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Why Indian women are still dreaming of gender equality

In Women’s History Month, a new volume of essays looks ahead to the future of women's rights and gender justice in India

Activists often describe progress in women’s rights as 'running in place', or even 'two steps forward and one step backward'.
Activists often describe progress in women’s rights as 'running in place', or even 'two steps forward and one step backward'. (Unsplash)

India’s most sacrosanct compact between the state and its people, our Constitution, guarantees equality to all citizens. The state is also empowered to take positive discrimination measures for women. And yet, more than 70 years after it came into effect on 26 January 1950, the constitutional guarantee of gender equality remains a distant dream for 48.04% of our citizens.

Glaring gaps exist nearly everywhere. Indian women bear a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work—that unending business of cooking, cleaning, caring for children, the elderly and the sick—and India has the dubious distinction of having one of the largest such gender gaps in the world. In urban India, women spend 312 minutes a day—291 minutes in rural—on this kind of work. For purposes of edification, urban men spend 29 minutes a day and rural, 32 minutes, doing similar work.

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Or look at another index: By the government’s own estimate, in the latest round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) released in December, one in four women in nine states continues to be subjected to physical, emotional and sexual violence. What can be worse than this statistic? An even more disturbing one which finds that 52% of the women and 42% of the men surveyed by NFHS-4 believe it is all right for a husband to beat his wife for a variety of transgressions that include disrespecting in-laws, neglecting the house or children, or even going out of the house without taking her husband’s permission.

This inequality runs through caste, class, socioeconomic and geographic boundaries, though it goes without saying that the more marginalised women—subordinate caste or economically deprived—experience it far more acutely than women of privilege. But privilege alone is not a guarantee, as Rupan Deol Bajaj might testify. In 1988, Bajaj, then an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, was molested by the then director general of police, K.P.S. Gill, at a party. He was in uniform when, after spending the evening harassing her, he slapped her on the bottom in public view. No action was taken against the man media had dubbed “supercop”, not even when Bajaj filed a police complaint. A year later, the Punjab and Haryana high court quashed the complaint against Gill, saying “the nature of harm allegedly caused to Mrs Bajaj did not entitle her to complain about the same”.

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It would take another six years before the Supreme Court would direct that Gill could in fact be prosecuted, and another three years before the same Punjab and Haryana high court would find him guilty, a verdict upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005, bringing the case to closure 17 years after the molestation.

But perhaps the most perplexing rollback on women’s empowerment has been the dramatic decline in workforce participation. In 2017, I was commissioned by the data journalism website IndiaSpend to try and unravel the mystery of why close to 25 million women had exited the workforce since 2011-12. Such a large-scale decline in labour force participation is unprecedented anywhere in the world and is all the more poignant because it comes during the post-liberalisation era that opened doors of opportunity to all, and when women and girls were making advances in education and health.

Over a series of 12 articles, the reasons women gave for quitting paid employment, regardless of where they lived or their educational attainment, were more or less the same. The role and true work of women in society was determined by patriarchy. If it was the man’s job to provide for his family by seeking employment outside the house, then it was the woman’s job to work (unpaid obviously) inside the house. When the women did manage to get permission to seek employment outside, they were required to look for work that was considered appropriate and respectable. For instance, the hospitality industry has a huge demand for skilled women employees but many families simply don’t consider this “good” work for their daughters and wives.

Against this grim backdrop of gender injustice, economist Nisha Agrawal’s new edited volume, Her Right To Equality: From Promise To Power, brings in valuable context.

Her Right To Equality—From Promise To Power: Edited by Nisha Agrawal, Penguin Random House India, 256 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
Her Right To Equality—From Promise To Power: Edited by Nisha Agrawal, Penguin Random House India, 256 pages, 699.

Agrawal is well-known for her work on poverty, inequality and social development issues over 30 years, first with the World Bank and then, from 2008-18, as the first CEO of Oxfam India. As the editor of Her Right To Equality, she has the complex job of pulling together the multiple strands that point to one direction: India’s systemic and continuing gender gap.

A collection of 10 essays, from domestic violence (Flavia Agnes, Rajini R. Menon and Amita Pitre) to the lack of quality childcare (Sumitra Mishra and Shubhika Sachdeva); from women’s health and reproductive rights (Poonam Muttreja and Sanghamitra Singh) to safe and equal workplaces (Swarna Rajagopalan); from why so many women are out of the labour force (Ashwini Deshpande) to promoting livelihoods (Archana Goradia Gupta), the list of authors reads like an all-star list. Women’s political participation, or more accurately the lack of it, isn’t neglected either, with essays by Sushmita Dev, Tara Krishnaswamy and Kanimozhi Karunanidhi. And looking to the future, Bina Agarwal writes about her vision of India in 2047.

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The book—part of the Rethinking India series by the Samruddha Bharat Trust, which plans a total of 14 volumes that it hopes will kick-start a national dialogue—acknowledges the unprecedented gains, particularly in education and health, but concedes that “progress has not come easy”. It examines why gender inequality exists and notes, “Women in India do not have either the individual or the collective agency to bring about the changes that are necessary within their own households or in their societies to make them more equal.”

Activists often describe progress in women’s rights as “running in place”, or even “two steps forward and one step backward”. For instance, despite gains in maternal mortality—the rate at which mothers die in childbirth, down from 57 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 28 in 2015-16—contraception is still the woman’s problem and female sterilisation accounts for 75% of contraceptive use in India. Sometimes this has horrific postscripts, as seen in November 2014 when 11 women died in sterilisation camps in Chhattisgarh.

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The essays don’t stop at painting a gloomy picture, coming with solutions that might rearrange this lopsided arrangement. There’s Bina Agarwal’s suggestion on how to transform gendered institutions by 2047. And, the obvious solution to have far greater political representation by women. Sushmita Dev reminds us that the drafters of the Constitution did not consider reservation for women, as they did for other marginalised groups like the Dalits and the tribals, because, in the words of Renuka Ray, one of the 15 women in the constituent assembly, women would “get more chances if the consideration is of ability alone”.

For Agrawal, the biggest hope for change comes from the disruptors, such as the women of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act passed in December 2019. “This was a moment of hope and potential transformation unlike any seen in the recent history of India,” she writes. “This is our hope for the future. That we will not have to wait for another seventy years but that disruptive change will shatter patriarchal social norms and bring progress much faster.”

Her Right To Equality is an essential addition to the library of anyone interested in gender rights, to understand the gaps, the reasons for their persistence, and how to plug them. In 2050, India will celebrate 100 years of our Constitution—and, with a bit of luck, the fulfilment of the promises it makes to all citizens, women included.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based journalist who writes on gender issues.

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