By Moin Qazi*
Gender remains a critically important but largely ignored lens to view development issues across the world. Gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge. India has a larger relative economic value at stake in advancing gender equality. However, despite some significant gains, some gaps remain. Although India has narrowed the divide between men and women in primary education and health sector, it doesn’t measure well in other major development metrics. Gender equality has become a highly publicised development goal, but data show how slow progress has been.
Gender equality refers to the rights, responsibilities, and opportunities of women and men, girls and boys. It does not imply that women and men are the same, but that the interests, needs, and priorities of both women and men should be taken into consideration while recognizing diversity across different populations.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017, India has slipped 21 places to a lowly 108. While India is ranked an impressive 15th out of 144 countries in political empowerment, it is ranked 112thfor education and 141st for health and survival. The economic participation ranking is 139th out of 144 with a 66 percent gender gap. It says that on an average 66% of women’s work in India is unpaid, compared to 12% of men’s. In case of China, 44% of women’s work is unpaid, while for men the figure stood at 19%.At this rate of change, the WEF estimates it will take 217 years for women’s access to economic opportunity to be on a par with that of men – a chilling increase from 170 years in 2016.
Gender discrimination continues to be an enormous problem within the Indian society as well. Traditional patriarchal norms have relegated women to a secondary status within the household and workplace. This drastically affects women’s health, financial status, education, and political involvement. Women are commonly married young, quickly become mothers, and are then burdened by stringent domestic and financial responsibilities.
Women are still perceived as an important “capital-bearing” object, both in how they are seen as a “subordinate” confined to domestic and caring roles behind closed doors, and how they are portrayed d as a “sexual” form through popular culture. A recent study by OECD found that women in India work nine hours a day on average, compared to seven hours a day for men. Most of this time is spent on unpaid activities, such as household work and care giving for the elderly or for children, leaving little time for paid labour or social and leisure activities. This scarcity of discretionary time is referred to as ‘time poverty’ For example, nursing and care work is largely a female occupation and is often undervalued or seen as a “natural” female trait.
According to the Global Poverty Project 2014, women make up half the world’s population and yet represent a staggering 70 percent of the world’s poor. They earn only 10% of the world’s income and half of what men earn Women face worse prospects in almost every aspect of their daily lives – education, employment opportunities, health or financial inclusion. As the report notes, “We live in a world in which women living in poverty face gross inequalities and injustice from birth to death. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment, the sequence of discrimination that a woman may suffer during her entire life is unacceptable but all too common.”
Women experience barriers in almost every aspect of work, including:
- Whether they have paid work at all;
- The type of work they obtain or are excluded from;
- The availability of support services such as childcare;
- Their pay, benefits, and conditions of work;
- The insecurity of their jobs or enterprises; and
- Their access to vocational training
Women bear the greater brunt of poverty. In India, where a patriarchal system is deeply entrenched, only 13 percent of farmland is owned by women. The figure is even lower when it comes to Dalit women who are single. About 12 percent of India’s female population is classified as single, including women who are widowed, divorced, separated, and older unmarried women, according to the 2011 census. About 41 percent of households headed by women in India do not own land and make a living through casual manual labour.
All women, regardless of their marital status, need access to education, good jobs, and support for domestic duties. Both widows and married women deserve freedom from culturally entrenched marital practices that degrade and commodify them, as well as legal protection from their husbands’ debts. Although transforming long-held laws, beliefs and practices may be difficult, it is the only way to keep price tags off women and ensure that they have dignity as well as true economic agency. It has been said that women who are closest to the world’s most pressing issues are best placed to solve them. In many countries, women are adjusting to large-scale economic changes through community-based grassroots organizing efforts. But can women be expected to use local solutions to clean up and compensate for larger economic problems without also being allowed to influence larger decisions?
What needs to be changed? Improvement in access to quality education for girls can boost their future income, save mothers’ and children’s lives, reduce rates of child malnutrition, and reduce overall poverty levels. For all interventions, the fundamental logic is plain: If we are going to end extreme poverty, we need to start with girls and women.
Discrimination against women and girls is a pervasive and long-running phenomenon that has bedevilled Indian society at every level. Socially prescribed gender roles that have become deeply entrenched continue to hold women back. Cultural institutions in India, particularly those of patrilineality (inheritance through male descendants) and patrilocality (married couples living with or near the husband’s parents), play a central role in perpetuating gender inequality and ideas about gender-appropriate behaviour. A culturally embedded parental preference for sons – emanating from their importance as care providers for parents in old age – leads to poorer consequences for daughters.
Women work tirelessly to end poverty and hunger in their families. But it can take much more than hard work. They need new tools to create their own paths forward. They need opportunities that can overcome economic, cultural and gender barriers. It needs multi-sectoral cooperation to create breakthrough ideas and solutions to break down economic, social and technical barriers.
We have for long made paternalistic decision to “protect” these women, thereby eliminating their ability to solve issues that they face. Why couldn’t they decide for themselves how to manage their own situation? Why couldn’t we equip them to decide how they can take their own decisions? The key levers for change, from the ground up, are clearly female education and women’s access to income.
What does the empowerment of women entail? At a basic level, it means gaining control over sources of power like material assets, self-assertion and ability to take part in making decisions that affect their lives. It means nurturing their self confidence and empowering girls and young women living in poverty to make informed choices .For this, women must have equal opportunities, capabilities, and access to resources which has been denied by men due to entrenched social conditioning. The implicit bias of males and how it creeps into everyday life needs to better understood by everyone. Bringing this issue in both household and societal discussions can be a crucial first step in changing the status quo.
This would obviously mean a redistribution of the existing power relations and, finally, a challenge to the patriarchal ideology and male dominance as the concept of women empowerment is linked with gender equality. Gender equality in the household and in society has large development payoffs.
Amidst this gloom, there are slivers—and truly, these are slivers—of hope. Fortunately, the world is now awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution .Melinda Gates, who is now spearheading a major campaign for a proper time balance for the women, particularly the poor, commends three R’s: “Recognize that unpaid work is still work. Reduce the amount of time and energy it takes. And redistribute it more evenly between women and men”.
There is now increasing realization that gender dynamics is not just a women’s problem that they should try to fix alone. Engaging women alone is not enough. To make real progress, we need to engage men as well. Society must see the bigger picture, which is to say that by including men in the conversations, we are broadening their understanding and awareness and. If we are serious about empowering women, then men must be part of the conversation. Men must understand how unconscious masculine behaviors take hold — the ones we see, experience and take for granted, which we tend to label as “normal sexism.”
Educating leaders on implicit and explicit bias is key to cracking this tough nut of gender disparity. That was recently demonstrated by a BBC social experiment. For example, when boys wore girls’ clothes, unknowing adults gave them dolls to play with – and when girls wore boys’ clothes, they were encouraged to ride bikes.
While closing the gender gap is imperative for overall wellbeing of society, it can have more profound impact in agriculture. Today, for example, women typically work on smaller, less productive plots of land than men, and often lack access to the best seeds, fertilizer, credit, and training opportunities. Studies show that giving women more decision-making power over productive assets has the potential to increase farm yields by more than 20%.
Ela Bhatt, the founder of SEWA and one of India’s tallest social workers emphasizes the creative role of women in leading social change: “In my experience, women are the key to rebuilding a community. Focus on women, and you will find allies who want a stable community… In women, you get a worker, a provider, a caretaker, an educator, a networker. She is a forger of bonds—in her, essentially, you have a creator and a preserver.”