India’s gender gap is a disgrace and it’s time we paid attention to women

Bhaskar Chakravorti

As the largest exercise of democracy on earth readies for a denouement, three developments have converged and it is time we paid attention. All three have to do with the state of the Indian woman.
Let me begin with some good news. Despite India’s well-known biological imbalance — one of the world’s worst sex ratios — it boasts a top 20 ranking (19th out of 149 countries) in terms of political empowerment of women, according to the World Economic Forum. This is translating into outcomes at the polling booths. The turnout of women has been rising faster than that of men, even in the traditionally backward states; and if recent trends persist, women will outnumber men in the 2019 elections. Brookings India’s Shamika Ravi calls this a “silent revolution”.
Another silent revolution is happening on the digital front. This is the second of the three developments. The past two years have been dramatic in terms of increased access to the internet across the country. Some of the most significant beneficiaries of this surge are women. More than 40 per cent of Indian women are now aware of the mobile internet, according to the GSMA. In isolation, this might seem like a glass half empty given the 60 per cent still excluded, but this is already more than double the proportion of women aware of the mobile internet from just a year before. The proportion of women who might have independent sources of information — and, unfortunately, misinformation — has jumped.
That’s where the good news ends. With the third of the three developments, we get down to some sobering realities. The central issue for the current elections has been the state of employment in India. The jobs crisis has disproportionately affected women.
According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a large percentage of all the jobs lost last year were held by women. Out of the 11 million jobs lost in 2018, women accounted for 8.8 million. This only serves to exacerbate an already severe economic imbalance across gender lines. Indian women receive 34 per cent less wages than men for equivalent work, spend around five hours a day on unpaid care work compared to a mere half an hour for men and are primarily engaged in low-paying, informal sector work.
Putting these three developments together, rising female political engagement, surging female access to information, true or false, and worsening economic opportunities for women sounds like a recipe for a revolution — and quite possibly not a silent one. In the global context, India’s long-standing gender gap is already a disgrace. The country remains a perpetual bottom hugger of international league tables when it comes to metrics on the status of women.
Consider this sampling of India’s rankings: 147th out of 149 countries on health and survival of women and 142nd out of 149 in terms of economic participation of women, according to the WEF’s gender gap index; 163rd out of 181 countries in female labour force participation, according to the World Bank; 149th out of 193 by percentage of women representatives in parliament, notably behind Bangladesh, Pakistan, and, yes, even Saudi Arabia, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union; most dangerous country to be a woman, according to the Thomson-Reuters Foundation, worse than Afghanistan, the DRC, Syria or Yemen. OK, I get that the last one may still be a bit controversial and you may quarrel over methodology, but let’s not get too comfortable. Being a woman is no picnic in a crowded bus or in a lonely street in India — and, for far too many women, even their own home is no refuge.
If there is a single message I would have for the new government post-May, it would be this: It is high time to get out of these lowly rankings. Much needs to change.
First, look past the reductive and politically expedient ways to frame women’s needs; think beyond toilets, talaq and cooking gas. Women need equal access to opportunities to gain a measure of economic independence, without which it is hard to imagine independence on other fronts. The barriers are inter-connected, and not just societal mores but those related to poor education and healthcare access as well. The solutions have to be systemic. Higher paid jobs, for example, call for schooling, but 23 million girls drop out of school each year because the families fall on hard times or because of inadequate sanitation or proper menstrual hygiene capabilities in schools. The opportunity crisis is tied to wider crises.
India’s water problem, for example, imposes a heavier burden on women with consequences for their access to opportunities. A rural woman might walk 5-20 km a day to fetch water. Carrying water across long distances is stressful on the body and managing households with little water is stressful on the mind. With this kind of a burden, it is hard to imagine acquiring skills, remaining healthy and getting into productive employment.
Second, to be fair, there are several women-oriented government initiatives with good intentions, such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao; however, their track record has been long on publicity and short on results. Consider the Nirbhaya Fund set up in 2013, to support projects aimed at the safety of women. Till the end of 2018, only 42 per cent of that money has been used — and a modest Rs 450 crore was allocated for the Herculean task of making eight of India’s largest cities safer for women. The patchwork approach must go. Leadership at the Centre and the states needs to develop a less patronising attitude and a genuine commitment to effect change. More women ought to be politically elevated to run in the next election. A ministry with real clout ought to own the problem of ensuring gender inclusion. Yes, there is a ministry already. But why is it called the Ministry of Women and Child Development? Tying women’s development with child development itself is a vestige of a patriarchal mindset that must go.
Finally, to those who say that elections are won on promises of a growing economy and jobs, I have some good news. Closing the gender gap offers a big political return on investment. India could add over 18 per cent to its GDP by 2025, by giving equal opportunities to women, according to those clever fellows at McKinsey. If that doesn’t wake up our politicians, the rising clamour of women at polling booths and on the internet will. The silent revolution will get noisy soon. If the #MeToo campaign teaches us anything, it is to never underestimate the power of an angry woman with a mobile phone.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 7, 2019, under the title ‘Indian woman goes to vote’. The writer is the Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context and non-resident senior fellow of Brookings India.