India has been developing fast, but not always equitably or inclusively. The biggest issue we face is the empowerment of women. While certain development indicators show their quality of life is improving – maternal mortality rates are declining, literacy rates are increasing, more women are gaining access to healthcare and education – the pace of change is heartbreakingly slow. India ranks 113 out of 135 on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. According to India’s 2011 census, the sex ratio for children under six was 914 females to 1,000 males, a disturbing decline from 927 in 2001. The ranking of Indian women in economic empowerment is 0.3, where 1.0 means equality. This is a dangerous state of affairs for any society. Denying women opportunities to realise their potential is a waste of human capital and bar to economic progress. Women are undoubtedly the foundation of the basic unit of society – the family. Even in traditional roles they demonstrate great innovation, skill, intelligence, hard work and commitment.
Policies to provide affordable, quality child care and adequate health care services would not only free women to enter paid employment, but also help change care work from being understood as a ‘domestic’ responsibility to a collective responsibility. While changes in policy and schemes becomes very pertinent to expect women’s effective and fruitful contribution to their own life and to family and society, it is necessary to understand as what breeds this level of discrimination and how it gets so internalised into our institutions that we not only blind-foldedly accept them rather keep propagating them knowingly and unknowingly.
As 1 in 7 girls marries before the age of 18 in the developing world (UNFPA 2012), early and forced marriages remain a key issue and an important factor limiting young women’s engagement in both education and economic activities. In the short term, there is a need to create full, decent productive employment opportunities for women and access to finance, as well as continue to provide social protection. Societal perceptions of females and their role are often the biggest barriers to change, because they shape women’s perception of themselves. Across all strata of Indian society, people still believe that women are capable of performing only certain types of jobs and that marriage must take precedence over career.
For making gender-equal relationships achievable, engagement of both male and female family and community members is a pre requisite and this calls for a paradigm shift in mind sets and deep rooted prevailing societal norms. Challenging gender inequality often involves conflict and could place stress on family members (specifically males), but it is feasible and attainable objective.
Till the time the root causes of inequality are not addressed in any country’s socio cultural context, the expectation of change is vague and groundless. For example, if girls are continued to be seen as plants growing in neighbours’ courtyard (which gets reflected in practices like married girls being responsible for taking care of in laws and not parents, spending their income on marital family and not on natal family), or are seen too vulnerable to be protected (from sexual abuse, rape etc. hence becoming easy targets for targeting anyone’s ‘honour’), they will be discriminated.
If we wish to look for changes in this kind of mindset, we have to question and counteract such basic societal norms and practices and take courage to become change agents. No amount of SDG formulation and resulting policy changes can make much difference if there is no ready ground to reap benefits or even demand for those benefits.
Dr Alka Srivastava
The views expressed in the article are those of the author’s and not necessarily those of Development Alternatives.