“I was told Indian women don’t think like that about equality. But I would like to argue that if they don’t think like that they should be given a real opportunity to think like that.”
— Amartya Sen
The worth of a civilization can be judged by the place given to women in the society. One of several factors that justify the greatness of India’s ancient culture is the honourable place granted to women. The Muslim influence on India caused considerable deterioration in the status of women. They were deprived of their rights of equality with men.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy started a movement against this inequality and subjugation. The contact of Indian culture with that of the British also brought improvement in the status of women. The third factor in the revival of women’s position was the influence of Mahatma Gandhi who induced women to participate in the Freedom Movement. As a result of this retrieval of freedom, women in Indian have distinguished themselves as teachers, nurses, air-hostesses, booking clerks, receptionists, and doctors. They are also participating in politics and administration. But in spite of this amelioration in the status of women, the evils of illiteracy, dowry, ignorance, and economic slavery would have to be fully removed in order to give them their rightful place in Indian society.In the 21st century still we have not been able to remove the gender biases in the society. I would first bring to your notice some the major problems which are faced by women in our country
Looking through the lens of hunger and poverty, there are seven major areas of discrimination against women in India:
WOMEN ARE MALNOURISHED
The exceptionally high rates of malnutrition in South Asia are rooted deeply in the soil of inequality between men and women.
“…the poor care that is afforded to girls and women by their husbands and by elders is the first major reason for levels of child malnutrition that are markedly higher in South Asia than anywhere else in the world.”
This point is made in the article, The Asian Enigma, published by Unicef in the 1996 Progress of Nations, in which the rates of childhood malnutrition in South Asia are compared with those in Africa. We learn that malnutrition is far worse in South Asia, directly due to the fact that women in South Asia have less voice and freedom of movement than in Africa. “Judgement and self-expression and independence largely denied, millions of women in South Asia have neither the knowledge nor the means nor the freedom to act in their own and their children’s best interests.”
“Gender disparities in nutrition are evident from infancy to adulthood. In fact, gender has been the most statistically significant determinant of malnutrition among young children and malnutrition is a frequent direct or underlying cause of death among girls below age 5. Girls are breast-fed less frequently and for shorter durations in infancy; in childhood and adulthood, males are fed first and better.
Nutritional deprivation has two major consequences for women: they never reach their full growth potential and anaemia. Both are risk factors in pregnancy, with anaemia ranging from 40-50 percent in urban areas to 50-70 percent in rural areas. This condition complicates childbearing and result in maternal and infant deaths, and low birth weight infants.
WOMEN ARE IN POOR HEALTH
Surviving through a normal life cycle is a resource-poor woman’s greatest challenge.
“The practice of breast-feeding female children for shorter periods of time reflects the strong desire for sons. If women are particularly anxious to have a male child, they may deliberately try to become pregnant again as soon as possible after a female is born. Conversely, women may consciously seek to avoid another pregnancy after the birth of a male child in order to give maximum attention to the new son.”
India’s maternal mortality rates in rural areas are among the highest in the world.
A factor that contributes to India’s high maternal mortality rate is the reluctance to seek medical care for pregnancy — it is viewed as a temporary condition that will disappear. The estimates nationwide are that only 40-50 percent of women receive any antenatal care. Evidence from the states of Bihar, Rajasthan, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat find registration for maternal and child health services to be as low as 5-22 percent in rural areas and 21-51 percent in urban areas.
Women’s health is harmed by lack of access to and the poor quality of reproductive services.
“About 24.6 million couples, representing roughly 18 percent of all married women, want no more children but are not using contraception. (Operations Research Group, 1990). The causes of this unmet need remain poorly understood, but a qualitative study in Tamil Nadu suggests that women’s lack of decision-making power in the family, opportunity costs involved in seeking contraception, fear of child death, and poor quality of contraceptive service all play an important role.”
WOMEN ARE UNEDUCATED
Women and girls receive far less education than men, due both to social norms and fears of violence.
India has the largest population of non-school-going working girls.
India’s constitution guarantees free primary school education for both boys and girls up to age 14. This goal has been repeatedly reconfirmed, but primary education in India is not universal. Overall, the literacy rate for women is 39 percent versus 64 percent for men. The rate for women in the four large northern states — Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh — is lower than the national average: it was 25 percent in 1991. Attendance rates from the 1981 census suggest that no more than 1/3 of all girls (and a lower proportion of rural girls) aged 5-14 are attending school.
