Gender equality still a distant dream

The adoption of our Constitution was also a declaration of a dream for an equal society
Last Updated : 20 April 2021, 20:36 IST

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We all saw a number of programmes in different forms on March 8 - the International Women’s Day. It is indeed an important day as it reminds us of the struggles of women for peace, reasonable working hours, equal wages and right to vote.

The adoption of our Constitution was also a declaration of a dream for an equal society where everyone would have equal opportunities to schooling, good health, speak and dissent, work, elect and get elected. Although we have achieved gender parity, that is, equal representation of girls and boys, or men and women in certain respects, we are far from achieving substantive gender equality in most cases.

Let us examine this for education. Some of our recent experiences from various research shows that inequalities exist in terms of treatment, expectations and attendance even though data points towards near or full gender parity. If there is a shortage of desks and benches, who gets it?

In Bihar, we saw girls sitting on the floors while boys always got desks and benches, and no one questioned the practice. What happens even when there is no shortage? In Andhra, we saw that girls were made to sit behind boys. And who cleans the floor and who fills the water pot? In UP, we heard from Dalit girls that teachers always ask them only to sweep the floor, while they ask upper caste boys to fill the water.

In the absence of adequate seats in government colleges in Bihar, we saw a good number of girls enrolled in private colleges that they never attend. It suits both the family and the institution – the institution does not hire faculties and only arranges for examinations, while the family doesn’t have to pay for the transport and, more importantly, does not have the fear of their girls either being sexually harassed or falling in love.

Safety concerns often hide parental control over girls’ mobility and free will. In one place in Andhra, we saw that all girls from a village and some even from neighbouring villages withdraw from a secondary school after one of the adult girls from the village ran away with a boy and got married.

The pressure of upholding family honour by maintaining chastity cuts across classes, and it seriously conflicts with education. Our analysis of district-level data in high-incidence districts showed that the incidence of child marriage was more common among the rich in certain states like Gujarat.

Domestic violence

Violence, too, is unrelentingly present in all sections of society. Of the total of more than four lakh reported crimes against women by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2019, more than 30% were domestic violence followed by about 28% cases of sexual assault and rape. Recently, we were in the field for the evaluation of a women’s literacy programme in Uttar Pradesh, where we could hardly meet a woman who had not struggled against domestic violence.

Mobility is highly controlled and even access to technology, including phone, is controlled. One of our recent multi-state studies on the impact of Covid-19 on education and livelihoods clearly showed a gendered pattern: a much higher percentage of boys had access to telephone; girls were far more engaged in domestic and care work, leaving them with much less time for studies.

Why are these not changing? Why do even educated women succumb to or even sanction such control? Women are part of the same society – unwritten social norms and shared understandings regarding the undesirable are the same; they, too, unquestioningly internalise it.

‘Obedience’ is a celebrated value in every sphere, but especially so in education. The New Education Policy mentions ‘obedience’ and ‘righteous conduct’ as desirable values to be perpetuated by education without even defining these words. Righteous conduct can easily be linked with maintenance of chastity, and schools can continue to reinforce unequal social norms.

Our policies are verbose on desired objectives but inadequate on defining concepts clearly. Let me look at the cash transfer schemes in different states – Bhagyalakshmi, Dhanalakshmi, Vidya Lakshmi, Apni beti-apna dhan etc. The names of these schemes that objectify girls is not the only issue. Most of these are designed as conditional cash transfers to influence practices such as son preference and early marriage. But if cash-starvation is not the reason for these practices, how can the lure of cash solve it? Evidence clearly shows that cash transfer works in certain but not in all respects, especially when it comes to address issues that are structural in nature.

While it is important to celebrate the achievements related to the changes in the status of women in our society, it is even more pertinent to reflect on how far behind we are from our own goal of an equal society. If not, we would be marching past on March 8, making some movements but not really moving ahead.

(The writer is Director, Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, Bengaluru)

Published 20 April 2021, 17:27 IST

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