By Saumya Tewari
In the 2016 Rio Olympics, shuttler P.V. Sindhu became the first Indian woman to win a silver medal; Sakshi Malik the first Indian female wrestler to win a medal (bronze), gymnast Dipa Karmarkar became the first Indian woman to feature in a gymnastics final, finishing fourth in the vault, and Lalita Babar became the first Indian woman to enter a 3,000 metre steeplechase final, finishing 10th. Eighteen-year-old Aditi Ashok — the youngest golfer from India — also entered the final round of the women’s individual golf event.
Women saved the day for India at Rio, and their growing presence was reflected in the 54 female Indian athletes — the largest number ever — at an Olympiad.
While those rising numbers indicate the progress made by Indian sportswomen — many from small towns and poor families — in particular, and Indian women in general, a quick look at five key parameters — working women, education, maternal health, age of marriage and abortion rates-reveals that India’s women are routinely denied opportunities at education, work and even being born.
1. Working women: Lowest in BRICS, 25 million women leave workforce over a decade
Women’s workforce participation in India is the lowest among BRICS nations. A host of other countries, such as Bahrain (39 per cent), Malaysia (45 per cent) and Somalia (37 per cent), do much better, as IndiaSpend reported in March 2015, using World Bank data from 2014.
No more than 26 per cent of India’s women in India participated in the workforce, according to a 2013 Labour Bureau report. The rate improved to 27 per cent in 2014, according to a 2015 International Monetary Fund (IMF) study that IndiaSpend reported in July 2016. This is a decline of up to 8 per cent percentage point over 14 years; in 1999, up to 34 per cent of women were a part of India’s workforce.
2. Higher education: More women enrolled, outperform men, but drop out later
While more young women are enrolled in higher education than ever before — and apparently more successful in clearing 10th-standard board exams than young men-they are either marrying early or not finding or not looking for jobs, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of various data.
The enrolment of girls in higher education increased from 39 per cent to 46 per cent from 2007 to 2014, but as data above show, female participation in India’s labour force declined to a low of 27 per cent in 2014 from 34 per cent in 1999.
Almost 12 million women are enrolled in undergraduate courses, but few continue to professional courses; 600,000 women were enrolled for diploma courses, according to 2013 data, the latest available. Even fewer women sign on for PhDs and only 40 per cent of PhD candidates are female.
In 2016, girls were more successful than boys in clearing 10th-standard exams of a national education board, a trend that has held over seven years, we reported.
3. Maternal Health: Best ever, but worse than poorer countries
India’s maternal mortality ratio was 167 in 2010-12, according to the latest government data available, a steady improvement.
India’s maternal mortality ratio — 174, according to World Bank estimates — is worse than countries in the neighbourhood, such as Sri Lanka (30), Bhutan (148) and Cambodia (161).
India does worst among the BRICS countries: Russia (25), China (27), Brazil (44), and South Africa (138); according to the World Bank’s latest estimates, which differ somewhat from Indian sources’ 167 but confirm the trends.
4. Median age of marriage: Rising, but 61 per cent married before 16
The average Indian woman is married at 21.2 years, according to Census 2011, an improvement from 19.3 years in 1990, according to a government report.
The mean female age at marriage in rural areas is 20.7; in urban areas, 22.7, according to the latest census data from 2011.
While education is an efficient contraceptive — Indian women with a college degree have 1.9 children during their lifetime, against 3.8 for illiterate woman — it appears to only marginally slow the inevitability of early marriage.
Nearly 12 million Indian children were married before the age of 10 years, as IndiaSpend reported in June 2016; 7.84 million (65 per cent) married children were female, reinforcing the fact that girls are significantly more disadvantaged. Eight in 10 illiterate children who were married were also girls.
Also, as many as 1,403 females never attended any educational institution for every 1,000 males who have not, IndiaSpend reported in November 2015.
5. India’s missing girls: Child sex ratio lowest in 60 years
India’s child sex ratio is the worst in 60 years, indicating that girls continue to be aborted, killed or otherwise fatally neglected.
If India’s child sex ratio does not improve, there will be 23 million fewer women (aged 29-40) than there should be by 2030, according to a United Nations Population Fund projection.
Sex selection was introduced in India to control population growth, based on the premise that since girls are hardier, all else being equal, more survive childbirth than boys. In 1975, a paper in the journal Indian Paediatrics argued that this excess of girls was “unnecessary fecundity and that elimination of girls would lead to population control”, wrote Sabu M. George — a member of a committee to monitor a 1994 law that banned sex selection — in his February 2016 Indian Express column.
But despite the law, rising education levels — and more female role models, such as India’s latest Olympian medallists — the child sex ratio continues to fall.