How Empowered Are Indian Women? Here's What the Figures Say

While education and basic health indicators have improved, financial and personal autonomy eludes most women.

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, let us take this occasion to reflect on the progress made by India regarding women’s empowerment and gender equality.

While it might not have been their holy grail, several governments over the years have worked towards issues pertaining to reducing gender inequality, violence against women, improving the sex ratio at birth, health, and education, thanks to decades of women’s activism and the feminist movements.

Today we see some signs of positive changes in the status and position of women but there are many challenges, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

How far have we progressed in empowering women and eliminating gender gaps? Let us find out. 

Scripting Success

The country has registered significant improvements in closing gender gaps in education.

According to the latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report Index (2022), India has a score of 1 for the sub-categories of primary education and tertiary education enrolment under the vertical ‘Educational Attainment’. This implies the convergence between genders in primary and tertiary education enrolment.

Concerted governmental efforts at the Union and state level, such as Sarva Sikhsha Abhiyaan (2001), the Right to Education Act (2009), the mid-day meal scheme (1995), and Beti Bacho, Beti Padhao campaign (2015), and myriad scholarship schemes for the girl child, have at least captured public imagination at some levels. However, gender gaps when it comes enrolment into different streams of higher education still continues.

From having a highly skewed sex ratio at birth owing to the social and cultural devaluation of females and the phenomenon of strong ‘son preference’, India has improved its sex ratio at birth from 898 females per 1000 males in 1999 to 907 females per 1000 males in 2019. While gender balance is still not in sight and sex-selective abortion continues to take place, we must acknowledge the change that has transpired in a society rife with instances of female foeticide, infanticide, and neglect. 

Source: Office of Registrar General of India (Various Years)

As per the latest estimates from the report of the Office of the Registrar General of India, female life expectancy at birth improved by 22.9 years from 47.8 years in 1971 to 70.7 years in 2014-18. While the overall life expectancy of Indian women is ~2.7 years higher than men, looking at the female advantage in life expectancy at birth across the world, we can’t say Indian women are still near their biological potential, thus indicating a persisting gender bias in health.

India also improved its position marginally in the Gender Inequality Index (GII) in 2021 (0.490) from 2020 (0.493). The GII measures inequality in the achievement between women and men across three dimensions – reproductive health, empowerment, and the labour market. Despite the country lowering gender inequality over the years, the achievement is not outstanding even compared to its immediate neighbours. 

Also read: The Patriarchy’s Curfew Won’t Save Indian Women from Violence

Not all has changed

The question to be asked now is how improvement in specific indicators of female education has translated into substantive and qualitative changes pertaining to the labour market, socio-economic status, and autonomy for females. Exploration of these questions results in a mixed bag. The gender gap in asset ownership and lifetime earning remains a major concern. According to National Family Health Survey data, only 42.3% and 31.7% of females said they own a house and land alone or jointly, respectively. While 51.2% of women respondents agreed to have autonomy in financial matters, most of them did not have any autonomy in selecting their life partner. This is not surprising since most marriages continue to occur within the matrix of caste, religion, and class. 

In 2021, India’s female labour force participation was 23%, one of the lowest in the world and well below the world average of 47%.

The COVID-19 crisis has further hit the already plummeting graph. Much of women’s work is primarily undercounted, eclipsing their accurate participation and contribution to the economy. Notwithstanding, a U-shaped relationship has been observed between female education and labour market participation, implying the higher involvement of lower and higher-educated women in the labour market. In contrast, middle-educated women seem to be crowded out due to unfavourable and underpaid labour market conditions. Further, despite having one of the most generous maternity leaves globally, there is no national-level provision of parental leave for fathers, which reinforces traditional gender roles and the male breadwinner model of family. 

Despite significant gains in the 2019 general elections, women’s political representation remains dismal at less than 15%. While women’s political representation has increased at the local levels with the introduction of gender quota in politics, the Women’s Reservation Bill aiming to reserve 33% seats for women at the Union and state level has been reduced to a mere poll promise due to a lack of political will.

Given this year’s Women’s Day Theme of ‘DigitALL: Technology and innovation for gender equality’, which is crucial for women’s empowerment, it is vital to note that only 54% of women own mobile phones, and internet accessibility is comparatively lesser. Thus, bridging digital gender gaps needs more effort. 

Despite efforts to tackle gender-based violence against women, 32% of women face intimate partner violence, which has been reported to have been exacerbated due to COVID-19-led lockdowns resulting in a shadow pandemic

While education and basic health indicators have improved, financial and personal autonomy eludes most women. The former is indiscriminately promoted but it also must be remembered that these are factors that also enhance women’s marriage market prospects. However, within the private realm, rigid gender roles are practised and promoted, and women’s socio-economic autonomy is discouraged and seen with suspicion. To truly empower women and reduce gender inequality, we need to value and invest in girls and women not merely as a means to some end but as an end in themselves. 

Lakshita Bhagat (Assistant Professor) teaches Public Policy at Amity University, Noida.

Srinivas Goli (Associate Professor) teaches Demography at International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai.