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Approaching gender equality in India today: paradoxes and challenges

By IMPRI Team

Despite the fact that the Constitution of India grants men and women equal rights, gender inequality and gender disparities remain. It therefore becomes imperative to question why there is no structural and visible change, especially in the realms of higher education and work, but also in domestic spaces. It is in this backdrop that #IMPRI Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi organized a Special Lecture under IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk series: The State of Gender Equality – #GenderGaps, named Paradoxes and Challenges in Approaching Gender Equality in India Today.
The talk was chaired by Prof Vibhuti Patel, Visiting Professor, IMPRI; Former Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. The Speaker of the event was Prof. Mary E. John, Former Professor, Center for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi. And, the discussants for the talk were Dr Leena Pujari Associate Professor and Head, Department of Sociology, K C College, Mumbai; Prof Indira Ramarao, Scholar-in-Residence, Centre for Women’s Studies, Bangalore University, Bengaluru &Former Professor of Sociology, University of Mysore; Prof Pushpesh Kumar, Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad.

Socio-cultural political landscape

Prof. Vibhuti Patel started the discussion by stating that the socio-cultural political landscape for gender equality in India today is determined by complex mixture of new and the old. She mentions that numerous modern institutions of governance, judiciary and politics rest on traditional gender norms that are biased against women as well as sexual and gender minorities. She opines that modernization, globalization, urbanization and the like have all led to some irreversible changes for women.
Some of these changes, she exclaims, are positive but most of them are problematic. On the one hand, opportunities for better education for mass of girls and women have expanded but that doesn’t translate into jobs or careers. Over the last quarter of the century, decision-making power of women in local self-government has increased and all political parties put up candidates for the reserved seats for women in rural and urban Panchayati raj institutions but the same politicians vehemently oppose women’s reservation in the state legislative assembly and council, and the parliament.
She also talks about how women, despite entering the male dominated sectors, have been the target of strong backlash with increased violence both within and outside the home. Besides that, they have also been victim to acute wage differential discrimination and sexual harassment at workplace. While equality, liberty, dignity, are all guaranteed by the fundamental rights of the constitution of India, religion-based family laws pursue double standards in most intimate relations such as marriage, divorce, custody and guardianship rights. She further states that reforms and legislation do not match the ground reality that is devoid of intersectional justice and a level playing field for all.

Connect or dis-connect between higher education, violence and work

The discussion was then taken over by Prof. Mary E. John, who starts her presentation by stating the fact that albeit living in one of the most gender unequal societies in the world, some attention has to be paid to a few areas where the story isn’t as bad as we think it is. She begins the discussion with the very basic conception of binary gender because that is how data is stored in our statistical systems to this day. She then states that in her presentation, she will be focussing on three categories, namely higher education, violence and work and try and see how they connect or disconnect in our understanding.
Elaborating on higher education, Prof. John talks about how despite being under scrutiny in recent years, public university has not exactly been at the heart of our concerns. She expands on that with the picture at independence when the first data sets in higher education were put together. She brings to notice that there were one lakh students at that time that were enrolled in public universities, of which 10% (=10,000) were women. This proportion increased to 40% in 2001, and has now reached 49% as per 2019-20. She then points out that because we have an adverse sex ratio, the parity has actually been crossed, thus implying that the proportion of women enrolled in higher education in India is actually more than that of men.
Prof. John then puts up a pertinent question. In that, she asks why this enormous presence of women is not more visible to us. She explains that answering this question would need an intersectional data analysis. In order to do so, she takes the discussion forward by putting forth the idea of how the differences of caste make their intersection with gender. Explaining the data, she states that a much better proportion of upper-caste men are to be found in our higher educations than scheduled castes or OBCs, while in women there is a gender gap very visible in SCs and OBCs, which is practically non-existent in the case of upper-caste women.
Data based on religion point towards the fact that the ratio in Hindus is 27.5:24.7. This ratio is much lower in Muslims, who have been more and more excluded from accessing higher education. Here too, there is differential between the figures of men and women. Interestingly, the small populations of Christians and Sikhs in India have sent more women for higher education in India, than they have sent their men. The proportion of women is relatively considerably higher in both of these religions, especially in Sikhs.
Moving to the most recent figures of 2019-20, she points out that the gross enrolment ratio (GER) has actually jumped to 27%. She explains that a certain degree of democratization can now be seen thanks largely to reservations. However, she mentions, that 10-12% of the upper-castes are still highly overrepresented in our higher education institutions today even as other groups are slowly catching up with the exception of STs. In a similar vein, Muslims are also terribly underrepresented. Intersectionally, however, women are equally present across all these groups.
Next, Prof. John continued the discussion by talking about sexual harassment and violence. She spoke about the Task Force set up by UGC in the wake of the Delhi case in 2012. This task force was responsible for reviewing and recommending on gender and sexual harassment. In talking to women especially and men, Prof. John says that what they found was a very deep intersectionality in terms of vulnerability which was compounded by one’s location. She also pointed out that disability turned out to be one of the most structurally vulnerable factors that had actually not made an impact on us prior to these investigations. In terms of violence, Prof. John reveals a shocking figure pointing out that 98% of the rape cases in India are actually by people known to the victim and only a bear 2% is the other classic stranger rape.
Prof. John then takes the discussion towards another important theme which is work and employment. In this area as well, Prof. John makes some very surprising revelations. She talks about the misconception that most people have regarding finding work opportunities in rural areas as compared to the urban areas. She points out that the employment opportunities for women are actually more in the former as compared to the latter. These numbers are roughly the same for men across all locations. However, she also points out that the female rates have declined over the years in rural India. The urban figures, that are practically half of those of our rural India, have also declined over the years. Prof. John then concludes her presentation by putting forth various paradoxes and challenges. In doing this, she raises extremely pertinent questions including topics like early marriage as coupled with compulsory marriages and unpaid domestic work coupled with poorly paid domestic workers.

