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International Women’s day

Need to invest in women

In the current Lok Sabha, barely 15 per cent of the members are women. In state assemblies, the representation of female MLAs stands at an average of 9 per cent.

Need to invest in women

Implementation: The ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ campaign must be executed in earnest and not remain just a slogan. File photo

Prem Chowdhry

Author and Former Academic, Delhi University

THIS year’s theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress’. Investing in women is a human rights issue, as gender equality is the greatest human rights challenge we face today. This is especially true as more than 75 million people have fallen into severe poverty since the Covid-19 pandemic and other catastrophes struck the world. Moreover, the disruptions and rising prices are likely to lead most countries to cut public spending by 2025. This will have a negative impact on women and essential services related to them. Immediate action is, therefore, needed to safeguard millions of women and girls living in poverty. Feminist organisations across the world are known to receive only 0.13 per cent of official development assistance.

In India, we can invest in women’s betterment through various means. Firstly, by educating them, because most of them don’t get academic opportunities. Overall, men are much more educated than women. Estimates show that 62 per cent of the women receive no schooling at all, compared to 31 per cent of the men. The literacy rate among women is only 54 per cent as compared with 76 per cent among men. In addition, women have worse late-life cognition. The disparity in cognition between men and women is more pronounced at lower levels of education and for older adults. Similarly, a smaller proportion of girl students opt for higher studies. The ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ campaign must be executed in earnest and not remain just a slogan.

Conservative societal norms have prioritised women’s roles within the family. Women who work are often made to leave their jobs after marriage or after having children. The expectation of fulfilling domestic responsibilities and taking care of the family hinders women’s participation in the workforce. It is important for lawmakers to engage with women from various backgrounds to ensure that policies adequately support them.

Women must also be encouraged to participate in administration and politics, where they are severely under-represented. In bureaucracy, women’s participation is very low. In the Indian Administrative Service, for example, less than 11 per cent of the employees in 2011 were women; it rose to 13 per cent in 2020 (only 14 per cent of the secretaries in the IAS in 2022 were women). There are merely three women chief secretaries in states and union territories. India has never had a woman cabinet secretary or secretaries of Home, Finance and Defence. Women in politics are gravely under-represented. The current Lok Sabha has a total of 542 members, out of which merely 78 are female. In the state assemblies, female MLAs’ representation stands at an average of 9 per cent. Yet, a Bill reserving one-third of the seats for women was repeatedly defeated in Parliament before it was passed in 2023. It pointed to the fact that the lawmakers lacked political will for decades. In fact, India’s ranking in this regard has fallen over the last few years. It is currently behind Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Although women have held the posts of President and Prime Minister in India, over all there is a great deficit of women in politics. This lack of representation is due to their limited representation in political parties, making it difficult for them to rise through the ranks and secure party nomination for elections because of the perception that women are not as ‘electable’ as men. Those in politics often get unequal opportunities, such as access to resources. Many of those who are working get lower salaries, which makes it difficult for women to compete with male candidates and succeed in politics.

The only way women may join politics is if there is a reservation of seats for them in legislative bodies. This has been implemented for local bodies in states like Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal, where a certain percentage of seats are reserved for women. Moreover, political parties should ensure that women are given adequate representation in the selection of candidates for elections and winnable seats to contest from. Education and training programmes can be conducted to build their confidence and understand the complexities of politics. Many women face challenges in balancing their political responsibilities with their family and personal lives. Providing support for work-life balance, such as flexible schedules, childcare and parental/maternity leave, can help address the issue. Recently, the Kerala Government announced the grant of menstrual leave for female students and teachers in all state universities under the Department of Higher Education. Such initiatives can be adopted by other states as well.

For implementing such plans, gender-responsive budgeting is necessary — a Budget that works for everyone. By considering and analysing the unique and diverse needs of people, gender-responsive budgets can strive for a fair distribution of resources. By not considering women’s needs, budgets can and do have unintended negative consequences. For example, the value of unpaid care and domestic work for women is never taken into account in India. Only when such gender gaps are recognised, the government can utilise the available resources to address gender inequalities and support sustainable and inclusive development for all. Consequently, investment in women should be the core agenda item in the Union Budget.

Although women constitute almost half of India’s population, they lag behind men on many social indicators, such as health, education and economic opportunities. The full Budget for 2024-25 must recognise the centrality of investing in women to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment. Such investment will go a long way in resolving gender discrimination, violence against women and even graver problems like female foeticide and infanticide, particularly in rural areas. Further, it will help women emerge as equal partners with men in life, society and politics. Let’s invest in women and accelerate progress by transforming challenges into opportunities to shape a better future for all women in India.

#human rights #Lok Sabha

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