violative kind are observed to have driven women to join the Maoist insurgency. These phenomena are not recent. But instead of improving, by and large, life for women is worsening in the country. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2021, released last week, lays bare our silent crisis of gender inequality, aggravated by the covid pandemic in ways that we are yet to fully understand. India has slipped 28 places to 140th position among 156 countries on the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Index. The country is now 37.5% short of an ideal situation of equality, by its index, a wider gap than reported last year, when we had a 33.2% deficit on the whole. Back in 2006, when the index began, we were almost 40% short, but even the slight progress made over the past 15 years has been highly uneven; while gains were made on the education and political empowerment of women, we slid sharply on health and economic parameters. Now with covid playing the great unleveller, we have no option but to address this sad state of affairs.

To be sure, the WEF report has bad news for the entire world. The average gap has widened globally over the course of the pandemic year. It is now 32% short of the index’s ideal score. But many of our deficiencies are pre-covid. Some of the drop in India’s international rank over the past two years, for example, has to do with regression in the field of political power. The proportion of women ministers more than halved to 9.1% of the total, though our count of female Parliamentarians did not budge from its long stagnancy. Perhaps a greater cause for concern is our poor performance over the past decade-and-a-half on women’s economic opportunities and participation. Not only has the Indian workforce been turning more predominantly male, senior managerial positions in the corporate sector have not seen sufficient female appointees to correct a steep tilt in favour of men. At the aggregate level, our income disparity is glaring. Women earn only a fifth of men, which puts India among the world’s worst 10 on this indicator. We fare worse on women’s health and survival, with India beaten to the last rank only by China.

Several efforts have been made to figure out why proportionally fewer Indian women are in paid jobs, despite rising education levels. One explanation is that sociocultural attitudes militate against women going out to work, unless the family lacks sustenance, and deprivation has been in decline for decades. Another is that families prefer educated mothers to invest time in teaching their kids. Both these motives are said to be influenced by upward income mobility and a quest for better lives. Yet, the covid setback to both family incomes and gender progress would suggest the reasons are mostly attitudinal. If so, then tax incentives and other schemes are unlikely to get women taking up more jobs. What we need are new forms of social persuasion, which must go with credible assurances of gender equity in every sphere. It promises to be a long haul. But so is economic success. And no country’s economy can get far without empowered women.

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