Editor’s note: This is the sixth of six weekly installments of “Dispatches from India” about Southern Oregon University Honors College students’ trip to India this month to learn more about democracy in action.
There are over 500 million women in India so the status and role of women, as with most things in India, is complicated. Negative stories involving women in India abound. Gang rapes, honor killings, acid attacks, murder for alleged witchcraft and the trafficking of girls for sex are a few examples. Add to that a high rate of aborting female fetuses that skews the female-to-male ratio well into late adulthood. It is clear that India has some problems that it needs to resolve and many of these are deeply rooted in a cultural and historic devaluation of women.
There are many positive stories as well. Some of the best are in direct response to the violence listed above. Girls are being taught self-defense in a number of places. At least one state has set up an all-women police station to address violence against women. Amana Fontanella-Khan details the work of a rural group of women who fight local injustices against women in Pink Sari Revolution. Laws have been created to protect female fetuses; it is not legal in India to find out the gender of your baby while still in the womb. The village Piplantri, in Rajasthan, plants 111 trees of celebration every time a girl is born. They also set aside money for her for when she reaches adulthood and ask the parents to provide her with education and not marry her off before she’s of legal age.
India is not only the second most populous country in the world, but that population is very diverse on several measures, including religion, caste, class, region, urban/rural, and language. It is apparent that women and girls are more likely to be vulnerable depending on where they fall on these axes. When tensions arise, women are particularly likely to suffer. This is a recognized issue and there are many who are trying to counter this problem.
Since the beginning of India’s democracy, Indians have tried to address issues of social justice. The Indian Constitution outlines provisions to protect people who are from the “Scheduled Castes,” formerly known as the untouchables, and requires quotas for their participation in multiple levels of government. Ambedkar himself, who drafted the Indian Constitution, was born a member of a Dalit “oppressed” caste.
Since the Constitution was written, similar quotas have been created for women which has greatly increased the participation of women in government. These quotas are essential for getting women’s voices included at the lower levels of government, but that voice continues throughout all levels. Even before the quotas, Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister for many years and was one of the first female leaders of a democracy in the world. Currently women hold significant leadership positions in the government including Sumitra Mahajan who is the current Speaker of the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament). Sonia Gandhi, the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, is the President of the Indian National Congress party, one of the two major parties in India. There are many other women in prominent positions.
In the 1990s, women Dalits also started coming into power in government. Mayawati has served four terms as the Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh and was the first female Dalit Chief Minister in India. We witnessed this for ourselves as the leader of the local village council (Panchayat) that we visited is a Dalit woman.
Quotas for women now extend beyond government and into the workplace. Many areas of employment have a 33 percent quota for women. We could see this presence when we toured a local TV station in Bangalore. As women enter the workplace in higher numbers, this will challenge traditional understandings of women’s place in society.
The gains made by girls in education are also heartening. In 1971, the literacy rate for women in India was only 18.4 percent. Now it’s 51 percent for women overall and 74 percent for female youth aged 15-24 years. The Indian government recognizes the importance of educating girls and has taken steps such as waiving the standard fee for public education for single girl children. Education is essential for providing confidence and opening doors to a better life that would not be otherwise possible for many girls.
Although many women in India are still facing significant challenges, continued emphasis on girls’ education and having women more involved in the public sphere can only work to improve the lives of women in India more generally.