Credits first. I’m heartened to see the economic policy take up gender and give it the time, space and the insight it deserves.
The policy admits at the outset that the development argument on the gender debate is, plainly, incontestable. “In developing countries, working women also invest more in the schooling of their children [Aguirre et al. 2012; Miller 2008], ” it points out.
In fact, recently at Davos, International Monetary Fund chief Christian Lagarde, quoting IMF research, said women’s participation in the workforce to the level of men can boost the Indian economy by no less than 27 per cent.
While some of the observations sit at odds with recently released data (reference India’s 131st spot on the Gender Inequality Index (GII) and 108th place WEF Global Gender Gap Index ), the policy puts forth a pertinent point of difference.
Namely, gender outcomes is accounted for, cross-sectional comparisons — as in the two gender indices noted — could be misleading: a case of passing judgment in “chronological time” oblivious of “development time”.
So who’s responsible? Everyone, says the policy. If indeed the metric of measurement is “development time”, and if a country’s performance is atypical in development time, the policy strategy will have to be far different from when a country’s performance is typical. In the former, bleaker case, development itself cannot be counted upon to improve the role and status of women. The burden on government, civil society, and other stakeholders will correspondingly be greater.”
The prism that the economic policy held up gender as a subject fell broadly under three silos — agency, attitude and outcome. While many of these dimensions have fascinating observations (for e.g. 62.3 per cent of women in India were involved in decisions about their own health in 2005-06, which increased to 74.5 per cent in 2015-16), let me for now focus on the more “economic” parts of the study.
This data piece hits hardest — women’s employment has declined over chronological time, and to a much greater extent, in development time. It has dropped from 36.3 per cent in 2005-06 to 24 per cent in 2015-16, a drop of 12.3 per cent. And while the survey takes note of the generally accepted theory of a U-shaped behaviour of female labour force participation with respect to development, it admits that India is on the downward part of the “U” but even more so than comparable countries.
What would be interesting to scratch here would be whether this is a reflection of the fact that nationwide unemployment is now the single biggest issue this economy is grappling with, something the government needs to take a serious note of.
The paradox is also education where the gap between 2005-06 to 2015-16 has seen an improvement of 13 per cent (from 59.4 per cent to 72.5 per cent) but as the survey notes education levels of women have improved dramatically but incommensurate with development.
As someone who has been campaigning for women to take charge of their finances and be allowed to make their own financial decisions, these next two outcomes were reasons to smile.
An assessment was undertaken at the household level to see if gender-related indicators improve with wealth, both in India as well as other countries. So, when women were involved in decisions about large household purchases, the effect on wealth for other countries stood at 6.4 per cent whereas for India the number was 10.7 per cent.
Best of all, when women were involved in decision-making about their own earnings, other countries saw an additional 3 per cent effect on wealth, whereas in India, the effect jumps three times to 10.25 per cent.
In another important takeaway, the survey strikes an extremely concerned note regarding sexual health, contraception and, no surprises, sex ratios. Quoting the survey, “The number of married women in India who do not use any contraception method is high (46.5 per cent). Among women using any contraception method at all, the percentage of Indian women using female-controlled reversible contraception is unusually low (32.8 per cent).”
As the survey explains quite succinctly, “Since not many women use methods of reversible contraception, they have little control over when they start having children, but only seem to have control over when they stop having children. This could affect other milestones early on in a woman’s life; for example, women may not get the same access to employment that men do.”
Using the methodology of Sen (1990) and Anderson & Ray (2010, 2012), the survey has an updated tick on the number of missing women.“The stock of missing women as of 2014 was nearly 63 million and more than 2 million women go missing across age groups every year (either due to sex selective abortion, disease, neglect, or inadequate nutrition).” Add to that, “a meta-preference manifesting itself in fertility stopping rules contingent on the sex of the last child, which notionally creates “unwanted” girls, estimated at about 21 million.” Simply put, women are forced to keep giving birth to children, till the much awaited male child is born.
Figures that should cause us to collectively hang our heads in shame.
But how does this break up geographically? Huge pat on the back for the North-Eastern states (a model for the rest of the country) for “consistently out-performing other states and not because they are richer; hinterland states are lagging behind but the surprise is that some southern states do less well than their development levels would suggest”. Here are the numbers, according to the Policy Report — “Most North-Eastern states (with the exception of Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh) and Goa occupy the North-East quadrant, indicating that they are the best performers at all points of time. Kerala is the next best performer. The lagging performers are Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and, surprisingly, Andhra Pradesh”.
The big loser? India’s national capital. Delhi’s performance actually worsens in a decade, and it falls from having the highest score in 2005-06 (going from 73 in 2005-06 to 70.9 in 2015-16).
As the policy notes, “In this somewhat unequal contest between the irresistible forces of development and the immovable objects that are cultural norms, the cause of women in the workforce will need all the support it can get – and then some.”
I can’t think of a better reason, time or cause. Let’s give this our best shot.