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    View | Gender neutrality: An expectation for India

    View | Gender neutrality: An expectation for India
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    By Dakshita Das   | Srinath Sridharan   IST (Published)


    Women continue to be victims and their roles in the households is still viewed through the traditional lens. Female representation in the workforce is poor, lop-sided and the nature of jobs that women do is markedly different to those which men perform

    One is not born a woman; one becomes a woman
    - Simone de BeauvoirIt was a landmark moment in Indian history when the Constitution, in 1950, guaranteed equal rights to all including, inter alia, women. This was not at all in sync with the then sociological reality and major sociological reforms in the family space were yet to occur.
    Cut to today: though women constitute around 50 percent of the Indian population, we continue to have a disproportionate sex ratio in different parts of the country. Women continue to be victims and their roles in the households is still viewed through the traditional lens. Female representation in the workforce is poor, lop-sided and the nature of jobs that women do is markedly different to those which men perform. Additionally, the economic recognition of women work output is lower when compared to male counterparts performing the same roles.
    These are just a few markers and therefore, recognising the strength of women to contribute to the overall economy, in nurturing better citizens and in having an overall reform in the way Indian society is, women empowerment becomes critical in moving towards a scenario in which men and women have equal power and opportunities for education, healthcare, economic participation and, most of all, in choices and personal development.

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    Traditionally, almost till the turn of this century, from a public policy perspective, women's upliftment was restricted to routine announcements around women's and children's health, maternity schemes, safety, etc. In a sense, this was tokenism since the real focus, which is to enable self-awareness and afford opportunities as well as invoke a desire to capture self-realised spaces among Indian women, was missing. So, change and context both were limited, say, compared with some other countries and in particular, the more advanced nations.
    Times were however rapidly changing and the world was truly evolving into a global village: rapid access to satellite television and internet started shaping the societal receipt of the world around us. Further, with life expectancies rising and larger families giving way to smaller and more nuclear setups, change was in a sense inevitable.
    On auto-pilot, conceivably, this important half of India was recognising its voice. The government too responded and introduced gendered budgeting which started mapping public policy to gender outcomes. Schemes like Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan and Rural Employment Guarantee and Awas Yojana began allocating resources for women so that they have a voice and a role in the household decision-making. State-specific schemes were also launched that provided for gender-enabling allocations like the provision of cycles for meritorious girls, low-floor buses for working women, schemes to rescue abandoned girls in NRI marriages, etc. Focus also started on the awareness regarding their personal rights including prevention of sexual harassment in the workspace with the Vishaka judgement as also their financial rights.

    Even so, the change and context were limited. Skills were becoming more critical, leading to divergence in wages between those with a college education or higher, and those with lower levels of education. Women perhaps were not gainers in the this. Simultaneously, financial markets were changing and the exponential growth in fintech began changing and/or influencing the way people made decisions even in the household space -- yet again, whether Indian women were a part of this change was debatable.
    Hearteningly, however, during this period, the real revolution that India witnessed was the larger turnouts of women in the electoral space. Buoyed by electoral reforms which made the casting of votes easier, the digital revolution and the development of infrastructure such as roads, women began changing the landscape of Indian elections. Our electoral process of involving larger levels of women voters has come a long way. Indian women received universal suffrage during India’s independence in 1947, long before several Western countries granted women the right to vote, and in the last decade or so, they have turned into a formidable vote bank with active wooing across parties; thus ensuring attention to their needs.
    The last decade witnessed rapid steps to ensure the affording of earmarked opportunities to women, which would enhance their self-awareness/offer them opportunities. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana was a landmark move which aimed to empower women and protect their health by providing LPG cylinders free of cost. The 'Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao'  scheme ensured the protection, survival and education of the girl child. This campaign, coupled with the Sukanya Samriddhi Yojna (SSY), was aimed at creating awareness on providing education and protection to the girl child, creating awareness among the weaker sections of society on eliminating gender-biased sex.

    Mahila Shakti Kendras were launched with the aim of empowering rural women with opportunities for skill development and employment. Schemes for adolescent girls were introduced so as to empower girls in the age group 11-18 to improve their social status through nutrition, life skills, home skills and vocational training.
    Further, enablement in the economic task force was initiated with the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh, an apex micro-finance organisation that provides micro-credit at concessional 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 in PMJDY accounts, which incidentally aided the transfer of relief measures to them during the pandemic.
    To promote female entrepreneurship, the Government initiated programmes like Stand-Up India and Mahila e-Haat (an online marketing platform to support women entrepreneurs/SHGs/NGOs), entrepreneurship and skill development programmes. Under Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, which provides access to institutional finance to micro/small business, aspiring female entrepreneurs can now avail funds of up to Rs 10 lakh to start a small or micro enterprise, provided it is a non-corporate or a non-farm business.

    However, social practices that encourage women leadership are still low and nascent in ideology and practice. Women are relegated to household tasks, with lesser influence in their family’s financial decisions. The kind of jobs that women seek for themselves sharply vary from those which men aspire to. The ILO’s Global Wage Report 2018/19 found that the average gender pay gap is the highest in India at 34.5 percent. Since women's participation in the informal sector is higher than the formal sector, they face the brunt of pay disparity. Even in the formal corporate India hierarchies, fewer than 1/6th of leadership roles are estimated to be headed by women.
    As India progresses economically and takes its due place in the global leadership, we need to take along our women in the way our society gives them opportunities. Focused attempts are needed to bridge the urban-rural divide. We need to ensure that women in rural areas enjoy the same access to education, employment, healthcare and decision-making as their urban counterparts. And importantly, the number of such opportunities should increase for both urban and rural women. The MSME sector in particular is a low-hanging fruit for both skilling and employability. Once incomes increase, empowerment will follow and domestic stereotypes will change. And once empowerment comes in, it will be about ‘people’ as opposed to men in India versus women in India. Else we shall continue sounding the annual “happy women's day” tone without much progress in societal behaviour.
    True success will therefore be when gender neutrality prevails, eventually.
    -- About the authors: Dakshita Das is a policy expert and former civil servant; Srinath Sridharan is a corporate adviser and independent markets commentator.
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