Sonalde Desai in Gender Inequalities and Demographic Behavior asserts that “parents’ reluctance to educate daughters has its roots in the situation of women. Parents have several incentives for not educating their daughters. Foremost is the view that education of girls brings no returns to parents and that their future roles, being mainly reproductive and perhaps including agricultural labor, require no formal education. As more and more boys are engaged in education, there is a growing reliance on the labor of girls. Girls are increasingly replacing their brothers on the farm while carrying on their usual responsibilities in housework. A large proportion of the roughly 40 million “nonworking” girls who are not in school are kept at home because of responsibilities in housework.”
The invisibility of women’s work
WOMEN’S WORK IS RARELY RECOGNIZED.
Many maintain that women’s economic dependence on men impacts their power within the family. With increased participation in income-earning activities, not only will there be more income for the family, but gender inequality should be reduced.
Women’s employment in family farms or businesses is rarely recognized as economically productive, either by men or women. And, any income generated from this work is generally controlled by the men. Such work is unlikely to increase women’s participation in allocating family finances. In a 1992 study of family-based texile workers, male children who helped in a home-based handloom mill were given pocket money, but the adult women and girls were not.
THE IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY ON WOMEN
The shift from subsistence to a market economy has a dramatic negative impact on women.
According to Sandhya Venkateswaran, citing Shiva, the Green Revolution, which focused on increasing yields of rice and wheat, entailed a shift in inputs from human to technical. Women’s participation, knowledge and inputs were marginalized, and their role shift from being “primary producers to subsidiary workers.”
Where technology has been introduced in areas where women worked, women labourers have often been displaced by men. Threshing of grain was almost exclusively a female task, and with the introduction of automatic grain threshers — which are only operated by men — women have lost an important source of income.
Combine harvesters leave virtually no residue. This means that this source of fodder is no longer available to women, which has a dramatic impact on women’s workload. So too, as cattle dung is being used as fertilizer, there is less available for fuel for cooking.
“Commercialization and the consequent focus on cash crops has led to a situation where food is lifted straight from the farm to the market. The income accrued is controlled by men. Earlier, most of the produce was brought home and stored, and the women exchanged it for other commodities. Such a system vested more control with the women.”
WOMEN ARE UNSKILLED
Women have unequal access to resources.
Extension services tend to reach only men, which perpetuates the existing division of labour in the agricultural sector, with women continuing to perform unskilled tasks. A World Bank study in 1991 reveals that the assumption made by extension workers is that information within a family will be transmitted to the women by the men, which in actual practice seldom happens. “The male dominated extension system tends to overlook women’s role in agriculture and proves ineffective in providing technical information to women farmers.”
A number of factors perpetuate women’s limited job skills: if training women for economic activities requires them to leave their village, this is usually a problem for them. Unequal access to education restricts women’s abilities to learn skills that require even functional levels of literacy. In terms of skill development, women are impeded by their lack of mobility, low literacy levels and prejudiced attitudes toward women. When women negotiate with banks and government officials, they are often ostracized by other men and women in their community for being ‘too forward.’ Government and bank officials have preconceived ideas of what women are capable of , and stereotypes of what is considered women’s work.
WOMEN ARE MISTREATED
Violence against women and girls is the most pervasive human rights violation in the world today.
In recent years, there has been an alarming rise in atrocities against women in India. Every 26 minutes a woman is molested. Every 34 minutes a rape takes place. Every 42 minutes a sexual harassment incident occurs. Every 43 minutes a woman is kidnapped. And every 93 minutes a woman is burnt to death over dowry.
One-quarter of the reported rapes involve girls under the age of 16 but the vast majority are never reported. Although the penalty is severe, convictions are rare.
The most extreme expression of the preference for sons is female infanticide and sex-selective abortion.
A study of amniocentesis in a Bombay hospital found that 96 percent of female fetuses were aborted, compared with only a small percentage of male fetuses.
“Government officials event suspect that the disproportionate abortion of female fetuses may be a major underlying cause of the recent decline in the nation’s sex ratio. In 1971 there were 930 females for every 1,000 males. A decade later this figure had increased to 934, but by 1991, instead of continuing to rise, the ratio dropped to 927, lower than the 1971 figure. This sex ratio is one of the lowest in the world.”
Sonalda Desai reports that there are posters in Bombay advertising sex-determination tests that read, “It is better to pay 500 Rs. now than 50,000 Rs. (in dowry) later.”
Government has passed legislation to curb the misuse of amniocentesis for sex selection and abortion of female fetuses. Women activists have been critical of this act because of its provision that calls for punishing the women who seek the procedure. These women may be under pressure to bear a male child.
WOMEN ARE POWERLESS
Legal protection of women’s rights have little effect in the face of prevailing patriarchal traditions.
