In 2015, when the UN Member States, including India, adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, 2030 was set as the deadline for the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. A new UN report published last week revealed that the world is not on track to make that a reality and instead reported a shocking stagnation in eliminating gender biases in the last decade.
The new report by UNDP, 2023 Gender Norms Index, shows that there has been little progress in eliminating gender biases with nearly 9 in 10 men and women globally holding biases against women. This is despite defining global campaigns such as Me Too and Time’s Up and the national movements in India, often for basic rights such as freedom to choose what to wear, whom to love, and how to live, punctuating the last decade.
Biased gender norms undervalue women’s capabilities and rights, making opportunities inaccessible, and acting as impediments to achieving gender equality.
The findings of the index are based on the World Values Survey (WVS), an international research programme, while the data accounts for about 85% of the world's population, according to the report. The report argues that these biases exacerbate the barriers faced by women, “dismantling of women’s rights in many parts of the world with movements against gender equality gaining traction and, in some countries, a surge of human rights violations.”
Commenting on how social norms that impair women’s rights negatively impact society, Pedro Conceição, head of UNDP’s Human Development Report Office, said in a press statement by the UN, “In fact, lack of progress on gender social norms is unfolding against a human development crisis: the global Human Development Index (HDI) declined in 2020 for the first time on record—and again the following year. Everyone stands to gain from ensuring freedom and agency for women.”
To present the findings about systematic discrimination faced by women across the world, the findings of the GSNI report are sorted into four important aspects: political, economic, educational, and physical integrity.
According to the GSNI, India is ranked 122 out of 190 countries in the Gender Equality Index (GII), a metric focused on measuring productive health, empowerment and the labour market. About 99% of Indians have at least one bias against women, while over 86% hold at least two biases and only 0.78% do not have any biases. These biases are mostly in terms of physical integrity (92.39%) which refers to the right of each human being to autonomy and self-determination over their body. This is followed by economic (75%), which looks into the gaps in income and opportunities; political (68.91%), meaning unequal influence over political decisions and outcomes; and educational (38.5%), unequal distribution of academic resources.
As the authors of the report and previous research have pointed out, gender biases have repercussions on a global level, acting as major hurdles in the path to empowerment and equality. With such biases, it is not surprising that on average, only 10% of heads of state or government globally are women. The percentage has remained unchanged since 1995. In India, women hold only about 13% of seats in the parliament and women’s percentage in the labour force is just below 20% while men dominate with 70%. This further shows how biases can hold back women from leadership roles or places of power, crucial to changing the tilted system.
The report states that around 75.09% of the surveyed population in India holds an economic bias against women. This reiterates the findings of the 2022 India Discrimination Report by Oxfam which found that even when men and women had the same educational qualification and work experience in India, the latter will be discriminated against in the labour market due to societal and employers’ prejudices. It found that discrimination leads to 100% of employment inequality faced by women in rural areas in the labour market and 98% in urban areas.
Without economic independence, women are often pushed into dependency on a patriarchal system that sees them through the lens of ownership. In a disturbing finding, the GSNI report revealed that one in four people or 25% of people globally think it is justified for a man to beat his wife. This reiterates the findings of India's latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) data which revealed that at least 30% of women respondents across 14 states and Union Territories justified husbands beating their wives for reasons such as neglecting the house, refusal to have sex, being argumentative, and not cooking good food, as reported by Hindustan Times. Today, about 26% of women over age 15 globally have experienced intimate partner violence.
These biases that uphold a man’s control over a woman’s life and body are the base of violence and assaults as well as the denial of legal acknowledgement of marital rape. According to National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) report released in August, about 49 cases of crimes against women were lodged every hour in India. There were more than 4 lakh cases lodged in 2021, as reported by The Hindu.
Social norms, specifically those based on gender, are often inculcated in social settings from an early age, from parents’ attitudes to gender biases, expectations, and behaviours witnessed in schools, religious places and media representations. They are also maintained through social sanctioning where behaviour that follows the norms is socially rewarded and rebellions are penalised. For instance, some women in management positions hesitate to be assertive in workplaces because of institutionalized gender dynamics. These dynamics further promote biased beliefs such as that men make better executives and leaders, as reported by the GSNI report.
The authors of the report suggested some ways to address gender biases. First, strengthening social protection and care systems that women can access can provide them insurance and bargaining power in households and financial inclusion can build agency. Second, investing in gender-responsive institutions in public administration at the national and local levels can enable governments to be more responsive and accountable.
Finally, legal and policy actions are needed to prevent, respond to and raise awareness of the increased violence against women in politics. Furthermore strengthening women’s voice and decision-making roles could shift discussions, revealing alternative paths.