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Women : Background & Perspective

 By Sujata Madhok

There are several clear indicators of the fact that Indian women continue to be discriminated against: the sex ratio is skewed against them; maternal mortality is the second-highest in the world; more than 40 per cent of women are illiterate; and crimes against women are on the rise. Yet, the women's movement which gathered strength after the 1970s, has led to progressive legislation and positive change, spurred on by the participationof women in local self-government.

Roots of discrimination / Beginnings of change / Status of women in India / The women's movement / Legal status / Political participation / Minority rights / Current concerns

It is a paradox of modern India that women wield power and hold positions at the topmost levels, yet large sections of women are among the most underprivileged. Some women from the upper classes head political parties and command large followings, yet women's representation in the Parliament and state legislatures has not been more than 10 per cent.

The roots of discrimination against women lie in the religious and cultural practices of India. The beginning of changes started with the reform movements in the nineteenth century, which addressed practices like sati, child marriage, life of the widows, etc. The status of women in the contemporary context is reflected in the state of their health, education, employment and life in society.

The Indian women's movement started with addressing the problems that women faced, like violence, property rights, legal status, political participation, and the rights of minority women. Today, Indian women have won several victories against an oppressive way of life and are poised to raise pertinent questions that will make their lives more emancipating.


They can be traced back to ancient Hindu civilisation. Although some studies point to the equal status and rights that women enjoyed in the Vedic period (2500 B.C. to 1500 B.C.), patriarchy seems to have been the norm throughout history.

In the later Aryan period after 300 B.C., domination by the Brahmins (the priestly class), the growth of the caste system and other factors led to social decline. Child marriage became the norm, wives were expected to worship their husbands, barren women were thrown out of their homes and widows were not permitted to remarry. Many of these vicious customs are still observed in parts of the country.

Other religions, like Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism or Islam, have questioned some of the practices in Hinduism, but, by and large, all religions have kept their women in varying stages of confinement and restrictions. The Bhakti cults tried to restore women's status and questioned some of the forms of oppression.


One of the fallouts of English education for the middle class during the colonial period was a change in attitude towards women. Through the Arya Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj, the Bengali middle class questioned the rigidity of brahminical Hinduism. Social reformers like Raja Rammohun Roy opposed sati or the practice of burning the widow on the husband's funeral pyre. The government abolished it in 1829. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar's crusade for widows led to the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856. Several decades of agitation led to the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 that stipulated 14 as the minimum age of marriage for a girl. Education of girls through formal schooling was another major concern. The All India Women's Education Conference held in Pune in 1927 became a leading organisation in the movement for social change.

Women played a major role in the struggle for freedom from colonial rule. In 1917, the first women's delegation met the Secretary of State to demand women's political rights. The Indian National Congress supported the demand. In 1949 independent India gave them their due by enshrining in the Constitution the right of equality for women. Indian women have participated in large numbers in people's movements including those for land rights, environment, anti-price rise and anti-liquor agitations.


The clearest indicator of discrimination against Indian women is the skewed sex ratio. There were only 927 females per 1000 males in India (the world average is 990 women per 1000 men), according to the 1991 Census. Provisional figures for Census 2001 indicate that the trend has been slightly arrested, with the sex ratio at 933 females per 1000 males, with Kerala at 1058 females (www.censusindia.net). This is welcome news.

Yet cause for concern remains. The sex ratio of the 0-6 age group has declined sharply from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001. One reason for the adverse juvenile sex ratio is the increasing reluctance to have female children. Portable ultrasound machines and sex determination tests have made possible to detect and abort the female foetus. Social neglect of women and girls is the other contributing factor.


Poverty, early marriage, malnutrition and lack of health care during pregnancy are the major reasons for both maternal and infant mortality. In rural India almost 60 per cent of girls are married before they are 18. Nearly 60 per cent of married girls bear children before they are 19. Almost one third of all babies are born with low birth weight.

Maternal mortality in India is the second highest in the world, estimated to be between 385-487 per 100,000 live births. Close to 125,000 women die from pregnancy and pregnancy related causes each year. Antenatal services are poor with only 53.8 per cent receiving tetanus toxoid injections and 46.8 per cent having their blood pressure measured. 80 per cent of women are anaemic. As many as 58 per cent reduce their food intake during pregnancy instead of increasing it. Two-thirds of deliveries still take place at home, with only 43 per cent supervised by health professionals. Only 52 per cent of couples in the reproductive age groups use contraception.

