The role and status of women in India is a very hot issue that is passionately debated every day, as ever more women become conscious of the inequalities and bias they suffer from. All around the world, women are an untapped "resource" to fight poverty and violence. And even though their potential has been very clearly revealed time and again in difficult circumstances (world wars, independence movements) men have too often lost sight of it in times of stability.
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 best thermometer to the progress of a nation is its treatment of its women. There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved.

Woman has suffered for aeons, and that has given her infinite patience and infinite perseverance.

The idea of perfect womanhood is perfect independence. There is no hope of rise for that family or country where there is no estimation of women, where they live in sadness.” (Swami Vivekananda)

The above quoted lines, famously uttered by a 19th century Indian monk way before India woke up to its present status of being an independent and recognised nation-state, addresses an insight which informs the development discourse all over the world today.

traditional view women in india emancipated gods
Lord Vishnu with Lakshmi in Khajuraho - the view of women wasn't always so conservative (photo courtesy of Abhishek Singh Bailoo)

The role of women in India's independence movement

India’s struggle for freedom is one such instance in history where women had stepped out of their regular roles as home-makers, mothers and wives to shoulder the responsibility of sculpting the concept of a new nation amidst the conflict between the people and the colonial state.

While they were at it, they had stood shoulder to shoulder with their men-folk to rally the masses to the cause, face bullets, picket shops, participate in propaganda making. They embodied self-sufficiency as Gandhi had first visualised through the skill of spinning using a “charkha” (spinning machine for household spinning of cloth).

Ideally taken to be a womanly occupation practiced at home, the spinning of cloth with a charkha became the guideline for understanding the resilience of the spirit. Given that India found its footing in ideals drawn from home such as the art of spinning practiced by women, one would naturally expect that the newly born nation would keep in mind the need of empowering its women to stand as an example of a just society.

The Constitution of the Republic of independent India did not disappoint this expectation and sure enough, women found their rights consolidated on paper, in laws and constitutional provisions giving them equal rights to all aspects defining a quality life.

Gender norms: redefining the status of women in India

Fast forward to 2016, 70 years since independence – the situation stands such that reports indicate a dwindling tendency in participation rates of women in the formal labour force and political participation of women being no more than 10%.

The National Crime Records Bureau has further recorded an alarming rise in the rate of crimes against women which serve to only complicate any chance of improving the participation rates of women in various areas of society.

This unexpected turn of events despite a promising start to a national narrative of development demands a close look at gender roles in the context of the society it is born of. Only in assessing gender roles and social attitudes to such gender roles despite progressive laws can one possibly understand what has worked for India and what hasn’t. And most importantly for that which hasn’t worked, “gender roles” can tell us “why” the situation has turned out that way. To begin the discussion, let's first start by defining what “gender” is:

“Gender” is a socio-cultural construct which provides the implicit framework that charts out the general relationships between the sexes in a society.

Understanding the gender role of women in India

gender role of women in india
Women working in their rice paddy fields in Odisha, India - photo courtesy of Trocaire

In India, where religious myths and traditional attitudes define virtues and vices( relative to interpretation) , and these in turn condition popular imagination to form the social culture, the ideal and permissible cultural role of a woman becomes a contentious issue that can barely be assessed in uniform terms.

However, a careful observation validates the fact that patriarchy has had an upper hand in general in most traditional norms across the country. In this context, India with its sub-continental geographical expanse and its unique patchwork of regionally diverse cultures becomes a template for a special kind of gendered discrimination.

This discrimination brings together the different oppressive practices from different traditional communities to write out a common low position for women which often go unquestioned due to selective “scripture-based” justification for retaining order in communities. This form of discrimination has over time acquired the status of a norm, permeating the overall cultural attitude towards determining claims of women at multiple levels, besides limits already being imposed on production entitlements owing to the forces of globalisation.

Under the guise of prosperity backed by a steady growth in economic parameters thus, gendered discrimination serves to adversely affect human development of a significant section of the population, rendering them vulnerable to poverty and related security issues.

