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What NFHS-5 data reveals about gender in India

🔴 Christophe Jaffrelot, Trishali Chauhan write: There have been small steps towards progress, although Indian women still lag behind in literacy, and gender-related violence has increased in many states

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot , Trishali Chauhan |
Updated: December 30, 2021 7:34:28 am
The sex ratios in the factsheet are based on de facto enumeration — the number of men and women present in the household on the last night of the survey.

The National Family Health Survey-5 report is a mine of information, especially in the context of the growing paucity of data. The overall picture it gives of society is a rather complex one. The decline in the total fertility rate (TFR) across all the states is a positive sign. The TFR has been falling over the years and has now reached 2.0 at the national level, which means that India’s population will decrease soon — probably by 2047-48 — after reaching a peak of about 1.6 billion people.

In this article, we would like to focus on gender-related issues. Among the points made by the survey in this domain, we’d like to emphasise one that has been neglected for a long time: The proportion of 15- to 24-year-old women using menstrual care products has increased across almost all states between the fourth (2015-16) and the fifth (2019-2021) NFHS — although, it still remains low in states like Bihar (59 per cent) and in Assam and Gujarat (66 per cent). The largest increase was seen in Bihar and West Bengal.

Secondly, the sex ratio question needs to be scrutinised in detail. The good news is that India has now 1,020 women for every 1,000 men, against 991 for 1,000 in the 2015-16 NFHS. But although the sex ratio at birth (SRB) shows an increase in the number of females as compared to males (from 919 in 2015-16 to 929 in 2019-21), the data remains skewed towards males as this is still lower than the natural standard of 952 female births per 1,000 male births. In three states, the ratio is below 900 (Goa: 838, Himachal Pradesh: 875, and Telangana: 894). While comparing the data from NFHS-4 to NFHS-5, Tamil Nadu has seen its SRB decline from 954 to 878, as has Chandigarh (from 981 to 838), Jharkhand (from 919 to 899) and Odisha (932 to 894). States with SRB in the 900s are also seeing a decline — for example, Meghalaya (from 1,009 to 989), Nagaland (from 953 to 945), Maharashtra (from 924 to 913) and Bihar (from 934 to 908).

Thus, the number of baby girls fails to explain why there are more women than men in India. Is it the effect of the pandemic, which has possibly led to the death of more men? Or were more men away from their households during the data collection? Only the next Census of India will tell. Also, note that the more urbanised the state, the worse the sex ratio.

Thirdly, the NFHS shows that there is an increase in gender-related violence in many states. The proportion of married women (between 18 and 49 years) who have been a victim of spousal violence has increased in five states. In Karnataka, it has jumped from 21 per cent to 44 per cent. A significant number of married women face spousal violence in Bihar (40 per cent), Manipur (40 per cent), and Telangana (37 per cent).

Last but not the least, women lag behind men in the literacy rate (71.5 per cent against 84.4 per cent for men). This is partly due to the number of years of schooling: Only 41 per cent of women have 10 or more years of schooling, against 50.2 per cent for men. Correlatively, only 33 per cent of 15- to 49-year-old women use internet, against 57 per cent among men of the same age. In spite of an increase in the number of women owning a house or land, the country still struggles with a digital divide in terms of accessibility between men and women.

We need to end with a word on methodology. First, the NFHS takes only certain demographic categories into account. This, particularly, stems from the difference in questionnaires. The women’s questionnaire roughly has 1,140 questions and is 96 pages long, whereas the men’s questionnaire is 38 pages long with 843 questions. The report advises “readers to be cautious while interpreting and comparing the trends as some states and Union territories may have smaller sample sizes”. For example, Andaman and Nicobar Islands gathered information from 2,624 households, 2,397 women, and 367 men; whereas Assam gathered its information from 30,119 households, 34,979 women, and 4,973 men. In fact, each state/UT factsheet separately reminds the readers to be cautious while interpreting trends. Further, the sex ratios in the factsheet are based on de facto enumeration — the number of men and women present in the household on the last night of the survey. This can be misleading because there is a possibility that the rural men and women could be away from their households on the last night of de facto enumeration.

As a result of this, the micro-level disparity in urban and rural dynamics might be camouflaged by migration. Last but not the least, the survey was conducted in two parts. One, before the pandemic and the second phase was conducted around the second wave of Covid-19 in India. This increases the scepticism over data collection, absence of meta-data and the systematic errors arising thereof. It also points to a possibility of actual issues being buried under the demands of the pandemic.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 28, 2021 under the title ‘The gender snapshot’. Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris; Chauhan is an independent scholar from King’s College, London

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