Gender Issues

A silent struggle against inequality

Print edition : September 01, 2017

Rabh tribal women carry firewood in the Boko area of Kamrup (Rural) district in Assam. Low recorded work participation of women is often a reflection of the low status of women in society, since the huge amount of unpaid labour that they perform is simply not recognised. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Tribal women walk a long distance to fetch water from a well at Padmapuram village in Araku, 120 kilometres from Visakhapatnam. Photo: K.R. Deepak

Tea garden workers on the outskirts of Guwahati. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

At a salt pan near Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu. Photo: L. Balachandar

Sarojini Naidu.

Aruna Asaf Ali.

Bhikaji Cama.

Sucheta Kripalani.

Kalpana Dutt Joshi.

The promises that inspired the enthusiastic participation of women in the national movement have remained unfulfilled, as a deep and pervasive gender inequality, making the position of women inferior in Indian society, still persists.

WOMEN were significant participants in the national movement. Leaders such as Sarojini Naidu, Sucheta Kripalani, Kalpana Dutt Joshi, Bhikaji Cama and Aruna Asaf Ali became emblematic of the freedom struggle. But even more than their presence, there was widespread involvement of ordinary women from different walks of life in different regions. Many of them came out of their homes into “public life” for the first time, often inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who made their participation an important part of his own political strategy of non-violent non-cooperation.

Inevitably, these women would have had their own notions of freedom: their goals would have been somewhat different from those of their male counterparts, and their expectations of living in a newly independent country must have been coloured by their very unequal and often oppressive social and economic circumstances. But it may still be safe to say that the writers of the Constitution did manage to encapsulate many of the hopes and dreams of the women of the time.

Consider what the Constitution offered: explicit recognition of equality before law and rejection of any kind of discrimination, including on grounds of gender, along with empowering the state to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favour of women, to neutralise the cumulative socio-economic, educational and political disadvantages they faced. Article 16 promised equality of opportunity for all citizens (and, therefore, for all women) in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the state; Article 39(a) noted that the state should direct its policy towards securing for men and women equally the right to an adequate means of livelihood; and Article 39(d) stressed equal pay for equal work for both men and women. Several other provisions took note of the need to provide dignity and empower women in various ways. Over time, other legislation banned traditional customs and practices that were clearly unjust and discriminatory, such as dowry and child marriage.

So far, so positive, and if these declarations had been mostly or even substantially fulfilled, the granddaughters of those millions of women of 1947 would today be living their dream. After all, seven decades is a reasonably long time in the life of a country, and should be more than enough to effect significant progress along the lines of the announced social contract. So how far have things actually changed for Indian women in this period?

Equality before law has certainly existed as a basic principle, but it has not been accompanied by equally just implementation; and both the letter of the law and its functioning have not conformed to the basic spirit of the Constitution. In the absence of a systematically codified set of laws recognising and providing remedies for various kinds of gender discrimination, women’s equality before law has had to be interpreted through case law, which has on occasion provided surprising and unfavourable outcomes. This has been true of the personal laws affecting marriage and divorce, as well as laws relating to inheritance and property. It is true that over the years various laws have been enacted for equal remuneration, maternity benefits for working women, rape, dowry deaths and the like. But it is also unfortunately true that these laws are still honoured mostly in the breach, and a sense of impunity still characterises many perpetrators of such crimes.

The workings of the criminal justice system, and indeed of the civil courts, are replete with instances of blatant gender discrimination that severely limit women’s access to justice, especially for women from poor and disadvantaged contexts. Meanwhile, the persistence and even increase in acts of violence against women may be partly a result of increased awareness and willingness of the survivors to go public, but the apparent increase in the brutality of such crimes suggests that other darker social forces may also be at work. Certainly, we must admit that in India, we are still very far from ensuring safe, free and just legal and social spaces for most women and girls to live, work and achieve their potential as creative and empowered human beings.

In terms of some of the most basic demographic indicators, there is obvious improvement. Average life expectancy at birth has more than doubled for women, from an estimated 32 years around 1950 to nearly 70 years today. In fact, women’s life expectancy at birth was actually lower than that for men until the late 1970s; thereafter it changed, with higher numbers for women. But women are known to have better survival chances than men, and the gap in India is still lower than in developed countries or even countries with similar per capita income.