Women are subordinate in most marriages.
Exposure to and interactions with the outside world are instrumental in determining the possibilities available to women in their daily lives. The situation of women is affected by the degree of their autonomy or capacity to make decisions both inside and outside their own household.
“The position of women in northern India is notably poor. Traditional Hindu society in northern rural areas is hierarchical and dominated by men, as evidenced by marriage customs. North Indian Hindus are expected to marry within prescribed boundaries: the bride and groom must not be related, they have no say in the matter, and the man must live outside the woman’s natal village.
“Wife givers” are socially and ritually inferior to “wife takers”, thus necessitating the provision of a dowry.
Child marriages keep women subjugated.
A 1976 amendment to the Child Marriage Restraint Act raised the minimum legal age for marriage from 15 to 18 for young women and from 18 to 21 for young men. However, in many rural communities, illegal child marriages are still common. In some rural areas, nearly half the girls between 10 and 14 are married. Because there is pressure on women to prove their fertility by conceiving as soon as possible after marriage, adolescent marriage is synonymous with adolescent childbearing: roughly 10-15 percent of all births take place to women in their teens.
Child marriages contribute to virtually every social malaise that keeps India behind in women’s rights. The problems include soaring birth rates, grinding poverty and malnutrition, high illiteracy and infant mortality and low life expectancy, especially among rural women.
The article cites a 1993 survey of more than 5,000 women in Rajasthan, which showed that 56 percent of them had married before they were 15. Barely 18 percent of them were literate and only 3 percent used any form of birth control other than sterilization. Sixty-three percent of the children under age 4 of these women were severely undernourished.
“Each year, formal warnings are posted outside state government offices stating that child marriages are illegal, but they have little impact.”
Women are kept subordinate, and are even murdered, by the practice of dowry.
In India, 6,000 dowry murders are committed each year. This reality exists even though the Dowry Prohibition Act has been in existence for 33 years, and there are virtually no arrests under the Act. Since those giving as well as those accepting dowry are punishable under the existing law, no one is willing to complain. It is only after a “dowry death” that the complaints become public. It is estimated that the average dowry today is equivalent to five times the family’s annual income and that the high cost of weddings and dowries is a major cause of indebtedness among India’s poor.
“A woman on fire has made dowry deaths the most vicious of social crimes; it is an evil endemic to the subcontinent but despite every attempt at justice the numbers have continued to climb. With get-rich-quick becoming the new mantra, dowry became the perfect instrument for upward material mobility. ”
“the quantum of dowry exchange may still be greater among the upper classes, but 80 percent of dowry deaths and 80 percent of dowry harassment occurs in the middle and lower stratas.”
The article goes on to state, “So complete is the discrimination among women that the gender bias is extended even toward the guilty. In a bizarre trend, the onus of murder is often put on the women to protect the men. Sometimes it is by consent. Often, old mothers-in-law embrace all the blame to bail out their sons and husbands.”
Women’s rights to inheritance are limited and frequently violated.
In the mid-1950s the Hindu personal laws, which apply to all Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, were overhauled, banning polygamy and giving women rights to inheritance, adoption and divorce. The Muslim personal laws differ considerably from that of the Hindus, and permit polygamy. Despite various laws protecting women’s rights, traditional patriarchal attitudes still prevail and are strengthened and perpetuated in the home.
Under Hindu law, sons have an independent share in the ancestral property. However, daughters’ shares are based on the share received by their father. Even the weak laws protecting women have not been adequately enforced. As a result, in practice, women continue to have little access to land and property, a major source of income and long-term economic security. Under the pretext of preventing fragmentation of agricultural holdings, several states have successfully excluded widows and daughters from inheriting agricultural land.
Women in Public Office
Panchayat Raj Institutions
The highest national priority must be the unleashing of woman power in governance. That is the single most important source of societal energy that we have kept corked for half a century.
Through the experience of the Indian Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRI) 1 million women have actively entered political life in India. The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts, which guarantee that all local elected bodies reserve one-third of their seats for women, have spearheaded an unprecedented social experiment which is playing itself out in more than 500,000 villages that are home to more than 600 million people. Since the creation of the quota system, local women–the vast majority of them illiterate and poor–have come to occupy as much as 43% of the seats, spurring the election of increasing numbers of women at the district, provincial and national levels. Since the onset of PRI, the percentages of women in various levels of political activity have risen from 4-5% to 25-40%.
“‘Learning politics’ is the latest fad for young village girls, who dream of joining the growing band of women panchayat representatives, 164,060 at last count, in the state.”