Gender Divide , The gap widens

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Global Gender Gap, promoting gender equality, gender equality

Several recent reports put India at the bottom when it comes to gender equality. It is time for a clearly-spelt new policy on women and development. SHAILAJA CHANDRA

“By and large the attitude of a man towards his wife is possibly worse than his attitude towards his buffalo.” 

Colin Gonzalves, 

Human Rights Lawyer 

The World Economic Forum, in a report titled the Global Gender Gap 2009, has quantified the magnitude of gender-based disparity in 134 countries. Appallingly, India ranks the very last on health and survival and is at the 114th position overall. Comparing Gender Equality derived from three National Family Health Surveys spanning 13 years, a report published by the International Institute of Population Studies (IIPS Mumbai 2009) also presents a miserable picture. Far from improving, the gender gap is widening. 

Child Sex ratio: Punjab and Haryana continue to have the lowest sex ratios in the country but surprisingly in the smugly superior South, all states, even Kerala, have registered an adverse child sex ratio. Jharkhand followed by three northeastern states have the best female child sex ratios countrywide which suggests that tribal societies recognise the need for a balanced sex ratio and gender equity. 

Education and employment: The IIPS report shows that among married women from 25 to 49, only one out of five women had completed 10 or more years of education. So, despite the hype, every time a rare woman breaks into a man’s professional preserve or cracks a cerebral examination, only 7 per cent of Indian women are employed in professional or managerial occupations; and the proportional increase has been just 1 per cent between each survey. A vast majority of women continue to be engaged in dead-end agricultural operations the proportion of which has grown in the last 13 years. 

Age of marriage: Comparisons over 13 years also show that the median age at marriage for women aged 25 to 49 was 16.8; about six years lower than that for men. In a period of one and a half decades, the age at marriage within this group had not gone up by a single year. This when the legal age of marriage has been 18 for decades! The National Population Policy 2000 had advocated that marriages should take place only after 18 and preferably after 20 years of age. How can a country continue to blatantly ignore its own policy and that too when the Supreme Court of India has directed that all marriages regardless of religion, must be registered? 

Unmet need for contraception: Since not even half the couples in the reproductive age group use any contraception, anaemic, adolescent girls and malnourished women continue to deliver underweight children, who either succumb or become prey to infancy and childhood diseases. The “cafeteria approach” to family planning has failed to prevent unwanted pregnancies or lower the fertility rate, substantially. 

Needed change: According to Prabhat Kumar, a former Cabinet Secretary, there was a downright refusal on the part of the key Central Ministry in charge of women’s development to prepare a comprehensive gender policy even when directed to. The reason is not far to find. A policy paper would raise questions and ring uncertainty for bureaucracies and NGOs that have thrived thus long on repetitive, ineffective programmes. It is high time that drastic changes are made to scramble out of the quagmire that we have been stuck in for decades. 

There is a need to jettison jaded programmes that have failed to deliver. Simply crowding women into a room to learn the three R-s has not taken them anywhere. The ICDS supplementary feeding programmes for preschoolers and lactating mothers, after running for three decades, have not made a dent on women’s anaemia levels or prevented severe malnutrition in children. Sex determination, far from being halted, has grown among the educated and affluent and quietly leeched into the hinterland also. Those in charge of enforcing the legal age of marriage have utterly failed to stop the marriage of minor girls. Even the few well-intentioned schemes to popularise the birth of girls and encourage school retention have remained symbolic, having had no impact on the enormity of inequality that persists. Something is going horribly wrong. 

India would do well to learn from a country like Korea which was a pitiable agrarian economy, way behind India in the 1960s but overtook us in just 20 years. This was largely possible because Korea placed a strong emphasis on creating opportunities for girls and women to become wage earners. The quest for family planning and literacy was an automatic by-product, largely self-driven. 

We need a white paper accompanied by a status report on failed outcomes of programmes related to women. Taking stock of the gender divide across states, the paper should enumerate laws that are needed to create opportunities and mainstream women into educational and employment avenues, on fast track. 

What should the policy contain? First, there should be a coercive law which reserves for women at least 10 per cent of all benefits given to entrepreneurs including bank loans, seats in vocational and industrial training institutions, all scholarships and all jobs cutting across the public and private sector for at least 10 years. The identification of specific jobs where women might be considered unsuitable should be left to a Commission to determine. Second, within the existing reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs, 50 per cent should be reserved for women, a step which is equally fair to both sexes and ought not to raise a battle cry from men. Third, the 2007 timorous law on prevention of child marriage should be replaced with a Draconian law that treats marriage of minors as a cognizable offence and jails parents and relatives that marry daughters before the legal age. 

Fourth, a completely new Ministry should be established to handle the subject of National Competitiveness and Gender Equality. The Ministry should be made responsible for framing and amending laws, in particular those that seek to promote reservations, grant property and land tenure rights to women, oversee female absorption in educational and employment avenues and monitor implementation of the laws and schemes introduced for bridging inequality. The Ministry should also have strong linkages with finance, education, vocational training, and small industry. Unless the Cabinet Secretary reviews the progress and reports it to a Group of Ministers, the subject will not get the attention needed. 

Engaging civil society 

Finally, a role has to be found to engage civil society in promoting gender equality. We already have excellent examples like the Pardada Pardadi Educational Society in Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh which has nurtured a sense of self-reliance in local girls. Special programmes are needed and inducements, incentives and tax benefits offered to civil society organisations that contribute effectively to such initiatives that help instil self-confidence in rural women. 

If several radical measures are not taken now, India is doomed to remaining at the rock bottom when future measurements of gender equality are made. It is no longer a matter of women’s rights. It is a question of how tall the country can stand in terms of economic growth and competitiveness. Strong corrective measures are needed because this nation’s progress is clearly at stake. 

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