Despite economic growth, gender inequality remains a massive concern in India. Recent statistics show the country still has a lot of work to do. We spoke with Rachana Sharma, a social entrepreneur, who left her career as a hotelier in India’s corporate sector, to pursue her passion for social activism. Sharma, who is in the early stages of developing a youth advocacy organisation, sheds light on the current social climate for females in India.
Can you tell us a little about the statistics surrounding gender inequality for females in India?
The statistics surrounding gender inequality in India really concern me. The Global Gender Gap Index 2017 which was released as part of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2017 ranked India at number 108 out of 144 countries. It’s a pretty shocking figure and it sheds light on the mountain of work we still have to do.
The result was mainly due to low scores in two indicators, Health and Survival in which India ranked 141, and Economic Participation and Opportunities for Women, in which India ranked 139.
In terms of women in leadership roles across sectors, only 19 percent of senior officials, managers and legislators are women.
One area that India has done well in is the education sector. India succeeded in closing its primary and secondary education enrolment gender gaps and was very close in closing its tertiary education gender gap. However, India’s overall literacy rate still shows disparity between men (80 percent) and women (59 percent).
If reports show that gender enrolment gaps are closing, then why are women’s literacy levels still so low?
The low literacy rate is due to high female dropout rates from educational institutions. Unfortunately, the dropout rate for females in secondary education is more than 30 percent. There are many factors that lend to this.
Firstly, secondary education is the point at which the state does not enforce compulsory education—this seriously reduces female participation in higher education. Without regulation, females tend to go back to traditional ways of thinking and living. This is especially prevalent in rural communities, where traditional gender roles such as looking after younger siblings, children and household chores are considered a priority. Rural areas are also prone to underage marriage, which doesn’t really help the situation.
There are also concerns for the safety of adolescent girls travelling long distances to get to schools.
Infrastructural facilities in schools is another factor at play. Lack of usable toilets and access to proper facilities makes life difficult for females in general, but this becomes especially difficult during menstruation. Many women across rural India drop-out of school when they get their period because of this reason and because of limited access to or knowledge of sanitary pads. Menstruation is also a taboo subject in India.
To gain a better understanding around the issues women in India face in regards to menstruation, I encourage readers to watch the oscar-winning documentary, Period. End of Sentence, by Iranian-American director, Rayka Zehtabchi, and Pad Man, by Indian producer and actress, Twinkle Khanna.
Rachana Sharma awarding a student at one of the Vision 2021 award ceremonies
What are some of the biggest issues that Indian women face?
The number one biggest issue is the expectation of fulfilling the expectations of family and society. Women have to deal with being continuously judged based on the archaic ideas that the Indian community holds around the role of a woman.
Women are seldom made a part of the decision making process—every what, why and how is decided by fathers, brothers and husbands. The way a woman should dress, speak or talk, everything is pre-decided. It’s a dictatorial, patriarchal system and women barely get the opportunity to think or act independently.
While some may think this only applies to those who are uneducated, live in rural areas or belong to lower socioeconomic groups, the truth is, even women who have completed higher education, live in urban areas and come from ‘status’ families, still have to deal with similar issues. Perhaps they are able to enjoy the finer things in life but they do it within a cage that has become known as the golden cage.
The woman who lives in a golden cage gets the very best education—she is enrolled at one of the country's top universities to gain an engineering or doctor's degree. Her parents are then able to add BE or MBBS to her title in her marriage invitation. Once this invitation is accepted by a suitor who comes from an equally wealthy family with a degree to match her own, she becomes a kept woman and her degree is put into her pocket for use during dinner conversations.
In these high status, old business families, steeped in the past, women accept that earning bread is only a man's prerogative. Such an environment leads to living a guarded life, limiting a woman’s personal ambitions and abilities.
It’s an interesting phenomenon, the golden cage, especially when education is supposed to free people of these rusty ideas.
The second biggest issue that women face is safety. Women are vulnerable in this area and it makes families hesitant in allowing their daughters to travel for work or higher education. This results in either slow or insignificant social progression within communities.
In June last year, the Thomson Reuters Foundation experts’ survey ranked India as one of the most dangerous places for women. This ranking came from a survey which addressed issues such as sexual violence and harassment, cultural and traditional practices, human trafficking, forced labour, sex slavery and domestic servitude.
Finally, putting aside a woman’s role within society, poverty and safety, even if those areas are surpassed, they still have to deal with wage disparity. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, there is huge wage disparity in India and this makes a woman financially weaker and socially inferior to her male counterpart.
According to the Global Wage Report 2018-19, published by International Labour Organization (ILO), females in India still get paid 34 percent less than males. Although this shows huge improvement when compared to the 48 percent from just a decade ago, India is still considered amongst the worst in the world.