For the country as a whole, nutritional standards are poor with cereal consumption per capita having fallen from 17 kgs per month in 1952 to 13 kgs per month in 1993-94. Calorie intake has also declined. Forty per cent of males and 41 per cent of females suffer chronic energy deficiency. A shocking 50 per cent of children under five are malnourished, and 70 per cent anaemic because of nutrition deficiencies. Anti-people policies alone can explain the paradox of tonnes of grain rotting in FCI godowns while people go hungry.

Poverty and lack of awareness also hinder mothers from giving adequate care for their children. For instance, although diarrhoea is the second largest killer of babies, only 43 per cent of mothers know about ORS and only 26 per cent report ever having used it. Similarly, only one-third of children are fed complementary foods between the ages of six and nine months when breastfeeding should be supplemented. The second National Family Health Survey suggests that uneducated mothers tend to lose the most infants.

Social restrictions on women's mobility also contribute to lesser healthcare for women and children. For example, 90 per cent of married women in Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir and about 80 per cent in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Assam need permission to visit even friends and relatives.

Women's health tends to be viewed narrowly as reproductive health, whereas many factors need to be considered. For instance, communicable diseases are more of a threat to women than pregnancy. Tuberculosis and not pregnancy is the leading cause of death of women in the reproductive age group, followed by burns and suicides.

The privatisation of the health sector has increased the burden of the poor. Studies suggest that illness is the second highest cause for rural indebtedness. Government spending on public health fell from 1.26 per cent of GDP in 1989-90 to 1.12 per cent of GDP in 1995-96. Only 50 per cent of villages have any government health facility.

(See "Women's Health in India," www.census.gov/ipc/prod/wid-9803.pdf)

Water and Sanitation

Only 62.3 per cent of Indian households have access to safe water -- 81.4 per cent urban and 55.5 per cent rural households. This means that women spend a considerable amount of time carrying water from distant wells and other sources, adding to women's burden.

Access to sanitation facilities is a special problem for women and girls, given the social emphasis on privacy and seclusion. Having to go out exposes them to harassment. Women and girls living in urban slums are particularly affected. Public toilets for females are few. Many schools do not have toilets for girls and women teachers. By 1995 only 15.2 per cent of rural people had access to toilets.


In 1951, shortly after Independence, the Census recorded that only 25 per cent of men and 7 per cent of women were literate. By the 1991 Census, female literacy had risen to 39 per cent. Census 2001 provisional figures indicate that 54.16 per cent of women are now able to read and write. Still, 245 million Indian women cannot read or write, comprising the world's largest number of unlettered women.

National averages in literacy conceal wide disparities. For instance, while 95 per cent of women in Mizoram are literate, only 34 per cent of women in Bihar can read and write.

Since the majority of India's unlettered people are female, literacy and education programmes need to focus on girls and women. Yet progressive government programmes like the Mahila Samakhya, that designed a scheme to conscientise and empower rural women and motivate them to educate themselves, have been distorted in recent years. The District Primary Education Programme focuses on enrolment but not on the retention of girls in schools. In the absence of an enabling and empowering environment, girls are unlikely to stay on in school, say critics of the large World Bank funded programme.

The average Indian female has only 1.2 years of schooling, while the Indian male spends 3.5 years in school. More than 50 per cent girls drop out by the time they are in middle school.

Women's organisations point out that sibling care is a major reason for girls dropping out of school and suggest that crèches be attached to schools so that girls are free to attend classes. Midday meals, free books and uniforms, and the provision of toilets are other facilities suggested to bring more girls into the school system, besides more same sex schools and more female teachers.

The women's movement has repeatedly called upon the government to fulfil its pledge to invest 6 per cent of the country's GDP in education. But in fact expenditure on education fell from 3.4 per cent of GDP in 1989-90 to 2.8 per cent in 1995-96. Further, amounts actually made available and real spending falls far short of budgetary provisions.

(See http://wcd.nic.in/CEDAW4.htm)


Most of the work that women do, such as collecting fuel, fodder and water, or growing vegetables, or keeping poultry for domestic consumption, goes unrecorded in the Census counts. Many women and girls who work on family land are not recorded as workers. In 1991 women and girls comprised 22.5 per cent of the official workforce. Data from the National Sample Surveys records higher work participation by women than the Census.

Women constitute 90 per cent of the total marginal workers of the country. Rural women engaged in agriculture form 78 per cent of all women in regular work. They are a third of all workers on the land. The traditional gender division of labour ensures that these women get on average 30 per cent lower wages than men. The total employment of women in organised sector is only 4 per cent.

Although industrial production increased in the 1980s, jobs in factories and establishments -- or non-household jobs -- stagnated at eight per cent of the workforce. Increasingly, companies tend to rely on outsourcing, using cheap labour.

