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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 11, March 7, 2015

Beti Bachao needs Radicalism rather than Rhetoric

Monday 9 March 2015

WOMEN’S WORLD

by Neetu Choudhary

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign on ‘beti bachao, beti padhao’ is merely a top-up on numerous scattered schemes that already exist in the name of women’s welfare or development. Though the schemes in themselves need not be questioned given the gender-insensitive country that we are, yet an introspection must not be ruled out. We must ask ourselves: ‘do we really need these schemes, which are nothing more than a mask over our inability to respond to the structural roots of gender inequality?

Gender issues in India—dealt primarily with incremental initiatives—have suffered from conspicuous lack of commitment. Not that there is no achievement on women’s progress over the years. Today more women go to schools than did the earlier generations of women. The female literacy rate has improved from 8.86 per cent in 1951 to 39.29 per cent in 1991 and to 65.46 per cent in 2011. But during the same period the male literacy rate increased respectively from 27.16 per cent to 74.04 per cent. Thus, the gender-gap refuses to go—more so as we move up the education ladder. As per the Census of India 2011, child sex ratio [that is, for children of 0-6 years of age] has declined to 914 females per 1000 males, as against 927 during the Census 2001. As a general fact, women in India lag significantly behind their male counterparts even on the most fundamental of life indicators.

Much of what we see today in this context is attributable to the lack of vision in public policies since independence of the country. While we have had a strong track record of affirmative action for other forms of social inequality, gender discrimination was given a backseat. In spite of the caste inequalities that persist in India today, it cannot be denied that the constitutional provision of affirmative action fuelled mass mobilisation on the part of the socially backward castes, whereas women as yet are raising their voice to claim their right to survive. The policy perspective in India for long considered gender as a social issue to be taken care of automatically through increase in the educational levels. By the Fifth Five Year Plan, however, it was realised that improvement in women’s situation in the country needs more than a social approach. And then there was a switch to welfarism—with an emphasis on schemes for enhancing women’s welfare. By the Ninth Plan, with parallel evolution in feminist movements, a policy shift was made from women’s welfare to development and women were then begun to be seen as partners in the country’s development.

It is only since the Tenth Five Year Plan onwards that India’s public policy spoke of empowerment of women. Still the focus largely remains on instrumental significance of women’s development. For example, maternal education for child nutrition, health and education and so on, rather than as the mother’s right to education because she may need it or value it. This has been accompanied by excessive emphasis on women’s economic participation as a tool of women’s empowerment. Though it is true that the ability to earn considerably enhances women’s ability to participate in household decision-making and bargaining power, it at the same time does not necessarily translate into questioning the social structures that produce inequality, thus leaving these intact.

Gender issues have hardly been important for political parties either, save for tokenism and populism. While religion and caste issues have had the power to stall the functioning of democracy, gender issues have been approached softly. Despite the enactment of favourable laws for women in India as far as property rights or prohibition of dowry etc. are concerned, explicit violence of women’s right continues without any hue and cry at political, policy or social level, unless we come across extreme or barbaric cases. It is indeed ironical that the Left parties in India have failed in this regard as well. The spirit of radicalism that is inherently associated with ‘being on the Left’ gives the Left parties ample opportunity for mass mobilisation of women to rally against unequal and undignified social systems, but this has been largely unutilised. Kerala, a State that has boasted of women’s better status in India and also of a Left-dominated governance system, has witne-ssed subtle deterioration in women’s condition, as the society has shifted away from matriliny. Rondinone (2007)1 has discussed in a study how the women in Kerala, despite their better educational and health performances, suffer from significant levels of gender discrimination.

Another aspect of equal importance in this context, which is often missing out from the policy debate, is women’s own agency. Despite having strong examples from female icons, the woman in India, on an average, has chosen not to exercise her agency when it comes to gendered relationships within the family or society. The inability to use the agency is particularly conspicuous among educated women, who have earned awareness and ability to earn, but have somewhere chosen to live in a divided world and space—the world where the woman is one person at workplace and is another in the private sphere. We need to look at educated and earning women to explore the reason: the strings attached with their ‘relatively’ better status reflect the “constrained potential” an average Indian woman can reach, when it comes to a dignified social life or the trade-offs involved in attaining the same. This lack of agency is visible among Indian men as well, for whom education is more a tool for decent life than for the values of democracy or equality. Thus, we have educated men who flaunt their dowry achieve-ment from marriage or point out how it is disadvantageous to be a woman.

Certainly, these are inter-related dimensions that have converged to defeat the cause of gender equality in India. It is this society that produces political representatives, thus rendering a vicious circle. However, those who have had a history of class struggle certainly owe a commitment to nearly half of the workers’ population of India—either paid or unpaid. Indeed, what emerges as a common thread is political parties’ consideration of gender as ‘second-rate issue’ while women alongside have internalised the public-private dichotomy in their roles. In the meantime, the country is so preoccupied with its distorted sex ratio that it has hardly any time to look at how education and employment fail to undo the structural disadvantages of women, even though these might improve their material well-being. India needs a radical shift in its policy on gender, where women’s direct control over resources of production needs to be established. Everything else shall follow. On the contrary, public policy has failed to realise that we need the slogans of beti bachao and beto padhao because we have failed to challenge inequality in property relations between men and women. In a way, every time a new scheme is kicked off for women’s welfare, every time we ensure that the fundamentals of gender inequality remain intact.

Footnote

  • Rondinone, Antonella (2007): “Reconsidering the Status of Women in Kerala (India). A Geographical Analysis Based on Recent Data on Emigration, Sex Ratio and Social Status”, Rivista Geografica Italiana, 114(2):179-205.

The author, a Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor, A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies Patna. She can be contacted at E-mail: chouhdaryneetu @gmail.com