India is considered to be the land of countless Gods and Goddesses – a place where majority fervently worships, among others, Lakshmi – the Goddess of wealth, Saraswati – the Goddess of education, and Durga – the Goddess of power. Yet the irony is that the country does not do enough to provide a level playing field for its women. World’s largest democracy has been paying a blind eye to the gaping gender gaps – to the skewed sex ratio – to unequal education and employment opportunities – and to the overall well being that just doesn’t reach enough women.
As per Global Gender Gap Report for 2012, India ranks 105 out of 135 countries – almost at the bottom. If you take Political Empowerment of women out of the picture, India’s ranking would dip down to 126 i.e. literally to the bottom – in the closer company of its neighbors Nepal and Pakistan.
Global Gender Gap Index ranks countries on the basis of gender based gaps in four areas – 1) Economic Participation, 2) Educational Attainment, 3) Health and Survival, and 4) Political Empowerment.
The index was introduced by World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2006 to identify gender disparities and the opportunities created by reducing them. It has been tracking the progress of various countries towards closing the prevailing gender gaps, and India’s record has been dismal.
Top 5 ranks go to Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Ireland. UK ranks 18, US 22, Australia 25, Brazil 62, and China 69.
India ranks high, at number 17, in Political Empowerment primarily because it has had some women head of the state in last 50 years. Not many countries can boast of having had a woman Prime Minister and a woman President – India has had both in Indira Gandhi and Pratibha Patil respectively. And the country continues to have a galaxy of women leaders at state and national level – Sonia Gandhi (Congress President, UPA Chairperson, NAC Chairperson), Sushma Swaraj (Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha), Miera Kumar (Speaker of Lok Sabha), Shiela Dikshit (Chief Minister of Delhi), Mamata Banerjee (Chief Minister of West Bengal), Jayalalithaa Jayaram(Chief Minister of Tamilnadu), Mayawati (Formed Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Head of BSP), Vasundhara Raje (Former Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Leader of Opposition of State Assembly of Rajasthaan), and Uma Bharti (Former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh) to name a few.
However, if you think beyond some privileged and/or exceptional women, a right to vote can only help so much without voter being educated. Political empowerment will certainly make difference in the long run, however thus far it hasn’t trickled down. Today women only constitute a meager 12% of the parliament strength and hold only 11% of the ministerial berths.
Women’s Reservation Bill, that proposes reservation of 33% of seats in Parliament of India and in State Legislative Assemblies for women for 3 election cycles, has been pending in Parliament for over two decades. If passed, it will further boost India’s ranking in political sub-index.
The Global Gender Gap report adds – “There is also some evidence from India to suggest that women in local government roles make decisions with better outcomes for communities than men when charged with budget decisions; they also appear to be more competent representatives than men, obtaining more resources for their constituencies despite having significantly lower education and relevant labor market experience.“
India is at 123rd position when assessed on Economic Participation and Opportunity parameters. Share of women in non-agricultural wage employment is just 18%. It reflects that women are left behind in the higher end jobs that demand higher education and specialized skills. Women are even lagging in the use of internet that has opened up new avenues for skill enhancement and income generation. The country also doesn’t facilitate enough credit and finance programs to encourage women entrepreneurs – embarrassingly, only 9% of the firms in India have women ownership of some sort.
The report also warns, “India is the lowest ranked of the BRIC economies featured in the Index; it performs above average on the political empowerment of women but lags behind in the other three categories. The persistent health, education and economic participation gaps will be detrimental to India’s growth.”
Women’s economic participation largely depends upon their educational attainment. On the education subindex, India has made some improvements but it still stands at 121st spot as those improvements are really at the lowest level of education. While almost equal number of men and women enroll for primary education, number of women continues to shrink as the level of education and specialization increases. In other words, India is making girls literate but not helping them become employable.
Offering women a level playing field would be a key for India’s growth. By not empowering women, a country loses half of its advantage right away. In case of India, an enviable billion plus human resource pool shrinks to half, with other half virtually ignored. And world’s largest, and most populous, democracy starts to look like an unfair giant that only displays sluggish improvement towards closing the gender based gaps.
Along with promoting the value of education and making it easily accessible, India needs to address stubborn cultural issues and safety concerns that prevent women from going for higher education or pursuing their dream careers.
Incidents like recent brutal gangrape and murder of a paramedical student in Delhi and subsequent outrageous comments of Netas (political leaders) and Babas (spiritual gurus) is a reflection of gaping gender gaps in India that must be closed.
Story of India shining, or India a rising economic power, takes a real hard beating on health arena. The country ranks 134, again out of 135, on Health and Survival index. It is only 1 point better than Azerbaijan – the last country in the chart.
The child sex ratio in India continues to be alarmingly skewed with just 914 girls to 1000 boys. Female feticide and infanticide are rampant in India. And believe it or not, only 58% of childbirths in India are attended by a health specialist – rest are left in His hands. 28% of the girls who survive get married at a tender age of 15-19 years – and marriage for most implies punctuation to education or career.
One index where women do better than men is healthy life expectancy – on an average they outlive men by a year. Probably lagging behind in everything else makes them true fighters.
No country can be globally competitive without taking its women force along – without being fair to them while distributing available resources – without providing them a safe and conducive environment to learn, grow, and contribute. It would be like running a race on one leg, with other folded up, and still expecting to somehow emerge victorious.