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New Delhi – Despite getting suitably politically empowered, women in India continue to lag behind on almost all crucial developmental parametres like education, health and economic participation.

New Delhi – Despite getting suitably politically empowered, women in India continue to lag behind on almost all crucial developmental parametres like education, health and economic participation.

So why isn’t women’s political empowerment—a fact acknowledged by the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest ‘Global Gender Gap Report 2009’, which ranks India at an impressive ‘24’ on the variable of ‘political empowerment’ for its women when measured against 134 countries—translating into better living conditions for Indian women?

After all, they constitute half the country’s 1.2 billion population and make up a whopping 340 million voters out of a total electorate of 710 million. The country’s President (Pratibha Patil), the leader of the ruling Congress party (Sonia Gandhi) and Speaker of the lower house of Parliament or Lok Sabha (Meira Kumar) are all women.

Overall, too, there has been an upswing in the number of women candidates each general election. This year, for instance, 556 women candidates contested the polls as against 355 in 2004 and 284 in 1999.

Consequently, a record contingent of 58 women legislators marched into the Indian Parliament this year. Furthermore, the ruling United Progressive Alliance government’s landmark ruling—introduced in June to reserve 50 percent of village councils and city municipalities seats for women—is also seeing more and more women plunge into politics. All these developments are nothing short of remarkable for a country whose political matrix has always been male-dominated.

However, experts point out that while the importance of political empowerment cannot be undermined in a patriarchal society like India’s, that alone cannot guarantee parity for women. An equitable share of educational opportunities, health benefits and literacy is vital too.

According to Brinda Karat, Politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the author of ‘Survival and Emancipation: Notes from Indian Women’s Struggles’, despite the increased participation of women in Indian politics, their status continues to remain iniquitous because the government has failed to implement one-third reservation for them in the Parliament.

“As a result,” Karat told IPS, “a large majority of Indian women are excluded from protective legislation, which can guarantee better living and working conditions for them. The trajectory of growth chosen by India erodes rather than supports women’s progress. For the millions of Indian women working in the unorganised sector, for instance, there’s still no social security.” Karat added that increasing domestic violence, spiraling crimes against women and low rates of conviction chips away at whatever progress takes place. “On top of it, there’s lack of genuine political will to improve women’s lot despite the fact that the Indian constitution guarantees gender equality in Articles 325 and 326. All this adds up to a dismal gender justice picture,” she stressed.

Indeed, India’s recurrent abysmal showing in gender parity surveys— including the WEF’s latest report—which ranks Indian women at 121st position in education, 127th in economic participation and an abysmal 131st in health and survival, exposes its much-vaunted claim of being a “vibrant” democracy.

The country’s skewed showing brings out its failure to translate words into action or progressive legislation. While across most countries, women compare well to men on health and education indices, resources in India are not being leveraged to better the lot of women, experts said.

India’s figure of 300 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births—one of the highest in the world—for instance, reflects the low priority its government accords to health. In fact, public health expenditure in India has plummeted from 1.3 percent of gross domestic product in 1990 to its current rate of 0.9 percent as against two percent of GDP spending on defense and one per cent on education.

Furthermore, schemes like the National Rural Health Mission (2005-12) have only marginally benefited rural women in bolstering their child survival and maternal health rates. The Mission—launched by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in 2005—seeks to provide effective healthcare to the rural population, with a special focus on 18 states that have weak public health indicators and weak infrastructure.

Besides, it is a well-known fact that in India, it is women who have to bear the brunt of population control measures. In populous states like Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, for instance, to implement the government’s two-children per family norm, health workers aggressively target rural women to undergo forced sterilisations in the most unhygienic conditions.

While it is simplistic to assume that empowered female politicians will give priority to women-centric policies at the cost of other development projects, there is no doubt that their enhanced political participation will help close the gender schism.

This will also have a multiplier effect on ossified social mindsets leading to women’s empowerment, better education for girls, health care for women and children, enhanced productivity and population stabilisation. Education, too, has a proven positive trickle-down effect on other social indicators such as infant mortality and fertility rates.

“Women constitute one half of India’s population and without their engagement and empowerment, rapid economic progress is out of the question,” asserted Dr Vandana Shiva, a renowned eco-feminist and co- founder of the International Forum on Globalization, an international non- governmental organisation.

According to Dr Shiva, gender equality is crucial for the economic prosperity and growth of any country. “No country can prosper if half its population is left behind,” she told IPS.

The scientist added that gender disparity in India is happening because of skewed economic growth. To illustrate her point, she explained that while in the past, Indian women were propelling the country’s “sustenance economy” —nurturing children and managing cottage industries – they are now under the brutal assault of the “corporate economy,” which has resulted in their mass displacement at the workplace.

“With corporate takeovers by large conglomerates, self-employed women are now under threat and losing their livelihoods,” Dr Shiva said.

“Gender inequality isn’t happening in India because of insufficient economic growth; it is happening because of growth. What we see in India is perverse growth—women farmers and the society are in a crisis, female feticide (the practice of killing a fetus because it is female) is rampant, especially in the affluent regions like Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. But large industrial conglomerates like the Tatas and Ambanis are flourishing.”

Due to this lopsided development, Indian women are losing economic power, which affects their social standing as well. “So the solution is to make growth more inclusive for women,” said the scientist.

Shiva’s point is further reinforced by the ‘India Gender Gap Review’ released by WEF on Nov. 9. This comprehensive national survey assesses the current state of gender-related corporate policies and practices in India.

The report states that only 14 percent of the companies surveyed by the reviewers have at least 40 percent women among their employees. These women employees are mainly present at the entry and middle levels of management, with few being able to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling to occupy senior management niches. In addition, most Indian companies do not track salary gaps despite wide wage gaps existing between women and men.

The report also exposes the hollow claims of the Indian corporate sector towards ensuring better parity for women. Wage force participation by its women, reveals the review, stands at 36 percent, and only three percent of its legislators, senior officials and managers are women. Furthermore, Indian women’s participation in the labor force is a piffling 36 percent, which is less than half the labor force participation rate of men.

“It is a pity all this is happening despite India being led by an economist prime minister!” said Dr Shiva.