Thursday, 28 February 2013

Empowering Women in India - Time for action


Devendra Kothari PhD
Population and Development Analyst,
 Forum for population Action

Since 1911, the March 8th is celebrated around the world as International Women's Day. Many groups around the world choose different themes each year relevant to global and local gender issues. The UN declares an International Women's Day theme for 2013 and it is “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women”.  And this is very crucial for India.

The condition of women in India has undoubtedly improved since independence. Well-dressed women in Western attire driving scooters or cars to work are now an everyday sight in cities.    Women doctors, lawyers, police officers and bureaucrats are common. However, the extent of this improvement is limited and mainly confined to the middle classes living in big cities.  As a result, the gender gap in India runs deep, as revealed by the Global Gender Gap Report 2011, released by the World Economic Forum.[1]  India ranks pathetically at 113 among the 135 countries considered, indicating India is simply not doing enough for its women. Further,   India’s ranking has been falling steadily since 2006 when the Index was launched. In 2006, India was ranked 98th. That is a shameful reflection of the condition of the women in a country that is on a growth song. Available data indicate that   the lack of education, poor health and living conditions still haunt women. It appears that India is simply not doing enough for its women to improve access to resources and freedom of movement especially for those who make around 75% of its total female population.  The situation is really worst in India's heavily populated four large north Indian States  of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, where, in parts, there is a deep-rooted mindset that women are inferior and must be restricted to being homemakers and child bearers. There is an urgent need to rethink as how to expedite the process of empowerment with innumerable obstacles.

The post aims at formulating a “feminist agenda” to empower women living in highly patriarchal and traditional surroundings. The agenda is based on the premises that no doubt efficient policing, stringent punishments and legal measures may “end violence against women” but they cannot eliminate growing gender inequality which is a main reason behind growing crime against women in India   unless and until the mindset of the society is changed. For this, women must have a supportive environment where she can exert herself. It is argued that the “feminist agenda" as outlined in the following pages, if implemented as a package and backed by a proper monitoring system,   will help in achieving gender equality and women empowerment in India.
What we mean by the “feminist agenda” for empowering women? The observation of the theatre personality and social activist, Shabana Azmi, appropriately sums this up: “I believe men and women are different not better, nor worse. And the difference needs to be celebrated. For far too long, solutions of all problems have sought to be resolved from male point of view. One has to take women‘s perspective into account, since women think differently”. One has to recognize that women don’t need patronage. They need supportive environment for elevating themselves and reducing the gender gap.  
Empowerment covers a large canvas where a woman is enabled to negotiate better space for herself in the family, society and polity. The ability of women to make decisions that affect the circumstances of their own lives is an essential aspect of empowerment. In other words, improving the decision making power in day-to-day activities could be another way to accelerate the process of   women empowerment. The post examines some ground level indicators, obtained from National Family Health Surveys, Census of India and other published documents, which could help in developing feminist agenda. For this, the post analyses the prevailing situation in some major States of India, namely: Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu and try to learn what one can learn. These States are at the different levels of women empowerment measured in terms of decision-making power.
During the National Family Health Survey-3 (2005-06), currently married women were asked who made decisions about their own health care, major household purchases, purchases for daily household needs, and visiting their own family or relatives to measure the level of women empowerment.[2] Using these data, the selected States have been arranged in descending order, as shown in column 2 of Table 1. Only 37% of currently married women participated in making all four of these decisions in the county as a whole. However, women’s participation in decision-making varied from 49% in Tamil Nadu to 23% in Rajasthan among the 17 major States of India having population more than 25 million in 2011. In fact, Rajasthan recoded the lowest rank in the country: only two in ten currently married women in Rajasthan participated in decisions about their own health care, large household purchases, purchases for daily need, and visits to her family and relatives, whereas every second woman in Tamil Nadu participated in all these decisions. 

Table 1 clearly indicates that the level of decision-making (col. 2) does increase with greater use of reproductive health services like Ante Natal Care (col. 3) and family planning (col. 4) that is use of reproductive health services. At the same time higher level of female literacy (col. 5) and opportunity in wage employment outside the agriculture (col. 6) have a positive impact on decision-making. Finally, higher proportion of households with toilet (col. 7) and drinking water (col. 8) facilities within the premises have expected positive association with the decision- making process.

Table 1:  level of decision making (women empowerment) depends upon use of reproductive health services, level of literacy and wage employment, and living conditions, some selected States of India.
State
%  of married women  who                                                             participate
in all  four decisions*
Use of RCH services*
Literacy &  employment
Living conditions#
% of Pregnant women received 3+ ANC visits
%  of women
using modern contra-captives
% of Females  literate#
% females workers in   wage employ-
ment $

% of house-
holds
with piped water#
% of
House-
Holds
with
latrine#
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
Tamil Nadu
49
96
60
74
28
80
49
Maharashtra
45
75
65
75
25
70
53
Andhra Pradesh
41
85
67
60
28
70
50
India
37
52
49
65
19
43
43
Madhya Pradesh
29
41
53
60
21
23
29
Chhattisgarh
27
54
49
61
23
21
24
Rajasthan
23
41
44
53
12
41
34
Sources: * NRHM-3 (2005-06); # Census of India 2011; $ Statistics on Women in India 2010, NIPCCD, New Delhi.


