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The Great Indian Gender Divide

While the Indian economy takes off, women are left behind.
With a booming economy, an exponentially growing Information Technology (IT) sector and surging economic prosperity amongst its 300 million-plus middle class, India seems poised for superpower status.

However, beneath the spectacular "India Shining" story lurks an area of darkness -- the unequal status of its women, who constitute more than half its demographic. The latest official document to highlight this inequity is the 2007 Gender-Gap Index Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF); it places India at the bottom of the global pyramid.

Of 128 countries evaluated by the WEF, India ranks way down at 114th, followed, among others, by Yemen, Chad, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Botswana are all positioned better than India. In terms of economic participation and opportunity, India, with its surging economy, has done even worse than last year -- it is now ranked at the 122nd position. Meanwhile, its overall rank has slipped from 102nd to 114th this year. In other words, Indian women are even more marginalized than they were a year ago.

It's interesting to analyze the WEF report: While India scores an overall 59.4 percent on gender equality, it only manages an abysmal 39.8 percent on economic participation and opportunity. In terms of wage equality, India ranks 59th, with 67 percent gender equality; shockingly, given India's high tech boom, for professional and technical workers, it comes in at 97th (down in the 27th percentile). While India has a 36 percent female participation in the overall labor force, for professional and technical workers the figure is an abysmal 21 percent.

The WEF Index assesses countries on how well they are dividing their resources and opportunities among their male and female populations. By identifying those countries that are role models in dividing these resources equitably between women and men, the index should serve as a catalyst for greater awareness and exchange between policymakers. Broadly, the survey considers the proportion of resources and opportunities made available to women on educational, economic, political and health parities.

On economic parameters, the only six countries faring worse than India are Iran (123rd), Bahrain (124th), Oman (125th), Pakistan (126th), Saudi Arabia (127th) and Yemen (128th). Among the fast-developing countries, Brazil (62nd), Russia (16th) and China (60th) have all been ranked well above India.

Given India's apparent material prosperity and double-digit growth, why then do we score abysmally on the gender parity front? The answer is a curious cocktail of social conditioning, sociological beliefs and an ambivalent legal system. According to New Delhi-based sociologist and social activist Madhusree Gupta, "Despite the so-called women's emancipation, the Indian mindset remains a feudal and a patriarchal one. Even amongst the progressive strata of society, women are treated as second-class citizens. They are victims of archaic gender stereotyping patterns which perceive men as breadwinners and 'the lord of the house' while women are relegated to the role of subservient 'homemakers.'"

This ossified mindset is best demonstrated across vast swathes of the Indian countryside; there women are looked upon as a liability, at best as machines to birth and nurture sons. As a result, the sex ratio in India has plummeted to a near-genocidal level: families are unconscionably killing girl children before, or immediately after, they are born.

Even in prosperous states like Punjab and Haryana, for instance, the sex ratio has fallen to 700 girls for every 1,000 boys while the WHO recommendation is 952 females for every 1,000 males. The fallout of this social phenomena is that very often men in these regions find it tough to even find brides. Ergo, brides have to be smuggled from other states with different cultures and traditions, which leads to a cultural mismatch and other sociological problems.

Shockingly, punitive action against offenders of female feticide laws has been abysmal. In the 14 years since the Pre-Conception and Pre Natal Diagnostics Techniques (PC/PNDT) Act of 1994 has existed, only 406 cases have been registered against offenders across India. Out of these, only two convictions have taken place.

Even setting aside unscrupulous doctors who conduct fetal abortions to make a quick buck, the Indian laws against fetal determination lack real teeth. Under pressure from activists, the Indian government outlawed the use of ultrasounds to reveal fetal gender in 1994. The penalties were then upped in 2002 (three years in jail and a $230 fine for the first offense and five years imprisonment and $1,160 for the second). But despite this, easy accessibility to modern technologies like ultrasonography and amniocentesis to determine the gender of fetuses have fuelled the trend of female feticide. If the fetus is found to be a girl, families have no qualms about terminating the pregnancy.

