Breaking new barriers
Liz Mathew

Sania Mirza ... shining example
Sania Mirza ... shining example

India got its first woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, 40 years ago and its first woman president, Pratibha Patil, this year. But theirs is not the story of the common Indian woman. The past 60 years have been a story of missed opportunities.

Around 245 million Indian women cannot read or write, making up the world’s largest number of illiterate women in a single country. The sex ratio of 933 females per 1,000 males is one of the worst in the world. And women make up only 4 per cent of the organised workforce.

The progress of women in India has at worst been slow and at best steady, though the government says the picture is not all dismal. "Since Independence, the condition of women in the country has changed to a significant extent," National Commission for Women (NCW) chairperson Girija Vyas said.

"Not only Pratibha Patil but also women working as heads of local bodies in villages and remote areas have brought respect and glory to the women community," she said. Vyas is not wrong.

The Indian Constitution guarantees women’s equality of opportunity and wage and disallows gender bias by the state. The 73rd amendment, providing for 33 per cent reservation for women in Panchayati Raj institutions, has brought more than a million women into active grassroots politics.

Kiran Mazumdar Shaw ... means business
Kiran Mazumdar Shaw ... means business

"In the post-Independence era, with the help of social reformers and strong women’s movements, the Indian woman has started recognising her true potential," said Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women.

The Indian woman has started questioning the rules laid down for her by society, has begun breaking barriers and there are shining examples of those who have excelled in various fields—from Sania Mirza in sports and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw in business to Mayawati in politics and Arundhati Roy in literature.

So far Indian lawmakers have been unable to agree on a proposed law for one-third reservation for w omen in legislatures. "But we have managed to put the women quota as a part of every major political party’s manifesto. Although women’s development is not in the same pace as that of the country’s development, things are happening," Raja said.

Vyas agrees with Raja. "Though women are scaling new heights, a lot of work still has to be done for their uplift and overall development. Women are still struggling to create a niche in a male-dominated society." Dowry deaths and rape cases are still reported daily, even from metropolises, and the sex ratio is skewed against them. India’s maternal mortality is the second highest in the world.

According to British journal The Lancet, more than 10 million girls in India have gone "missing" due to sex selection and abortion in the last one decade; this despite the government having banned sex selection technologies in 1994.

More than 50 per cent of girls drop out by the time they are in middle school.Maternal mortality in India is estimated to be between 385-487 per 100,000 live births. Almost 1,25,000 women die from pregnancy and pregnancy-related causes each year.

The last 60 years of Independence have brought about a positive change for women. Pictures of young girls in school uniforms cheerfully going to school are not at all uncommon. But India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s words still linger: "You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women."—IANS