Holding Women Back Means Holding Back India

Ensure women's rights and they will drive India’s economic juggernaut.

International Women's Day is on the 8 of March this year, and we must once again ask ourselves whether India's women really have something to celebrate. The insidious narrative that women are unequal and inferior to men has continued to play out in so many ways.

Consider this. The participation of women in the labour force in India is actually falling. According to the International Labour Organisation, the participation of Indian women in the labour force fell from 37% in 2004-05 to 29% in 2009-10, leaving India to be ranked 11 from the bottom out of 131 countries in this regard, well behind counterparts like Brazil and China.

How will India progress if 50% of its workforce is left out of proper employment?

When given opportunities, India's women have distinguished themselves in various professions, be it in social work, education, science, administration, law and politics. Despite the many prominent Indian women who have made giant strides forward for their professions and country, women aspiring to reach the top of their fields must contend with a harsh glass ceiling. Less than 10% of higher court judges are women and in India's lower house of Parliament, only 12% of the members are women.

Indian women lag behind on many indicators. According to UNICEF, adult literacy amongst women as a percentage of that of their male counterparts in India is only 67.6%. Statistics for women's health are even grimmer; prevalence of contraceptives use is only 54.8%, Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) in 2015 was 170 and only 37% of pregnant women had at least four antenatal visits before giving birth. Women often cannot even access healthcare without the signoff of others; a 2012 survey showed that four out of five Indian women needed the permission of husbands or families in order to visit a clinic.

"Girls not Brides" reports that almost half of India's girls are married before they reach 18 years. Of the 17 million children aged 10-19 married in between 2001 and 2011, 76% were girls—meaning that most of these child brides were married to men much older than them, often against their will.

When girls become mothers that young, they miss out on education, a chance to become economically empowered in the future and are likely to suffer from complications related to childbirth. Around 70,000 girls in the age group 10-19 around the world die from childbirth every year.

Statistics on economic empowerment are equally appalling. One possible reason for this is occupational segregation, whereby Indian women tend to be participating in only certain types of income-earning activities. When women do work, especially in rural areas, their jobs are more likely to be subsidiary or marginal employment. Cultural norms dictate that women must not work out of the home; when they do work, they are often employed in labour that is ancillary to the job of the male in the home—such as agricultural labour or selling foods farmed by their fathers, brothers or husbands. The above mentioned 2012 survey also revealed that 70% of women said they would feel unsafe working away from home.

The lack of women in leadership positions... is a major impediment to the progress of India's women and the country's aspirations on the global stage.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that India's GDP could rise by 8% if the female to male ratio of workers increased by a mere 10%.

India's women cannot be expected to continue to fight the good fight alone. It is the job of every single Indian man to take up this struggle alongside them. Women's rights are not women's issues but an issue of human rights, period. In some things, principles should trump politics and demanding equality and empowerment for women in India is one of those things.

By improving the lot of its girls, India has the opportunity to become a model for the rest of South Asia as well. India sits in a region where its neighbours seem to do equally poorly when it comes to providing the most basic freedoms to women. South Asia is the world's leader in child marriages. As many as half of all South Asian girls are married off before they reach 18 and between 2010 and 2030, the region is expected to have as many as 130 million child brides.

Addressing these issues would require national action on the part of individual countries, of course. However, there is also an opportunity for regional action in the form of large-scale cross border investment in women-centric economic programs, transplanting successful initiatives from one country to another and using regional forums such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to move forward the agenda of women's empowerment.

India as a country is at the cusp of a demographic dividend. 250 million people are set to join India's workforce by 2030. As the population shifts into the working age group and get employed, there will be an increase in disposable income and more savings at the household level. This is the most exciting aspect of India's demographic dividend is it becoming a global economic power house.

Imagine what India will look like in time for International Women's Day 2020 or 2025 if we help all girls and women achieve their true human potential.

But how will India progress if 50% of its workforce is left out of proper employment?

What is holding the country back is, in my view, that Indian women are repeatedly held back by society. Indian women—young and old—have the potential to be engines of change in the world. The lack of women in leadership positions, especially in the public space—in government, civil administration services, law enforcement—is a major impediment to the progress of India's women and the country's aspirations on the global stage.

Imagine generations of Indian women allowed to thrive by being educated the same as men, allowed complete agency over their health and bodies and provided career opportunities for which they are not discriminated against due to their gender. Imagine young women being able to work freely in any field they choose, without familial backlash or sexual harassment in the workplace. Imagine young Indian women able to travel for work, study or even play, without fear for their safety.

Just imagine what these girls and women can do! And imagine, if you can, what India will look like in time for International Women's Day 2020 or 2025 if we help all girls and women achieve their true human potential.

These are my personal views.

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