Still a faraway dream
Against the tall claims of empowerment, women continue to lag drastically even on basic indicators of health, education and work opportunity
March 8 is here again and different organizations are celebrating women's day with the usual fanfare. The common perception is that women have made huge strides in all growth and development indicators since independence. But what is the ground reality? Let us see what the statistics say.
The basic growth indicators, for a man or woman, is education, health and work opportunities. Inclusive growth and gender equality should not remain empty words. Although the Right to Education Act was enacted in 2009 even today the percentage of school-going girls are embarrassingly low. A report published by the Right to Education Forum and Center for Budget Policy Studies in January 2020, brings to light the alarming fact that 30 per cent of girls from poor families have never been to a school and the dropout rate among adolescent girls from age 14 to18 is around 40 per cent. This is partly due to social and cultural beliefs and partly due to government spending. The expenditure on school education has come down from 4.14 per cent in 2014-15 to 3.40 per cent in 2019-20.
In an address to the Commission on Population and Development in 2003, Noble laureate Prof Amartya Sen said "girl's education probably had the most profound influence on development. Being educated and articulate, being familiar with the world outside the home, having friends and allies in the outside world, and having the opportunity of getting economic employment outside home could be vital in giving young women more voice in joint family decisions. Considerable evidence shows that women's education and literacy has reduced child mortality rates and fertility rates."
On a positive note, The Economic Survey 2020 draws our attention to the fact that the number of women attending educational institutes has increased in the last five years, 30.3 per cent of young women in the age group of 15 to 29 attended educational institutes in 2017-18, almost double from 2004-05.
When it comes to health, however, women in India have to deal with malnutrition, lack of maternal health, domestic violence and diseases like Cancer, Aids and many more such debilitating ailments. Among the developing nations, India has one of the highest rates of malnutrition. Its record in maternal health is abysmal. Poor maternal health adversely affects both mother and child and is also associated with an increased risk of maternal mortality and childbirth defects.
Now let us examine the statistics regarding women's participation in the workforce. The Economic Survey of 2019-20 draws our attention to the distressing fact that in the fastest growing economy a huge 60 per cent of women in the working-age bracket of 15 to 59 years are engaged in full-time housework! Women's participation in the labour force reduced to 25.3 per cent in 2017-18 from 33.1 per cent in 2011-12. More women work in rural areas, but at the same time, the rate of women falling out of the workforce is also more in rural areas. The picture isn't rosy in urban areas either where their labour force participation has remained constant for the last five years. The Economic Survey cites several reasons for the declining graph such as more women are going for higher education, delaying their entry into the labour market, secondly rising wages in rural areas, have given women an option to stay at home when earlier they were forced to work. Other factors are lack of job opportunities, gender pay parity, and unpaid care work of elderly and children. Albeit several affirmative actions have been taken such as an increase in maternity leave to 26 weeks, provision of the creche for children of working mothers etc. but clearly this is not enough. When India is striving to become a superpower — a trillion-dollar economy — can it afford a scenario where half of its population is missing from the job market? When women are engaged in paid and productive work, it not only empowers them, it also develops the economy because the skill acquired and income so generated, in turn, contribute to the economy in general. The societal impact is far more significant because working women become more confident and empowered and the children are raised as gender-sensitive and supportive individuals.
Among the workforce how many women reach the top? In the Fortune India 500 list, only 6 per cent of companies are managed by women leaders. Notable among those who have climbed the corporate ladder despite many odds are Zia Mody of AZB & Partners and Kiran Majumdar Shaw of Biocon. Vinita Bali former MD of Britannia says despite paying lip service to diversity in the Board women officers are not mentored to occupy Board level positions. "Their numbers can only increase if the supply of COOs, CFOs, etc., increases. If that pipeline is not increasing, we will never find enough CEO material at the top." Therefore, organizations need to mentor and support women leaders not just for their advancement but to harness and utilize the entire resource pool of the company. When we look at bureaucracy women do not fare well either. Even after 73 years of Independence, there has been no woman Cabinet Secretary to Govt. of India and rarely a Secretary holding the key positions of Home, Finance or Defence. In the states too you would hardly find a woman Chief Secretary. Competent and meritorious women are routinely overlooked for the top job in the government sector.
UNDP had introduced the GII (Gender inequality index) in 2010. It measures gender inequalities in three important aspects of human development — reproductive health, empowerment and labour market participation as a reflection of gender discrimination and inequality. In 2019 while Switzerland ranked first, followed by Denmark in the GII, India ranked 123th — even lower than Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Iran.
Equal opportunities and empowerment for women in India is a faraway dream and we have miles to go. Mao Zedong may no longer be relevant today but what he had said still makes sense. If "Women hold up half the sky" can any country progress leaving behind half of its citizens?
The writer is a former bureaucrat. Views expressed are personal