It is well known that women and children work in huge numbers in bidi-rolling, agarbatti-rolling, bangle making, weaving, brassware, leather, crafts and other industries. Yet, only 3 per cent of these women are recorded as labourers. They are forced to work for pitiable wages and are denied all social security benefits. A study by SEWA of 14 trades found that 85 per cent of women earned only 50 per cent of the official poverty level income.

(See http://infochangeindia.org/www.sewa.org, http://wcd.nic.in/CEDAW4.htm)

Social Status

Crime against women has been rising with each year. Violence, both outside and within the household, is a grim reality of women's lives. Between 1990 and 1996 crimes against women grew by 56 per cent. Cruelty to wives comprised 28 per cent of all crimes in 1996.

The extent of trafficking in women is unknown. However, one official study admits to 100,000 prostitutes in six metro cities. Of these, 15 per cent are girls below the age of 15. Cross-border trafficking is common.

According to the National Sample Survey Organisation figures, one out of ten households is headed by a woman. Women-headed households include widows, deserted and divorced wives and single women. They tend to be among the poorest households in the country. There are indications that the number of such households is rising and that the NSSO figure is an underestimate.

The status of tribal women is in some ways better than that of other women, for instance, female infanticide is lowest among the tribal people. Tribal women work shoulder to shoulder with men and have a higher status than many caste Hindu women do. Still, violence and oppression is a common occurrence. They are doubly oppressed as part of a community that is among India's most deprived people. Their customary access to the forests has been restricted with the government appropriating forests and forest produce through a series of damaging legislations. Large numbers of tribal people have been displaced from their homes by modern so-called 'development' projects including mines, giant industrial plants, dams and electricity projects as well as defence installations like missile ranges.


Several strands of thought and activism merged to create the contemporary women's movement in India. The spark was provided by the Declaration of the UN Year of Women in 1975 and the release at the end of that year of the Status of Women Committee Report, a voluminous compilation of data, that blew apart the myth that post-Independence Indian women were gradually 'progressing'. Faced with stark facts on the abysmal status of the mass of Indian women, who suffered from poverty, illiteracy and ill health as well as discrimination in both the domestic and the public spheres, middle class women in the metros began to campaign against the worst manifestations of sexism and patriarchy.

Opinion on these issues built up gradually during the Emergency period and in 1977, when the Emergency was lifted, women began to organise themselves into small feminist groups. They represented different sections of the society -- left leaning political groupings in academia, students' unions, trade unions, peasant groups and ordinary middle class women.

The movement energised older associations such as the Young Women's Christian Association, the All India Women's Conference and the National Federation of Indian Women and in turn drew strength from their experience in organising. The emergence of the magazine Manushi and other feminist publications signified this ferment in women's minds.

Early feminist activism questioned the practice of dowry and protested the deaths of many young women by holding dharnas in front of police stations and the houses where the women were burned to death.

One of the first national level issues that brought the women's groups together was the Mathura rape case. Four lawyers wrote to the Supreme Court to protest against the acquittal of policemen accused of raping Mathura, a young girl in a police station. The barrage of protests in 1979-1980, widely covered in the national media, forced the government to amend the Evidence Act, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Penal Code and introduce the category of custodial rape.

Incidents of Sati led to questioning of the links between patriarchy, religion and culture and the demand for stringent action against communities that encourage and deify the practice of sati. In recent years, female infanticide has become a major issue after amniocentesis tests enabled the detection of the sex of the foetus in the mother's womb.

Another issue that was addressed was sexism in media, particularly films and advertising. Large scale poster campaigns and public protests were organised.

A coercive population policy and the government's repeated moves to introduce hi-tech hormonal contraceptives such as injectables and implants led to many campaigns against hazardous trials of these contraceptive devices. Women are an intrinsic part of pro-people health activism in the country.

Communalism became a major issue for the women's movement with the Muslim Women's Bill (see section on Minority Rights).

An interesting fallout of the literacy campaigns initiated by the central government was the sparking of an anti-arrack movement in rural Andhra Pradesh after some women read a literacy lesson that encouraged protest against liquor. This remarkable movement has been documented in several books and in documentary films like When Women Unite. The state government, which enjoys substantial revenues from the sale of arrack and other liquor, strongly opposed the movement but for some years was unable to stop the attacks on arrack vendors and protest at auction sites. It was forced to impose a ban on the sale of arrack but withdrew it subsequently. Anti-liquor campaigns have been successful in Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and other states but have invariably faced suppression from mafia, police and government. The government's excise policy is regrettably geared to actively promoting liquor, at the expense of women and families.

