India has been 140th among 156 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index 2021, slipping 28 places. The primary reasons for the drop include disproportionate representation in politics, low women’s labour force participation, low literary and income inequality, among others. Her Right to Equality: From Promise to Power, a book of essays edited by Nisha Agrawal, the sixth book in the Rethinking India Series, is a handbook to address the aforementioned issues.
Her Right to Equality is a comprehensive and holistic text as it covers three major areas that lack women’s voice, household, economic sphere and political representation. There are three major issues women face in households. First, the rising domestic violence is proportional to the degree of submission by women. The book points out that women who consulted their husbands for household decisions, including decisions regarding their own spending, were less likely to be victims of domestic violence. Furthermore, relying on National Family Health Survey-4 (NFHS-4), it observed that 52 per cent of women and 42 per cent of men justified violence against women by husbands. Even though the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was enacted in 2005, the implementation has been poor, primarily due to the lack of budget, full time protection officers, low strength of magistrates, among others.
Second, the unpaid care burden (taking care of children/elderly) disproportionately impacts women, which in turn affects their education, health, well-being. According to the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), women in India spend 10 times more time on care work than men. This has a multi-fold impact: it restricts employment opportunities and women end up doing undervalued work.
Third, the health and reproductive rights of women are appalling in India. According to NFHS-4, 33% of women aged 15-49 years are undernourished, while 51.4 are anaemic! Lack of autonomy in reproductive choices is evident from the fact that the wanted fertility rate is 1.8, whereas the actual fertility is 2.2. Furthermore, patriarchal norms drive the use of contraceptives in India. 36 per cent of married women have undergone sterilisation. However, the proportion among men is abysmally low at 0.3 per cent.
The second major area covered by Her Right to Equality deals with the economic independence of women. Sexual harassment at the workplace affects economic independence severely as “A legally compliant workplace is not necessarily a gender-just or gender-equal workplace”. Delving into the history of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and referring to the famous case, Bajaj v Gill, Swarna Rajagopalan remarked that, “education, economic independence and social status are no protection against the impunity granted to men by patriarchy.” There are certain limitations in the act: three month period for complaint; written complaint requirement; failure to take into account context of the case, among other things.
India also needs to promote women’s entrepreneurship. According to a McKinsey report, India’s GDP can be increased by 60 per cent by bridging the gender gap. Currently, only 10 per cent of micro, small and medium enterprise (MSME) business, which account for only 3 per cent of the output, are owned by women. One of the major reason for this is the lack of access to finance. Among other government policies, increasing land ownership by women is essential as it increases the independence of women. Moreover, banks should grant collateral-free loans to women entrepreneurs. This entails less risk as an IFC Study indicates that women-owned businesses have 30-50 per cent less non performing assets.
The final section of the book on political representation presents striking data. According to the 2019 Union Budget, 94 per cent of the budget of the Ministry of Women and Child Development is used in Integrated Child Development Scheme, whereas only 4.5 per cent was allocated to the mission for protection and empowerment of women. There is a need to bifurcate the ministry to address both sections in a focused manner. In Kanimozhi Karunanidhi’s essay, through empirical research it was proven that a higher number of women members of the Parliament implies a higher number of women-related questions and debates. This holds true for both houses. Kanimozhi has argued for institutionalising women’s caucus to bring together women MPs across party-lines to coordinate and develop consensus on women-centric issues.
Tara Krishnaswamy, in her essay “Balancing the Parliament: Women in Indian Politics” in Her Right to Equality, argues that when women candidates win, the basic democratic principle of true representation is fulfilled as the women’s population of the electorate gets a voice. Krishnaswamy makes two interesting observations. First, she bursts the myth that women are not interested in politics by referring to 3 crore female members of Bharatiya Janata Party Mahila Morcha and 1 crore female members of All India Democratic Women’s Association. In addition to this, rural and urban local bodies have 33-50 per cent reservation for women across states. Second, women are not promoted for internal party leadership as well and are led almost entirely by men.
The final essay by Professor Bina Agarwal in Her Right to Equality is a vision for 2047, a vision for transforming gendered institutions, family, workplace, community and the state. These transformations range from ensuring equal property ownership, decreasing care work burden, state support in informal rural work, safe work environment for the formal sector, strengthening community forest groups and self-help group, independent institutions and intra-party democracy to criticise one’s own party. The only plausible drawback of the book is the fact that discussion on women’s representation in the legal fraternity was ignored. The Supreme Court of India has just one woman judge, and only 4 per cent of senior advocates are women. Considering the large impact of the judiciary on the daily lives of people, it becomes imperative to discuss these issues in a text meant for the general public. That aside, the book addresses important policy issues which require state intervention and society’s commitment to creating a more egalitarian India.
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