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Women's situation in India

"You can tell the condition of a Nation by looking at the status of its Women." Jawaharlal Nehru, Leader of India's Independence movement, and India's first Prime Minister.

So, how is women's status in India? Today's India offers a lot of opportunities to women, with women having a voice in everyday life, the business world as well as in political life. Nevertheless India is still a male dominated society, where women are often seen as subordinate and inferior to men. This gender bias is the cause that SAARTHAK is fighting for; therefore, in the following we will focus on the wrongs rather than on the rights. This doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of positives to report on, and we will cover some of those in the "Indian women on the rise" section. However, even though India is moving away from the male dominated culture, discrimination is still highly visible in rural as well as in urban areas, throughout all strata of society. While women are guaranteed equality under the constitution, legal protection has a limited effect, where patriarchal traditions prevail.

India's Patriarchal Traditions

1.Dowry Tradition

Much of the discrimination against women arises from India's dowry tradition, where the bride's family gives the groom's family money and/or gifts. Dowries were made illegal in India in 1961, however the law is almost impossible to enforce, and the practice persists for most marriages. Unfortunately, the iniquitous dowry system has even spread to communities who traditionally have not practiced it, because dowry is sometimes used as a means to climb the social ladder, to achieve economic security, and to accumulate material wealth. The model used to calculate the dowry takes the bridegroom's education and future earning potential into account while the bride's education and earning potential are only relevant to her societal role of being a better wife and mother. The bridegroom's demand for a dowry can easily exceed the annual salary of a typical Indian family, and consequently be economically disastrous especially in families with more than one or two daughters.

2.  Women as a Liability

The Indian constitution grants women equal rights to men, but strong patriarchal traditions persist in many different societal parts, with women's lives shaped by customs that are centuries old. Hence, in these strata daughters are often regarded as a liability, and conditioned to believe that they are inferior and subordinate to men, whereas sons might be idolized and celebrated.

But why is that?

There are a couple of reasons, why men might be regarded an asset for a family:

  • Considered capable of earning money
  • Carry on the family line
  • Able to provide for their aging parents
  • Bring a wife (and with this a capable domestic helper) into the family
  • Play an important role in death rituals in Hindu religion, which ensure, that the soul is released from the body and can go to heaven.
On the other hand, there are a couple of reasons why women might be regarded more of a liability for a family:
  • Not considered capable of earning money
  • Seen as economically and emotionally dependent on men
  • While they help with domestic duties during childhood and adolescence, they go to live with their husband's family after marriage, which means less help in the household of their originating family, and most importantly loss of money due to the dowry tradition.
This might explain why the birth of a daughter may not always be perceived as equally blissful as the birth of a son, and why “May you be blessed with a hundred sons” is a common Hindu wedding blessing.

Discrimination against Women

It should be noted that in a vast country like India - spanning 3.29 million sq. km, where cultural backgrounds, religions and traditions vary widely - the extend of discrimination against women also varies from one societal stratum to another and from state to state - some areas in India being historically more inclined to gender bias than others. There are even communities in India, such as the Nairs of Kerala, certain Maratha clans, and Bengali families, which exhibit matriarchal tendencies, with the head of the family being the oldest woman rather than the oldest man. However, many Indian women face discrimination throughout all stages of their life, beginning at (or even before) birth, continuing as an infant, child, adolescent and adult. The stages can be divided in following sections:
      • Before Birth / As an Infant
      • As a Child
      • After Marriage
      • As a Widow
 Discrimination against Women: Before Birth / As an Infant

India is one of the few countries where males outnumber females; the sex ratio at birth (SRB) – which shows the number of boys born to every 100 girls - is usually consistent in human populations, where about 105 males are born to every 100 females.

