Hidden figures: How women fare in India in health, education and economics

The collective indifference of the Indian political and administrative apparatus to sexual assault against women was on display yet again last week as protests against the inaction over rape of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu and a teenager in Uttar Pradesh gained global headlines. This only reflected the deep-rooted misogyny in Indian society even 70 years after India became a modern independent state. The latest discourse revived the familiar narrative about the status of women in India, and nothing reflects this more starkly than India’s gender statistics.  

As people search for answers about what these incidents say about them and the country, the reality is not hard to see. Despite rising educational level (81 per cent of the girls are enrolled in secondary school compared to 79 per cent of the boys), health (74.5 per cent women now have a say in their health decisions compared to 62.3 per cent in 2005-06), and gender awareness, there are deep rooted societal and economic biases against women, relegating them to being the country’s second-class citizen. 

Indians may be happy to project themselves as an IT superpower. Yet violence against women is not abating. According to the latest available data, four women are raped every hour in the country — and this only reflects the assaults that are reported; thousands are not. Indeed, if there is progress, it is that women are becoming less reticent about reporting rape: the number of rapes rose to 38,947 in 2016 from 36,736 in 2014, with Madhya Pradesh recording the highest number at 4,908 and Mizoram the lowest at 23.

The biases against women run deep, with the Economic Survey 2017 reiterating the other grim truth: the preference for sons, which numerous studies have linked to gender violence and promoting a culture of machoism. A majority of men and women considered it very important to have at least one son, according to the survey. This preference for sons has resulted in 21 million “unwanted girls” in India and 63 million “missing girls”, says the Survey, a delicate reference to the destruction of female foetuses even though the laws forbid gender selection. 

Recent regimes like to project India as among the world’s fastest growing. The irony is that women, who comprise half the population, are excluded from it. Only 24 per cent of the women are employed today compared to 36.3 per cent in 2005-06.  

It is not surprising, then, that the country has been marching backwards on gender parity, with its rank falling from 87 in 2016 to 108 out of 144 in the global gender gap report of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2017.  

In the WEF report, countries are ranked on parameters of gender equality in health, education, economics, and politics. The country ranked 112 in education, despite managing to bridge the gender gap in enrolment in primary and tertiary education and didn’t fare any better on health and economic participation. India ranks 139 on economic participation, while China stands ahead at 86.

The only bright spot is political empowerment, where it ranked 15. In the 16th Lok Sabha, 16 per cent of the legislators are women. Yet the progress is patchy. West Bengal has the highest participation at 26 per cent, while several Union Territories have no representation from women at all.

The numbers are stark and speak for themselves. In the meantime, as India chooses to leave its women behind, violence against them followed by outrage seems to have become the norm.

Source: The Economic Survey 2017; Women and Men of India 2017 from the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, World Economic Forum’s Gender Parity Report 2017, Crime in India 2017 by National Crime Records Bureau; *includes repeaters