All the politicians like Smt. Smriti Irani, PM Narendra Modi talk about women and child development and say things that ultimately mean that let us try and piece together the jigsaw of a better functioning India. But where do we actually stand when we compare ourselves to the world? How far have we really come since 1985, when women and child development was a department under the Ministry of Human Resources to 2006 and now when it has a ministry of its own with a minister to lead it?
On paper, women in India look really good, but is it the same when it comes to numbers? The list of acts put out by the government for the protection of women is as long as Rapunzel’s hair but as I read those acts and saw the number of acts there was, my first thought was ‘why isn’t it still safe for women out there, where do we lack? Is the government responsible or are we, the citizens responsible?’
It was a big deal in 2020 when the USA election took place. Some people wanted to vote Trump out and some wanted him to stay. Nevertheless, there was a 70-year-old woman named Elizabeth Warren who also decided to run for the President of the US. Shortly after her announcement for the same, she faced the same question multiple times “Are Americans ready for a female president?” and while actual experiments were conducted where people just voted a hypothetical candidate to see if they were ready for a female President, India has already seen Indira Gandhi as their prime minister and Pratibha Patil as their President 55 and 14 years back respectively. And not only we had those women, we as of now, had 16 women who served as the Chief Minister of an Indian State or Union Territory. I remember watching The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with Priyanka Chopra Jonas as the guest right after the US election results where she was asked by the host “What does it mean to you, to see the new vice president (of America) to be the first female, the first South Asian, the first African-American vice president (Kamala Harris)?” and her reply to that was “Coming from a country like India which has seen several women in governance from Prime Ministers to Presidents, welcome to the club America!”. Her witty remark made headlines, but she was right.
Now that we are talking about politics here, India has reservations for women in Indian politics as well and it ranges from 25% to 40%, impressive right? Now, moving to the non-impressive part, India has merely 12.6% representation in the parliament and that throws us at 149th position in the list of world classification of statistical data on the percentage of women in national parliament which includes 192 countries. Even Saudi Arabia, the country that was last to give women the right to drive in 2018 bags 19.9% of participation of women in parliament and secures place at 105th position. So, it is fair enough to say that we lag behind big time.
Coming to a topic that is considered least essential for women, education. When Malala Yousufzai said, “I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education and I am afraid of no one” she was probably speaking on behalf of almost all women. But a 15-year-old getting shot in the head just because she demands education is not how it is supposed to work. Even though, this case took place in Pakistan, where, as of 2017, The Hindu reported that in India, the proportion of women who completed basic 5 years of primary schooling were only 48%, while Nepal was at 92%, Pakistan at 74% and Bangladesh at 54%. Many African countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania leave India much behind in the literacy game. You might have an idea of where do we stand when compared to the world by now.
People have an idea that women should stay home and take care of the home and the kids and prepare meals before their husband gets back home from work. This mentality has caused a massive imbalance in the workplace. Did you know that percentage of women in the workplace was more in the 1990s than it is now? Shocking right? India has the 171st position in the list of 180 countries in the labor force participation rate amongst females i.e. the female population above the age of 15 years that is economically active. Again, led by the African country Rwanda where the % of female participation is 84.16%, India’s % is 23.41, outshined by countries like Pakistan again with 24.10%, Saudi Arabia with 23.45%, and Bangladesh with 36.14%. To improve these numbers and to get India to rise above the list, the government included Maternity Benefit Act and India became 3rd most paying country for women on maternity leave. No one saw this backfiring, but it did. This act leads to companies not employing women in the first place. So, isn’t there anything that can be done to make people appreciate women in the workplace more?
Well, there has to be a positive side as well right? There is. Punjab has declared free education for women and girls in government schools right from nursery to PhD. This recent effort of there can bring a real promising change in the future. Also, abortion in India has been legalized for up to 20 weeks of pregnancy (if not because of gender revelation) whereas places like Malta and Chile do not allow abortions even if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. While we still wait for sanitary pads to be tax free, good things take time.
It feels like we are taking baby steps, but we still have a long way to go.
If you have access to education and get 3 meals a day, you should consider yourself privileged. India accounts for 30% of children in extreme global poverty which roughly means that minimum of 45 million children are impoverished in the last few months mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
India’s position at the global hunger index has slipped 45 places since the year 2014. When it comes to malnutrition, India ranks 110 among 119 countries and lags behind countries like Iran and North Korea. The hunger index is considered to be ‘serious’ in India. IFRI says that more than 1/5th of the children under 5 years of age are underweight according to their age and height and over1/3rd of the children are too short for their age. Another shocking number that I came across was that over 100 children under 5 years of age die every hour in India due to malnutrition. That is just unbelievable! And what is more unbelievable is the fact that India is the 2nd most food-producing country in the world and yet is also the home to the 2nd highest undernourished children in the world.
This is another sector where the laws fall short. In India, children are trafficked for various reasons like sexual exploitation, slavery, and others. And due to the inability of tracking these numbers, there are only approximate figures. It is a shameful fact that India is the prime area for child trafficking and most children that are trafficked are either from, going to, or going through India. This is one of those dark sides of the country. Neighboring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh also have a significant number of children trafficked. And according to UNICEF, 12.6 million children worldwide are engaged in hazardous occupations like prostitution, drug dealing, etc. It is disturbing that children make roughly 40% of the prostitutes worldwide.
Growing up poor, the increased stress can take a toll on children’s mental health increasing depressive and anxiety disorders. If you google ‘countries ranked by mental health care the first name to pop up would be India, followed by China and United States. ‘India is the most depressed country in the world’ according to India Today. When an individual lacks the necessity for survival, poor mental health kicks in. people living below the poverty line are 3.4% more likely than people above the poverty line to suffer from serious mental illness.
Indian government launched POSHAN Abhiyan with a vision of nutrition nourishment for children and for pregnant and lactating mothers in 2017 after the high rates of hunger index. People like the Nobel Prize winner, Kailash Satyarthi are hopeful for the nation. Kailash Satyarthi’s NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan rescued over 1,600, actually 1,675 children, to be precise from situations of exploitation since the coronavirus outbreak.
As of now, the condition is alarming for almost everything in the country but there are hopes and there are improvements. If the laws are applied strictly much more improvement might be seen.
Conclusion As of the numbers that we saw above, we are moving as slow as possible and it is heart-breaking. Women and children still do not get what is needed to walk neck-to-neck with men and change the country for the better, but we are hopeful. A few improvements can also be seen due to the schemes and programmes of the government, but if we keep moving at the same speed that we are as of now, we are going to be here for a long time. It will take much more from us, the privileged people to move our country higher in all those lists mentioned above, except for the list of undernourished children, of course.