With gender bias becoming an increasingly hot topic, the number of those fighting gender discrimination against women in India is growing every day. But is it enough to change traditions and customs rooted centuries of prejudice and unfair treatment?
About the Poverties Project

This article is part of what was originally the 'Poverties project' which we ran from 2011-2016. It aimed to make social and economic research on poverty accessible to everyone. It focused on presenting evidence-based causes and solutions as much as possible, although with a pinch of sarcasm, cynicism or dark humour at times. Hopefully, it helps make the description of certain (horrible) situations more bearable.

EDIT: We have launched our first-ever children's book on the Sustainable Development Goals. A pretty unique way to educate both kids and parents on the best ways to care for the human and natural worlds!

The scale of gender bias in India

The life of an average woman in India is a perfect case study of the manifestations of a deep seated, socially accepted inferior position of women across traditional communities. This accepted behaviour laces attitudes - socially, culturally and institutionally despite progressive provisions by law which guarantee equal(-ish) rights for women in India.

The scale and impact of the discrimination against women happening on a daily basis across the country is unfathomable. To get a better grasp of it, it’s key to look into the attitudes and customs in rural and urban India which keep women from enjoying their equal rights (as otherwise granted to them on paper).

Or as someone put it on social media:

“I wish men understood that when women are talking about feminism and rape culture and shit, it’s not just a political conversation. It’s not about being a “social justice warrior” or whatever.

It’s about our actual lives being shaped by misogyny since childhood, and the daily reality of living in fear of violence. This isn’t a fucking game or philosophical debate. This is our fucking lives.”

(Posted by "imreallybad" on Tumblr - deleted since)

Rural life and women's rights in India

women's rights in India
Interviews about caste discrimination in Gujarat - photo courtesy of Video Volunteers

In India, villages serve as self-governing units where the Panchayat or council of elected members (usually the reputed elders) take important social decisions for their communities.

They also serve to settle local disputes, work with the district administration to get across the benefits of public services to the villagers and in certain areas which are listed in Schedule V and VI of the Indian Constitution. They, as well as Tribal Councils, are also given authority over the resources of the particular area in order to preserve age old community ideals and their ways of life.

These local self-governing bodies are generally populated by elders and men who seek to hold a tight reign over their family and community life. They are obviously very self-centered and concerned mostly with maintaining the status quo (i.e. their power and benefits).

So they often take decisions which are not inclined towards empowering women but rather on consolidating the gains of the community - usually by focusing on obtaining more funds from the government and amassing the benefits for those who are already in power (and thus empowered).

What does it mean for those trying to uphold women's rights?

  • Women lack adequate representation in these forums most of the times as culturally they are not accepted in senior, decision making positions in the community - except for (too rare) in matriarchal communities. This means that the decisions taken are completely divorced from the specific needs and wants of women.
  • Women lack in awareness of their own legal and constitutional rights. This makes their enthusiasm to lobby for real changes in the application of the law almost negligible.

On top of that, the authorities themselves (usually the police) are not sensitive to their cause (i.e. they do not care one bit) when women do come seeking justice for gender-related hate crimes such as:

  • Rape
  • Dowry harassment
  • Witch hunt
  • Superstition-based torture
  • And many more horrifying accounts of violence

More often than not, they do not pursue these crimes seriously - certainly not nearly as seriously as if it had happened to a man.

Not to mention that many cases even go unreported due to the painful ordeal that women have to go through to get their voices heard. Women have been known to voluntarily seek relief in silence.

Ending gender discrimination against women in India

Gender discrimintion against women in India
Gender discrimination against women dictating behaviour and attitudes - courtesy of Steve Evans

Here are some possible solutions for the government to put in place in order to fight gender bias in India and attempt to make the most of Indian customs and traditions:

  • Regular awareness campaigns regarding the laws and the public services available to protect and empower women
  • Workshops to organise women into self-help groups and women’s organisations with adequate access to credit
  • Women entrepreneurship should be duly promoted and encouraged by linking them to markets and credit
  • Put in place independent monitoring of the level of women’s participation and feedback in important decisions taken by the local self-governing bodies

Raising awareness about gender bias and women's rights in India

If you're looking for more ideas to fight discrimination against women in India, here are some things everyone can do.

Teaching financial literacy

The government should have awareness programmes on financial literacy for women, including to encourage them to open their own bank accounts.These should be so designed that men in family units consider the account opening of their women a profitable and secure move.

At the same time, women will become more comfortable with using financial instruments to save and hold assets. This would become a key way to reduce poverty in India too.

As well as healthcare and general education

There programmes should also educate women about different aspects of life like health and education periodically. It can be accompanied with training imparted to local village women to monitor progress of the knowledge dissemination and application in terms of making better informed decisions.

A good example of this approach is the widely successful role of the Accredited Social Health Activist, trained by the government after rigorous selection from amongst rural women. These social activists are trained to be the much needed interface between the community and the public health system.

They are trained to spread awareness amongst the village women of health initiatives by the government in tune with their needs and to counsel these ignorant women (in general) to opt for the choice of more institutionalised health care.

Fighting superstition, idiocy and upholding the law

Women will also need the government to organise workshops and awareness campaigns related to thriving, violent superstitious attitudes towards women in those rural pockets where they are rampant. Villagers should be made aware of the punitive consequences of their superstition based treatment of specific women (so-called witch hunting) in their communities.

This concerns in particular lower class women who should be allowed to empower themselves because their social status makes them more vulnerable to social evils:

  • Dalit women
  • Widows
  • Abandoned women

Local authorities like Panchayats, Gram Sabhas and Tribal Councils need to be made aware of the legal rights of women in India and the punitive measures available for breaking the law - even in the name of community practice. Deterrence should be further reinforced by making women aware of their own rights and the way to opt for justice.

