India’s visible and invisible women

Kaplana Sharma

More than one million women hold elective office in India and increasingly they are breaking into professions that were previously the preserve of men. But rises in the instances of domestic violence and sex-selective abortions, as well as the prevalence of under-age marriages, are indications that women and girls are still viewed as second-class citizens.

Women’s status in India is indeed a mixed bag. As is the case with the Indian economy, where higher growth rates have not ensured the end of poverty or inequity, women’s increasing prominence in many fields, including politics, has not negated the entrenched attitudes that still consider women the lesser half.

Whether these attitudes have changed and how much will be known when the results of the 2011 census are out. A massive exercise to count India’s 1.2 billion people, Census 2011, has just ended. It has been touted as the most extensive exercise of its kind attempted anywhere in the world, as 1.27 million enumerators, gathering data in 18 languages, fanned out across India over three weeks during February. For Indian women, the results of this nationwide survey will be of particular significance, as they will establish whether in the last decade women’s value has increased or decreased.

Why should we need census data to establish this? It was the 2001 census that revealed the shocking fact that the male-female sex ratio in the 0-6 years age group, which was already skewed in favour of boys, had declined further. Between 1991 and 2001, the male female sex ratio in children under the age of six declined from 945 girls per 1,000 boys to 927. These figures confirmed what until then had only been sporadically documented – the misuse of medical technology to eliminate girls, even before they were born, through sex-selective abortions. The last census also revealed that economic prosperity did not guarantee a higher status for women – the skewed sex ratios were most prevalent in the richest states and districts in India.

This is only one of the many components of the story of contrasts and contradictions of Indian women. Women are visible today in areas closed to them in the past. Yet, they are also invisible. Their work is not valued, they are generally deemed a burden, and they are murdered, tortured or neglected until death is a certainty. This is not melodrama. It is the reality for millions of women who are not part of the conspicuous sliver at the top – those in the upper and middle classes living in India’s cities whose faces feature in the country’s burgeoning media.

Step outside urban India and you are confronted with another reality: undernourished girls being forced into marriage and motherhood before their bodies are ready for child-bearing. According to the latest UNICEF report, 56 percent of adolescent girls in India are anaemic and 30 percent of them are already married. Also, three out of five women in the age group 20-49 were married as adolescents. Despite the ban on child marriage, 29 percent of adolescent girls in urban areas, and 56 percent in rural areas are married before they turn 18. Worse still, one in five women aged between 20 and 49 had borne a child before their 18th birthday. If India’s maternal mortality rate refuses to decline faster, this is the single most important reason.

Children under 14 are not supposed to work according to Indian law. Yet millions of children, including girls, labour in the house, in the fields, in factories. They have no choice. Poverty ensures that every member of a family must work. As a result, the data of school enrolment has little meaning as girls – more so than boys – are regularly pulled out. While poor families treasure girls and boys as additional hands to work and earn money, amongst families with property, daughters mean dowry, a price the family must pay at the time of marriage. Despite a legal ban, the custom continues in direct and indirect ways. And the harassment of women, sometimes even leading to death, for not bringing an adequate dowry, is a constant feature in crime statistics: it is estimated that one woman is killed every 66 minutes for dowry.

The rise in incidents of domestic violence, which led to a specific law being enacted in 2005, is another indication of the violence women face. Between 1997-2002, there was a 34.5 percent rise in domestic violence. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there was a 10 percent increase in the incidence of torture, which includes cruelty by husband and family members, between 2008-09.

Despite all this, over a million women hold elective office in India, starting from the village Panchayat going all the way up to the national parliament. The Speaker of the lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, is a woman; the leader of the opposition is a woman; a woman heads the largest and oldest political party, the Indian National Congress; the President of India is a woman; and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in the country, is a woman too. There are many more one could add to the list.

Girls and women are also joining the army, becoming pilots, driving taxis, excelling in business, heading major banks, breaking academic records and dominating the visual media. None of this can or should be discounted. It matters, not just for the women who have made it, but also because they are role models for millions of other women.

One stubborn statistic that has refused to change is the gap between male and female literacy. As of 2001, India’s overall literacy rate was 64 percent while for women it was just 54 percent. But even here, we are beginning to see a shift, notably in the most backward area in India, the northern state of Bihar. Once considered a basket case on all developmental indicators and with a female literacy rate of just 33.57 percent – the lowest in the country according to the 2001 census – the education dropout rate of girls, which was 2.5 million per annum five years ago, has now come down to one million. And the enrolment of girls in school in Bihar has increased three times. Girls leave education early because of poor connectivity between their villages and high schools or because their families require them to stay at home to help with domestic chores. The Bihar state government came up with a novel solution to the first problem – it began giving bicycles to girls who completed eight years of schooling. The bike literally became their vehicle to higher education.

So the picture is mixed. Since the last census, there have been notable changes and there are some innovative policies in place, although their implementation is sometimes half-hearted. But the questions remains: are Indian women more empowered, more equal, now than they were a decade ago? Many Indian women have come a long way, but there are many, many more that remain where they were, caught in the web of poverty and tradition. The glass is still less than half full.

About the author:

Kaplana Sharma, a journalist working in Mumbai


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