Culture defining the priorities and status of women in India

Indian lady sweeping - photo courtesy of José Morcillo Valenciano

The Human Development Report 2015, published by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) recorded that women across the world undertake most of the unpaid housework and care giving work in their homes and communities.

Due to a disproportionate workload in terms of care giving duties, women most often have less time for other activities such as paid work and education. In a sample of 62 countries, it is interesting to note that on an average 4.5 hours a day were devoted by men to social life and leisure while for women, the number of hours was reduced to 3.9 in India.

Besides the lack of time faced by women after care giving activities to pursue income generating skills and active careers, they also find themselves often subjected to a family imposed ideal of priority skill sets to work on which in turn shapes them to cater to the requirements of a chauvinistic marriage market rather than a job market.

Cultural indoctrination and social pressure

Interestingly, educated married women in urban areas have been found to be socially “wired” to bend to the pressures of their in-laws and drop out of the labour force after marriage to give priority to their care giving duties at home. There are also instances of women willingly leaving their jobs as they are conditioned to believe that housekeeping, child bearing are their primary duties and roles.

This issue is as much a matter or cultural indoctrination as it is of cultural pressure. There is also a noted differentiation in establishing culturally accepted priorities for men and women. For women, the disproportionate pressure to sustain the marriage, manage the household, bear and bring up children alongside careers naturally push them to often compromise with their work life aspirations.

Given that society is hostile to women who break the mould and rewrite their priorities on their own, conforming to the code becomes the easier and thus the more frequently opted choice. It's often vital for those who want to maintain a relationship with their own parents and family.

Work culture in India also adopts the same attitude and would rather fire young mothers or women with conservative social norms than invest in arrangements such as:

  • Assisting them with more flexible work hours
  • Allowances for travelling or facilities for pick up and drop off
  • Building crèches or day care facilities for their employees' children

Women need to build skills and self-resilience

challenging norms on status of women in india
Woman working in a market - photo courtesy of Honza Soukup

In India, certain customs like “Rakshabandhan” where the sister ties a rakhi (a band) on to the arms of her brother seeking protection and marriages where the concept of “kanyadaan” (donating the daughter) still stands, women are in general brought up to believe that their security resides in obedience to the men in the family.

Having exposure only to certain housekeeping skills and established “womanly” preoccupations, women in India have little scope of investing in preparations for emergencies like say for example, if something happened to the man earning the bread. Besides having no exposure to any other prospect of cultivating income generating skills, women also do not have any awareness of financial instruments and savings in banks and the concept of handling the bank details of the house.

Fighting poverty: challenging the status of women in India

When thrown in a situation where she has to take important decisions affecting the well-being of her family, she is thus extremely vulnerable to exploitative people. Besides this aspect, in terms of the prospect to take up employment somewhere to earn for the family in dire situations, her lack of adequate skill set throws her into the clutches of the informal sector which further fuels poverty in India.

The informal sector being largely unregulated, her quality of life and level of income varies according to the whims and fancies of her employer. There have been instances where women have been lured by promises of work to the lairs of traffickers and sold off. Instances of sexual abuse and cruel work conditions are also as much a reality for women trapped in the poverty chains.

To fight sexual violence and human trafficking, the government must do everything it can to promote women entrepreneurship in India and help them join the formal sector so as to enjoy the legal protection that comes with real employment contracts.

Gender issues at all levels of society

Life for the upper class women, educated women is different but no better. Despite their qualifications, what acts against them is a threat to their security while working outside their homes, travelling to universities and colleges.

Right from jilted lovers seeking to teach their beloved a lesson for rejecting them through extreme means like acid attacks and rape, to men on the streets treating women with contempt through harassment and molestation for stepping out and holding equal positions – the story follows a similar narrative almost everywhere across the length and breadth of the country.

