Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Mar 05, 2018
Empowering women in India – a great challenge for Govt. as well as society

We will be celebrating yet another Women’s Day on 8 March. As we do so, it is the right time to take stock of how women in India, who comprise half the country’s population, have progressed in terms of social and economic status, which underscores their empowerment. It is sad to note that with the exception of a few high achievers, women are still underrepresented in professional and public life.

In the UN Human Development Report’s (2016) Gender Inequality Index, India is at the bottom of the pile at 125th position, out of 159 countries. In Gender Gap index (World Economic Forum) 2017, its position is 108th out of 144 countries. It has slipped 21 places in one year compared to the 87th position last year in Gender Gap Index!

The Economic Survey 2017-18 has taken note of the Meta son preference in India. The discrimination against the girl child begins in infancy. Girls are not given the best of medical treatment as compared to boys and they are not given the best of foods. Many girls in low income households grow up malnourished and suffer from anaemia later in life.


In 2017, 51 per cent of women aged 14 to 49 were found to be suffering from anaemia in India (the highest in the world) which makes childbirth difficult and dangerous. It is one of the reasons why the maternal mortality rate is so high in India at 167 per 100,000 live births. We failed to meet the UN Millennium Development Goal in this category.

Girls are withdrawn from schools at puberty if the school is far away and especially when the school does not have a separate toilet for them. That is why the dropout rates for girls are much higher than boys in the middle and secondary levels. Today the level of education of women over 25 years is lower than of men at only 35.3 per cent in the secondary level education.

India, with all its hype about being the fastest growing country in the world, is one of the most unsafe countries for women. Everyday there are reports of violence against women in the news. The empowerment of women cannot happen without a change of attitude of men towards women but ensuring safety for women is the responsibility of the State.

Women can be empowered by the economic means and they are on a strong wicket when they bring money to the households. But the recent Family Health Survey reveals that only one fifth of working women have the power to take important decisions in the family. Around 61 per cent women have revealed that in all important matters, both husband and wife take joint decisions. Only 7 per cent of women admitted that it is the husband who makes all the decisions. Isn’t it strange that in the twenty first century when women have come a long way from being married off early and are holding important jobs with 42 percent of women earning equal to their husbands, they still remain subservient to the husbands?

Even when some women are doing well, women’s participation in the work force is low at 26 per cent compared to other BRICS members because of all kinds of barriers that women face if they want to work.


They drop out from work to raise families but re-entry is very difficult once the children are grown up. That is why many educated women are not working in India. There are few retraining facilities available for women to re-enter the job market once they have left it.

Also in many cases, as soon as the husband is earning well, women drop their jobs. Many men also do not like working wives because they think such women are neglectful in their household duties and in bringing up children. Being ‘home makers’ is a preferred option among the middle and high high income families.

In agriculture, women are discriminated severely. Even though they do much more work than the average man in the household, her work goes unpaid and unrecognised.


If she is a wage worker, her wages are much lower than of men. In remote villages, a woman has to fetch water, gather firewood, tend to cattle, look after the elderly and the children. It takes them the entire day to complete the chores. Life is hard and constrained for millions of rural women. Some of them have been rescued by NGOs and they have found group comfort in working together, learning skills and getting paid.

The reservation of 33 per cent seats for women in the Parliament is also something that has been proposed and rejected many times. India has only 12.2 per cent women in the Parliament. In panchayats, however, women got reserved seats in 1993, which is a milestone in the history of our rural development. Now the reservation is likely to go up to 50 per cent. Pakistan has made reservation for women a law and there are 60 seats out 342 seats in Pakistan National assembly or lower house and 137 reserved seats in 4 provincial Assemblies.

The status of widows are even worse. The society still treats them in a despicable manner, especially among Hindus. In many cases, they are either abandoned by families or sent to Vindravan or Banaras to live a life of penury. In Vrindavan, there are around 6000 widowed women living on almost no money of their own and depending entirely on charity. A small pension of Rs 350 per month (which was Rs 200 earlier) is granted to them under the Indira Gandhi National Pension Scheme.  In most States, there is something wrong in the way widows are treated by the society, considering them a bad omen and excluding them for being inauspicious. These patriarchal customs lower the status of women in the country.

On the whole, on Women’s Day, we have to realise that women can have the kind of empowerment that they already have in many countries, especially in the Scandinavian nations, if they work and have economic independence, exercise control over their reproductive health, have a strong voice in family matters, and have proportionate representation in politics.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


David Rusnok

David Rusnok

David Rusnok Researcher Strengthening National Climate Policy Implementation (SNAPFI) project DIW Germany

Read More +