India: making place for women

iwd_squareToday’s post is by Anna Biernat, Media Coordinator in the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate. Anna holds a master’s degree in Indian studies and has lived and travelled extensively in India.

India has recently grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons. British film-maker Leslee Udwin interviewed one of the rapists from the Delhi gang rape that shook the country in 2012 for a documentary. The rapist, Mukesh Singh, who is facing the death penalty along with three others, expressed no remorse in the interview and blamed the victim for being out at night and fighting back. The documentary “India’s daughter” was shown on BBC Four on 4 March and was scheduled to air on India’s NDTV on Women’s Day. But instead, it kicked up a storm and was banned in India following accusations of glorifying the rapist and creating an atmosphere of fear and tension. Clearly, the ban only drummed up publicity for the film in a way that was beyond the wildest imagination of any marketing executive and sparked a vigorous discussion on Twitter.

A renowned Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta noted on Twitter that 99.9% of those who are outraged at the BBC rape documentary are Indian men, not women.

Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and a critic of the Modi government, said the documentary didn’t tarnish India but exposed some people’s attitudes toward women.

“In our culture, there is no place for a woman,” said one of the rapists’ lawyers. A shocking statement but how true is it? What is really the role of women in modern Indian society? The truth is that while India is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, many Indian women are still trapped in the dark ages. According to a 2012 poll, India is one of the worst countries to be a woman. Female foeticide, child marriage, dowry, domestic slavery and abuse top gender evils. And while in the last 20 years the growing economy has created opportunities for young women to work, female labour force participation in India is low and declining, as shown by the new OECD Economic Survey of India. According to the study, the reasons are complex and include cultural, social and religious barriers, safety concerns and poor infrastructure. But the survey clearly indicates that many women in India would like to work if conditions improved.

I recently travelled to India with OECD Chief Economist Catherine L Mann and two other senior female economists and experts on India. As we presented the survey in different Indian cities, wherever we went, we provoked surprise among our hosts and audience as a four-woman delegation. “Is that common?” people asked. “Not at all,” we responded frankly. “The gender gap remains an issue all around the world, including in the OECD countries.”

Raising female labour force participation can have substantial growth effects. It is estimated that if participation rates for women were to reach those of men by 2030, there would be a 12% increase in GDP across the OECD. In India, growth could raise by 1.5 to 2.4% per year as a result of a combination of pro-growth and pro-gender policies including public investment in infrastructure, safer and better transport, sanitation, health and, last but not least, education. If a household has access to water or electricity, a woman has more time available for outside work. For example, in South Africa electrification led to a large jump in female participation. Safety and availability of transport also impacts ability to go to work, or access markets. Electricity is reaching more and more households and businesses across India but the infrastructure, measured by the share of paved roads or access to water, must be improved.

There’s a saying that if we educate a girl, we educate a family – and a whole nation. Providing girls with education helps break the cycle of poverty: educated women are less likely to marry early and against their will, less likely to die in childbirth, more likely to have healthy babies, and more likely to send their children to school. Furthermore, greater gender equality in educational attainment has a strong positive effect on economic growth. In India, much progress has been made in the last decade to increase school enrolment of girls, especially at the primary level, but the gender gap persists. According to the Census of 2001-2011, the male literacy rate stands at 80.9%, which is 5.6 per cent higher than the previous census, while the female literacy rate is 64.6%, an increase of 10.9 per cent since 2001.

In the Economic Survey of India, the OECD provides a number of recommendations to enhance women’s economic participation including extending female quotas in state and national parliaments, modernising labour laws to ensure equal work opportunities for women, enhancing implementation of gender-related laws, and investing in public transport.

Asked about her opinion on the role of women in modern Indian society, a female Indian friend and a journalist gave a simple answer: “It’s a fight every day. Even for women in urban areas. And it is worse in villages. Women need to reclaim their rights.”

Happy Women’s Day!

Useful links

International Women’s Day events in India

India on the OECD iLibrary

OECD data on gender equality


Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now

International Women’s Day Competition: Can you spot the OECD delegation in the photo below?



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