There are significant imbalances in the male/female population in India where the SRB is 113; there are also huge local differences from Northern / Western regions such as Punjab or Delhi, where the sex ratio is as high as 125, to Southern / Eastern India e.g. Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, where sex ratios are around 105. Though “prenatal sex discrimination” was legally banned in 1996, the law is nearly impossible to enforce and is not even familiar to all Indian families. Hence, the preference for a male child persists, quite often out of mere practical, financial concerns, because the parents might not be able to afford the marriage dowry for (another) daughter. This leads to some of the most gruesome and desperate acts when it comes to gender discrimination:
  • Selective abortions
  • Murdering of female babies
  • Abandonment of female babies
Prenatal tests to determine the sex of the fetus were criminalized by Indian law in 1994, but the above mentioned imbalances in the sex ratio at birth, clearly point to gender selective abortions. While abortion is officially illegal in India there are some exceptions to this rule such as the failure of contraceptive device used by a couple; if the woman was raped; or if the child would suffer from severe disabilities. In total 11 million abortions take place annually and around 20,000 women die every year due to abortion related complications.

Discrimination against Women: As a Child

Nutrition & Health

As a child, girls are often treated differently from male children in terms of nutrition and health care; where limited food or financial resources are available, the insufficient means are prone to be allocated unevenly in favour of the male offspring.
This imbalance results in insufficient care afforded to girls and women, and is the first major reason for the high levels of child malnutrition. This nutritional deprivation has two harmful consequences for women:

1. They never reach their full growth potential
2. Anaemia

Both consequences are risk factors in pregnancy, complicating childbearing and resulting in maternal and infant deaths, as well as low birth weight infants.


India's constitution guarantees free primary school education for both girls and boys up to age 14. This has been repeatedly reconfirmed, but primary education in India is not universal, and often times not seen as really necessary for girls. Their parents might consider it more important, that they learn domestic chores, as they will need to perform them for their future husbands and in-laws. Another disincentive for sending daughters to school is a concern for the protection of their virginity. When schools are located at a distance, when teachers are male, and when girls are expected to study along with boys, parents are often unwilling to expose their daughters to the potential assault on their virginity, that would ultimately result in an insult to the girl's family's honor.
This results in one of the lowest female literacy rates in the world.
  • Literacy Rate for Women: 54%
  • Literacy Rate for Men:       76%
As a comparison, female literacy per 2009: Pakistan: 60%, Peru: 89%, Indonesia: 93%.
Mothers' illiteracy and lack of schooling directly disadvantage their young children. Low schooling translates into poor quality of care for children, consequently in higher infant and child mortality and malnutrition, because mothers with little education are less likely to adopt appropriate health-promoting behaviors, such as having young children immunized.

Social sector programmes e.g. “Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan” (Education for Everyone) are promoting girls' education to equalize educational opportunities and eliminate gender disparities, but these initiatives will take time to unfold their whole effect.

Child Marriages

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 bans marriage below age 18 for girls and age 21 for boys, but some 80 % of Indians live in villages where family, caste and community pressures are more effective than any legislature. According to UNICEF's "State of the World's Children 2009" report, 47% of India's women aged 20–24 were married before the legal age of 18, with 56% in rural areas. The report also showed that 40% of the world's child marriages occur in India.

Why does it happen?
  • Financial Benefit
    • As outlined above, due to the dowry tradition women are prone to be a (financial) burden for their families, thus seen as a liability.
    • If the match is made at an early age, the dowry is usually much lower, as the dowry is calculated on the future husband's societal status and education, which – obviously – would be much lower at an early age.
    • Common Hindu phrase: “The younger the groom, the cheaper the Dowry”
  In addition marrying off girls at an early age, ensures, that they marry as virgins, thus protecting the girl's and their family's honour.
  • Historical Origins
    • Child marriages started during the invasions of Northern India around 1,000 years ago, when unmarried girls were raped by invaders.
    • To protect their women from abuse, family members began marrying their daughters at young ages.
 Religious origin
    1. Copying the myth that the goddess Parvati had decided to marry god Shiva when she was only eight, girls were married off as young as eight or nine years old.
The consequences

Girls between 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die of pregnancy-related reasons as girls between 20 and 24. Girls married off as children sometimes stay in their parents' house until puberty, but it is just as common, that they move in with their husband and in-laws right after marriage. In that case, many child wives are inclined to experience domestic violence, marital rape, deprivation of food, and lack of access to information, healthcare, and education. Thus, the vicious cycle of illiteracy and abuse is likely to be continued and passed on to their own daughters.

