Is it the best or the worst of times for women in India?

Shobha Shukla, CNS Columnist
I apologize for missing out on the celebrations of Women's Day this year as I was too engrossed with changing nappies of my 10 month old adorable granddaughter in London, despite her part time nanny - who is a graduate, and charges a frightful £10 an hour. It was only the tedium of dish washer and washing machine which reminded me of women's plight (whether in UK or in India) in a strange sort of way.

It is appalling to see the amount of labour working mothers (and my daughter is no exception) have to put in to manoeuvre their precarious task of balancing home and office work. Most working parents (much as they hate to do so) are forced to leave their few months olds in day care centres - which made me think that we in India are slightly more fortunate - working mothers there do not have to load and unload the dishwasher and/or washing machine. The ubiquitous domestic help, albeit part time, does all this and sundry at the fraction of a cost (the rate in London is £10 an hour - that is over INR 1000).

So bless our bais, mahris, dhobins - women who are grossly underpaid and yet make the lives of other women a little bearable. They, like many others, are part of a country whose Constitution enshrines in its Preamble, Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties and Directive Principles the principle of gender equality. And yet the sex ratio is 943 females per 1000 males and the child sex ratio in the 0-6 year age group is even more dismal at 919 females per 1000 males. Against the overall literacy rate of 74%, that of women is 64.6%. The main reasons of females never attending school are ‘expensive cost of education’, ‘not interested in studies’, ‘education is not considered necessary’ and ‘required for household work’. Also, in a typical Indian household the average annual expenditure for females is lower than that for males.

In India, currently women occupy only 10 out of 79 Ministerial positions in the Central Council of Ministers. There are 2 women judges out of 31 judges in the Supreme Court and there were only 54 women judges out of 634 judges in different High Courts, while the country's high courts have 52 women judges out of a total of 650 - just 8%.

“Reproductive health and rights are integral to sustainable development and poverty reduction. Investing in universal access to reproductive health is crucial investment in healthy societies and a more sustainable future”, says Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary-General.

And yet according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) - III only 26% of the married women in the rural sector take decisions regarding obtaining healthcare for themselves. The figure is slightly higher at 29.7% for their urban counterparts. 45% of the women in age group 20-24 were married by 18 years (28% urban and 53% rural). Among currently married women in age group 15-49 years only 49% were using some modern contraceptive method. Infant mortality rate is high at 57% (42% urban and 62% rural). 79% of children in 5-35 months age are anaemic and 55% women (excluding pregnant women) are anaemic as compared to 24% men. At least 40% ever married women in age group 15-49 years have experienced spousal sexual, physical or emotional violence.

In the age group of 15‐19 years, 46% of the women are not involved in any kind of decision making whatsoever.

According to 2011 data, cruelty by husband and relatives continues to occupy the highest share (43.4%) among the crimes committed against women followed by molestation (18.8%). Only 10.4% cases of cruelty by husband and relatives underwent trial by the Courts of Law in 2011 and conviction was done in 8.3% cases.

No wonder then that in 2013 India ranked 136 among 187 countries in terms of the UNDP Human Development Index And Gender Inequality Index.

So what has changed? Well nothing much, according to Vani a working mother. “Nothing much has changed; howsoever different it may seem outwardly. While there appears to be more economic power and better education, there is a plethora of responsibilities as well--women have to play multiple roles, while men still prefer to be what they were ages ago. Even when women want to beget daughters they are under familial and societal pressures to bear a son. When I delivered my little one, a lady gave birth to twin girls and her mom in law told her not to come back home. And whatever forward we may have moved, crimes against not just women, but infant girls makes us hang our heads in shame!”

According to a retired banker Ashutosh - “It is the best of times, and it is the worst of times for women in India. On the one hand we have women CEOs, politicians, bankers (several major banks are headed by women), journalists, pilots etal, while on the other hand the safety and security of women has taken a big hit. Reports of female infanticide, sexual harassment at workplace, honour killings, and brutal rapes (irrespective of their age) have made the position of women a bundle of contradictions. Institutional steps to empower women and give them a fair deal at the social level have served to be nothing more than lip service, with the result that the girl child largely seems to have an uncertain future in India.

But then Ritu is optimistic that, “The urban Indian woman has seen a lot of transformation in terms of economic and social independence. She is making her own choices and asserting herself. She is more aware of what she wants and is going for it too. Yes there is a dark side too (of physical and sexual abuse) which I do not want to talk too much about. I think the crime against women is increasing because her progress is intimidating the male dominated society and is upsetting the so called balance of power (which is nothing but patriarchal supremacy).”

When Mukta, a young urban graduate joined a semi urban bank of Uttar Pradesh, she was ‘shocked’ to find that many of her customers were females. “I find women coming regularly to banks and doing transactions. Some of them come to deposit just 100 bucks or so to initiate the habit of saving in family. Also most of these women belong to the class of daily wage earners. Another admirable quality in these women is that they are very alert about the transactions they make and enquire even in case of some small confusion.”

International Women's Day (8 March) which was first celebrated in 1911 is a global day honouring the work of the Suffragettes, celebrating economic, political and social achievements of women past and present and reminding us of the grim inequities that still need to be redressed. Of course we have made the roses grow in the dreary desert of gender inequality and can rightfully savour their aroma, but there are bleeding pricks of thorns too whose edges we need to blunt. Amen!

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service (CNS)
March 2014
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service - CNS. She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA and received her editing training in Singapore. She has earlier worked with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also co-authored and edited publications on childhood TB, childhood pneumonia, Hepatitis C Virus and HIV, violence against women and girls, and MDR-TB. Email:, website:

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