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Towards greater inclusivity

All-round achievements of Indian women post-independence — though at limited scale — have been remarkable, now is the time to pledge for scaling up

Towards greater inclusivity
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As India celebrates its 75th Independence Day today, it is an opportune time for policymakers to retrospect the journey of Indian women to date and bring necessary reforms to ameliorate the living conditions of a common woman.

Indian women have been subjected to widespread injustice historically and eradication of this injustice calls for one of history's biggest movements. It is saddening that female gender continues to suffer discrimination and ferocity in diverse forms under polished labels.

The Indian Constitution provides for universal adult suffrage — the right to vote for all adult citizens regardless of wealth, income, gender, social status, race, ethnicity, and political stance — to realise the true spirit of democracy. The equal right to vote proved to be one of the most liberating rights for women and a major bulwark against women stereotypes. Equal voting rights were not just limited to 'Right to vote' but gradually led to participation in decision-making process, political crusading, and political cognizance. The Constitution of India guarantees all Indian women equality under Article 14, prohibits discrimination by the State under Article 15 (1), assures of equality of opportunity under Article 16 and mandates equal pay for equal work under Article 39 (d) and Article 42.

Empowerment of women as an outcome of equal rights and positive discrimination — offered by the Constitution of India — led to a new era of women accomplishers. This new era witnessed Vijaya Laxmi Pandit turning out to be the first Indian and woman President of the United Nations in 1953, and Indira Gandhi becoming the first female Prime Minister of India, also accomplishing the title of longest-serving female Prime Minister in the world with an aggregate service period of 15 years. Quite recently in 2019, Gita Gopinath became the first woman to become the Chief Economist at IMF. Political inclusion of women in India has also been on the rise lately.

Indian villages — famously termed by Charles Metcalfe as 'little republics' that were 'almost independent of foreign relations' — can be used as a reliable sample size to comprehend the women's role in the rest of society. Today, 20 Indian states have increased the reservations for women candidates in their PRIs up to 50 per cent as compared to the mandated 33.3 per cent under 73rd Constitutional Amendment 1992. The constituencies reserved for female candidates are reported to have relatively higher dispatch of civic amenities in terms of safe drinking water, better schooling, functional healthcare centres, and regular fair price shops.

Women in the last few decades have pitched up their voices for protection of not only their own rights but also on a variety of issues ranging from environmental conservation to human rights violation. The famous socio-ecological Chipko Movement and Narmada Aandolan had forced the government organizations and international institutions to withdraw from the projects. Women's movement against Khap Panchayats in Haryana led to action by the SC. The vehement protests in 2012 in New Delhi against inadequacy of the government in providing necessary protection to women became a landmark in the history of feminist movements in India, ultimately leading to capital punishment of the culprit. The radical feminist protests in Kerala during 2018-19 for allowing entry of women of menstruating age at Sabarimala Temple is another example in case. Women also played a crucial role in anti-CAA protests and continue to influence the course of ongoing farmers' protests.

Indian politics has been witnessing dramatic shift towards feminist politics over the past few years. They have come a long way from being an ornamental part of rallies to influencing the manifestos of political parties, making those more women-centric. The party manifestos are now recognising even the unpaid household labour of women by assuring fixed monthly payment to women head of household in certain states.

Women in India are flourishing not only in social and political spheres but also in the economic sector. As per the Women in Business 2021 report by global accounting firm, Grant Thornton, the percentage of women in senior management in India stood at 39 per cent against the global average of 31 per cent. The report also highlights that businesses with at least one woman in the senior management role increased to 98 per cent in India.

Although women in India have made remarkable progress and achievements in social, political, and economic spheres but getting down to brass tacks, most of this glorified progress and achievements are limited to some elite sections of society. Today the elite class Indian women had outperformed the Japanese women in terms of educational, political and professional achievements. But concomitantly, the common Indian women are still striving to access their basic rights. The village government schools still have a lesser number of girl students. Young girls are still becoming the victims of child marriage in Indian villages and the dowry tradition is still prevalent there. The gender division of labour in villages overtly reflects the feminization of agricultural labour. In urban households, as per NSSO 2019, a woman spends five hours a day for caregiving tasks as compared to 30 minutes by her male counterpart. These conditions further got exacerbated under the influence of the pandemic. As per World Bank data released in June 2020, India is witnessing a sharp fall in female labour force participation since 2005. The rate fell from 31.8 in 2005 to 20.3 in 2020, which is comparable to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Though the skewed representation of women in politics showed an increase, the evidence suggests that 42 per cent of women MPs belong to political and well-to-do families compared to 15 per cent of male counterparts. Though the reservations in PRI and Municipal Ward elections led to de jure high representation of women, their husbands exercised de facto power on their behalf.

Several factors like demographic dividend, stable political structure at the Centre, strong international relations, economic growth, global diaspora, advanced armed forces, etc. are jointly contributing India to transcend its way. But a dispassionate reality is that India can realize its true potential of demographic dividend only with gender inclusivity. The need of the hour is to invest in fostering gender dividend. Hence, policymakers are required to take the 75th anniversary of Independent India as an opportune time to revisit the outdated legislations and policies and transmogrify the occasion into an opportunity for India.

Views expressed are personal

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