Discrimination against Women: After Marriage

There is mainly a bias towards men and their superiority in marital relationships: while women ought to be respected, protected and kept happy by their husbands – their happiness being vital for the prosperity, peace and happiness of the whole family – they should also be kept under constant vigilance, since they cannot be completely trusted or left to themselves. Whereas as a child a girl is supposed to remain in the custody and care of her parents, after marriage she becomes the property and responsibility of her husband, who is supposed to take care of her and keep her in his custody.
Under the existing cultural and social ethos of India a married girl / woman is no longer considered to be part of the family of her birth, instead she has become part of the family of the groom. Hence, after marriage the woman leaves her parental home and lives with her husband's family, where she is required to assume all household labour and domestic responsibilities.

In certain parts of Indian society, women are conditioned from birth to be subservient not only to their future husbands, but also to the females in their husband's family especially, their mother-in-law. Accordingly, the surrounding society mandates a woman's obedience to her husband and her in-laws. Any disobedience would bring disgrace to both, the wife herself and her originating family, and might lead to the woman being ostracized and neglected by her very own family and in her own home.

Discrimination against Women: After Marriage

There is no cultural or religious tradition behind one of the most ghastly incidents of female oppression, but the prevalence of the dowry tradition has supposedly lead to “Bride Burning” (or other form of murdering) of the newly-wed wife by the husband and his family, who would claim, that she died in a domestic accident, so that the widowed husband would be free to marry again and collect another dowry.
Indian law demands a formal criminal investigation when a newly married woman dies within the home within 7 years of marriage. According to Indian National Crime Record Bureau, there were 8,239 dowry death cases, 1,285 cases of attempted dowry deaths, and another 4,890 cases with pending investigations in 2009. The punishment for dowry deaths is a term of 7 years, which may extend to life imprisonment. Indian law clearly distinguishes the offence of dowry deaths from the offence of murder, for which a death sentence might be declared.

Discrimination against Women: As a Widow

Indian government has enacted numerous laws to protect widow's rights, including prohibitions against traditional practices for which India has been discredited, such as the burning of widows (Sati). Whereas in India's contemporary culture, especially in the modern urban middle-class, these societal norms have given way to a more righteous conduct, the enforcement of the law continues to be challenging, where there are regional, religious or caste variants of family law, which tend to escape government jurisdiction. Hence, a widow is still seen as a liability in some part of the Indian society, which might result in her being abandoned by her in-laws. As her originating family is often unable or unwilling to take her back as well, she might be left on her own, without any education, skills, or financial assistance. Instead, she is subjected to many restrictions, and might be required to shave her head permanently, or to wear white clothes for the rest of her life; thus, stigmatized, she is not allowed to enter in any celebration e.g. weddings, because her presence is considered to be inauspicious. Moreover, a widow might face trouble securing her property rights after her husbands death, nor be allowed to remarry, disregarding at what age she became a widow. As the described discrimination against widows is likely to occur in the same societal surroundings as the above mentioned child marriages, this might lead to child or teenage widows, who are bound to be isolated and ostracized for the rest of their lives.

Discrimination against Women: For Inheritance

While in the educated, urban middle class women's rights continue to improve, there remains a strong bias against gender equality in those societal parts of India, where patriarchal traditions prevail. Consequently, in these strata any inheritance of a deceased husband or father would be passed down to the oldest son, while his wife or daughters would not receive any financial benefit. There are laws in place to ensure legal protection for women's right to inheritance, but the enforcement of the law is challenging, when the woman is refused her right by the family, and when she is not confident or educated enough to claim her right.

Having looked at the status of women in India, we come back to the previously quoted statement from Jawaharlal Nehru "You can tell the condition of a Nation by looking at the status of its Women." The concluding questions are: which nation can claim to be a free and prosperous society, where half of its population is being oppressed? And which striving nation can afford to oppress half of its population? Obviously, the answer to that question is: none! Sustainable and long-term development is not possible without the participation and empowerment of women, only if they participate in the economic and societal development, the full potential of a society of India's society will be unfolded.

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