Once upon a time, 50-odd years ago, we Indians gave ourselves a Constitution. It is one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, and guarantees equal rights to men and women, including the right to vote, to own property, to move about freely within the country and to earn a living.
All through our childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, we the Midnight’s Children, were reminded of this. As we grew up, however, we began to see a parallel reality. We found that notwithstanding all the promises made in the Constitution, men in India, especially upper caste men, accrued more advantages by virtue of being born male. They are fed better, given better education and treatment when ill, are mostly paid higher wages than women counterparts and have infinitely better access to markets and information of all kinds. Contrary to the natural pattern of gender balance the world over, Indian men also outnumber women everywhere in India (933 women for 1000 men).
Most Indian women go through life in a state of great nutritional and educational deprivation. They continue to be married off at a very young age, have multiple pregnancies before their bodies are capable of bearing the burden, bring forth underweight and weak babies and despite medical advancement die in large numbers from treatable, pregnancy-related problems. The average Indian woman bears her first child before she is 22 years old; 90 per cent are anaemic and reproductive tract infections are endemic among both urban and rural poor due to poor hygiene and generally weak constitution. Only 54 per cent of the women are literate, and although girls are entered into school, the rate of girl dropouts remains large due to poverty and early marriages followed by early pregnancy.
The first task before us is to make the importance of women’s work and their great contribution to the GDP and the growth of the nation, visible to our policy makers and the women themselves. In 1989, a committee constituted by the Rajiv Gandhi government, submitted Shramshakti, the first-ever national report on women working in the informal (unorganised) sector in India. The report revealed that almost 90 per cent of women workers were working in this sector. They continue to perform multiple, unpaid tasks, besides labouring as mothers, wives and domestic workers, cattle rearers, fuel and fodder collectors. As workers, however, women had poor visibility in government reports and surveys. They were almost always described as housewives, even when they were principal bread winners for the family, and remained unprotected by labour laws.
Unlike men, working women in the informal sector have poor access to education, skill upgradation and health care. Sixteen years after Shramshakti and three decades after ‘Towards Freedom’— the first status of women report— Indian women’s literacy and life expectancy levels may have gone up a bit , but low pay, poor health and high rates of maternal mortality still haunt most of them through life. And since it has become possible (by a gross misuse of ultrasonic tests) to foretell the sex of an unborn foetus, aborting the females has become a rampant practice in affluent states like Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, Gujarat and Maharashtra. As a result, the male-female ratio is becoming alarmingly adverse to women.
It is time the government and nodal bodies thought of bringing out a nation-wide status report on India’s women that provides policy-makers with clearly articulated and well- researched data. The last such report was prepared in 1975, and the facts it highlighted shook the conscience of the nation’s policy-makers. As a result, many changes were made in the methods of census data collection, labour laws, education and healthcare systems. In the last decade the gradual privatisation of medical and educational institutions has created further grave disorders in the lives of women. Coupled with the decline in the numbers of women in practically all the states of India, this, if not put in perspective against a nation-wide picture, will have grim consequences for us.
Fifty years may be a short time in the history of a nation, but it has brought about profound changes in the lives of India’s educated, urban working women. They have broken out of all caste, class and gender-based cages and proved their mettle in every field. However, we must continue to worry about a majority of our women who are still sedimented at the bottom in the urban and rural poverty zones. Important bodies like the National Commission of Women should strive for this, instead of wasting their time in acting like a wing of the ruling party, whatever it is, and communalising or politicising individual incidents of rapes, dowry harassment and child marriages in a piecemeal fashion.
Rise in crime
There is another major need, and this is to check the alarming rise in crimes against women everywhere. The National Crime Records Bureau reported in 1998 that by 2010, crime against women would have a higher growth rate than our population. But crimes against women are a multidimensional problem, and cannot be cured by a simplistic remedy. Progressive legislation like the law for Prevention of Domestic Violence as also the amended inheritance law for Hindu women, are healthy developments. But this has to be followed by sensitisation of the public, the police and even the lower judiciary about the human rights of women. An extra effort is needed here because women are still grossly under-represented in our legislative bodies. True, reservations for women in panchayats have brought a million women in the rural areas into decision-making arenas of the gram panchayats. But now their hands need to be further strengthened by measures that will control the traditional women-baiters on the one hand, and train and equip the elected women with the needed skills and knowledge on the other.
It is a shame that despite making the reservation of 33 per cent seats for women in the legislature a part of their election manifestos, most political parties have chosen to stall the actual Bill for making this a reality through devious arguments. On the domestic level, parents must now look beyond worrying endlessly about ‘settling’ their daughters at the earliest with a heavy dowry and instead arm their daughters with proper education and skills for being financially self-supporting.
When all is said and done, critical dimensions of freedom and equality cannot be measured like sugar or ghee. Human dignity, self respect, mental and emotional security are the birthright of every citizen. It is hard to quantify and measure them. Data helps, but understanding the truth behind the data is even more important. Real gender equality, like charity, must begin at home.
— The writer is the Editor of Hindustan, New Delhi, and author of several books.