SakSham Report

The discussion is then taken forward by Dr. Leena Pujari. Her presentation is focussed on the SakSham Report, and covert cases of sexism that are visible on Indian campuses of higher education today. She talks about how gender equality from being something that was thought of as unworthy for a topic of deliberation, has now become a buzzword of sorts. However, she opines that this brings a certain danger. She believes so because this in kind of proliferation, it becomes very hard to keep track of how this is being interpreted and disseminated and whether feminist insights, struggles and discourses underpin this kind of proliferation. Therefore, in her opinion, this discourse on gender equality is largely an exercise in tokenism and has now become a perfunctory affair.
Dr. Pujari then goes on to talk about how the gender regime with a focus on the savarna, able-bodied and cis-het student is constructed in very interesting ways within campuses in India. She also points out that gender equality is largely interpreted as gender parity today. She opines that truncated, piecemeal and fragmentary approaches will not help and a sustained dialogue has to be mounted at different levels in multiple forums to actually be able to create an environment where gender is taken seriously. Further, she believes that the focus should now also be on curriculum and pedagogy considering the androcentric nature of knowledge production. Particular reforms and feminist pedagogical interventions should constitute important components of the sensitization process.
Therefore, it is not just curriculum, what we actually need is a necessary pedagogical shift with the necessary feminist insights. In her opinion, what we need is a campus that is sensitive to questions of gender and committed to an environment of equality and economy for multiple genders. And Dr. Pujari believes, we need to really combat the culture of silence and impunity that is inimical to gender justice in institutions of learning.

Lack of substantive justice

Prof. Pushpesh Kumar then attempts to the connect the three themes covered by Prof. John in the context of neoliberal India. He points out that a lack of substantive justice is an apparent theme in terms of offering a number of rights to women and the LQBTQIA+ community. In his opinion, the fact that despite the existence of committees like ICC and the rights offered to people of the aforementioned community, barely anything is actually being translated to proper rules and laws, and this, he believes, serves the neo-liberal agenda.

Opportunities for women

Prof. R. Indira then takes the discussion forward by stating the fact that opportunities have increased but not everybody has the same kind of opportunity. She also talks about how there is a need to look at education from a different perspective. She points out that albeit the number of women in higher education institutions is increasing, it has also become increasingly important to follow them up and know where they end up going. In this context, she talks about early and compulsory marriages as well.
With regards to violence, and committees like ICC, Prof. R. Indira opines that in most institutions they want people who just tow the line rather than people who are actually aware gender-aware. Therefore, she believes this is an issue that needs to be looked into, of how the committees which have the responsibility to make institutions gender sensitive are themselves gender insensitive. She concludes the discussion by quoting Prof. Mary E. John, saying “Intersectionality is about invisible women.” Prof. R. Indira believes that it is these invisible women in campuses, in workforce, in discourses on violence, in decision-making bodies that we have to be talking about.
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Acknowledgement: Palak Bothra, Research Intern at IMPRI

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