Nobel laureate economist Dr. Amartya Sen underscores the phenomenon of "the missing women," noting that more than 100 million females are now missing from the populations of India and China. Sen argues that sex selection "both reflects and reinforces women's low social status, which -- beyond its intrinsic cruelty -- impedes the development of democracy and prosperity in male-skewed nations."

Apart from a skewed sex ratio, India's maternal mortality rate (MMR) is also disconcerting. In fact, despite high budgets in the Reproductive Child Health Program-II of the Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry, India's MMR continues to be unacceptably high and has shown no signs of waning over the past decade. Even after 60 years after independence, just 43 percent of births in India occur in medical institutions as compared to 97 per cent in Sri Lanka. Unsurprisingly, as many as 540 Indian women die during child birth per day versus less than 100 in Sri Lanka.

According to UNICEF, every five minutes an Indian woman dies of pregnancy-related causes. It is estimated that for each woman who dies, 30 others develop chronic, debilitating conditions that seriously affect the quality of life. For every 1,000,000 live births in India, 407 mothers die -- a number four times higher than the National Population Policy (NPP) 2010 goal of restricting the incidence to 100.

While there are multifarious reasons for the high MMR, including early marriage and childbirth, lack of adequate health care facilities, inadequate nutrition and the absence of skilled medical personnel, the problem is aggravated by critical medical staff posts at the village level not being filled. Hundreds of doctor and trained health worker positions remain vacant.

Undeniably, the Indian government has fallen short of bridging the gender divide; its women-centric policies and projects are woefully inadequate. Take education, for instance. The 48 percent literacy rate of Indian women compares poorly against 73 percent for its males. Only Pakistan (with a female literacy rate of 35.4 percent), Nepal (34.9 percent), Bangladesh (40.8 percent) and Afghanistan (12.6 percent) trail us. The Global Monitoring Reportsuggests that India, Nigeria and Pakistan account for 27 percent of the world's out-of-school children, a majority of them female.

This lopsided growth has its genesis in India's social structure, where girls are expected to toil at home while the boys are marched off to good `English-medium' schools. Unless we equip our girls with quality education, how can sustainable progress become a reality?

What is disquieting is that despite commendable economic progress, India is one of the few countries where the position of women has actually worsened over time. Our overall rank in the gender gap index is now 114 out of 128, when it was 98th out of 115 countries in 2006. In other words, we now rank 102nd out of 115.

Also, except for the sub-index of political empowerment, where we are ranked 21st, our performance is abysmal when measured against the other three parameters -- economic participation and opportunity (122nd out of 128), educational attainment (116th) and health and survival (126th). Only Armenia and Azerbaijan fall behind us.

The world community is increasingly becoming sensitized to the benefits of gender equality. A whittling down of the male-female employment gap has revitalized economic growth in Europe over the last decade. Experts estimate that this will buoy the US GDP by as much as 9 percent, the Eurozone GDP by 13 percent and the Japanese GDP by a whopping 16 percent. One doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to deduce that in India -- where the disparity is monstrous -- the gains can be substantive.

However, amidst all this gravitas, there's still a glimmer of hope. The Indian government's proposed roadmap to ensure that at least 33 percent of all benefits of government schemes filter down to women during the Eleventh Plan period augurs well. Ditto for voluntary efforts by some NGOs and the corporate sector, which are ramping up measures to ensure gender equality in the work place.

Moreover, recent mass sensitization measures by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare -- like launching public awareness campaigns that if doctors are caught participating in female feticide cases, they will be charged with criminal infractions, and so encouraging the public to report such cases, etc. -- are efficacious ways to set right the gender equation.

Undeniably, Indian society and its government will have to work in synergy to tackle the gender inequity issue. If we are keen to get onto the highway to growth and development, we'll first have to ensure a safe and equal place for our women.

Only then can we hope to become a true global superpower.

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Freelance journalist Neeta Lal is a transnationally published writer who currently contributes to over two dozen international publications, including The Guardian, New York Times, Asia Sentinel, Opinion Asia and a host of British and American magazines. Having traveled to over 30 countries, she is also in the process of writing two travel books. Neeta also edits manuscripts and books for publishers of global repute.