India records fall in gender equality index, lags behind China, Bhutan, Nepal

Reasons behind the poor ranking is a combination of factors including cultural preferences, lack of budget allocation for key schemes involving the betterment of women and disinterest at government-level in spending the allocated money

Women voters
Women voters comprise a decisive segment in elections for West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Assam. Representative photo: PTI

India’s score on gender metrics has worsened in one year. As per the latest Human Development Index report, India was placed 123rd among 189 countries in what the UN calls the ‘Gender Inequality Index’.

This is a composite measure of gender inequality using three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment, and the labour market. Not only have we dropped a rank from 122nd in 2018, India remains well below neighbours China, Bhutan and Nepal in how it treats its women. The only consolation probably is that Pakistan and Bangladesh treat their women worse than us.

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This indicator measures reproductive health metrics such as maternal mortality ratio and adolescent birth rate; percentage of parliamentary seats held by women, the percentage of population with at least some secondary education by gender and women’s participation in the labour force. While India has improved in some of these metrics in 2019 over the previous year, there has been a very sharp decline in women’s participation in the labour force.

In any case, the decline in overall GII ranking has come despite women’s empowerment ostensibly being a key developmental theme for the Narendra Modi government these last few years. When Nirmala Sitharaman was appointed Finance Minister after Arun Jaitley’s demise, we were told she was the first full-time woman FM though Indira Gandhi had handled the Finance portfolio when she was PM. And that appointing a woman FM showed the faith this government had in women’s abilities.

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Late last year, when the government pushed through the Triple Talaq Bill in Parliament, making it a criminal offence to give instant divorce to wives, we were again told this was one more step towards empowering women.

The 17th Lok Sabha has nearly 80 women members, with every second woman MP having been elected on a BJP ticket. This is perhaps why the ratio of seats occupied by women has increased to 13.5% in 2019 from 11.7% in 2018.

But the Modi government has been mum about the long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill, which grants 33% reservation to women in Parliament and would obviously nearly triple the share women have in the legislature. Even after improved showing in seat share for women in 2019, India anyway continued to remain far behind neighbours like China, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Bangladesh in the representation of women in Parliament.

In China, nearly every fourth legislative seat is occupied by a woman; it is every fifth in Sri Lanka, every sixth in tiny Bhutan and every fifth in Bangladesh. In India, vastly more populous than Bhutan and Sri Lanka, women have only about one in seven seats in Parliament. Overall, our Gender Inequality Index ranking of 123 is much worse than China’s 39th, Bhutan’s 99th and Nepal’s 110th ranks. Pakistan was at 135th place while Bangladesh was at 133rd.

The metric which clearly shows why women remain second class citizens in India is the labour force participation rate for women over 15 years of age. It fell to just 20.5% in 2019, which means only every fifth working age woman was actually working. This was a tad better in 2018, when nearly every fourth woman was on a job.

According to data from the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE), more women are working in rural areas than in urban as the labour force participation rate for rural areas is higher. In 2020, the LFPR for women is believed to have plunged further due to the severe economic shock of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the HDI report also shows India’s sub-par position on some other women’s metrics. For example, at least every fourth Indian woman is married by age 18 (marriage below 18 is considered child marriage) with similar proportion of girls in Bhutan also being married below legal age. But India and Bhutan fare much worse than Sri Lanka, where just one in 10 marriages involve a child bride. Nearly three in 10 Indian women have experienced violence from an intimate partner against every fourth in Nepal and Pakistan.

When it comes to women occupying senior leadership roles or even middle management positions at work, their share is less than 14% in India versus 22.5% in Sri Lanka and just 4.2% in Pakistan.

So why is the status of women, their health and livelihoods not as robust in India as in some of the neighbouring countries? It may be a combination of factors including cultural preferences, lack of budget allocation for key schemes involving the betterment of women and then disinterest at the central government level in spending the allocated money.

A reply by Smriti Irani, the Women and Child Development Minister, in Lok Sabha this March shows the extent of unspent funds in existing schemes. Not even one percent of the nearly Rs 360 crore allocated for welfare schemes under the Nirbhaya Fund was spent in 2018-19; Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana saw utilisation of less than half the budget allocation that year; just about 50% of allocation for a scheme for adolescent girls was spent while nearly Rs 400 crore remained unspent in the National Nutrition Mission – for providing adequate nutrition to women and children throughout the country – in 2018-19.

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