The position and status of women in India is low despite the myth of her being considered a “goddess” and “shakti” personified. She may be the embodiment of power or Shakti but then there is the concept of this power having to be controlled and channelized and that controlling agent is conveniently man. So woman loses her individuality, her very right to exist for herself: she is to be protected by her father in her youth, by her husband after marriage and then by her son. These ideas persist with little dilution to this day and have caused immense harm to the status of women. What is worse, her tremendous contribution in terms of work at home and outside is either ignored or belittled. An indicator of the low social position of girls in the society is the phenomenon of adverse sex ratio. Generally the sex ratio of a population is considered to be the result of biological and social factors. One of the very disturbing findings in the recent period has been the fact that girls at birth have less survival chances than boys, which is contrary to the situation in various other countries. In fact sex ratio has been adverse in India, but more disturbing trend is the declining female population over the years. In the year 1901, for every 1000 males there were 972 females; in 1981 the number of surviving females was 934 and in 1991 it was 929.
The social reformers in the nineteenth century for the first time raised the question of low status of women in India. Raja Rammohun Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, M.G. Ranade, Maharshi Karve, Jyotiba Phule, Dayanand Saraswati and many others got quite concerned with woman’s low position in society. They felt very strongly that efforts must be made to raise her status. With the nationalist movement and particularly in the phase when Gandhiji was leading the movement many women came out of the four walls and contributed in various ways to free the country. With the attainment of Independence, a Constitution was adopted which guaranteed equality to all its citizens, gave social, economic and political justice, and recognized liberty of thought, expression, belief and worship. Men and women are declared equal before law. With this constitutional safeguard, a feeling was generated that the problems of inequality, inferiority, discrimination have been solved. This myth continued up to the mid-sixties. Perhaps the visibility of educated women in positions of power and a number of dignified nationalist women like Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Vijayalaxmi Pandit, Renu Chakravarti, holding high positions of decision-making generated an illusion that Indian women are equal in status, and they do not therefore require any movement for removing disabilities.
However, this kind of optimism and complacency was shattered when the committee on the status of women came out with its report in 1974 and certain; other studies also indicate woman’s oppressed status. This committee was appointed in September 1971, to review the implications and changes as a result of gender equality in India established in the Constitution. The findings drew attention to the gruesome facts of unequal position of women in society. They also shook the complacency of the vocal section of the society. The submission of the report to the parliament in 1975 coincided with the declaration of International Women’s Year which was turned into a Decade of women. These events highlighted the conditions of women in India and subsequently led to the emergence of women’s groups exposing some of the dehumanizing social customs and striving for raising the status of women.
It was noticed that the caste, class, education, income differentials sharply affected the low status of woman in India. A Harijan woman has to face double oppression, one from the upper caste and another from the menfolk of her community. A factory worker is exploited by the factory owner but a women worker is exploited doubly and further she is vulnerable being a female. We can go on citing the instances of complex configuration of caste, class and gender. However, the net result is that woman is put at the lowest rung of the ladder.
For modernizing India, education has been considered significant determinant of aspiration, technology, productivity and mobility. In fact education has been considered important factor in accepting or rejecting social change. In the case of women one of the major achievements, during the last hundred years has been the growing favorable climate in support of women’s education. There was a phase in our history, when it was believed that a girl does not need any education. Whatever she requires in terms of house-keeping could be learnt in the family. In fact there was a strong belief that if a girl is educated she becomes a widow! In this atmosphere of total apathy towards opening the doors of knowledge to girls, the social reformers in the nineteenth century recognized the value of women’s education in the stupendous task of reforming Indian society. Of course for them women’s education meant studying up to middle school level. They had not envisaged women extending their activities beyond the family. Education was looked upon as emancipating women from age-old dominance of traditional values. In course of time this attitude changed and education of woman has been valued not merely in terms of enhancing her familial role but also as a good lever for getting employment.
Though there has been substantial change from the pre-independence period, the goal of universal literacy is far from realization. According to 1991 census, overall literacy for Indian women is 39.4 per cent, but in rural India it is much lower compared to towns and cities.
There seems to be socio-economic and certain educational factors affecting the retention of girls at schools.
- Firstly the girls are considered to be useful as helpers in the home; poorer families prefer to send their boys to schools rather than the girls as the latter are needed to look after siblings or to help in the house work.
- Secondly, many a time’s social factors like early marriage or social restriction on the movement of girls also lead to dropping out from school.
- Thirdly, non-availability of a school in the near vicinity or absence of female teachers’ further results in girls dropping off from schools. .
Though access to higher education of women in India is feasible, the pattern of enrolment in various disciplines and faculties has not substantially changed. Liberal Arts is still the most attractive faculty, though a shift to commerce in recent years is visible. Similarly whereas in 1971, only a few girl students were found to be in Engineering or Architecture or Law faculties there has been a marked improvement recently in enrollment in these faculties. Medicine unlike in western countries acquired early respectability for women, and we had a few women like Anandibai Joshi who took their degrees from abroad hundred years ago.
A very pertinent question to be raised at this stage is about the objective of higher education for girls in India. In the context of elitist nature of education and also in the context of highly competitive marriage market, colleges many a times are not looked upon as institutions to gain knowledge or to get training for jobs but as a respectable waiting place for girls who wish to get married.
