India’s gender gap is wider than ever
Revelations in the World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Gap Index hold no surprises as far as India’s poor performance is concerned. Women have been the biggest casualties not just of the impact of the Covid-19-induced lockdowns but of the 2016 demonetisation, which saw unemployment soar to a 45-year high. Well before the pandemic, women’s participation rate in the workforce was at a low 24.8 per cent. Widespread joblessness following the lockdown last year reduced that to 22.3 per cent, and research shows that though men have gradually returned to work in the post-Covid recovery, far fewer women did. India’s ranking has fallen a steep 28 spots to 140 among 156 countries. In South Asia, only Pakistan and Afghanistan, two of the world’s basket cases, do worse.
It would be misleading to ascribe India’s poor performance to the pandemic only, although this has certainly had an impact on gender equality worldwide. According to the report, it will take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide from 99.5 years in 2020. But the fact is that India’s slippage is far worse than economies with which it is traditionally compared. Brazil, at rank 93, has slipped one place as has South Africa at 18, and the Russian Federation at 81 retains its position. Though China is hardly a star performer as an emerging superpower at rank 107, it too has seen just a one point fall in its ranking. Within South Asia, India has been a durable poor performer. Though Sri Lanka (rank 116) and Bangladesh (rank 65) have seen substantial slippages of 14 and 15 rungs, respectively, they continue to outperform India. Even Nepal at rank 106, with a slippage of five slots, and Bhutan at 130, with a gain of one rank, have done better. India has closed 62.5 per cent of the gender gap to date compared to neighbouring Bangladesh, which has closed 71.9 per cent. Overall, India, with its large population, has impacted South Asia’s performance. Thus, at the current relative pace, the survey notes, where it will take sub-Saharan Africa 121.7 years to close the gender gap, it will take South Asia 195.4 years.
Much of India’s decline is on account of key empowerment indicators — in the number of women ministers and in management and boardroom positions. But these are mere symptoms of systemic, societal discrimination against women, which remains a huge drag on Indian society. The prevalence of attitudes that act as barriers to women’s employment and advancement is well illustrated by the fact that women remain largely outside the workforce although the 96.2 per cent of the gender gap in primary, secondary, and tertiary education has been closed. The estimated earned income of women is one-fifth that of men, putting India among the bottom 10 globally on this indicator. Similarly, India wallows at the bottom on account of poor access to health and education and exposure to violence. This is a poor reflection of a country that aspires to a place at the table of the world’s most powerful nations. The history of the developed world shows that prosperity cannot be achieved if almost half a nation’s population is excluded — and that achieving gender equality requires strong political mobilisation. This impulse is missing in India still.