Prima facie, we are in the age of feminism. It appears more so especially on Women’s Day. This day is celebrated with fervour, at schools, at corporations, at beauty saloons. Women are placed centrestage. From bars to movies to coffee shops, women are honoured with free drinks, movie tickets and cups of coffee, going with the rhetoric of women’s empowerment.
Going beyond that rhetoric, I can confidently say that women’s voices are more prominent today than they ever have been before. This is exemplified at many levels: Whether it’s through creation of women-friendly laws, or women occupying leadership positions in politics or corporations, the success of women-centric films such as Pink and Dangal, or the media rearing its head against misogyny of all forms, or even Prime Minister’s occasional encouraging commentary on women.
Yet many a times all of it feels like mere tokenism, a glittery front for the grim, shocking reality that lies beneath superfluous gestures and words.
At the risk of dampening the fluorescent pink spirit of the day, the truth is that in 2017 Indian women are hardly empowered and lag far behind men on several crucial parameters including health, safety, and the most glaring of them all, economic participation. According to a report published by Oxfam, India ranks the second-lowest in the Group of 20 (G20) economies when it comes to women’s participation in the workforce, only above Saudi Arabia. Despite the fact that female literacy has been steadily rising, India has lower levels of women’s workforce participation than many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and West Asia. While women make up nearly half the population, they account for only a quarter of workers employed. India has one of the worst gender gaps (disproportionate difference between the sexes) in the world when it comes to labour force participation, and despite progressive economic growth, female labour force participation rates across all age groups, education levels in both urban and rural areas has been declining.
Based on my research, including on the ground by speaking to young, intelligent women in India’s cities and small towns, there are two glaring reasons for these sorry figures. The first is the pressure on all women of all ages– starting as young as 15 (child marriage still proliferates in our small towns and villages) to single women in their 50s and 60s to get married. We as a society remain obsessed with marriage. This is apparent with the increasing vulgarity of Indian weddings, with the persistence of dowry despite strict laws and the mushrooming of online and offline marriage bureaus.
While girls are encouraged to attend schools and colleges – where they regularly outperform boys academically – the numbers dip drastically when it comes to getting jobs. Girls are discouraged to work and encouraged to marry. While the average age of marriage has increased over the past decade, social and family pressure remains a terrible downer for women in terms of motivation.
Why don’t the parents of girls encourage their daughters to work? The most common reason I hear is that the chances of a working woman in the competitive matrimonial market are dimmer than those of a “homely” one.
The second reason for women’s low participation in the workforce is concern for their safety. On a daily basis, more than 848 women in the country are either trafficked or harassed, raped, or killed after being abducted. As the noise around women’s safety grows louder, public perception that women are at risk increases and women may then be less likely to work. So many girls that I speak with say that while their parents allow them to attend college in Delhi or other metro cities, they will not allow them to work there because of the fear of their safety, particularly on the daily commute to and from their workplace.
The fact of women falling out of the workforce creates a huge negative impact for India. If the workforce participation rates for women in India were the same as for men, roughly 217 million women would join the labour force.
According to International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, the participation of these “missing” women could increase India’s economic output by as much as 27%.
India is one of the youngest countries of the world and the demographic dividend of educated, young people, particularly of educated women can transform this country, economically, socially and culturally. Our Prime Minister regularly speaks of his vision of India becoming the greatest country in the world. No country where 217 million women missing from its work force has any chance at all of becoming a global power of any sort at all.
While I do appreciate the free manicures, drinks and air miles this Women’s Day, let’s aim to stop the tokenism. It means nothing. Instead, let’s aim for deeper, long-lasting and more substantial solutions. Drawing more women into the formal labour force, along with creating more jobs, relaxing the pressure to get married and enforcing safety measures can be real sources of growth for India. These changes will make for a more productive country, a more empowered country and most certainly a happier/content country.
While Women’s Day aims at making women happy for one day, why not aim at making women happier every single day.
Ira Trivedi is the author of India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st century. The views expressed are personal.