Table 1 indicates that use of reproductive health services and participation of women in wage employment in non-agricultural sector coupled with higher level of female literacy are effective action areas in empowering women. The table reveals that Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan recorded the very low use of reproductive health services (Cols. 3 and 4) as well as low level of female literacy and   participation in the wage employment (Cols. 5 and 6), and these had an adverse  impact on decision making power of women. On the other hand, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh   with higher use of reproductive health services as well as greater   participation in wage employment recorded the higher ranking in the women empowerment (Col. 2).  As such, the State Governments have to undertaken effective initiatives to promote reproductive health services as well as the participation of women in the wage employment.  

Table 1 also indicates that other factors creating obstacles in improving the status of women are poor living conditions including   lack of drinking water and inadequate sanitation facilities, and non availability of smokeless cooking fuel like LPG and electricity. Absence of these facilities increases women’s workload as well as their physical and mental fatigue. Our earlier analysis clearly indicates the living conditions are equally important in empowering the women.[3]

All these ground level variables have a significant impact not only on the decision-making power of women (Col. 2) but also on the quality of life of women measured in terms maternal mortality rate (Col. 3), number of unwanted births per women (col. 4), per cent of births of order four or higher (Col. 5), proportion of employed women who are paid in cash for their work (Col. 5), and percentage of women who have a bank account that they themselves use (Col. 6), as shown in Table 2. The table indicates that maternal mortality rate varies from 318 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in Rajasthan to only 94 in Tamil Nadu. Similarly, level of unwanted fertility that is difference between the total fertility and wanted fertility ranges from 0.3 children in Andhra Pradesh to 1.0 child in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.[4] The consequences of unintended pregnancy are serious, imposing significant burden on women and families, and in turn slowing down the process of women’s empowerment. Unintended pregnancy breeds powerlessness and powerlessness breeds subordination (quality of obedient submissiveness) and subordination breeds unintended pregnancy[5].  

Table 2:  level of decision making (women empowerment) and quality of life indicators, some selected major States of India
State
%  of women  who                                                             participated
in all  four decisions*
Maternal deaths/lac live births 2007-09 (MMR)#
Number of unwanted births/ woman*
% of  birth order four or higher*
% of employed women earning cash*
% of women who had bank account that they use*

1
2
3
4
5
6
7

Tamil Nadu
49
97
0.4
7
90
16

Maharashtra
45
104
0.4
12
70
20

Andhra Pradesh
41
134
0.3
8
84
18

India
37
212
0.8
25
64
15

Madhya Pradesh
29
269
1.0
31
59
9

Chhattisgarh
27
269
0.6
28
45
8

Rajasthan
23
318
1.0
34
48
8

Sources: * NRHM-3 (2005-06) and # Registrar General of India.

In conclusion, there are quite a large number of issues which need to be addressed to streamline the existing women empowerment programs in India especially in the poor performing States as well as initiate actual work at the ground level. To initiate the measurable actions at the ground level, female education and women centred reproductive health services should be given top priority. Other factors need attention are making access to affordable LPG cooking fuel for rural women, providing safe drinking water, and sanitation and enhancing the opportunity for wage employment. We have to accept the fact that things are not going to change overnight but because of this we cannot stop taking action either. At this junction the most important step is to initiate ground level actions however small it might seem. They should be focused on creating enabling environment where women can take decision about themselves, and that will be a starting point in our efforts to empower women in India.



[1] The Global Gender Gap Index, introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2006, is a framework for capturing the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities and tracking their progress. The Index benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, education- and health based criteria, and provide country rankings that allow for effective comparisons across   regions and income groups, and over time. For details, see: The Global Gender Gap Report 2011, World Economic Forum, Geneva, Switzerland, 2011.

[2] For further information, see: Sunita Kishor and Kamla Gupta. 2009. Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in India. National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), India, 2005-06. Mumbai: International Institute for Population Sciences; Calverton, Maryland, USA: ICF Macro. 

[3] See post on: “Quality of life and living environment in India” dated September 30, 2012 by the author at the link: kotharionindia@blogspot.com. Also see  article  by the author “West Bengal: Household amenities with special reference to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and their implications”, UNICEF West Bengal, Kolkata, 2012

[4] The highest unwanted fertility of 1.6 children per woman was recorded by Bihar in the country as a whole, as per NFHS-3.

[5] Kothari, Devendra. 2012. “Empowering Women in India through better Reproductive Healthcare”, in Sheel Sharma and Angella Atwaru Ateri (eds.) Empowering Women through Better HealthCare and Nutrition in Developing Countries, New Delhi: Regency Publications, 2012, pp 68-86.

2 comments:

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