Struggles have been initiated for protection of the forests, notably the Chipko movement, and for rights to land and water. Ideologues such as Vandana Shiva have built a strong case for environmentalism and campaigned against the World Trade Order.

Strengthened by the ideological legitimacy given to women's participation in political struggles, a few women have emerged as leaders of local movements. Among them are Aruna Roy who heads the Right to Information Campaign emanating from rural Rajasthan and Medha Patkar who leads the powerful Narmada Bachao Andolan. In a different mould are women like Ela Bhatt who leads the unique Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), a trade union of women in the unorganised sector.

During the early 1980s, the larger, national level women's organisations had come together in a loose alliance and become known as the "seven sisters". The autonomous groups held conferences biannually to discuss movement issues and strategies. The Indian Association for Women's Studies provided activists and academics a forum to meet and confer.

The 1990s saw the consolidation of the women's movement. Grants from foreign donor agencies enabled the formation of new non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Money was available for research on women's issues and for some forms of activism. Today autonomous women's collectives are the exception, the majority of groups are NGOs identified with one or other individual. Many such NGOs have become part of the 'delivery' mechanism of the government as they provide services such as reproductive health care to women, or gender training to government functionaries and panchayats.

As the number of new women's groups, NGOs and organisations grew throughout the country, they felt the need for representation at the national level. The United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, provided an opportunity. UN and donor funding enabled the formation of a Coordination Unit to hold preparatory meetings in different parts of the country. Post-Beijing, these groups formed the National Alliance of Women's Organisations (NAWO) that played an active role in the Beijing Plus Five meetings held in New York. Women were also organised through a Task Force set up with donor support for the Plus Five process.

(See http://infochangeindia.org/www.nationalcommissionforwomen.org)


Women have equality of status under the country's Constitution. However, many anomalies remain under different laws.

During the 25 years of the women's movement the government has amended several laws that affect women, including laws related to dowry, rape, cruelty, maintenance, prostitution and obscenity. India has ratified international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It has set up family courts in some states and the judiciary has issued a series of progressive judgements in favour of women, including a recent judgement on sexual harassment at the workplace and on child custody. (See www.wcd.nic.in for CEDAW report).

However, Hindu law still does not give women equal rights in ancestral property. For instance, they cannot be coparceners in ancestral property and have limited rights to inherit it. They cannot ask for division of the property. No law exists to prevent wives from being thrown out of the matrimonial home. Separated, deserted or divorced women face major hurdles in claiming maintenance for themselves and their children.

The government has been singularly reluctant to address the issues of minority women's rights. The constitutional stipulation to chart a Uniform Civil Code has been unsuccessful so far because, by and large, the effort has been to impose Hindu law in the name of a Uniform Code and to ignore even the positive aspects of Personal Laws of other communities.


Although Indian women played a major role in the freedom movement, it did not translate into continued participation in public life in the post-independence era. On the contrary, many women withdrew into their homes, secure in the belief that they had ushered in a democratic republic in which the dreams and aspirations of the mass of people would be achieved.

Representation of women in the state legislatures and in Parliament is low. Women currently comprise 5.9 per cent of Lok Sabha members. In the 1999 elections a mere 6.5 per cent of candidates were female.

Women have persistently lobbied for the passing of the 81st Amendment Bill, drafted in 1996, that proposes the reservation of one-third of seats in the Lok Sabha. But political parties have repeatedly sabotaged attempts to have the Bill approved.

However, hope lies in India's huge experiment with grassroots democracy through the panchayats. Nearly a million women have entered the panchayats and local bodies, thanks to one-third reservation in these bodies through the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution. Women head one-third of the panchayats and are gradually learning to use their new prerogatives.


In 1986 the Supreme Court's attempt to give justice to Shahbano, an old Muslim woman who asked for maintenance from her husband after divorce, was vociferously opposed by fundamentalist Muslim leaders, on the specious ground that this was interference in the minority community's personal law. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi gave in to their demand and pushed through the ironically named Muslim Women's (Protection of Rights Upon Divorce) Act despite nationwide protests from women. The law curbs Muslim women's right to ask for maintenance from their ex-husbands. Yet, in recent years, many Muslim women have gone to the courts to ask for maintenance and have been awarded it.

The fundamentalist opposition to changes in the personal law gave Hindu political parties like the BJP and the Shiv Sena a stick to beat the minority with. The debate around the Uniform Civil Code in the mid-90s has enabled a discussion of the personal laws. Muslim women have been steadily organising themselves and questioning their leadership's interpretation of women's rights under the Shariat. In particular they have critiqued the man's right to unilateral 'triple talaq' or oral divorce and to marry four wives.

