Monday, September 05, 2005

Status of Women in India - An Overall Picture

In this article we will be looking at status of Indian women across various factors. This is part of the research by advocacy group on women's Issues. In coming blogs we will look further into specific case studies of some states and lessons to be learned from their expereinces especially kerala.

========Posting on Behalf of Sandhya ==========

India is home to one sixth of the world’s population. It is also one of the poorest countries in the world, with 47% of the population living below the international poverty line (WRI 2000). Access to safe drinking water and sanitation is mostly available in urban areas, and even then, only to the affluent. Roughly 20% of the population in the region does not have access to safe water, while 70%, live without adequate sanitation. Of those who do have sanitation services, 73% are located in urban areas (WRI 2000). (3) The country’s per capita income remains low and 26 per cent of the population live below the income poverty line.

If we look at India, gender stats of the world bank in 2002, reflect that Indian female life expectancy, female labor force, primary school enrollment, female population is lower than world and developing countries levels. Female enrollment in primary school in India was 75.7% which is much lower than world’s 85.2% and developing countries (83.7% ). Female labor force in India was 32.5%, world’s 40.8 and developing countries 40.3. Percentage of female population in India was 48.4, world’s 49.7% and developing countries 49.5%. Indian female life expectancy at birth was 64.2% much lower than world’s 68.8%, and developing countries 66.4%. (4)

Stats – Health & Education
  • 60 per cent of the women are anaemic·
    More women than men die before the age of 35
  • Maternal deaths in India account for almost 25 percent of the world's childbirth-related deaths.
  • Maternal mortality rate in India is 100 times more than in the developed world. FN
  • Malnutrition poses a continuing constraint to India's development. Despite improvements in health and well-being, malnutrition remains a silent emergency in India. The World Bank estimates that malnutrition costs India at least US$10 billion annually in terms of lost productivity, illness, and death and is seriously retarding improvements in human development.
  • Despite some improvement, India's women remain significantly more malnourished than men. Bias against women and girls is reflected in the demographic ratio of 933 females for every 1,000 males. The country's maternal mortality rates are very high, particularly in rural areas, ranging from 440 to 580 deaths per 100,000 live births.
  • The rise in literacy rates over the last decade indicates India's progress in education. From 1991- 99, the overall literacy rate increased from 52 percent to 64 percent. Yet more than half of Indian women are still illiterate; about 40 million primary school-age children are not in school (mostly girls and those from the poorest and socially-excluded households); and only about one-third of an age group completes the constitutionally prescribed eight years of education. (5)

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Most of the work that women do, such as collecting fuel, fodder and water, or growing vegetables, or keeping poultry for domestic consumption, goes unrecorded in the Census counts. Many women and girls who work on family land are not recorded as workers. In 1991 women and girls comprised 22.5 per cent of the official workforce. Data from the National Sample Surveys records higher work participation by women than the Census.

Women constitute 90 per cent of the total marginal workers of the country. Rural women engaged in agriculture form 78 per cent of all women in regular work. They are a third of all workers on the land. The traditional gender division of labor ensures that these women get on average 30 per cent lower wages than men. The total employment of women in organized sector is only 4 per cent.

It is well known that women and children work in huge numbers in bidi-rolling, agarbatti-rolling, bangle making, weaving, brassware, leather, crafts and other industries. Yet, only 3 per cent of these women are recorded as laborers. They are forced to work for pitiable wages and are denied all social security benefits. A study by SEWA of 14 trades found that 85 per cent of women earned only 50 per cent of the official poverty level income. (6)

Even the above statistics can be said to be improvement when compared to past decades. The factors/reasons for continuous poor status of Indian women may be many and vary depending on geography, class and caste with one major common factor is gender bias in every aspect of life.

a) Social – Indian women are gripped within many social evils though forms have changed with changing times. Violence against women is still an issue and as pointed out not with earlier issues of sati child marriages, and ill-treatment of widows but with rape, dowry, wife battering, female infanticide, divorce, maintenance and child custody. (7)

In modern era (urban area growth) the issues are concerning street children, sexual exploitation of children & women, sexual harassment & discrimination of women. With supposed development activities of dams, mining etc., are resulting in displacement without even recognizing any right either in property or compensation affecting women drastically and further pushing them into total helplessness.

b) Legal – Constitutional rights (Equal rights & prohibition of discrimination, reservations (73rd & 74th Amendments), The committee on the Status of Women is constituted and it published “Towards Equality”, UN recognition & declaration of women’s rights as human rights, formation of National Women’s Commission etc. though recognizes that women has equal rights, and State plans and attempts to implement women oriented initiatives, many of those initiatives lack enforcement.