Why are women's gender issues so persistent?

causes of women's issues in India
Between culture and traditions - what causes these issues for Indian women? (photo courtesy of Eduardo Sciammarella)

The role of the Indian family

The question that comes to mind naturally at this point is “why”? Despite all the progressive ideals defining the concept of the nation, why do women still suffer from such social attitudes? The answer surprisingly lies within the unit of an Indian family. In an Indian family (in general), where there is a girl child and a boy child, it is interesting to note the different set of values that they are taught from their very childhood.

The girl is taught to be more homely, timid, submissive, obedient and in certain cases even taught to dream only of being a good wife, mother and homemaker (the ideal being one who does not raise her voice). Even in cases where she is given the chance to study further than school and complete college or university, she is taught to prefer gendered stereotypes for careers like “teacher”, “nurse”, etc.

Though care giving services can empower women if they are trained adequately, the scope of choices for career is often constrained by societal notions of what is “suitable” for a woman and what is not. This is what defines the role of women in India, and how limited their contribution to society will be. The boy on the other hand has no such fetters tying down his choices.

Different investments for boys and girls

The family invests more on the boy’s career and more on the girl’s future marriage. To build on further, children grow up to learn in 99% of the cases that women are born to get married and go to their in-laws' place. With this comes the notion of holding property and inheritance.

As the woman is to be married off to another as per societal norms, the family naturally makes it a point to make the son the heir of inheritance and not the daughter. This naturally results in the girl being conditioned to believe that she is a liability while the boy believes he has the right to stand for his claims as he will be the running the home in the long run. Even though laws have been crafted to ensure that women get their due share, the case in reality is that very few women are aware of the legislation and the need to stand for their right to security.

Women's right to security and ownership

Marriage and its aftermath spell a different kind of security issue for women in India. For most cases, particularly in rural and semi urban areas, the marriage is a social ceremony, at times an economic contract of sorts between families with the bride and groom having very little say in the entire affair. It isn't about them, it's about what their parents want.

There have been instances where the bride and groom have met on the very day of the marriage for the first time! After marriage the woman often has to deposit all her jewellery and assets with her in-laws as she is not permitted to possess her own bank account. There are instances where women have had to seek permission to visit the doctor.

For young girls, security again becomes the grounds on which they most often end up dropping out of school. The idea of women symbolising the honour of the family makes the distance of the school from home a factor “threatening” the honour in terms of increasing the chances of an unsupervised interaction of girls with a wider range of men leading to chances of undesired relationships (i.e unregulated by family).

Thus, the preventive measure usually taken is to:

  1. Get the girls to drop out of school
  2. Marry them off early so that they do not have any scope for choosing their life partner

This also ensures that their reproductive age is used exhaustively to carry forth bloodlines. The violations of basic human rights here range from simply the choice of what to do with your own body (including bodily integrity when there is violence) to the right to education.

Owning your fate and future

The role of women in Indian society is too often viewed as a kind of liability. They are seen as people who have to be maintained and taken care of at different phases of their life.

This is reinforced by women surrendering to such dis-empowering notions and beliefs that govern what they are capable of and are “meant” to do.

For families that are not really well-off, this dangerous idea sometimes translates to women being subjected to neglect and other poor treatment, e.g. girls getting inadequate nutrition because they are taken as candidates meant to ultimately settle with the groom’s family. After all, those who "deserve" the best food are the boys who will have to go to school and work later on, isn't it?

Women are taught to “not own” themselves and grow as mandated by generations of patriarchs. Denial of the self more often leads to denial of one’s true potential and this affects the state of the entire country.

Lack of awareness and exposure causes this regressive mindset to further thrive. To suggest hope brings us to the question of not just taking a closer look at the education system for youngsters but also a much needed awareness drive and peer education system for the elder generations.

With family units being a fundamental aspect of every Indian’s life, every member of the Indian household, of variable age groups has to undergo an awareness journey to break out of the long standing legacy of “socially” treating women as second class citizens in a country which promises them empowerment by law.


The article's main photo "Woman in train" is courtesy of Nishanth Jois