Christian women, well aware of the government's reluctance to tackle the difficult issue of personal law, have struggled over the years to persuade conservatives within the Church to agree to reform and give them equal rights of divorce and succession. In 1994, all the churches, jointly with women's organisations, drew up a draft law called the Christian Marriage and Matrimonial Causes Bill. Although the community and the church have for over three decades been lobbying for reform, the government has still not amended the relevant laws.

Dalit women are increasingly beginning to organise against the triple oppression of caste, class and gender. Mass rape of Dalit women has frequently been used by upper castes to repress movements for the political assertion of Dalit rights.


Both research and activism has focussed on the negative fallout of the process of globalisation and liberalisation on women. They have demanded that the investment in the social sector be increased. But a government bent on opening up the economy to foreign investment and free trade has paid no heed to these voices, although India has experienced industrial recession and a period of jobless growth in the past decade. Given the high levels of the population and a large population below age 20, the demand for employment is growing and joblessness and accompanying frustrations have contributed to violence, frequently expressed as ethnic, caste, class or communal conflicts. Women are the worst sufferers in such conflicts.

Besides raising these economic issues, sections of the women's movement are questioning the oppression of Dalit women. Muslim and Christian women are strongly demanding equal rights.

The war in Kargil has spurred activism for peace. Women were the first to lead a peace delegation to Pakistan in the post-war period, breaking the ice and initiating people-to-people dialogues. Issues of conflict and peace are important, given the tremendous suffering of women in Jammu and Kashmir and in the North East region.

Cross-border trafficking of women and girls is a major problem that remains untackled. Lobbying by women's groups of the South Asian region forced the SAARC countries to include in their Male Declaration of 1997 a paragraph on trafficking and a commitment to sign a regional convention on trafficking. This commitment has yet to be fulfilled.

The Constitution had promised free education for all Indian children up to the age of 14. This promise was never fulfilled. The government is contemplating passing a law to grant children ages 6-14 the right to education. Child rights and women's activists argue that this right is already enshrined in the Constitution and the Right to Education Bill has been designed to absolve the government of its responsibility towards those under six years of age.

The National Commission for Women has made a series of recommendations for legal reform and other measures that deserve consideration but have so far been ignored by the government. Last year the Indian government reported to a UN Committee on the status of implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women and was congratulated for bringing women into panchayats, but critiqued on other counts including denial of rights to minority women.

Activists have drafted a Bill on Domestic Violence after national consultations with women's organisations and lobbied for its passage. An official version is likely to be introduced in Parliament shortly.

The government has declared 2001 as the Year of Women's Empowerment or Swashakti. A policy for the Empowerment of Women was drafted in 1996 but has been in cold storage since then. It has recently, in March 2001, been passed by the Cabinet but has still to be made public. Even the Parliamentary Committee on Women's Empowerment has been denied the document.

Comments (3)
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Written by Ankit Kumar Chatri, on 27-06-2008 05:45
The article brings out very well the problems faced by women. What we call their 'problems' is actually their life, so if we talk of women as our better half then it is our duty to work for their betterment. One clarification which is required to be made is that in under the heading 'Current Concerns', it has been stated that 'The Constitution had guaranteed....' It should read 'The Constitution has guaranteed because the clause enshrined in the Constitution is alive as ever.
Written by Diana, on 02-06-2008 06:23
This article is pretty good; one learns from it the condition of women in India. But if I want to trust it, the author must provide authoritative sources so we know the information is reliable.
Written by Samiran Das, on 05-05-2008 08:33
Women in India are economically and socially underprivileged. There is the story of Ashma, a village woman in rural Bengal who always dreads her husband’s visit. She has lost all interest in life including the upbringing of her children and taking proper care of her own health. It is a common story in rural Bengal/India, where domestic abuse is rampant, and although there are laws to protect women from domestic violence, they are generally under-utilised because of ignorance and lack of community support and help. 
The story of Jogomaya Mandal is somewhat different from Ashma's although it too exemplifies the common fate of many women in Bengal 
Jogomaya Mandal was married to Kesto Mondal of Bholmari, a small village in Nadia (West Bengal) at the age of 16. She had her first child at the age of 18 and after several miscarriages her second son was born when she was 30. Her husband, who died 10 years ago, was jobless and the family was dependent on Jogomaya’s tiny income as a vegetable vendor. Jogomaya never cared for herself; her main concern was to support her family – not an uncommon scenario for most of the women in our society. 
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