By Somya Arora & Srinivas Goli
International Women’s Day, as observed on 8 March, is not only an event to celebrate the pluralistic achievements of women, but also to re-collect the challenges and mark a call for action for accelerating gender equity. Several countries have been paying prohibitive economic costs due to gender disparity and will continue to lose if the skewness is not addressed holistically—fair access to education, employment and healthcare for women, financial and digital inclusiveness, better representation in positions of power, and empowered voice in the household and society. Mckinsey’s research notes that India has an unmet GDP potential due to gender disparity which if bridged, can add a GDP of USD 2.9 trillion by 2025. This is 60% more than the business-as-usual GDP in 2025. The country can also pull 68 million more women into the labor force by 2025 if gender inequality is tackled.
India’s buoyant growth is not translating to equal opportunities for women, evident from its 135th position in the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) in 2022. Its gender gap score of 0.629 underlines a striking contrast to its ambition of turning into a USD 5 trillion economy by 2025. It is difficult to comprehend such poor standing by a country that is reaching soaring GDP numbers every year and makes one wonder if this growth is sustainable with a large proportion of women lagging across dimensions. Significant to note that India’s gender gap has never crossed 0.683 since the GGGI was first prepared, implying that the country at best has closed 68.3% of its gender gap.
While the overall life expectancy of Indian women is ~2.7 years higher than men, the difference between the two in terms of ‘healthy life expectancy’ is only 0.1 years, indicating that women tend to lead unhealthier lives. Also, looking at the female advantage and life expectancy across the world, Indian women are still not near to their biological potential, thus indicating persisting gender bias in health. Besides, India’s sex ratio at birth (females per 1000 males at birth), has seen a falling trend, from 906 in 2011 to 904 in 2017-19.
The simultaneity of positive economic growth and distressing gender gap score makes us revisit Amartya Sen’s essay on Many Faces of Gender Inequality to decode India’s position on the Index. Among the seven kinds of disparity outlined by him, India does poorly in at least five dimensions—mortality, natality, household, professional, and ownership inequality. While the reasons are not straightforward, we delve into the facets to put forth that the status quo of patriarchy might just explain India’s abysmal performance.
Young girls encounter a bias in the allocation of household resources on health and education in gender-stereotypical households leading to lower levels of human capital. Such households also harbor social and cultural norms that provoke child marriages in the country, which subsequently has far-reaching ramifications on women’s autonomy and agency, incidences of gender violence, and health outcomes. More so, the intra-household gender disparity engenders educational segregation i.e., girls are less likely to choose technical streams, adversely affecting their opportunities in the labor market and earning potential.
Women’s labor-force participation shrank by 3 percentage points since 2021. While participation contracted for men too but for women it plunged to an alarming single digit of 9% in 2022 which could primarily be attributed to Covid-19 as women invested more time (an additional one-third) on family commitments. This, combined with already inclined occupational segregation of women towards agricultural and allied activities, and sales and services job choices, has aggravated the inequality. To corroborate, 63% of Indian women call out gender as a factor governing their professional success, supplementarily, around 3/4th consider family commitments as a roadblock in career development. Women prioritizing familial obligations over their careers reeks of traditional barriers as well as institutional bias that is structured to casually favor men to hold positions of power, privilege, and leadership.
In one of the earliest discussions on patriarchy, Virginia Woolf, a pioneer writer of the modernist 20th century, anticipated that women’s possibility to collect capital and property equally as men would mean that women could change ‘from being the victims of the patriarchal system to being the champions of the capitalist system’. In a predominantly middle-income country such as India, property rights (thus asset ownership) are considered as the most significant way (even more than income distribution) to close the gender gap and empower women with status and bargaining power. Though women have secured property rights through Inheritance Law passed in 1956 and revised in 2005, mere rights on paper do not seem to translate into legal claims and exercised controls on the property, due to the traditional practices hindering women their share. Evidently, the World Economic Forum emphasized that India is one of the 15 countries where deep-rooted patriarchal norms hamper women from claiming and exercising their rights to property.
In conclusion, we say that gender equity today is for sustainable development tomorrow· India is paying heavy economic and social costs due to the persisting gender gaps.
The author is a Research Fellow at UniSA Business, the University of South Australia, and Srinivas Goli -Associate Professor, teaches Demography at International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai.
(Views expressed are personal)