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Women in India: A status report

C. P. Chandrasekhar
Jayati Ghosh

Despite all the official proclamations about empowerment and the numerous government schemes designed to improve women's economic conditions, their material status still shows much cause for concern. In this edition of Macroscan, C. P. Chan drasekhar and Jayati Ghosh present some of the recent data describing the condition of women and discuss how macroeconomic policies and processes have affected women and girls.

IN INDIA, improvement in the relative conditions faced by women has been among the explicit goals of government policy, along with growth, reduction of poverty and inequality and improved human development indicators.

Indeed, in the 1990s, the publicity given to the need for gender equality and women's empowerment meant that there was a proliferation of government schemes specifically for women.

Nevertheless, some of the data on conditions of women indicate that things may not have got much better for the bulk of India women over the past decade.

This is reflected even in demographic indicators, which tend to sum up health and living conditions at the most basic level of survival.

One of the basic measures traditionally used as a proxy for capturing the relative position of women in terms of conditions of survival, is life expectancy. The other is the sex ratio (number of females per number of males).

The recent Indian experience with both of these indicators is described in Charts 1 and 2, and it is apparent that they suggest slightly contradictory conclusions.

It will be seen from Chart 1 that the life expectancy of women has improved at a faster rate than that of men, so that by the mid-1990s, women in India had greater expectation of longevity than men, along the standard international lines and as predicted by biology.

However, the life expectancy differential between women and men is still below the international norm.

Chart 2 presents a somewhat different, and more depressing, picture. While the aggregate sex ratio for all ages improved between 1991 and 2001, at the later period it was still lower than the level of 1981, showing thereby a long-term decline. And the sex ratio for the 0-6 years age cohort has declined continuously and quite substantially.

This is startling given that the spread of access to modern medical techniques is supposed to ensure birth and survival of children to a greater extent. It points to the likely role played by the combination of greater neglect of girl children and wider practice of female foeticide based on modern medical techniques to determine the sex of the foetus.

Chart 3 presents evidence on sex ratios for the total population by State for 2001, and Chart 4 the sex ratios for children in the age group 0-6 years. It is clear that there is very substantial variation across States — but more significantly, that such variation has virtually nothing to do with per capita income or degree of development.

The lowest sex ratio is to be found in Delhi, which has the highest per capita income of all States, and is the most urbanised, and among the most developed of all States. The agriculturally developed and high per capita income States of Punjab and Haryana are next in terms of low sex ratio; in fact, in Punjab, the figure drops to an appalling 793 girls per 1,000 boys in the age group 0-6 years.

By contrast, Kerala, which has much lower per capita income, shows the best sex ratio at 1,058 women per 1,000 men, close to international norms. However, even in Kerala the 0-6 years sex ratio is unsatisfactory, while it is higher than the national average.

In general, several of the States that are economically less developed (such as Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu), perform better than the national average by these indicators. The complex relationship between economic growth and the status of women, becomes very evident here.

While infant mortality rates have declined over time, evidence from the Registrar General's Sample Registration Surveys (SRS) suggests that the rate of decline has decelerated over the 1990s.

This is also evident from Charts 5 and 6, which give aggregate IMRs for rural and urban areas respectively.

The aggregate infant mortality rate for males fell by 26 per cent between 1981 and 1991 (from 110 per thousand to 81 per thousand) but only by 12 per cent over the subsequent decade, to 71 per thousand.

The deceleration in infant mortality among girls over the two decades was even sharper, from 27 per cent to 10 per cent, such that the female IMR was 72 per thousand in 2001. Of course, this conceals the extent of female foeticide, which is likely (if anything) to have brought down female IMRs.

Some States have very high female IMRs, ranging from 96.9 per thousand in Orissa to 81.4 per thousand in Haryana in 1998-99. The female IMR in Madhya Pradesh in that year was as high as 101.5 per thousand.

What is even more disturbing is that in the recent past, there is evidence of rising IMRs in several States, which reverses the long-run trend of decline evident across India since Independence.

Death rates during the first five years of life also show very significant gender differentials. In 1998-99, the national average child mortality rate (CMR) was 29.3 per thousand. However, the CMR for rural boys was 27.9, while that for rural girls was one-and-a-half times higher at 41.7.

The urban gender differential was somewhat less: the urban CMR for boys was 14.6 while that for girls was 19.7. For all these variables there are significant variations across States, and in addition, within States as between different sub-regions, ethnic and social groups such as certain castes and tribes and minority groups.

Maternal mortality rates reflect health infrastructure conditions as well as other factors such as maternal nutrition levels. It is disturbing to observe that the rate of decline of maternal mortality has been very slow in India.

Maternal mortality for the country as a whole was estimated at 580 per 100,000 live births in the early 1990s. (P. N. Bhat, Mari K. Navaneetham and S. Irudaya Rajan "Maternal mortality in India: Estimates from a regression model", in Studies in Family Planning, 1995.)

