Evaluating the state of women in urban India

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December 22, 2015 1:04 AM

Above all, a change in mindset is needed to facilitate better integration of women with the economy. For this, advocacy and shaping attitudes are much more important than laws, policies and regulations.

India is ranked 108 out of 145 countries in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) gender gap index 2015, ranking lower than even neighbouring Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In its latest Global Gender Gap report, the WEF also reports that women now earn what men used to a decade ago, testifying the tardy progress being made in closing the gender gap. In September, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) released a stunning report on global gender parity, which showed that if women were to participate in the global economy to the same extent as men, they would add nearly $28 trillion or 26% more to the global economy. The report examines several aspects of gender parity including equality in work, access to essential services and enablers of economic opportunity, legal protection and political voice, and physical security and autonomy. Based on these aspects, India’s gender parity score (GPS) was found to be one of the lowest at 0.48, much lower than that of sub-Saharan Africa at 0.57. Similar to the Gini coefficient, the closer the GPS is towards 1, the more equal the society is. North America and Oceania, at a GPS of 0.74, were found to be the most egalitarian. Quite understandably, the MGI found a high correlation between per capita income, urbanisation and gender parity.

However, better gender parity in urban as opposed to rural areas could be true only in theory. A 2013 report on women and men in India, by the Central Statistical Organisation, found that the urban sex ratio is only 929 compared with 949 in rural India, and that the national workforce participation rate for women is only 25.5% when compared with 53.3% for men. As per this report, the urban female workforce participation rate is only 15%, compared with 54% for men. Further, the unemployment rate for urban women is higher than that for comparable groups—being 5%, compared with only 3% for urban men, and 2% for rural women, who presumably find work either in MGNREGA projects or on the farms. Also, the average wage/salary received by regular wage/salaried employees of age 15-59 years is only R366.15 per day for females, compared with R469.87 per day for males in urban areas.

Consistent with the idea of urban women being in a vulnerable position in India, a five-city survey (Bangalore, Johannesburg, Kingston, Rio de Janeiro and Kampala) by the UN Habitat of 691 stakeholders—consisting of decision-makers, policy-makers and urban residents—confirmed that urban women are not invincible, and they have a number of vulnerabilities. While 69% respondents were of the view that urbanisation and prosperity of women were related, only 7% actually perceived that women were prosperous across other dimensions such as quality of life, productivity, infrastructure and equality. This is corroborated by Alain Bertaud’s New York University urbanisation project, in which he found that women in Gauteng, South Africa, commuted 47 km to their work, for which they had to spend nearly three hours, taking a common taxi to a railway station, from where they pooled to get to a destination, and walked to their work from there. If they had access to an automobile, they could finish their commute in one hour, and save two hours everyday. Longer commutes greatly reduce the size of a city’s functional labour market.

What can cities do to promote the cause of women? Less than half of urban residents in the UN Habitat’s survey said they had a dedicated gender policy. Gender budgeting is one such initiative. However, this is an input-oriented way of addressing women’s needs and does not easily translate into outcomes. For instance, in a labour department, a gender-based policy is quite straightforward—allocation of more jobs for women, whereas in other departments the same cannot be said. The bottom line is that due to the tremendous potential that the fairer sex has, and because their participation has been less than that of the other sex thus far, increased access to employment definitely can make growth more inclusive. A way in which this can be accomplished is through the provision of on-site childcare support, which private sector companies are increasingly providing in cities in India and globally, but not yet happened in the case of public employment in developing countries such as India.

There have been a lot of initiatives formulated for women in India—including the National Commission for Women (1992), reservation for women in local self-government (1992-93) on the heels of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts, the National Plan of Action for the Girl Child (1991-2000), and a National Policy for the Empowerment of Women (2001).

However, what is exactly is needed to facilitate the participation of women in the economy, to unleash their impacts on the global economy, as shown in the MGI report? As Bertaud points out, households should be free to locate to places which optimise their commute to work. As a corollary to this, there should be efficient and safe transport options for women to get to work.

Finally, the importance of data with respect to women in urban India needs to be emphasised. Without knowing about how disadvantaged they are, there is no point in making policy. Once detailed data are gathered at the city level about various aspects of gender parity, then our policy-makers will be in a much better position to formulate appropriately targeted policies to further their cause and interest.

Above all, a change in mindset is needed to facilitate better integration of women with the economy. For this, advocacy and shaping attitudes are much more important than laws, policies and regulations.

The author is with the Institute for Social and Economic Change. This article is excerpted from a presentation the author made at the World Congress on Women in Bangalore, in November. Views are personal

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