Where China is only a notch above India

India “celebrated” yet another International Women’s Day last week (March 8), with everyone advising everyone else on how to improve the lot of women. The advisories, publicised in sundry public platforms, read almost the same as those made last year and the years before. But they do serve a useful purpose: At least they remind us year after year of the challenges that still lie ahead.

The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report 2020 lists quite a few of them, and the findings remain deeply worrying, as the condition of women in large fringes of Indian society has been described as “precarious”. Of significant concern is the economic gender gap, which places India at the 149th place among 153 countries. The participation of women in the labour force is also among the lowest in the world, and her earned income is only 20 per cent of a male’s.

Another alarming data is India’s position at the very bottom of the health and survival sub-index. The performance continues to be undermined by the abnormally low sex ratios at birth in India (91 girls for every 100 boys) and Pakistan (92 girls for every 100 boys). China’s record (last on the index) is even worse at 90:100. 

Bangladesh, of course, has been the star performer in this regard in South Asia. It ranks 50th on the overall index, which is some 60 places ahead of India. The small consolation is that China ranks 106th, just six positions above India. While both countries are close in this race to the bottom on gender equality, India can take some solace from the fact that it is miles ahead of China (95th rank) on political empowerment.

India and China thus seem united in gender discrimination — from garden-variety sexism to practical concerns about sons being more likely to financially support parents in old age, while daughters are expected to “go away” to their in-laws. This sounds absurd in today’s day and age but that’s the hard reality. When women lack equal rights and patriarchy is deeply ingrained, it is no surprise that parents in both the countries choose not to have daughters.

The disparity lies in the more privileged section among women, too. Seven years after the Companies Act made it mandatory for every listed company to have a woman on its board of directors, just about eight per cent of all directors in India are women (it’s even lower in China), and the number has been boosted by family connection. Rarely is the label “leader” attached to women even now. Relatively lower- or mid-level positions are fine and are often seen as a politically correct move, but in senior positions, the unstated glass ceiling and warped mindset still exist across companies. There are other reasons, too. India, in fact, sees the highest drop in representation of women from junior to middle-level positions, unlike several other Asian countries where such a drop occurs from middle- to senior-level positions. Data also shows almost one-third of women employees do not resume work in the absence of a support system at home to take care of the child.

This is despite the fact that there is evidence to suggest that more women on boards is financially material. A McKinsey report last year showed that companies whose boards are in the top quartile of gender diversity are 28 per cent more likely than their peers to outperform financially and the correlations are statistically significant.

Women are still significantly disadvantaged in accessing credit, land or financial products, which prevents opportunities for them to start a company or make a living by managing assets.

It’s definitely not the case that India is alone in the misery women face. In fact, based on the current rate of progress, it will take another 100 years to achieve gender equality globally. Women represent 39 per cent of the global workforce but accounted for 54 per cent of job losses as of May 2020.

There is worse. Research done by WION channel found that women are in worse condition in many countries. In some, women do not even have the basic sexual and reproductive rights. As many as 90 million women of reproductive age live in countries that prohibit abortion. In Iran, a woman needs her husband’s permission to travel abroad.

Violence against women is real. Six women are killed every hour by men around the world. As many as 137 women are killed every day by a partner or family member. In Nigeria, a man is legally allowed to hit his wife. The law says nothing is an offence if done by a husband for the purpose of correcting his wife.

Women perform 2.6 times more unpaid domestic work than men, and are 18 per cent less likely to get promoted in their jobs. Only six countries give men and women equal legal rights. But marital rape is legal in 36 countries, including India.

The numbers will hopefully be better on March 8 next year.

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