Gender inequality is one of the major challenges facing India’s policy-makers who are trying to achieve ‘a faster, sustainable and more inclusive growth’. For growth to be inclusive, the people, irrespective of gender, must have the opportunity to participate productively in the growth process.
However, despite significant economic progress over the past 25 years, gender inequalities in such critical spheres as education, health, employment and income have been conspicuous. In terms of welfare and equity, such inequalities are considered to be a form of injustice to women as they lower their well-being, and curtail economic growth and its associated benefits.
One of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set for 2015 was to ‘promote gender equality and empower women’.
It proposed to eliminate gender disparity in education and empower women by increasing their share in non-agricultural wage employment and the proportion of seats occupied by them in Parliament. Similarly, one of the Sustainable Development Goals set for 2030, replacing the MDGs, is to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’.
It has been argued that “gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. Providing women and girls with equal access to education, health care, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large”.
Gender inequality in education adversely affects economic growth, as it reduces the average quota of human capital by excluding qualified girls. Female education has a positive impact on the next generation’s education and impacts fertility and infant mortality. A reduced fertility level lowers the dependency ratio and offers a ‘demographic dividend’ with a positive impact on economic growth
. Similarly, gender inequality in employment reduces the pool of talented workers and the average quality of the workforce. As a result, the average productivity and economic growth declines. Women’s employment and earnings increase their bargaining power in the family. This can have beneficial effects not only for the women concerned, but also for economic growth through higher savings and more productive investments and use.
It also helps higher investments in the education and health of their children, promoting future human capital and economic growth. Thus, women’s employment is essential for promoting overall gender equity, as gender equality in livelihoods can contribute to equality in other domains.
Regretfully, gender inequality is persistent and takes on many forms in India, rooted in socio-economic-cultural practices. As a result, women are disproportionately under-represented in economic and other activities. A predominantly patriarchal environment governs women’s lives from birth to death; they face discrimination in terms of social, political, educational and economic opportunities, resulting in continued dominance of patriarchal practices in society.
These practices have profound economic consequences because they do not permit society to fully utilise the talent inherent in women, representing 48.5 percent of India’s population of 1.22 billion (2011).
Gender inequality can arise due to gaps in (i) economic participation and opportunities; (ii) educational attainment; (iii) health and survival; and (iv) political empowerment. These domains are inter-related; progress in one domain can bring about change in another. Progress in any one domain without progress in the others is not enough to achieve the overall objective of gender equality.
The Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) is a composite measure of gender inequality combining the gender gaps in the four categories. As per GGGI 2017, India ranked 108 among 144 countries. Some of the Asian countries (viz., Philippines, Thailand, China, Singapore, Malaysia, and Bangladesh) performed better than India in GGGI.
Similarly, in terms of the 2015 Gender Inequality Index combining the inequalities in reproductive health, empowerment and the labour market, India ranked 125th among 188 countries. India’s position was well below some of the sub-Saharan African countries like Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia. Again, in terms of the 2015 Gender Development Index as a ratio of female-to-male Human Development Index, India ranked 131st globally.
India’s relative position in the world was low in terms of gender inequality in all the four categories except political empowerment. As per the estimates of 2017 GGGI, India ranked 15th in terms of the gender gap in political empowerment.
The progress in gender equality has been slow in all structures of power and types of decision-making, with power still remaining firmly in men’s hands. Indian women represent only 11.8 percent (64 MPs) of the 542-member Lok Sabha, 11 percent (27 MPs) of the 245-member Rajya Sabha, and 18.5 percent (five ministers) in the cabinet.
This level of gender representation among ministers is better than the Asian average of 11 percent but far worse than Indonesia, the topper among the Asian countries with women ministers representing 25.7 percent (Women in Politics, 2017).
The gender gaps in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, and health and survival remain fairly large and the relative position of the country globally has deteriorated significantly over time. As per the 2017 GGGI report, India ranked 139, 112 and 141, respectively in the three categories.
Gender discrimination takes place from the very birth of a child. The female child receives less nurturing, care, and parental attention than males, making her far more susceptible than boys to disease and infections.
Men outnumbered women ~ 934 women for every 1000 men in 1981, and 943 in 2011. The sex-ratio was below 1000 in all the states except Kerala; it was low in some of the developed states such as Haryana and Punjab, and declined in many states over the Census years.
These findings confirm the phenomenon of ‘missing women’ due to a strong preference for a son. The preferential treatment for males pervades all social and economic classes in India, which sets the gender inequality standard for females throughout their life-span.
Going by the patriarchal perception, girls are brought up primarily for marriage after which they belong to their in-laws. Education is not essential for them and the return on investment on education is low compared to education of boys.
For low-income families, education of girls is unaffordable. The female literacy rate has been lower than men’s; it was 29.8 percent against the male literacy rate of 56.4 percent in 1981, and 65.5 percent against the male literacy rate of 82.1 percent in 2011.
Evidence shows that the country has made some progress towards gender equality in educational attainment in terms of literacy and gross enrolment rates, but gender disparities, particularly at higher levels of education, are still prevalent and there is considerable concern over the quality of education.
Gender inequality in health outcomes in terms of the infant mortality rate (IMR) is more appalling. The IMR among girls was higher than that among boys with an increasing gap between the two. Gender disparities in IMR in urban India fluctuated widely and remained higher than that of rural India in the past 10 years. However, there has been a slightly favourable life expectancy among women compared to men with a modest improvement in the gender ratio.
This is conceivably due to the biological differences in life expectancy across genders, and this should be taken into account in order to isolate the effect of societal influences on gender inequality.
In spite of the increasing literacy rate and educational levels among women, female labour force participation rate (LFPR, measuring the proportion of working-age population, active in the productive activities, either by working or looking for work) has been declining with increasing gender gaps in wage and income.
Overall, India has made significant economic progress, but the level of human development has been appallingly low. An economy cannot fully develop when almost half of the country’s population remains deprived and discriminated against amidst gender inequalities.
The writer is Professor of Economics, Visva-Bharati University