August is a month of transitions. It’s a reminder that summer is on its last legs and fall is just around the corner. It’s our last chance to enjoy the holidays before plunging back in September into school and the daily grind.
August also marks a major milestone for two countries that got their independence from the British 75 years ago on August 14 and 15: Pakistan and India. And as I reflect upon India at 75, I am proud of how the country has rallied from a difficult past to become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, one poised to lead the global digital revolution. As an Indian woman, I am also encouraged to see progress in the status of women and girls since my days growing up in the country.
Women have been agents of change and have staked their claim to a better life in a society with a long legacy of patriarchal practices. Over time, this has led to tangible and measurable benefits for women, in health and life expectancy, literacy and education, participation in the workforce and income and financial security. I am pleased, but not satisfied.
Consider that in 1947, when India won its independence, only 6% of Indian women in the country were literate. By 2011, female literacy rates in India had climbed to about 65% according to a national census survey conducted by the Census Organization of India. As the United Nations has stated time and again, literacy is key to women’s empowerment, enabling them to become economically self-reliant and gain access to education, jobs and health care. Plus, it has a positive snowball impact on the literacy of their children, families and communities, among other things helping girls stand up to child marriage and sexual and physical violence from family members.
So while I am heartened by the progress, women’s literacy rates have stayed flat at 64.5% through 2018, and are still lagging behind that of their male counterparts at nearly 82%, according to the National Sample Survey @ Observer Research Foundation’s India Data Labs.
In addition, there is still much work to be done in the areas of child marriage and violence against women. According to UN Women, 27.3% of women aged 20-24 years were married or in a union before age 18. Only 14.4% of seats in parliament were held by women in 2018, and 18.4% of women aged 15-49 years reported that they had been subject to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months.
Another area of progress for women in India is in health and life expectancy. In 1947, an Indian woman’s average life expectancy was 31 years. Today, a woman can expect to live to 70 years. India’s improvements in health began with a government-funded public health system, a process that accelerated with the private sector’s entry into health care in the 1980s. This led to a considerable jump in life expectancy for women, increasing from 47 years in the 1970s to 71 years in 2020, according to a comprehensive WHO report.
While this progress is to be celebrated, and women in India live three years longer on average than men, their quality of health and access to health care remains a problem. According to experts, this is due to a lack of autonomy and resources, as well as social gender norms and stigma about sexual and mental health that creates a gender gap. Overall, health literacy and reproductive health literacy are woefully lacking, leading to a lower quality of life for women.
Finally in terms of labor participation, while women in the workplace and rural workers have found opportunities to become financially self-reliant, we are worse off than we were soon after independence. There has been a consistent and intense decline in women’s participation in the Indian economy, with female labor force participation declining from 26.7% in 2005 to around 20% today, according to the World Bank.
The reasons for this lack of participation, despite increases in literacy, education and policy support, has long puzzled global authorities. Experts say that the gender norms in India, which results in women taking on the primary burden of child care and elder care at home, are major factors. So are the lack of flexible working environments, childcare facilities, safe workplaces, and a narrow gender wage gap, all of which make it not worthwhile for women to work. The pandemic certainly didn’t help. Women across the globe left the workplace in droves, unable to cope with the triple burden of caring for the home, the family and the office. In India, the number plummeted.
Yes, I am pleased by the progress but not satisfied. By 2050 India will surpass China as the most populous nation, and with nearly 50% of them being women. The rise of India and its success in the next 75 years will depend on women’s empowerment and their ability to participate as equal players in their family, community, workplace and society. According to the Catalyst, an organization that tracks women’s progress in the workplace, increasing women’s labor force participation by 10% could add $770 billion to India’s GDP by 2025.
While I will celebrate India’s progress on its 75th year of independence and Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav on August 15, I can’t help but be a bit disappointed about where we are when it comes to gender parity and gender norms.
According to a new Pew Research Center survey, not surprisingly, most Indians support gender equality, as I can attest from my own interactions with friends and family. Philosophically, we are aligned. But the research found that traditional gender norms still hold sway for many people, which tend to give men a more prominent role in many aspects of family and public life. The most surprising finding is that, like most of the men, women believe this is a correct view.
It is up to us women to stand up and continue to stake our claim as equal partners in society. In this issue, we focus on women who are doing just that. Our two cover stars are examples. Hena Doba, one of the first Pakistani women to become a television anchor, is today making a positive impact as an anchor at Cheddar TV. Our other cover star is Reshma Saujani, a leading activist and the founder of Girls Who Code and the Marshall Plan for Moms. She has spent considerable time building movements to fight for women and girls’ economic empowerment and has authored many books on the subject. And we have much more as we close out the summer with a jam-packed issue full of inspiration! Enjoy!