It is refreshing to see a Chapter in this year’s Economic Survey that comprehensively analyses the progress made by India in advancing the gender equality agenda. The news, as expected, is good and bad. Out of 17 indicators pertaining to women’s agency, attitudes and outcomes, 14 have improved over time. On seven of them, the improvement is at least at par with countries at similar levels of development as India.
On the other 10, however, there is a lot of catching up to do. Female workforce participation has, for instance, declined from 36% of women employed in 2005-06 to 24% in 2015-16. The Survey highlights that beyond the phenomenon of sex selective abortion that has led to an estimated 63 million “missing” women, there is more that merits attention. It is India’s continued son obsession resulting in parents having children until the desired number of sons are born. This meta-preference, the Survey estimates, has created a category of 21 million “unwanted” girls. What is worrying is that on women’s employment and the sex of the last child, an increase in wealth does not seem to be having the expected positive impact.
Generating gender-disaggregated data
The insights presented in the Economic Survey reflect the importance of analysing data disaggregated by gender. It is critical that we define a set of reliable and comparable indicators that reflect changes in the status of women at the national and sub-national levels over time. A subset of these indicators can be used to construct a Gender Well-Being Index that is published periodically.
While some of this data can be generated by utilising existing datasets better, measuring progress on other indicators will require the inclusion of additional questions in current surveys or the design of new surveys. For instance, a nation-wide survey on the prevalence of violence against women and girls will be extremely helpful for unmasking geographical and other disparities as well as designing policy interventions. Similarly, time-use surveys can capture the continuum of women’s work. This will necessitate a strengthening of the management information systems of various ministries.
Reorienting institutional structures
Be it Rwanda or Finland, countries that have made significant strides towards achieving gender equality have put in place strong institutional mechanisms. The Gender Monitoring Office in Rwanda performs key functions to assess the progress made in the implementation of the national gender policy. It develops gender-disaggregated data systems, publishes impact evaluation studies and most importantly, holds different institutions accountable. Finland’s Gender Equality Unit discharges similar functions.
A dedicated cell within the Women and Child Development Ministry that focuses on data gathering, monitoring and conducting regular reviews with other ministries on defined gender targets is worth considering. While implementing schemes is important, given the cross-cutting nature of gender challenges, a dedicated unit could allow the Ministry to play its oversight and coordination role more effectively.
Indian women spend 9.8 times more time on unpaid work
It is estimated that if women worked as much as men, India would experience an additional 1.4% GDP growth. Currently, however, Indian women spend 9.8 times more time on unpaid work. Globally, this figure is 3 times. Thus, despite working for longer hours, women in India are primarily engaged in “invisible” work. Several factors contribute to this scenario, including limited flexibility with respect to work options, unavailability of childcare facilities, lack of safe transport options and maternity breaks, among others.
Legal frameworks and equal opportunity policies such as those pertaining to leave, maternity benefits, flexi hours and grievance redressal have a crucial role to play in ending the discrimination. In the US, for instance, asking prospective employees for information about their gender or marital status is illegal. Of course, it is vital that these legislations are designed with due consideration of potential unintended consequences so that the employability of women is not jeopardised.
The Government has taken some important steps in this regard, including mandating 26 weeks of maternity leave for women as well as provision of creche facilities in every establishment with more than 50 employees. Going forward, we should explore a system of paid childcare leave that can be shared by both parents similar to countries like Finland where the workforce is distributed almost equally between men and women. This will also have important signalling value in a society where responsibility for household and caregiving work still lies primarily with women. Unless these responsibilities are shouldered by both sexes, it will continue to be extremely challenging for women to advance in their careers.
Other interventions that can create a more enabling environment for women to participate in the labour force include part-time work options, technology-enabled work-from-home models, and an ombudsman helpline for investigating discriminatory practices. The importance of women-oriented networks has to be underlined.
Further, there should be an emphasis on skill training programs for women that enable them to venture into non-traditional occupations. In designing these initiatives, there is much to learn from global efforts like the widely acclaimed Chapéu de Palha Mulher program implemented in Pernambuco, Brazil. As part of this intervention, women are provided a stipend for attending classes that impart information about citizen rights, including on topics like domestic violence legislation. Women are encouraged to break free from conventional thinking about the nature of work they should or should not do. Hands-on training is provided in a variety of non-traditional vocations such as soldering, plumbing and welding in order to equip women to take up jobs in the region’s construction industry. Transport and childcare arrangements are taken care of making it easier for women to participate in the courses.
Of course, Government action alone cannot ensure parity for women in the workforce. The private sector has a crucial role to play – from ensuring transparency in recruitment and promotion policies to recognising and rectifying any gender biases that creep into wages. Companies should sensitize their managers so that any stereotypical beliefs about the roles that women can play are systematically challenged. An index that benchmarks BSE 500 companies on their policies and gender ratio could also be useful for spurring positive competition as well as publicly recognizing those who are bringing about change.
Changing the mindset
Finally, the intractable challenge of regressive mindsets makes it difficult to achieve gender parity. Gender stereotypes need to be challenged through localized campaigns implemented in a sustained manner. We also need to create more forums for female role models like teachers and entrepreneurs to inspire others that change is indeed possible.
There is no doubt that addressing these deeper societal and cultural issues will take time. But with the lives of millions of women at stake, patience is definitely not a virtue. Let us collectively vow to end categories such as “missing” and “unwanted” girls from our vocabulary within our lifetime.
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