Campaigns for legal reform are important aids for focusing upon injustice and discrimination against women. However, the reforms themselves will not bring social justice in all the cases/situations. Some reforms fail to yield positive results for lack of social acceptance & legal enforcement. (dowry prohibition act, widow remarriage act etc).

C) Financial/Property Rights – Most of the women are deprived of property rights, and social structure is the major factor in deprivation of women’s property rights. Some state initiatives (allocation of funds for women in development projects)& legal reforms (eg. Right to maintenance, Women’s property right act) in some states recognized it but its enforcement/impact is questionable.

D) Political Power – There are some active women politicians from time to time and with few exception still the question remains is effective participation of women in political process.

Reservation system in panchayats opened doors for some active participation by women in the political process especially in rural development.

Representation of women in the state legislatures and in Parliament is low. Women currently comprise 5.9 per cent of Lok Sabha members. In the 1999 elections a mere 6.5 per cent of candidates were female.

Women have persistently lobbied for the passing of the 81st Amendment Bill, drafted in 1996, that proposes the reservation of one-third of seats in the Lok Sabha. But political parties have repeatedly sabotaged attempts to have the Bill approved.

However, hope lies in India's huge experiment with grassroots democracy through the panchayats. Nearly a million women have entered the panchayats and local bodies, thanks to one-third reservation in these bodies through the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution. Women head one-third of the panchayats and are gradually learning to use their new prerogatives. (8)

I believe once again the women reservation bill has come into light and focus of recent controversy.

E) Health Indian women lacks resources & autonomy to access reasonable health care and resulting in their poor health and mortality rate. Health issues are totally ignored in rural areas etc. Another issue of world focus is HIV/AIDS issues. They also lack reproductive rights & fertility rates are high in some states.

Percentage of women who have not obtained advice or treatment from health care providers is 69% in rural area. 49% of ever-married Indian women are not involved at all in decisions about seeking health care for themselves. (9)

Poverty, early marriage, malnutrition and lack of health care during pregnancy are the major reasons for both maternal and infant mortality. In rural India almost 60 per cent of girls are married before they are 18. Nearly 60 per cent of married girls bear children before they are 19. Almost one third of all babies are born with low birth weight.

The privatization of the health sector has increased the burden of the poor. Studies suggest that illness is the second highest cause for rural indebtedness. Government spending on public health fell from 1.26 per cent of GDP in 1989-90 to 1.12 per cent of GDP in 1995-96. Only 50 per cent of villages have any government health facility. (10)

(For status of Indian Women’s Education - See )

I strongly believe that the education does play a major role in improving overall conditions of all including women.

Access to educational opportunities did provide some girls with new options during the late period of indenture and schooling began to have a much more positive influence in the lives of many women after the mid-1930s. Despite these changes, educated women’s access to formal employment and equal status were severely limited. Women’s empowerment was also restricted by the gendered ideology of various cultures, and the continued domination of men in the family and society.

The following seminar papers attempts to examine the self-decision making power of the Women while defining some of the empowerment measures based on NFHS study. (11)

see the following link for more detailed examination of issues –

An attempt to analyze women’s autonomy based on direct and indirect measures has been made by selecting one state each from east, west, north and south region from the NFHS-II data in the above mentioned seminar papers. I wish to draw some attention to the following interesting findings of the NFHS-II data analysis in above mentioned seminar paper.

a) The overall picture of autonomy in terms of selected direct measures on various domestic chores reveals that a relatively larger proportion of women in Punjab (83 percent) and Maharashtra (80 percent) take decision on matters related to cooking independently. The corresponding figures for Madhya Pradesh and Orissa are 69 and 72 per cent respectively while it was lowest in Kerala (57 percent). However, when we consider autonomy in seeking health care, Kerala comes at the top with 55 percent followed by Punjab (46 percent) women deciding independently on health care whereas it was lowest in Orissa (12percent).

b) In Punjab only a hand full of women decide independently on going and staying with natal family (nine percent). In Contrast, Oriya women precede other states as far as women’s autonomy status on going and staying with her natal family is concerned (29 percent).

3) As the data suggests, the proportion of women who decide independently on spending money and keeping money aside for herself is highest in Punjab followed by Kerala and lowest in Orissa (ranging between 54 to 29 per cent and 78 to 66 per cent respectively). But across all the states the autonomy to buy jewelry seems to be very low. This sort of confirms that the women indeed are deprived of economic assets of their own use.

4) Except for Punjab and Kerala, women in other states with better literacy status have greater autonomy on seeking health care.