The contribution of women in economy is fraught with many problem areas. Women have always been working and contributing to the family survival. In a subsistence economy, family being the unit of production and when the major production centre is home, woman’s participation in economic activities has been accepted. Among the cultivators, artisans, and those performing menial services in the traditional village economy women have played a distinctive role both in production and marketing. They continue till today wherever the traditional economic forms prevail, particularly among the poor agriculturists, scheduled caste and tribal communities. In the initial phase of industrial development, in textiles and jute industries, as well as in mines and plantations women’s participation was recognized.
Unfortunately, a good deal of woman’s work remains invisible. The contribution of a rural woman in India working in home, looking after cattle, helping the husband in agricultural work, cooking, bringing fuel and water, goes unrecorded. The women workers in India are insecure, working with labor intensive technology, long hours of work and little reward.
In the case of Indian women in the upper caste and intermediary castes, particularly in the trading and peasant proprietor groups, it is noticed that with the rise of economic status of the family a woman is withdrawn from employment. It is considered a loss of status if she works.
However, the case is quite different among the urban middle class. One of the most glaring and visible sights in the urban areas is that of proliferation of white collared women workers. The rising cost of living, access to education and social change in urban areas have led to the withdrawal of the taboos that earlier affected women of higher classes and have enabled some of them to enter new professions or occupations of their choice. But, the married and working these women live within the patriarchal, male dominated family structure. Hence a job, however prestigious or lucrative it is, does not absolve women from their familial role. Society still considers women’s role as primarily home makers.
Recently considerable attention has been drawn to the development of the informal sector or unorganized sector for Women. Women’s employment many a times consist of working in non-agricultural sector, as self employed. In petty trade, food processing or manufacturing establishment like garment, bidi making, bangle making, working in construction sites as well as working in assembling jobs, packing, etc.
Joint families are predominant amongst upper castes and trading groups. However, with growing urbanization and industrialization, joint families persist in ideology more than in actual joint living. Patriarchal family with patrilocality wherein girl after marriage goes to stay at her husband’s house has not been found to be conducive to gender equality. Many folk songs refer to the plight of young married girls in a joint family household where she is completely under the authority of mother-in-law, sister-in-law, etc. Some people talk about the functionality of joint family, particularly for a working woman, who is likely to be less worried about the family responsibilities and specially the children. Deeper probing reveals that the concept of joint family in India for this group of persons is not three generational joint living but one parent staying with the married couple.
In the Indian society, which puts immense weight on the chastity of a woman, early marriage and permanence of martial relationship are highly valued. Widowhood, divorce or single status makes a woman vulnerable to men’s advances. Marriage is almost inevitably accompanied by the obnoxious practice of dowry system in India. Modernization, instead of lessening the evil, has aggravated it. Boys with higher education, government jobs, professional standing with more remunerative jobs demand very high dowry; even girls with high education and a job, have to pay dowry to get married. The low status of woman in India is evident in the phenomenon of dowry deaths. Constant demand for more and more gifts and goods lead to harassment of the young wife. In the name of honor, parents are not ready to give shelter to the tortured daughter. Finally not getting relief at any place, she ends her life or is murdered.
Economic growth has widened and intensified socio-economic inequalities against women in India. Advances in technology have not benefited women. When economy moves from subsistence to a modernized, monetized technology and is market oriented, women are the worst losers. Women have been relegated to more labor intensive sectors and in the unorganized sector of production. In the case of schemes for helping those below the poverty line or in the marginal farmer category, the aid goes to the men and is hardly transferred to women and children. Studies have shown that while men go for consumer luxuries with the increase in income, women spend money on family needs.
Welfare and development of women constitutes an important part of social welfare and a national plan of action has been formulated for this purpose. The National Committee on Women oversees the implementation of policies and programmes for women in India. Conventional literacy for adult women, condensed course of education and vocational training for adult women, hostels for working women, training centers for rehabilitation of destitute women and many other socio-economic programmes for women are being implemented by the governments. The supplementary nutrition programme provides special nutrition for pregnant and nursing mothers from the weaker sections of society.
Indian Legislation has played a notable role in bringing about improvement in the role and status of women. The severe disabilities from which Indian women suffered at the beginning of the 19th century were too numerous and drastic and have been gradually removed through laws and successive amendments. Lord Bentinck at the instance of Rammohan Roy abolished sati through a Regulation in 1829. The widow Re-marriage Act of 1856, the Civil Marriage Act of 1872, the Married Women’s Property Act of 1874 and the Age of Consent Act of 1881 led to the gradual emancipation of women in India. The Child Marriage Restraint (Sarada) Act, 1929 has recently been amended to rise the marriageable age for boys and girls to 21 and 18 respectively. The Marriage Validation Act of 1892 and the Special Marriage Act of 1954 permit inter-caste and interreligious marriages. The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 is a major social legislation covering all aspects of Hindu marriage; including abolition of bigamy and provision of divorce for women. It has been recently amended to liberalize the provision in favour of women. The Gains of Earning Act, 1930 protects individual (Women’s) earning in a joint Hindu family the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 confers property rights on women. The Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956 enhances the status of women in the matter of adoption. The Dowry Prohibition Act completes the list.
The Indian Constitution asserts the equality of sexes and prohibits discrimination solely on the ground of sex. The Equal Remuneration Act of 1976 provides for payment of equal Remuneration for men and women performing the same job. The Factories (Amendment) Act, 1976 provides for compulsory establishment of creches where at least 30 women are employed. The Maternity Benefits Acts, 1961 now covers all women who do not enjoy the benefit of Employees Insurance Scheme. Thus removal of disabilities of women and betterment of working conditions of women has been brought about through legislation. However, since implementation of laws depends much on the social attitudes, legislation, in itself, cannot bring about social change.