Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta

The plight of gender inequity in the country is scarcely a secret. Like most of the world, India is plagued with regressive patriarchal social norms, customs, and practices that seep into the socio-political structures prevalent today. Needless to say, it has made it even more difficult to achieve gender parity in all walks of life properly; the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation, and there is a need for strengthening pre-existing policies as well as introducing newer measures to achieve the UN-highlighted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

With this background, Gender Impact Studies Centre (GISC), Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, Delhi Post News, and GenDev Centre for Research and Innovation, Gurugram organized a webinar on Addressing the #GenderGaps in a post-pandemic world: Policy shifts and priorities attended by Ms Urvashi Prasad and Ms Pankhuri Dutt from NITI Aayog and chaired by Prof Govind Kelkar.

#GenderGaps_Urvashi Prasad_Addressing the #GenderGaps in a Post-Pandemic World_ Policy Shifts and Priorities (1)
#GenderGaps_Urvashi Prasad_Addressing the #GenderGaps in a Post-Pandemic World_ Policy Shifts and Priorities (1)

“Before delving into the challenges at hand, it is important to take note of the progress achieved thus far. While the magnitude of the change still has plenty of room for improvement, India has undeniably bettered in the past decade on the gender front.

The economic survey of India (ESI) 2018 features the significant improvement accomplished from 2005-06 to 2015-16 as per the statistics by the National Family Health Survey. Out of the 17 indicators determining women’s agency, 14 – including institutional deliveries, bank accounts, literacy, BMI, age of marriage – have shown significant progress,” said Ms Prasad.

She also highlighted some governmental schemes like MGNREGA, Deen Dayal Antyodaya Yojana, PMJDY, and the flagship MUDRA Yojana which have shown improvement exceeding expectations. Along with increased participation in the formal sector, courtesy of schemes like MGNREGA, the trend extends to larger political participation, albeit limited to panchayat and other lower administration rungs.

With increased improved nutrition provision amongst younger girls as well as the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana, the maternity benefits program, and the institution of partial compensation for wage loss as a cash incentive for female labor force participation, there has been a commendably holistic development for women in all walks of life.

However, Ms Prasad points out; there are still graver challenges to tackle. A 2013-15 based NITI Aayog study reported that the sex ratio had shown deterioration in 17 out of 21 large states. The 2018 ESI has explained how this prevalent sex-selective abortion has led to an estimated 63 million “missing women.” For others, families still adhering to a meta-preference for sons has led to 21 million “unwanted girls.”

These same social norms are responsible for the abject neglect of women’s health and nutrition requirements. Further research reveals shocking statistics: India had the highest number of deaths due to cervical cancer in 2018, mostly due to inaccessibility to screening and required amenities. About half of the female population in 15-49 years of age is anemic. Regarding mental health, the prospects aren’t promising either, with 71% of suicides in the ages of 15-39 being women.

Another mammoth challenge in the Indian economy is the dismal female labor force participation. While the government has blazed new trails in the formal sector, the informal sector, which employs most Indian women – remains largely untouched. Even within the formal sector, there are several hindrances like workplace distance, inflexible working hours, non-availability of crèches, and a lower preference for women re-entering the workforce, which actively deter female participation. Women’s self-help cooperatives and female entrepreneurs, in general, lack major access to credit, hampering them from entrepreneurship as well as service.

The most horrific challenge of them all is the unperturbed escalation in violence against women over the years. The National Crime Record Bureau reports a record of an average of 87 rape cases daily. Sexual and physical violence is rampant, affecting 1/3rd of women aged 15-49 years, according to the NHFS 2016. Perhaps the most mortifying of these statistics is the normalization and acceptance of violence against women amongst both genders. Shockingly, 52% of women and 42% of men believe wife-beating to be justified.

Further exploration into the national statistics revealed the yawning inequities amongst states in an array of social indicators. A  Comprehensive National. Nutrition Survey (CNNS) 2018 report extensively detailed the large variation in high-impact interventions for women, like iron-folic acid intake, post-natal care, and institutional deliveries.

The NITI SDG Index studying female agency shows a gloomier picture, sparing 3-4 union territories, all of India touting disappointing figures. It also highlights the sizable variation in states in terms of sex ratio and total fertility rates. The NFHS revealed a meager 4% dip in physical or sexual violence reports from 1995-99 to 2010-14. While five major states saw a significant reduction in spousal violence and five more displayed the status quo, the majority’s condition leaves much to be desired.

From a global standpoint, the things seem murkier. India dropped five places from 2018-19 to 2019-20 in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index. The index measures economic, health & survival, political and educational gender gaps in countries across the world. In the health parameter India ranks tragically 150th out of 153 countries.