Much of this decline in mortality rates is due to the decline in infant mortality rates, which have fallen from more than 150 per 1,000 live births in 1950 to around 40 in recent years. But gender gaps in neonatal mortality (before the age of one month) remain high, and have even increased slightly over the past decade.

Maternal mortality rates (MMR) have also fallen; they were estimated to be around 1,300 per 100,000 live births but are now around 170. This is certainly a big decline, but in fact it is not nearly big enough: India is one of the few countries to have failed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of reducing maternal mortality by 75 per cent compared to its 1990 level, which would have implied an MMR (at the national level) of 103 at most. The country has the shameful distinction of accounting for the highest number of maternal deaths in the world (around 17 per cent), 10 times the number in China, even though China still has a larger population of women of child-bearing age.

This poor performance in maternal mortality is an indicator of broader failures that show that progress in improving the conditions and status of Indian women has been limited and uneven. Indeed, other human development indicators show the persistently low status of women and girls in society, which is then reflected in many related features. Death due to childbirth is often related not just to lack of adequate medical facilities and prenatal care, but also to poor nutrition. The relative paucity of proper and affordable health care is one of the big failures of Indian development, but it also has a strong gender dimension, with women, especially poorer women in rural and more backward areas, routinely denied access to these basic services, including for reproductive health.

Women and girl children in India continue to exhibit some of the worst nutritional outcomes, similar to or worse than some least developed countries where per capita incomes are much lower. The proportion of women with anaemia is nearly double the global average. This is obviously related not only to the aggregate insufficient calorie consumption among poor households, but to disparate intra-household consumption patterns, through which women and girl children eat less in terms of quantity and quality, not only because of deprivation but because of self-denial.

Another reason for high maternal mortality is early age at childbirth and this remains a persistent concern because of early marriage of girls. The average age at marriage has certainly gone up in India. Yet, even now 61 per cent of all women are married before the age of 16 and half of them have their first pregnancy before 19.2 years.

Sex ratio and son preference

Perhaps the demographic indicator that reveals most starkly the continued inferior position of women in Indian society is the sex ratio (the number of women per 1,000 men). Globally, the sex ratio stands at around 984. But in India, it was an abysmal 940 in 2011. What is even more shocking is that this sex ratio has actually deteriorated since Independence; it was estimated to be 946 in the 1951 Census. The ratio is worse in urban areas (926) than in rural areas (947) and typically lower in higher income locations and among upper castes compared with Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The child sex ratio (for the age group 0-6 years) is even worse, and has fallen further from 927 in 2001 to 914 in 2011, pointing to the effects of the combination of son preference among families across the subcontinent and newly available technologies that have combined to prevent female births, and greater neglect of girl infants compared to boys in the early phases of life. Incidentally, son preference also casts a shadow on other institutions like marriage: data from the India Human Development Surveys reveal that women with no children or only daughters were twice as likely to face divorce or separation than women with only sons.

Female literacy

Education appears to be one area of progress compared to 70 years ago, but here too the progress has been far too delayed, limited and slow, and indeed very poor compared to most developing countries. Female literacy rates have improved over the past decades, but at 65 per cent in 2011, they were still well below the global average of 80 per cent. Girls’ enrolment in primary education has improved significantly to be near-universal today, but around one-third of girls now in their teens and early 20s were never enrolled in schools. Dropout rates remain high and there are significant gender gaps in dropout, especially by the time the age of middle school is reached. Most surveys suggest that families find that schooling for girls beyond the most basic level is “not necessary” or “too expensive”, or that “the school is too far away”, while some simply claim that the child “is not interested”. The inability to ensure that every child receives full good-quality elementary education, despite all the grandiose promises made immediately after Independence, is shocking in any case, but it affects girls and young women severely.

But if all these were not proof enough of the deep and pervasive gender inequality that still persists in India, the evidence on employment must be clinching. India always had a very low recorded work participation rate for women by global standards, including when the first employment surveys were conducted in the early 1950s. Thereafter, successive surveys by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) have shown hardly any increase in these low rates, which have been marked by a depressing stability over the “socialist planning” as well as the neoliberal reforms phases of economic and social policy. But shockingly, for the most recent period for which such data are available, women’s work participation rates actually showed a significant decline from 28.2 per cent of women aged 15 years or more in 2004-05, to as low as 21.6 per cent in 2011-12. This was mostly because of a decline in the number of recorded rural women workers, particularly those classified as self-employed in agriculture.