In order to create change we need more participation from various storytellers and role models who are less moulded by outdated cultural attitudes. Role models who can generate an environment that is safe, offers hope and celebrates ambition.
Some of the women who are already actively supporting this agenda, and immediately spring to mind are Olympic boxer Mary Kom, author and social scientist Deepa Narayan and actresses Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone and Kangana Ranaut.
What did these role models do differently?
They broke stereotypes, they spoke up, they gave women a voice. They were either able to do this through the support of their parents, higher education or they somehow managed to rebel in a positive way.
Priyanka Chopra is an example of what happens when one has incredibly supportive parents. Although Chopra’s father died of cancer a few years back, he played an equal role alongside her mother in raising her. Recently, her mother was also the one to walk her down the aisle at her wedding. Chopra’s parents supported and raised a confident, healthy and fearless woman.
One of Chopra’s comments on feminism comes to mind when I talk about support from family:
“Feminism is a conversation about equality. It needs men. It needs men to stand up for their mothers, their sisters, their girlfriends, their wives, their daughters and say that I’m going to change the game for my future generation."
Support from parents and other family members has proven to be time and time again one of the significant factors in producing positive change at a grassroots level. Another example of this is depicted in the 2016 film, Dangal, produced by widely-known Indian actor, Amir Khan. The film is loosely-based on a real Indian family and tells the story of an Indian wrestler who raises his two daughters to become world champions in wrestling. It breaks many Indian stereotypes, from the short attire and haircuts worn by the film’s lead characters to them succeeding in what is traditionally considered a man’s sport.
Can you tell us a little about India’s societal preference for sons over daughters and where you believe that comes from?
India is an interesting place, one of many juxtapositions and contradictions. It’s the country that brought the world meditation, the Vedas, peace and happiness, yet it has also somehow manifested its own gender-favourable demon.
Over 600,000 girls between the ages of 0-6 years go missing in India each year. A majority of them are illegally aborted and others are abandoned, poisoned, stoned, starved, left to die of infections… the list goes on—all just because they are girls. These killings are colloquially known as ‘gendercide’ and are not unique to India, it’s a huge problem across many other Asian nations as well. This is an ethical problem as well as a social one—gendercide is creating countries with highly unbalanced populations.
The question we need to ask is why, why is it this way? What types of cultural systems are making the situation so desperate? One such system is the dowry system and the evils of the marriage obligations that come with it.
Even though The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, makes the dowry system illegal in India, a vast majority of India’s population ignore the law and cultural systems take precedence. Parents of a bride are still forced to pay the family their daughter is being married into, making a female child a liability.
What many don’t realise is, the original dowry system evolved to cater to a British-induced capitalist India. In pre-colonial India, the dowry was a mark of love, a marital gift given to a bride, a type of inheritance that helped a bride make her way in her new life. Some even saw it as a form of female empowerment, one that served as a tool for financial independence for the bride after marriage.
When the British ruled India, the dowry lost its original meaning and over hundred of years has morphed into the ugliness it is today—a system that quite literally sells women and promotes oppression.
The payment made by a bride’s family these days doesn’t always end at the marriage agreement either, the groom’s family often demand money when the couple have children and if the bride’s family is unable to pay, the bride is often shamed or abused and sometimes driven to suicide or killed.
The parents of a female child are also concerned for themselves and being left alone without any financial or healthcare support. Unlike developed countries, India does not yet have a robust and consistent public healthcare system in place and there is much disparity in terms of quality between rural and urban areas and public and private healthcare. This is because the central federal government is not responsible for healthcare, instead it is the responsibility of each state. India also spends only 1.2 percent of its GDP on healthcare. To put this in perspective, the global average for countries is 6 percent. This means, a lot of the population rely on private healthcare, which of course, comes at a cost.
Sheba Chhachhi, 'Sathyarani - Anti Dowry Demonstration, Delhi' 1980 | Photo: © Tate, London
How can attitudes such as these as well as other attitudes that marginalise women be changed?
Awareness, conversation, education and one pretty big one—legislation.
The more women have open discussions, the more the dynamics will change. Indian women need to be ready to be ridiculed and judged—this is bound to happen. We can’t let these factors stifle us. The more open conversations we have without remorse, the easier it’s going to become. Look at the Me Too movement. It gave Indian women a voice. In fact, India seems to be among countries where the movement is the strongest. Just look at India on Google’s Me Too Rising map. It’s empowering.
In recent years, the government has also taken measures to tackle issues by launching the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter) campaign and various other initiatives across the country.
The Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign, which was launched in 2015, continues to raise awareness around gender inequality and looks to improve the welfare of female children throughout India. A monetary savings scheme called Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana (Girl Child Prosperity Account) has also been brought out under the campaign.
Another win for females in India has come in the form of bicycles. Earlier this month, the State Government of Punjab announced that it will be awarding over 138,000 bicycles to girls studying in class 11 and 12 in any government school in Punjab.
To address some of the issues around female access to sanitary products, the GST levy of 12 percent on sanitary napkins has also been dropped by the government. This happened following protests from a huge number of people including social activists and Bollywood stars.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, is also an example of legislative action that is having impact: the law requires every company with more than 10 employees to set up a minimum of a two-member internal complaints committee and for that committee to have 50 percent representation of women.
Since the bill was passed, there has been a 54 percent rise in reports of workplace harassment. Many media organisations are using this statistic in headlines, claiming sexual harassment has risen in recent years. What they fail to mention is that it has risen because it is being reported more. This is a good thing, it means women are speaking up.
India now needs to look at how to enforce the law within small to medium sized organisations as well. While sexual harassment cases aren’t anything new for India’s corporate sector, it seems start-ups and other small organisations are much worse because they don’t comply with regulations. One of the issues raised is that there is not enough funding for them to have committees dedicated to sexual harassment. Solutions need to be found to these types of problems and new legislations need to be put in place to further protect women in smaller organisations.
Regardless of the work that is still to be done, these examples show progress and illustrate what can happen when people speak up, organisations build awareness and the government takes action. Awareness and legislation need to work together to create the change required.
The Gulabi, an acitivist group created to eradicate gender violence in India
You are one of the few women in India (one of the 19 percent) that holds a leadership position. What were some of the gender-related difficulties you faced in getting to where you are?
The challenging part for me was when I got there. There were and still are a lot of men in denial. Some of them found me over-ambitious, others thought I was cold because I spoke their language at work. There is this inherent fear in men of what might happen to them if a woman is in power.
This type of prejudice was described perfectly by Indian actress, Kangana Ranaut, in her interview with NDTV:
“If a woman is sexually active, she’s called a whore and if she’s super-successful, she’s called a psychopath.”
At work meetings or in casual conversations, many men also choose to comment on a woman’s beauty over her brains. I have come across this myself—it’s like they want to diffuse all my hard work, intelligence and persistence because I wear high heels, blow-dry my hair and wear mascara. They want this to camouflage all the work that has gone in. Because of attitudes like this, where men do not take a woman at work seriously, many women choose to chop their hair and avoid what they consider feminine attire. They combine this with traditionally masculine behaviour like smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol (regardless of whether they like it or not) in order to fit in.
I have fought for females to be themselves no matter who they choose to be and I am hopeful that no matter what the space, in a boardroom or otherwise, when it comes to the subject of work, men will move their attention from what women wear and how they wear it, to the quality of the work they do and the thinking process behind that work.
In saying all that, I have also found some great men along the way, men who have supported my journey and continue to support me in my endeavors.
I will, alongside feminists, male and female, continue to face and fight patriarchy everyday, with a positive attitude.
Why do you think there are such few women in senior management positions?
Obviously, one of the main reasons is taking care of the home and family. In an extremely patriarchal system like India, women are primary caregivers, be it in-laws or parents. They are always looking after kitchens, homes, children and their husbands. That leaves them exhausted, and this results in them becoming a financial liability or a low income generating member. This also creates an inferiority complex among them. This psychological system has been embedded so deeply that they either do not want to get there or do not find enough time. Again, this issue is not unique to India, China and Japan are countries where this happens too.
Women need genuine, supportive partners who can share their responsibilities at home and motivate them to dream and to achieve those dreams.
In what ways can female leaders in India raise the educational and career aspirations of adolescents and their parents?
By inspiring women through their successes and telling their stories. It’s interesting because even something as natural as sharing stories is looked down on in Indian society. Men push this “chup karo” (meaning, “be quiet” in Hindi) mentality on women. Traditionally, only a man is meant to have a voice in such matters. There’s a wonderful book about it actually, it’s called Chup: Breaking the Silence about India's Women. It’s by one of the women I mentioned earlier, Deepa Narayan.
Going back to what I was saying, leaders need to tell stories, learn to self-promote assertively and encourage women to rise up and do the same. Research has proven that women shy away from taking credit, accepting success, or sharing their dreams and wins boldly. This should become the 2019 New Year resolution for all women. They must bring their own energy, take ownership for that energy and not let it get sabotaged by negative frequencies.
Also mentor other women, hold their hand, and let them know that they are not alone on this journey. If we have even some privilege, we must use that privilege to better the world.