It is also the only country with an economic gap higher than a political one. However, India’s political figures are solely due to our having a female head of state early on post-Independence, and is sadly, no longer reflective of the contemporary political scenario. The educational gap is also quite pronounced with barely two-thirds of women being literate as compared to 82% of men.

To this, Ms Prasad pointed out a novel way of international comparison: instead of looking up to the examples of developed Nordic states, India can draw inspiration from its poorer counterparts. She provided the example of Rwanda, which after its 1994 genocide, improved on gender equity by leaps and bounds through crucial social and constitutional reforms.

Women in Rwanda account for two-thirds of the Parliament, 52.5% of the secondary enrollees, and 54% of the total workforce. With its educational and health investments, Rwanda boasts the smallest gender pay gap in the world.

Drawing inspiration from the same, she proposed establishing an independent Gender Monitoring Unit for India’s way forward. The idea is to centralize the data collation from different departments and ministries and regularise the process by setting tangible, time-bound targets. After a positive response from the health index, NITI has a gender index next in its books.

Accounting for women’s development in educational, health, financial and entrepreneurial sectors, the index also is planned to be inclusive of women generally neglected in policymaking (like widows, disabled women). Instead of ranking the states in different issues, the index aims to give continuous and frequent feedbacks tailored to each state, so as to facilitate more efficient development.

Sample indicators for the same include child sex ratio, percentage of anemic women, percentage of girls completing secondary schools, maternal mortality rate, female labor force participation rate, percentage of female voters, incidences of crimes against women, and enrolment of girls at the primary school level.

NITI Aayog has specific solutions in mind for all of these sectors. Recently, NITI released the “Three Year Action Agenda” and “Strategy for India 75”, in which the need for skill development amongst women is highlighted. Financial incentives and raising the marriageable age can be utilized to curb dropout rates. Due to Digital India, women’s skill development in non-traditional roles (like electricians, taxi drivers, plumbers) can be enhanced more effectively. It has also made female workers’ organizations in professional guilds smoother, gaining them bargaining power and occupational agency.

However, pre-existing laws like the Maternity Benefit Act, The Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act also need to be effectively implemented for women in formal and informal sectors. Overall, there needs to be an amendment in the current legal framework to accommodate alternative employment options like Work from home, part-time work, and options for women re-entering the workforce. To smoothen the process, companies can be incentivized by tax cuts for hiring women.

Policies for availing credit to local self-help groups, female entrepreneurs, and SC/ST, rural, disabled women are crucial in attaining female financial autonomy. Prioritizing access to lease land and water bodies to female farmers and ensuring their membership in farmer producer organizations can help aid women working in the informal agricultural sector. Along with leasing, ownership of assets is vital to women’s autonomy and independence. Sole as well as joint registration with spouses for owning land and other assets needs to be encouraged.

In discussion with the urban ministry, NITI Aayog proposes modifications in urban planning to ensure women’s safety. Providing affordable housing and gender-friendly residential spaces with efficient connectivity and public transportation can immensely help. In the instance of crimes, the current protocol needs to be strengthened as well as groomed to tackle more modern issues like cybercrimes.

Despite the existence of fast-track courts and online redressal processing mechanisms, the judiciary ought to be made more efficient to deal with its pending caseload. Societally, there is a dire need to de-stigmatize crimes against women and initiate empathetic dialogue for the same. Training for women-specific issues for health personnel, police officers, law enforcement agents, and other relevant parties can greatly alleviate trauma for survivors.

Public-Private-Personal Partnerships are aimed at the same. Correcting women’s under-representation has many seen and unseen stakeholders like corporates, politicians, and civilians alike. Ms Dutt identifies how financial literacy among women leads to better investment in her children’s health and education. She further qualifies this argument with Dr Duflo’s research (2004) disadvantaged groups benefit more from women in-charge. The NITI Women Entrepreneurship Programme was ideated for the same.

Essentially, India has made path-breaking changes in women’s empowerment today. Prof Kelkar expressed that contemporaneous masculinized social norms ought to be revised for modernity in the political, social, and economic outlook.

From raising issues of domestic violence to the novel conundrum associated with female unpaid labor in “care work”, an intersectional feminist approach is key in achieving any long-term resolution. With the advent of the pandemic, many of these issues have resurged with a vengeance. In a time of flux, as the world adjusts to a new normal, the time is now to make it equitable for all irrespective of gender, class, and ability.

Acknowledgements: Renuka Bhat is a research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and a recent BSc Economics graduate from NMIMS’ School of Economics, Mumbai.

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Picture Courtesy: The Economic Times