Focus on India: Gender issues in India

integration, migration

Author(s):  Laura Chappell
Published date:  07 May 2009
Source:  Progress
While gender remains a major issue in India, progressive forces are demanding change.

15 per cent is a significant number in urban India. But it isn’t the annual rate of growth in high-end shopping malls (stocking Debenhams, Benetton and Louis Vuitton) - which is almost certainly higher. And it isn’t the proportion of drivers who make their journeys without beeping their horns - which is almost certainly lower. It is the percentage of women who participate in the labour force. This makes urban Indian women almost four times less likely to be in or looking for work than urban Indian men (whose participation rate is 57 per cent). Clearly, gender is a major issue in India.

Gender disparities start before birth. Despite the fact that it is illegal, in many areas Indian parents ‘select’ boys over girls, aborting female foetuses. Whilst naturally around 950 girls are born to every 1000 boys (boys are slightly more likely to be conceived than girls), in 2001 India had only 927 girls to every 1000 boys. And this ratio is worse than it had been 10 years earlier.

Boys are preferred for a number of reasons, but dowry plays a large part. Dowry has been illegal for decades but is still widespread, meaning that daughters impose daunting financial costs on their parents. One recent court case made this clear, revolving around a girl named Nirasha, meaning ‘disappointment’ in Hindi. Whilst adjudicating on the case the judge asked the parents why they had given their daughter such a name. The response? “Because she was our fifth girl”.

Women’s disadvantage continues throughout their lives. Indian women are significantly less likely to be able to read and write than men – 47 per cent of rural women and 70 per cent of urban women are literate, compared with 66 per cent and 82 per cent of men respectively. And if women do enter work, they are paid much less – typically around half to three quarters of the amounts earnt by men.

These various disadvantages together contribute to some truly shocking overarching statistics. First, they place India near the bottom of the ‘global gender gap index’, which measures gender inequality across a range of different indicators. India was ranked a miserable 116 out of 130 in 2008. Second, they have led an estimated 50 million ‘missing women’. These are Indian women who should exist but don’t, because of an unequal chance of being born in the first place, as well as a reduced likelihood of survival, resulting from disadvantages in nutrition and healthcare.

So what is India’s response to these pressing challenges? Reactions are highly divided, as gender debates reflect wider conflicts about how Indian society should be organized. On one side are organisations such as the ‘Sri Ram Sena’, a right wing Hindu group whose focus is on protecting what it believes are India’s ‘traditional’ ways of life, including limited opportunities for women. The group has attacked women visiting pubs, and tried to shut down Valentines’ Day, threatening to forcibly wed any unmarried couples they found enjoying the day together.

On the other hand, however, there are a powerful range of groups who are fighting to improve women’s lives and increase their freedom of action. Some of this work is done by a very committed NGO sector who are making enormous contributions to women’s lives across the country. In some areas policymakers are leading the charge, with Mayawati, the female Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh state, for example, putting in place a range of policies to improve the position of women.

However, in addition, in many places the demand for change comes from citizens themselves. A number of young urban voters, for example, have highlighted a party’s attitude towards gender as vital in determining their vote. And many urban professionals reacted to the Sri Ram Sena threats to Valentines Day not with fear, but by sending the group a valentine’s present – thousands of pairs of pink underwear.

And concern about women’s lives is not limited to urban areas either. Villagers in Haryana state have made their own stand for women by insisting ‘no toilet, no bride.’ Many homes in India do not have toilets, with people making use of the surrounding countryside. But this disadvantages women, as traditional norms dictate that they must only go under the cover of darkness. The result? Parents refusing to arrange their daughters’ marriages to anyone without a toilet. Gender may be a major issue in India, but there is reason to hope that as a result of these progressive forces, it will in time be less so.

Laura Chappell is a Research Fellow in ippr's Migration, Equalities and Citizenship Team. She is currently working in India for ippr's Development on the Move project.