Once again, there are significant rural-urban differentials (the rural rate at 638 is nearly double the urban rate of 389 per 100,000 live births). Similarly, there are wide variations across States, as evident from Chart 7.

The extent of variation is quite dramatic, varying (according to UNICEF estimates) from 738 in Orissa to only 87 in Kerala. These may be underestimates. Thus Bhat et al. (1995, op.cit.) estimate MMR in Assam to be as high as 1068, with MMR in Uttar Pradesh at 920 and in Bihar at 813

Indeed, the low MMR in Kerala indicates how much can be achieved through the greater spread of improved public health facilities and provision of basic nutrition through the public distribution system (PDS).

It has been estimated that 40 per cent of all maternal deaths in rural areas are due to bleeding of pregnancy and puerperium, and anaemia. The former is a directly obstetric cause, which can be mitigated through medical attention, while the latter is directly affected by nutrition.

Under-nutrition may be described as a characteristic feature of the condition of women and girl-children in most parts of India. Some of the major nutrition problems of the Indian population include:

  • chronic under-nutrition among a large section of the population, resulting in Chronic Energy Deficiency and Protein Energy Malnutrition, iron deficiency, iodine deficiency, Vitamin A deficiency, and low birth weight children;

  • inadequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation leading to deficiency in proteins, vitamins and minerals among childbearing women;

  • seasonal fluctuations in nutrition, especially in rural areas, and effects of natural calamities; and

  • special nutritional problems of hill people, industrial workers, migrant workers, the homeless, and other special categories.

    Obviously, in general nutritional status tends to be quite clearly linked with economic categories such as class, landholding, wages and household incomes. However, other criteria such as caste and ethnic/tribal status also tend to be significant.

    While there has been some improvement in nutritional conditions over time, gender disparities in this area remain significant and have probably even widened over time. Thus, estimates by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau indicate that the proportion of men defined as "Chronically Energy Deficient" in terms of Body Mass Index declined to nearly half from 55.6 per cent in 1975-79 to 28.6 per cent in 1995-96.

    However, the extent of decline of Chronic Energy Deficiency among women was significantly less, even though it did go down from 51.8 per cent to 36.2 per cent over the same period.

    It is therefore a matter of great concern that the latest National Sample Survey has revealed not only a decline in per capita foodgrain availability in the aggregate in the country, but also a decline in per capita calorie intake in 1999-2000 compared to 1993-94, since this is likely to be associated with a disproportionately negative effect on women and girl children.

    It is well known that intra-household distribution of food tends to discriminate by gender, usually because of self-denial by women and girls.

    In addition, the nutritional problems associated with effective child-bearing remain significant and widespread. Poor nutrition for girls during adolescence (and resultant anaemia and inadequate calcium intake) contribute to future obstetric risk and also affect the reproductive process. While the All-India average intake of calories is substantially below the Recommended Dietary Allowance for both men and women, the largest deficits are in the case of pregnant and lactating mothers.

    This can contribute to foetal loss, low birth weight and death during infancy. Deficiencies of micro-nutrients are rampant: not only calcium for pregnant and lactating women, but iron, riboflavin and Vitamin C for all women.

    NMMB studies show that 41 per cent of India's children suffer from mild malnutrition, 4 per cent from moderate malnutrition and 6 per cent from severe malnutrition. In the aggregate there has been very little improvement over time, although some States such as Kerala have shown substantial improvement, especially with the spread of the PDS to rural areas.

    But gender disparity in nutrition is marked even among children. Deep-rooted gender bias can be expressed even by mothers, through patterns of breast-feeding and subsequent feeding of boys and girls, as numerous micro studies have indicated. This is, in turn, reflected in differential rates of malnutrition for girls and boys.

    In terms of literacy and education, India still contains the largest number of illiterate people in the world, and also the largest number of illiterate women.

    The progress of improvement in literacy has been very slow, as evident from Chart 8, which also shows that literacy among females remains substantially below that for males, and that even at present, nearly half the female population of the country remains illiterate. Furthermore, female literacy rates are much lower (usually between 50 and 70 per cent) among Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, as well as among certain minority groups.

    School enrolment ratios show a significant increase across India, although there is a substantial amount of evidence from micro studies and other surveys that these are typically overestimates.

    However, even the NSS shows a substantial increase in "participation in education" for the age-group 6-11 years and 11-14 years in 1999-2000 compared to the earlier large surveys of 1987-88 and 1993-94, and the increases are more for girls and than for boys over this period.

    However, even with these data there is need for caution in interpretation. While the "usual status" category (which shows the response to the question "what do you usually do over the course of a year?") indicates substantial increase in education for these age groups, the daily status and weekly status categories show much lower participation in education, especially among girls.

    This suggests that even when children, especially girls, are formally registered in schools and therefore feel that is their usual activity, they may not be attending regularly for a variety of reasons. Similarly, dropout rates remain high, and tend to be much higher for girls than for boys.