This makes India truly unusual, possibly even unique, in both comparative terms as well as in historical terms. It is hard to think of any other society whose economy has apparently been growing rapidly for nearly three decades, where women’s work participation has not only not increased but actually fallen.

Various explanations have been offered for this, including rising real wages that have allowed women in poor households to avoid or reduce involvement in very physically arduous and demanding work with relatively low wages and instead focus more on “domestic duties”. There have also been arguments about the loss of access to common property resources that allowed women to work collecting plants and herbs, as well as mechanisation of agriculture that is paradoxically typically associated with women losing work once it becomes less physically demanding and arduous. In any case, there is the point that whatever occurred in agriculture, other forms of recognised employment for women in other sectors like industry and services simply did not increase enough to make a dent.

Unpaid work

But there is another deeper point. Work, including paid and unpaid work, defines the conditions of human existence in fundamental ways. Social recognition and valuation of the work that is performed by different categories of people is an important reflection of the value that societies attach to the people who perform it. So, low recorded work participation of women is often a reflection of the low status of women in society, since the huge amount of unpaid labour that they perform is simply not recognised.

This is confirmed by the same NSSO surveys that recognise various categories of people who are described as “not in the labour force”. These include (in addition to those in educational institutions and those who are too old or sick to work) those engaged in what has been called social reproduction. Specifically, two categories are of relevance here: Code 92, which refers to those who attend to domestic duties in unpaid fashion within the home, and Code 93, covering those who attend to domestic duties and are also engaged in free collection of goods (vegetables, roots, firewood, cattle feed, etc.), sewing, tailoring, weaving, etc. for household use. It is obvious that these are all economic activities, and would be recognised as employment, if they led to any payment. But since they are unpaid, those who do such work are not even recognised as being productively employed.

Once these categories are included in the definition of work, then the picture changes dramatically. Firstly, instead of women’s participation rates being less than half those of men, they turn out to be higher (at 86.2 per cent, compared to 79.8 per cent for men). Secondly, there is less evidence of a significant decline in women’s work participation in recent times. Indeed, the decline in male work participation appears to be stronger than that for women, and both declines can then be explained dominantly by increasing involvement in education. So the basic shift in recent times has been the shift of women from paid or recognised employment to unpaid work. And most of this shift has been in Code 93, that is, women are forced to engage in various activities such as fetching firewood and water for household consumption, because of the failure of the state to provide basic infrastructure and amenities, in addition to the denial of adequate affordable care services.

This provides a huge, and unnoticed, subsidy to the economy, whereby the unsung contributions of women workers are critical in underwriting the very existence of society as well as the rapid output growth. But it also has adverse implications for those women who do engage in paid work. Where there is a large amount of unpaid work that is performed in a society and where the bulk of that is performed by women, the participation of women in paid work tends to be much more disadvantaged. Since the unpaid labour performed by women in “domestic duties” is not remunerated, and often not even recognised, it is easier for society to undervalue such work in general as well as other paid work performed by women. And this, in turn, leads to lower wages and worse working conditions, so the very existence of the unpaid-paid work continuum affects not only the bargaining power of paid women workers, but also social attitudes towards them and to their work, and indeed their own reservation wages and self-perception. So it is hardly surprising that the gender gap in wages in India is among the highest in the world and that women workers tend to be concentrated in the most low-paid, vulnerable and insecure jobs with poor working conditions.

This is not to say that conditions are so stark for all women in the country. There is a huge amount of diversity, not only across urban and rural areas but across different States, socio-cultural groups and income classes. And there has been substantial progress for particular groups of more privileged women and girls. But in a broader sense, the promises that inspired the enthusiastic participation of so many women in the national movement have remained unfulfilled.

The question then must be: why has this been the case? Some of this reflects deep patriarchal structures in Indian society, which combine with other forms of social discrimination and hierarchy (such as caste) to create complex inequalities that are not easy to change. But Indian capitalism has also relied on such inequality and used the segmented labour markets that it provides to benefit from cheaper labour and allow greater surplus extraction. That is why, even in the more recent phase of liberalised markets and rampant profit orientation, the system has continued to perpetuate, both explicitly and implicitly, some of the more egregious forms of gender discrimination.

Changing this requires much more than pious statements about women’s empowerment: it would require not just changes in mindset but a huge transformation in the approach to economic development and policies.