The State must focus on transformational change in the lives of women
While it has initiated schemes over the years, its policies must focus on including and accounting for women; robust data must supplement such policies; and more women must be brought into decision-making.
Why is it that the Indian State can vaccinate 90% of Indians against Covid-19, outperforming Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, in the middle of a global pandemic, but it still has one of the higher maternal mortality rates in the world?
The Indian State appears to perform better on macroeconomic, episodic outcomes than everyday governance (Devesh Kapur, 2020). While the State can scale and deliver on some margins, like immunisation programmes, it fails on others, especially matters concerning women. Ranked 135 out of 146 countries in the 2022 Global Gender Gap Index, this number testifies to critical gaps in the lived experiences of women in India.
Every five years, the State conducts the world’s largest elections, with four times the electorate of the United States (US). The results are faster, more reliable, and rarely questioned. Though more women voted in the 2019 election than men, women constitute less than 15% of the Lok Sabha.
Indian roads have increased 15-fold since 1950 (Economic Surveys). That made it easier for the average rural Indian woman to walk her yearly quota of 14,000 km to fetch water — a gendered burden. She has no option but to tread these very roads, for as recently as 2019, 4 of 5 women did not have access to the indoor tap water supply. Now, half the country’s women have piped water (Jal Jeevan Mission or JJM), but supply is sporadic. They still spend 1-5 hours each day, sometimes, even more, just to provide water for their families.
In 2013, India even sent satellites to Mars, under the stewardship of a team largely comprising female scientists. But the country’s female labour force participation has declined from 35% in the mid-2000s to 17% today, which is less than half the world average, and lower than Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
The expanding police reforms to bring on more personnel and equipment have not translated into better law and order or dented the increasing rates of crimes against women (according to the National Commission for Women).
Similarly, the State has moved quickly on projects such as Aadhaar cards and implementing a nationwide GST, through hundreds of notifications. Such alacrity, however, has rarely been there for improving human development indicators, especially female-centric ones. For instance, 70% of India cannot afford a healthy diet and such food insecurity disproportionately affects women, as they still eat last and the least (United Nations, 2021). More Indian women, almost 57%, are anaemic now. Matters get worse as every 3 out of 5 women face problems in accessing healthcare (National Family Health Survey-5).
On all these margins, women from vulnerable religious and caste groups have it much worse. While they are usually at the receiving end of negligence and ill-treatment from the state and society, they are also at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their equation with women of relative privilege.
This is not to say the Indian State has failed women entirely. Despite bureaucratic overload, poor devolution of fiscal and non-fiscal powers, and erstwhile colonial structures, over the last 75 years, the State has put clean fuel in 85% of households, electrified nearly all homes, given out nearly 70% of disbursed microloans to women, and delivered other quasi-public goods/services. Propelled by economic growth since the 1990s, the State has financed nearly 600 schemes/initiatives at central/state levels that directly and indirectly aimed at improving the condition of women.
But more schemes do not necessarily translate into meaningful impact. For instance, providing water and fuel need not always mean that quality or supply is guaranteed. Similarly, while the Indian State has made a commendable push for girls’ education, studies have shown that even when women are better educated, there is no notable increase in paid employment. Instead, their role inside the household is reaffirmed.
Therefore, the State’s efforts need to be more oriented toward transformational change. First, where possible, policies must include and account for women. For instance, the JJM, while targeting an increase in indoor taps, specifically highlights the need to reduce female drudgery in collecting water.
Second, robust data must supplement such policies. For example, the State should develop a consistent methodology to measure the extent of drudgery that women face in addition to fetching water, implement and evaluate mechanisms to reduce this drudgery, assess outcomes, and scale successful interventions.
Third, the need for more women at decision-making tables cannot be stressed enough. They are better suited to identify the problems that women face on the ground, especially in the context of social cleavages. Research shows that when women are assigned political posts, female-centric issues get better addressed, and the policy process is less blinkered.
While private and community efforts play a critical role in improving socio-economic parameters concerning women, they are usually localised. The State has the resources and power to scale the provision of public goods. Our simple but firm message is: It needs to turn its face and cater to women.
Kadambari Shah and Shreyas Narla are policy researchers
The views expressed are personal