The rural life: traditional customs and attitudes in high definition

Gender bias in rural India is pretty much the norm - courtesy of Richard Evea

Gender bias fuelling female infanticide in India

Women in rural areas suffer the brunt of traditional gender discrimination right from the time that they are born. In rural pockets of states like Haryana, Rajasthan, the birth of a girl is seldom welcomed by the family. Sex selective abortion, female infanticide is still an active trend noted in these regions.

The child sex ratio stands as 914 females to every 1000 males as per the Human Development Survey Report testifying of this rampant evil born of a regressive mind-set. The Ministry of Women’s and Child Development has been mulling over the strategy of registration of births of all girl children in villages and keeping a tab on their sustenance through to a few years to ensure a check is imposed on killing girl children at birth.

Let us try and understand now the variables behind this socially accepted choice and the reasons behind opting for such acts in the first place.

Girls will always be the possession of another family

In India, girls are socially mandated to seek their final settlement phase in their husband’s home. The girl is taken to belong to someone else’s family and not for her own family to keep from the time that she is born. So naturally any investment made on her would ultimately bear returns not to her own parents as the culture propounds but to her husband’s family in future.

She is thus taken as a liability by her own family. Besides this, her marriage requires more spending on the part of the family in the form of dowry and other gifts. Thus she becomes more than a liability now. She becomes a loss making investment.

Just not worth the investment

Families with limited means find it easier to abandon their girl children or worse to kill them in their infantile stage rather than shoulder such a long scheme of investment with no scope of deriving any form of social pension in return like they have in case of boys. Boys are welcomed because they are taken to be the ones who would work and earn for their families and take care of their aging parents in the long run.

Since childhood, girls are discriminated against in terms of nutrition, education, health care and choices for wholesome development as far as family investment is concerned. Denial of inheritance except the jewellery that she is given at the time of her marriage makes her future insecure further and completely at the mercy of her in-laws. In most cases in villages and semi urban areas, the woman has to deposit her jewellery with her in- laws as well and has no say over her womb either.

Fighting for women's rights in India: owning your body

More than often, pressure from the wife's step-family determines when she conceives and how many children she bears. Already having been discriminated against in terms of nutrition earlier in life, she risks her health to give birth to her children and also suffers the risk of giving birth to malnourished children.

Women are a lot more likely to suffer from poor health due to ill attendance to their own needs from childhood (e.g. food, healthcare) and to the untimely pressure of motherhood.

Gender discrimination: it starts in people's minds

Customs vs laws to protect women's rights in India
Customs vs laws protecting women's rights in India - courtesy of R Barraez D'Lucca

In rural regions, women suffer from cultural indoctrination from Indian traditions and customs even more acutely. Having less exposure to education and an absolute lack of scope for cultivating rational and critical thinking, these women find themselves lacking the will or ideological weapons (freedom, human rights) for resistance to a dictated fate. As a result, they end up in limiting roles throughout their lives.

Indoctrination fuels gender discrimination against women

The confines of their limited worldview further restrics their children’s own worldviews. This deprives those kids of a healthy and fulfilling development during the formative years in their mother’s care. More often than not, it has been observed that women are themselves indoctrinated with patriarchal ideas and conform to the same unquestioningly while rearing yet another generation based on such values.

The importance of education and informed decision-making in search of improving and bettering your life is lost to millions of women. Due to the vicious cycle fuelled by ignorance and indoctrination, they unfortunately fail to grasp the need for schooling - as it requires stepping outside the “culturescape”, or reality, that you are used to.

Universal education: it's for everyone, really everyone

Villages in India have seen a steady growth in the number of schools and government facilities like residential schools and mid-day meal scheme in schools, building of more girls’ toilets in schools and schemes like the opening of bank accounts for savings for the girl child. Besides this, there are also scholarships given to meritorious girl children for completing certain standards in school to encourage her to study further.

The question then is, “What are the reasons behind the dismal outcome seen in terms of women’s education and progress in the rural hinterlands?” The answer can be sought in the possible cultural indoctrination which binds traditional communities over generations.

Laws are for women too

In rural India, traditional norms are as much a part of the way of life as the relatively recent rule of law of the modern day political set up is. In fact, for traditional communities in villages additional constitutional power is granted to self-governing units. This way the hold of village patriarchs over the resources, entitlements as well as the execution of local justice becomes even more consolidated.

The village elders who make upmost of these governing units enjoy popular backing of the people as they seek to “preserve” the old ways of life at the cost of being regressive. The local district administration, being appointed rather than elected, can only do so much to fight gender discrimination against women, let alone alter their views regarding women's rights in India.

In this context, the reach of information technology can be one powerful tool to lead to rapid changes in mindsets, generating public debates and conversations, opening up villages to better discuss all the scope for improvement in the lives of half of their population.

Urban woes for urban women

In urban areas, it's always easier to keep an eye on your citizens, but also judges (judicial system) and police (executive system). The cases of female foeticide and female infanticide is lesser in comparison to the numbers in villages due to:

  • Better application of the law
  • Better awareness of gender issues
  • Better awareness of the laws and the consequences of committing a crime

However, in urban areas women being more visible outside their homes, they suffer from more gender related crimes, particularly molestations, acid attacks, harassment, rape and murder.

These crimes are significantly a result of most men being indoctrinated with a sense of superiority over women since childhood and of being conditioned to believe that women should not claim equal positions of privilege, power and independent choice.