Thursday, September 10, 2009


Media claims that the Indian woman has arrived look only at partial realities. The full picture, with numbers to back it up, tells a different story.
Different realities: Not everyone has arrived.

When the media claims that the Indian woman has finally “arrived”, that there is a noticeable change in her status, and that she displays a new confidence, how should one react? Believe? Disbelieve? Applaud? Be cynical? Or conduct a reality check?

It is virtually impossible to generalise on the status of women in India. For every plus point showing an improvement, there are a dozen minus points indicating the reverse. Therefore, arriving at a mean between these two extremes becomes difficult.

Last month, the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) with two media houses, Indian Express and CNN-IBN, released the results of an interesting survey on the status of Indian women. The sample was small — 4,000 women in 20 states and across 160 locations — and the survey acknowledge that it had a decided urban skew. Yet, the results indicated some notable trends.

One of the interesting findings was that the majority of Indian women wanted to “work” outside the house in paid labour. Those not engaged in such work at the moment, wanted the chance to do so. They felt they got more respect if they worked outside the house. Yet, the majority also admitted that they were not paid equal wages to the men nor did they get the position they felt they deserved at their place of work. And a large number complained of harassment at work.
Work without pay

As many as 67 per cent of the women surveyed said they ought to be paid for the “work” they do inside the house. And that is not surprising given that both rural women, who are engaged in agricultural labour, and urban women, who work outside their homes, put in an average of a 10-hour day that includes the work inside and outside the house. In other words, the fact that they brought in an income did not absolve them of the primary responsibility for the unpaid work that they still had to do at home. Despite this, most women said they wanted to work for wages even if they did not need the money.

But how many of them could decide how to use that income? Only half the women surveyed said they could. Although most women said they were included in the decision making process, only a third said they had they could independently decide, for instance, whether to purchase a household item. In fact, most of the women said they could not make independent decisions on whether to pursue further education or to work. Even highly educated women said they did not have the right to decide independently on such issues.

Only one in five of the single women surveyed said that they could decide on their own on the question of marriage. The one area where they could decide was when it came to voting. Over half said that they were free to decide but clearly the other half still did not have that freedom.

So the picture that emerges is a mixed one. Women want to earn, want respect, want autonomy but still don’t really get it, not even on questions of further education and certainly not on the crucial issue of marriage. So the confidence in a few is not reflected in the absence of autonomy amongst the majority of women even in the context of this small survey.

While such surveys are interesting because they provoke discussion on this subject, the data from the National Family Health Survey III (NFHS III) is probably a far more reliable way to judge the progress made by Indian women as it has surveyed 1.25 lakh women across 29 States. Some of the facts that emerge from it are disturbing, particularly those relating to violence against women. The health data, such as the incidence of anaemia amongst married and pregnant women is another disturbing measure that reveals that all is not so well after all.
Disturbing trend

For example, 57.8 per cent or more than one in every two pregnant women in this country is anaemic. This is the consequence of lack of adequate nutrition and neglect of health problems. The worst State is Haryana, where an astounding 70 per cent of the pregnant women are anaemic. Amongst married women in the age group 15-49 years, the incidence of anaemia has increased from 51.89 per cent in 1998-99 to 56.1 per cent in 2005-06. That is an unacceptably high figure for a country claiming it is on the verge of becoming a global economic giant.

Take another measure, that of crimes against women. The National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) has figures for 2006 on its website. We find that the incidence of reported rapes has increased by 5.4 per cent while that of dowry deaths has gone up by 12.2 per cent. In fact, it is the figures on dowry-related crimes that are most disturbing. Apart from dowry deaths, the incidence of complaints filed under the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 has increased by an astounding 40.6 per cent. Add to this the increase in the number of cases registered under Section 498 A of the Criminal Procedure Code that relate to violent acts by husband or another relative, and you get a very disturbing picture of what women face within their homes.

In fact, the NCRB site is interesting for a number of other reasons. For instance, Andhra Pradesh leads in the States with the highest number of crimes against women followed by Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. And the first five cities in terms of number of crimes against women are Delhi — no surprises there — followed by Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bangalore and Ahmedabad.

It is comforting to look at a partial reality, be content at what we see around us and believe that this represents the full picture. But a closer look exposes uncomfortable details, unsavoury realities that suggest that the struggle to really improve the status of women in this country cannot be cosmetic, cannot be fought only at one level, but must continue on many different fronts.