Gender neutrality: an expectation for India


One is not born a woman; we become a woman

– Simone de Beauvoir It was a defining moment in the history of India when the Constitution in 1950 guaranteed equal rights to all, including, among others, women. It was not at all in tune with the sociological reality of the time and major sociological reforms in the family space were yet to come.

Cut to today: although women make up about 50% of India’s population, we continue to have a disproportionate sex ratio in different parts of the country. Women continue to be victims and their role in households is still viewed from a traditional perspective. The representation of women in the workforce is low, unbalanced and the nature of the jobs held by women is markedly different from those held by men. Moreover, the economic recognition of women’s work production is lower than that of their male counterparts performing the same roles.

These are just a few markers and therefore, by recognizing women’s strength in contributing to the global economy, building better citizens and comprehensively reforming Indian society, women’s empowerment becomes essential in moving towards a a scenario in which men and women have equal power and opportunities in education, health care, economic participation, and most importantly, choice and personal development.

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Traditionally, almost until the turn of this century, from a public policy perspective, the upliftment of women was limited to routine announcements regarding women’s and children’s health, maternity plans, safety, and so on. In a sense, it was symbolic since the real purpose, which is to enable self-awareness and provide opportunities as well as to invoke the desire to capture spaces of self-realization in Indian women, was missing. So both the change and the context were limited, for example, compared to some other countries and especially the more advanced nations.

Times were changing rapidly, however, and the world was truly moving towards a global village: rapid access to satellite TV and the Internet was beginning to shape societal reception of the world around us. Moreover, with increasing life expectancies and larger families making way for smaller, more nuclear facilities, change was in a sense inevitable.

On autopilot, in theory, this important half of India recognized his voice. The government has also responded and introduced gender responsive budgeting which has started to map public policies according to gender outcomes. Programs like Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan and Rural Employment Guarantee and Awas Yojana have started allocating resources to women so that they have a voice and a role in household decision-making. State-specific programs were also initiated which included gender-specific allowances such as provision of cycles for deserving girls, low-floor buses for working women, rescue programs for abandoned girls in NRI marriages, etc Emphasis was also placed on raising awareness of their personal rights, including the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace with the Vishaka judgment, as well as their financial rights.

Even so, change and context were limited. Skills were becoming increasingly critical, resulting in a discrepancy in salaries between those with a college or higher education and those with lower levels of education. Women were perhaps not winners in this area. Simultaneously, financial markets were changing and the exponential growth of fintech was beginning to change and/or influence the way people made decisions, even in the domestic space – again, the question of whether Indian women were doing part of this change was questionable.

However, it is heartening to note that during this period, the real revolution that India witnessed was the greater participation of women in the electoral space. Driven by electoral reforms that made it easier to vote, the digital revolution and the development of infrastructure such as roads, women began to change the landscape of Indian elections. Our electoral process involving more women voters has come a long way. Indian women received universal suffrage when India gained independence in 1947, long before several Western countries granted women the right to vote, and over the past decade has transformed into a formidable bank of votes with active courting between the parties; thus ensuring attention to their needs.

In the past decade, rapid steps have been taken to ensure that women only are granted opportunities which would enhance their self-awareness/opportunity. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana was a landmark initiative that aimed to empower women and protect their health by providing free LPG cylinders. The “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” program ensured the protection, survival and education of the little girl. This campaign, associated with the Sukanya Samriddhi Yojna (SSY), aimed to create awareness for the education and protection of girls, to sensitize the weaker strata of society for the elimination of gender-based sexual relations.

The Mahila Shakti Kendras were started with the aim of providing rural women with skills development and employment opportunities. Programs for adolescent girls have been introduced to empower girls in the age group of 11 to 18 to improve their social status through nutrition, life skills, household skills and vocational training.

In addition, the economic task force empowerment was initiated with Rashtriya Mahila Kosh, a micro-finance apex organization that provides micro-loans on preferential terms to poor women for various livelihood and income-generating activities. In this context, the JAM trinity also focused on women as they are a major component of PMJDY accounts, which incidentally helped transfer relief measures to them during the pandemic.

To promote female entrepreneurship, the government has launched programs such as Stand-Up India and Mahila e-Haat (an online marketing platform to support female entrepreneurs/SHGs/NGOs), entrepreneurship programs and skills development. Under Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, which provides access to institutional finance for micro/small businesses, aspiring female entrepreneurs can now avail funds of up to Rs 10 lakh to start a small or micro business, provided it is an unincorporated business or not. agricultural business.

However, social practices that encourage women’s leadership are still weak and nascent in ideology and practice. Women are relegated to household chores, with less influence over their family’s financial decisions. The type of jobs that women seek for themselves differ greatly from those to which men aspire. The ILO Global Wage Report 2018/19 revealed that the average gender pay gap is highest in India, at 34.5%. Since women’s participation in the informal sector is higher than in the formal sector, they face the burden of wage disparity. Even in formal Indian corporate hierarchies, it is estimated that less than one-sixth of management positions are headed by women.

As India advances economically and takes its rightful place in global leadership, we must support our women in the way our society provides them with opportunities. Targeted attempts are needed to bridge the urban-rural divide. We must ensure that rural women have the same access to education, employment, health care and decision-making as their urban counterparts. Most importantly, the number of such opportunities is expected to increase for both urban and rural women. The MSME sector in particular is a low-hanging fruit for skills and employability. Once incomes rise, empowerment will follow and household stereotypes will change. And once empowerment kicks in, it’s going to be about ‘people’ versus men in India versus women in India. Otherwise, we will continue to ring the annual “Happy Women’s Day” tone without much progress in societal behaviors.

The real success will therefore be when gender neutrality finally prevails.

— About the authors: Dakshita Das is a political expert and former civil servant; Srinath Sridharan is a business advisor and independent market commentator.


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