Originally Published 2017-01-13 06:10:08 Published on Jan 13, 2017
Mind the gender gap

During the 2014 national and State elections, for the first time women’s safety and empowerment were topics of debate, marking a significant shift in how gender concerns are viewed by the political class as well as by voters in India. In the two years since, policy focus and public scrutiny on persistent gender inequality has grown exponentially. In 2015, 194 member states, including India, adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. Gender equality is one of the 17 goals to “transform our world”. This year, India ratified the Paris Agreement. The direct link between empowering women and alleviating poverty, increasing productivity, and combating climate change is well-recognised. However, the lack of targeted resources is often stated to be the biggest reason behind the sluggish progress in furthering the gender agenda. Therefore, it is important that India’s budget priorities reflect its commitment to invest in women and girls.

Last year, the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report ranked India 87 in terms of gender equality in economy, education, health, and political representation. Women’s declining labour participation, under-representation in Parliament, skewed child sex ratio, and prevalent gender-based violence are recognised challenges. To bridge these gaps, India formally adopted Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB) in 2005. The rationale behind GRB is that policy outcomes are not as gender-neutral as commonly believed, and can reinforce or exacerbate exiting hierarchies. Hence, gender budgeting initiatives aim to integrate critical gender concerns into fiscal policies and administration to address disparities.

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Every annual budget since 2005 has included a statement that lists out two parts. There is Part A, which reflects ‘Women Specific Schemes’, namely, those which have 100 per cent allocation for women, and Part B, which reflects ‘Pro Women Schemes’, namely, where at least 30 per cent of the allocation is for women. Over the years, India has stood out for its implementation of gender budgeting, and with the Ministry of Finance (MoF) playing the central role, it has managed to successfully institutionalise the concept at both the national and State levels (16 States have embraced the exercise). Studies substantiate the positive link between GRB and improved indicators for women. For instance, a recent International Monetary Fund study found that States that employ GRB also show better female to male school enrolment ratios. Further, it was observed that GRB also has a positive impact on infrastructure spending.

Decentralisation of funding

Despite the successes, better implementation and planning are needed to ensure that these policies percolate right down to the last woman in the most remote parts of the country. In recent years, allocations have either remained stagnant or have been on the decline. For instance, Budget 2016-17 was widely considered to be a mixed bag for women. While the Ministry of Women and Child Development and National Commission for Women saw nominal increases, the scheme meant for implementing the Domestic Violence Act did not receive any allocation. Further, there was a decline in the number of ministries and departments that fall under GRB. The budget also initiated the decentralisation of funding in GRB, thus shifting the onus for budgeting and implementation from the Central Ministry to State counterparts. While this did empower the States to come up with women-specific policies as per their respective challenges, the obvious downside was the risk that States could choose to not prioritise gender in their budgeting. In this way, the intent of universalising the process, so that it equally benefits women in all States, was lost in the pragmatism of the move.

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For it to be truly effective, GRB must be viewed as an essential tool to tackle societal inequality that hinders progress instead of a symbolic exercise for pleasing the emerging women constituency. So far, GRB has focussed on identifying schemes that are exclusively dedicated to women. While this focus is imperative, it has restricted benefits without the incorporation of a gender lens across all welfare schemes. Sectors such as energy, urban development, food security, water supply and sanitation continue to operate in silos, despite having causal interrelationships with women’s empowerment. Policies carried out by these sectors do have a different impact on men and women. Therefore, moving forward, every budget presents the opportunity to mainstream gender in the policy environment, and demonstrate the commitment to include and enable women’s inclusion in India’s growth story. Equally, women’s potential in enabling development, instead of being passive beneficiaries of it, must be recognised in these processes. Commendably, the MoF organises pre-budget consultations. It must be ensured that women are given adequate representation and opportunities to voice their different experiences on such platforms.

Gender budgeting alone is not sufficient to tackle deep-rooted gender disparities. However, policies can be more effective if budgeting takes a broader, gendered approach which includes planning targeted interventions, getting the right policy push with the right budget allocation, and monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to ensure implementation. Moreover, policies should also be flexible to change based on feedback from the intended recipients as their exclusion from planning and execution processes is often the reason behind the failure of well-intentioned policies. It would also help if the Central government could, through an incentive mechanism, encourage State governments to take up GBR as a priority in their budget layouts. As the government gears up to present the Union budget in February, it will hopefully keep current realities and feedback in mind. While some issues can be debatable, the need to urgently address gender inequality is not.

This commentary was first published in The Hindu.

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