When Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave his first Independence Day speech, he touched upon subjects normally considered taboo for patriotic oration. Modi turned his attention to the plight of India’s women. At various points, he called incidents of rape a cause for shame, he lamented that girls are often forced to sacrifice their dreams, and he decried the lack of adequate indoor facilities for women. Modi also raised a subject of India’s gender gap.
Modi identified female foeticide as a primary culprit for this phenomenon, but there are many other factors, such as female malnutrition. According to a 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study, after accounting for diseases common between men and women, deaths from nutritional deficiencies is the clearest cause of the gender gap. Recent estimates for South Asia reveal that nutritional deficiencies rank as the 12th largest killer of reproductive-aged women, while interpersonal violence ranks 26th.
Surprisingly, of countries in South Asia, India shows one of the strongest patterns of nutrition gaps, second only to Afghanistan. While the overall life expectance of India’s population continues to improve, these gaps between sexes will persist as long as women are not given the same resources for nutrition as males. At their root, nutrition issues are often connected with gender rights and poverty.
To begin to address this trend, Modi needs to appoint a task force to investigate the comprehensive causes of female nutrition state-by-state. There are some steps he could take that would be immediately beneficial, like enhanced education on malnutrition, greater emphasis on public safety to allow for greater female mobility, and targeted food assistance for women.
Addressing this kind of inequality can be a sensitive issue, particularly when the origins seem rooted in regional cultures, traditions, and power structures. However, a situation where women routinely succumb to malnutrition is neither sustainable nor desirable. If nothing is done to reverse this trend India faces the possibility of a prolonged gender gap, which becomes more and more difficult to recover from.
Eventually, India’s ability to care for its own people will be put at risk, its long-term economic growth and human development will be compromised, it will be unable to harness fully its demographic potential, and its reputation as a progressive democracy will be tarnished. In this sense, the issue of female malnutrition and gender imbalance is one of national security. Any country ignores such issues at its own peril.
Modi has thankfully started the conversation, but has yet to make it a priority for his government. In his Independence Day speech, Modi rightly labelled India’s low gender ratio as an “imbalance in society”. History teaches us that an imbalanced society is not one prone to advancement and growth. For the sake of its women, and for itself, India must now show that a modern society takes care of its entire population.
Diego Gonzalez-Medina is research consultant and Anish Goel is a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation
The views expressed by the authors are personal