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RASHMI OBEROI | 21 DECEMBER, 2018

The Long Road to Gender Equality

Some pointers from policy changes that have worked so far


The end of the year marks a threshold and invites a pause for reflection. It's a great time to take stock of the year behind and look ahead. Twelve months have gone by - too fast or too slow? No matter what side of the fence we sit on, it’s likely all of us will agree that 2018 has been a challenging and tumultuous year.

The chaos has naturally been pivotal to seeking change.

I have been writing about gender issues all through 2018 and in the years before… The topic is very close to my heart and I feel our country still has a long way to go before we reach parity with other nations. There is change but it is too slow. The sad part is that mindsets are still stuck - they remain as medieval and parochial as ever.

But this year saw levels of engagement and activism unknown for very long.

A recent trip to Vietnam and conversations with people there highlighted what the outside world thinks of us. We spoke about our diverse cultures, our rich history, the warmth we exude and our distinct and unique heritage. But a few things were jarring, and made me realise we need to take stock of this before it gets out of hand.

Even though there were many preconceived notions in their minds and beliefs formed that I refuted, the rest I couldn’t because the ugly truth cannot be hidden or swept under the carpet.

In plain speak, the outside world has a strong opinion about the safety of women in India. Women are afraid of coming alone to India and travelling around on their own. Crimes against women stand out like a sore thumb. They asked me about the dowry system and seemed to know a lot on the subject which was surprising. And then about our population and how the girl-child is unwanted. These are stark realities.

While most of their information on India comes from news and smartphones, I dug deeper and found out that their telly too is full of Bollywood serials dubbed into Vietnamese. The serials filter down more baloney than good ideology. Our loud and crass movies which are quite popular there do more harm than good, and the majority of them portray women in the wrong light.

Discrimination against women and girls is a pervasive and long running phenomenon that characterises Indian society at every level. India’s progress towards gender equality, as measured by its position on international rankings, has been disappointing despite fairly rapid rates of economic growth.

Crimes against women show an upward trend, in particular brutal crimes such as rapes, dowry deaths, and honour killings. This is disturbing as the natural prediction would be that with growth comes education and prosperity, and a possible decline in adherence to traditional institutions and socially prescribed gender roles holding women back.

Cultural institutions in India, particularly those of inheritance through male descendants and married couples living with or near the husband’s parents, play a central role in perpetuating gender inequality and ideas about gender appropriate behaviour.

The culturally ingrained parental preference for sons - emanating from their importance as caregivers for parents in old age - is linked to poorer consequences for daughters.

The dowry system, involving a payment in cash or kind from the bride’s family to the groom’s at the time of marriage, is another institution that disempowers women. The incidence of dowry payment, which is often a substantial part of a household’s income, has been steadily rising over time across all regions and socioeconomic classes.

Often this results in dowry related violence against women by their husbands and in-laws, if the dowry is considered insufficient or as a way to demand more.

Such practices create incentives for parents not to have girl children, or to invest less in girls’ health and education. Such parental preferences are reflected in increasingly masculine sex ratios. This reinforces the inferior status of Indian women and puts them at risk of violence in their marital households.

So there is clearly a need for policy initiatives to empower women as gender disparities in India persist even against the backdrop of economic growth.

The current literature provides pointers from policy changes that have worked so far. A unique policy experiment in village governance that mandated one-third representation for women in positions of local leadership has shown promising results. Evaluations of this affirmative action policy have found that in villages led by women, the preferences of female residents are better represented. Female leaders also serve as role models.

Another policy change aimed at equalising land inheritance rights between sons and daughters has proven beneficial.

Improvements in labour market prospects also have the potential to empower women. Job recruiter visits to villages to provide information to young women led to positive effects on their labour market participation and enrolment in professional training. This led to an increase in age at marriage and childbirth, a drop in the desired number of children, and an increase in school enrolment among younger girls not exposed to the programme.

For India to maintain its position as a global growth leader, concerted efforts are needed at the local and national levels, and by the private sector, to bring women to parity with men. While increasing the representation of women in the public spheres is important and can potentially be attained through some form of affirmative action, an attitudinal shift is essential for women to be considered as equal within their homes and in broader society.

Educating Indian children from an early age about the importance of gender equality could be a meaningful start in that direction.

Without improving access to employment, education, health, infrastructure development, urban development etc. change will not happen.

A central driver of economic growth is the increased role of women. This comes in many forms: increased female labour force participation, reduced discrimination and wage differentials encouraging greater effort, and improved advancement practices that promote talented women into leadership and managerial roles. Indeed, empowering half of the potential workforce will have significant economic benefits going beyond promoting just gender equality.

We also need to ensure that millions of underprivileged women get basic human and civil rights so that they can lead healthy, dignified lives.

Women’s economic empowerment is central to the national priority. Investing in women’s economic empowerment sets us on a direct path to gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth.

The inclusion of women and girls in the economy, and the provision of safe working and public spaces, must be accompanied by measures to prevent violence against women and girls, and enable them to participate fully in society and contribute to the health and prosperity of their communities.

The priority areas are education, skill development and employment, entrepreneurship, health and healthy lifestyles, sports, promotion of social values, community engagement, participation in politics and governance, youth engagement, inclusion and social justice.

Let’s look ahead now to 2019 and all that it will bring - here’s hoping for a successful and exciting year in empowering women in all areas!

 

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