5) Relatively higher proportion of the Hindu women take independent decisions in seeking health care as compared to Muslims, although the variations are of lesser magnitude. As one would expect, more women residing in the urban areas apparently decide independently on health matters related to them. In the states of Kerala and

Punjab, earning cash for money does give women more say in the family matters. Also exposure to mass media shows some association with percents of women independently deciding on health care in Kerala, Punjab and to some extent Maharashtra

6) While considering indirect measures, it’s been found education to be very significantly associated with women autonomy, except for autonomy on cooking and for seeking health care and spending money. But, on the other hand if we take the spousal educational difference the autonomy of the women rises with the increases in husbands education i.e. when husband is more educated compared to her, she exercise greater autonomy in contrast to the situation where the women is more educated than her husband. This relation holds true for all the states under study. From the data inference can be drawn that it is the husband’s understanding and education

7) Where husband is highly educated the wife exercised more autonomy in compared issues like cooking, visiting family, keeping cash for her own purpose, access to health care, children education, use of contraceptives, preferring sex of the child etc.

8) Where there is a substantial age gap between the couple – 10 yrs or so elder to wife – women has more autonomy.

My attempt has been only to point out existing issues to the extent possible. I am certain, there are many more issues which I might have failed to notice or mention here. I feel that the most disadvantaged group is rural community. As some of the reading suggests that the issues concerning urban women do get some attention from women’s movement, NGO’s, State, Media etc. unlike rural and tribal women issues.

Approximately 20 million Indian people have been displaced by development activities such as dams, mining and construction of infrastructure since India's independence in 1947, according to estimates made by several independent Indian research organizations.

A two-year research project that looked at development projects in four parts of the country that have witnessed large-scale projects--Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh--finds that women suffer disproportionately due to systemic inequities, such as women being denied land rights and sons being given preference over daughters when it comes to schooling. (13)

Another notable factor for rural women’s plight is lack of access to natural resources especially water. As stated, the principle users and collectors of water in rural Indian households, women continue to bear many of the costs associated with increasing water scarcity, while having the least amount of input into the use and allocation of the resource. In many rural areas, scarcity of resources requires women and children to travel long distances to fetch water for daily household needs. One estimate has women from semi-arid regions in India traveling on average 1,400 km per year to fetch water from distant sources (Gupta et al. 1993). The investment in time, which could be devoted to other income-generating activities or education, has only perpetuated the poverty cycle in many regions. (14)

In conclusion, I was shocked to find high percentage of maternal mortality rate and infant mortality rate including male and female children in India, and poverty is a significant contributing factor. It is a vicious circle in which lack of education, lack of resources leading to poverty and poverty resulting in illiteracy, poor health etc, in addition to gender gap impacting women and children.



1) UNFPA-Bejing at Ten: UNFPA’s commitment to the Platform for Action) –available at &




5) & see

6), & &




10) &; For status of Indian women’s Education - See )

11) Women’s Autonomy In India Some Issues By Sucheta Shukla , Seminar paper submitted for the partial fulfillment of the Master in Population Studies (M.P.S), Academic year 2003-2004. International Institute for Population Sciences Govandi station road, Deonar Mumbai – 400008, 2004)

12) &



References & Suggested Readings


2) Empowerment of women is another area in which the village has excelled. Kambalwadi has a woman sarpanch and, recently, it was made mandatory to transfer all built-up property to women in the family. “If the house belongs to a woman she will be able to dictate terms. We have their best interests at heart,” explains sarpanch,Bharati shahji Redekar.






8) It must be admitted that legislation and judiciary has its own limits as the needs of the women are diverse and multiple. The problems like ignorance, illiteracy, discrimination and violence continue to persist. The judicial redress still remains a costly, time taking and rare commodity. Even with the provision of best safeguards and sensitive judicial approach, women’s rights continue to be a casualty in any conflicting situation with the other sex.


At 2:26 PM, Blogger Swati said...

Kind of a minor comment:

Please ensure that the entire text is in the light colored font. Parts of the text is now in a dark colored font & its difficult to read against a dark greenish background.

At 4:08 PM, Blogger Bharat said...

Read the reality here-

At 11:29 AM, Blogger Bharat said...

The real picture for you here-

Misuse of Dowry Laws

At 3:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

being a social worker and working with women of low strata, i found that there is a need of mind change of women herself regarding their own status. the deep rooted preferences of male member obstracts the woman to zoom out from the oaster to work independently and judiciously.
bimla,1008,hbc,sector-15A,hisar, haryana,india.

At 1:22 AM, Anonymous survey paypal site said...

This is so sad....not only Indian women are suffering from this status, there's a lot of other countries too. I hope this problem will soon be eliminated not only in India, but all over the world.

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