    In terms of labour force participation, It should be noted that the definition of economic activity used by both the Census and the National Sample Survey is quite restrictive, and does not include the full spectrum of economic activities defined in the UN System of National Accounts, even though it now tries to take account of involvement in some household enterprises such as farm activities or small-scale artisan production or transacted service provision.

    It, therefore, excludes a significant amount of unpaid or non-marketed labour within the household, especially by women, including the processing of primary produce for own consumption, basic domestic handicraft production, services such as cleaning, childcare, and so on, which are undertaken within the household and not marketed. This means there is a likely underestimation of economic activity within the household, as well as of the work participation rates especially of women.

    Chart 9 shows labour force participation rates over time. When the first results of the 55th Round of the National Sample Survey (conducted in 1999-2000) were released, it was already apparent that there had been some major shifts in patterns of employment, especially in the rural areas.

    The 55th Round indicated a substantial decline in the share of agriculture and a rise in the share of non-agriculture in employment. In itself, this could be a positive sign of progress and diversification, but it was associated with a fairly large drop in work participation rates of both men and women, which indicated a deceleration in aggregate employment growth.

    Such a deceleration has now been confirmed by data emerging from the 2001 Census. (Chart 10)

    The Census data alone show that main employment growth (that is, involvement in economic activity for more than half the year) collapsed in rural areas over the decade of the 1990s.

    Most of the women employed in India are engaged in agriculture, whether as workers in household farms owned or tenanted by their families, or as wage workers.

    Yet it is precisely livelihood in agriculture that has tended to become more volatile and insecure in recent years, and women cultivators have, therefore, also been negatively affected.

    In terms of wage workers, as Chart 11 shows, for most categories of employment in both rural and urban areas, the male-female wage differential has tended to increase over the 1990s. The exception is only for wage labour in rural public workers, where in any case women account for less than 12 per cent of the days employed on average.

    The increase in gender disparity in wages in the urban areas is quite marked: usually it results from employment of women in different, and lower paying activities in the aggregate.

    All this shows that the process of gender equality and women's empowerment still has a long way to go, and may even have become more difficult in the recent past. This is despite explicit moves to increase women's political participation (for example, through reservation in panchayats as well as numerous schemes directed towards the welfare of women).

    The reason for this contradiction is that targeted schemes tend to have only limited impact when the basic thrust of macroeconomic schemes is operating in a direction which makes most women's material lives more fragile and vulnerable.

    There are many ways in which macroeconomic policies and processes directly affect the economic and other conditions facing women.

    In a positive sense, public infrastructure investment can directly feed into the lives and working conditions of women. Providing safe drinking water supply and better sanitation not only directly improves the lives and health of women but also reduces their workload in terms of provisioning and ensuring such facilities.

    Access to affordable cooking fuel reduces the need to travel long distances and spend hours collecting fuel-wood. Improved transport connecting villages with each other and with towns can also directly improve living conditions as well as reduce unpaid labour time spent in transporting items for household purposes.

    It can also lead over time, to access to a wider range of goods and services that can also reduce unpaid labour involved in housework.

    Conversely, reductions in such expenditures, or in the maintenance of existing public infrastructure assets and services, can have the opposite effects, leading to worsening conditions and more unpaid work for women.

    The issue of user charges for infrastructure services and utilities is also crucial; it has been observed in many countries that attempts at public sector reform, including privatisation, typically involve an increase in such charges which can dramatically reduce access, especially for poor women.

    Expenditure on the food subsidy, and in particular on the PDS, directly affects the lives of women and girl children in terms of access to adequate nutrition.

    A small change in a macro policy of this type (such as raising the issue prices of PDS food leading to higher prices in ration shops) can have more significant effects than the entire gamut of nutrition schemes directed towards women, whether they are pregnant and lactating mothers or girls attending schools.

    Patterns of resource mobilisation by governments also have differential effects by gender in ways that are not often usually recognised. In particular, indirect taxation can have important effects, depending upon how its incidence changes relative prices.

    When taxes are regressive, and fall disproportionately on items of mass consumption, once again these tend to affect women more. This is not only because their consumption of such items may be curtailed, but also because the provisioning of such items is frequently considered to be the responsibility of the women of the household.

    Along with fiscal policies, monetary policies also play important, if more indirect, roles in affecting the material conditions and context for women.

    Financial liberalisation, the need to preserve the confidence of international markets, and so on, all contribute to constraints on public expenditure and to domestic deflationary policies which affect both the delivery of public services and the generation of income-earning opportunities in the economy. These directly affect women as workers, consumers, household provisioners and major participants in the care economy.

    Credit policies that reduce the flow of credit to small-scale enterprises reduce employment opportunities for women since such enterprises are the dominant employers of women in both urban and rural areas.

    Trade liberalisation, similarly, can have contradictory effects: on the one hand, improving access to a wider and cheaper range of goods for consumption and, on the other, reducing incomes and employment for those working in sectors hit by import penetration.

    It is clear, therefore, that macroeconomic policies in general have important and differential effects on the condition of women.

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