When Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to spearhead the campaign to improve the child sex ratio by launching the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme in January this year, it seemed like the harbinger of better policies for women and children in the country. Just a month later, the government slashed its budget for the Ministry of Woman and Child Development by more than half from the Rs 21,193 crore available in 2015.
Towards the end of the year, the Rajya Sabha passed the juvenile justice bill, bringing down the age at which juvenile offenders could be tried as adults from 18 to 16.
While the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 mandated all workplaces to set up internal complaint cells, no mechanism is in place to even collate data on this. The recent UNDP report on Gender Inequality Index shows India lagging behind war-torn Syria and Iraq and every South Asian neighbour barring Afghanistan.
Proposals are under way to increase maternity leave in government services from six months to eight months. For those in the private sector, the labour department has so far agreed to raise it to only six on the grounds that a longer maternity leave will adversely affect the employability of women.
Also, under way is a legally enforceable model pre-nuptial agreement that looks at ensuring maintenance for women in case they are abandoned by their spouses or terminate their marriage for any other reason.
While, on one hand, the JJ Bill has introduced a provision for inter-country adoption, the Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill is expected to disallow foreigners from hiring surrogate mothers, raising fears of commercial surrogacy being driven underground.
Schemes for women may get a boost, including setting up of one-stop centres in states to address the issue of gender violence as well as a 24-hour women’s helpline in addition to proposals by the Home Ministry. The ministry has also decided to harness technology to provide for panic buttons in mobile phones.
A report is expected soon from an inter-ministerial panel studying ways to crack down on fraudsters who con women or run extortion rackets through matrimonial websites.
Over the next year, plans are also afoot to digitise the work of 13.46 lakh anganwadis working under the government’s flagship Integrated Child Development Scheme programme for fighting lack of nutrition among children, pregnant women and lactating mothers. However, the future of the crucial scheme depends on budget allocation. ICDS has already taken the maximum hit from the budget cuts this year.
One thing that didn’t happen
The legislation reserving 33 per cent of seats in the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies for women didn’t go through. Several of the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee set up in the wake of the December 16 gangrape in Delhi also remain to be implemented.