Women in India Continue to Be Treated Unequally

By Pamela Philipose, Womens Feature Service

The ministry of Women and Child Development recently presented a report entitled, ‘Gendering Human Development Indices: Recasting the Gender Development Index and Gender Empowerment Measure for Index’, which said that the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) for India that was 0.416 in 1996 had increased to 0.497 in 2006 and that as many as 14 states and Union Territories achieved GEM scores of above 0.485 in 2006.

How do we reconcile this finding with everyday realities, which indicate that women in India continue to be treated unequally and suffer the worst consequences of macro-level developments like conflict, climate change and the food and fuel crises and recession? The fact is that while prospects for a formal gender equality have improved greatly over the last 15 years since the Beijing Platform of Action called the world to “ensure the full enjoyment by women and the girl child of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and to take effective action against violations of these rights and freedoms”, substantive equality continues to remain elusive and remains as important a quest as ever.

First, let us quickly highlight the three important fronts that have enhanced formal gender equality in India: Greater visibility of women and their concerns in policy articulation; a few more progressive laws coming after the slew of gender legislative reforms of the Eighties; and greater empowerment at the grassroots.

Coming to the first point, look at the policy prescriptions that have been articulated over just the last year or so. They indicate the Government of India’s desire to be woman-friendly, or at least be seen as woman-friendly.

There is the Planning Commission’s sub-plan for women that has identified districts to run pilot projects. An Equal Opportunities Commission is a step closer to reality, with employment, education and housing as three major areas of focus. The idea is to ensure equal opportunity for socially backward groups like Dalits, backward communities and minorities and the women in these communities. A National Mission on Empowerment of Women for implementation of women-centric programmes has been mooted. The Parliament has passed legislation on the free and compulsory education for every child in the six to 14 age group. Budgets have a slew of measures focusing on women. The railways have introduced special trains for women. A law against sexual harassment to protect domestic workers and prevent the exploitation of women at workplaces is ready in a draft form. A plan is being prepared for the relief and rehabilitation of rape victims. There will be protection of women’s property rights under a new scheme for the urban poor under the Rajiv Awaz Yojana. An HIV Bill is on the anvil that seeks to protect those living with HIV as well as their families.

The government has also written to all the departments to recruit more women and drawn up guidelines under which all central government departments and recruitment bodies – the Union Public Service Commission and Staff Selection Commission – are to ensure better representation.

There have also been significant laws. Changes have been made in property laws to make inheritance more equal. There is a law that seeks to address the skewed sex ratio. And, of course, there has been the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), 2005, which is historic in so many ways, not least because it emerged from civil society and the women’s movement in a way that most legislation does not.

Finally, there is greater gender representation at the grassroots. After the full impact of the government’s move to increase such representation to 50 per cent, India is projected to have two million women leaders at the local level, with the number of female chairpersons expected to rise from the present 80,000 to 120,000.

So we can reiterate the point that in terms of formal equality there have been impressive gains. However, every gain comes with innumerable lags and even some concerted backpedalling. The government may want to appear women-friendly, but it also issues advisories to the authorities to “go slow” on prosecutions under Section 498a, and is extremely niggardly about budgetary support for many of its “women-friendly” schemes.

When it comes to the enforcement of new laws, it is often the same story. Take the PWDVA. The continuing inertia of the system to address violence within the home is palpable. In a recent review exercise it was found that the police – a key functionary in the justice delivery process under the act – also have highly ambivalent attitudes to women in such situations. An estimated 30.4 per cent of police personnel in Rajasthan believe “women deserve to be beaten in certain situations”, while 84.4 per cent maintain that domestic violence is a “family affair”. Delays in justice continue to be an insurmountable problem, with judges continuing to hesitate in granting ex-parte orders so that the proceedings are completed quickly. Today, the PWDVA has yet to gain the necessary support from civil society and the women who dare to take on their attackers within the home continue to wage lonely battles.

Similarly, when you talk about panchayati raj empowerment, we must remember also that the sphere of influence of panchayats (village councils) – especially those headed by women – has been consciously narrowed. Devolution of power has still not happened and panchayats are still viewed as the implementers of schemes designed and controlled from higher up.

In many ways the formal equalities that have come the way of Indian women only underline larger goals. Goals that will remain unrealised unless the civil society and women’s groups consolidate, re-strategise and act in the face of growing inertia and impunity. There must be a better consolidation and aggregation of the gains of three decades of women’s activism in India. For this we need to continue our efforts to build a public sphere that enhances women’s participation in society – from the family to the state – in order to address the continuum of disempowerment from the family to the state. There must also be the highlighting areas of particular vulnerabilities and the specific and particular impacts on women of macro-level phenomenon like food insecurity, climate change, environmental degradation, conflict, shifting agricultural patterns and loss of livelihoods.

In terms of actions, there is need to widen women’s access to existing welfare measures by mobilising existing civil society networks and working towards setting up new ones. This would also include making institutions like the National Women’s Commission more accountable and reflective of real needs on the ground and focus specifically on the special and compelling problems of women from the tribal, Dalit and the Muslim communities.

Better delivery of justice is a huge concern. The setting up of dispersed legal aid centres needs to be considered and to expedite this, perhaps, law interns and students from law schools, could contribute. The instituting of ‘mahila’ (women) courts in remote areas – such as those conducted under the Mahila Samakhya programme in UP – is a useful model to consider.

Finally, women need to take consistent action against apathetic political parties, state and central governments and gram sabhas, and strengthen the hands of those who are struggling to deliver good governance on the ground.

Fifteen years ago, Beijing marked a milestone in visibilising gender on the international stage. But covering the distance from Beijing to Delhi, and indeed to the last woman in India is really about a journey without end.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.