Addressing gender inequality in Indian homes

What does this International Women’s Day mean for women in India?

India as a country faces numerous challenges – massive corruption, inequality of various types, unemployment, lack of basic health and sanitation, education, among others. The Indian actor Aamir Khan ran a successful television show Satyameva Jayate in 2012 that went into the depths of many of these issues. The second season has just started. One thing is evident from all those episodes in 2012 (ranging from female foeticide, child sexual abuse, dowry system, love marriages and honor killings, domestic violence, alcohol abuse) and to the first episode in 2014 (on rape), as well as from other online/news sources and narratives, that women in India have a raw deal. The systematic inequality and dis-empowerment of women is at the heart of many of the problems plaguing India.

J.P.Datta’s remake of an earlier film – the 2006 Umrao Jaan had a powerful song:

अगले जनम मोहे बिटिया न कीजो agle janam mohe bitiya na keejo
रो भी न पावे ऐसी गुड़िया न कीजो ro bhi na paawe aisi gudiya na keejo

It’s the cry of a battered and helpless woman imploring God not to make her a woman again in her next life, not a doll who couldn’t even cry.

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Had the protagonist known about other countries where women have a better deal, her song could very well have been: “May I be born again as a woman in my next life, but let me choose the country where I am born and live.” (see the Appendix below).

The people of India like to look to the government of the day to solve many of the issues they face (and debate endlessly whether the Congress, or the BJP or any other party will solve their problems). The government of the day can frame policies and laws, which are important. Yet, many of the issues that concern women, whether it is economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment or health and survival, are things that need to be addressed at the individual, household, family, and social levels.

The problem is, gender inequality is at the very heart of the Indian cultural and value system. You start considering man and woman equal, and much of India’s centuries-and-millenia-old cultural pride needs to be rethought and reconfigured, and that’s no mean task. For most Indian families practising gender inequality, any suggestion to reform or address the inequality is seen as a strike at the very root of its cultural, community or ethnic ethos.

On deeper analysis, one will find that gender inequality is largely linked to two issues: 1) passing on of surname and lineage, and 2) social security. While many Indians would care about the first issue (where your son carries forth your surname, but your daughter does not), it is the second issue which is of more practical concern. Most Indians don’t plan well for their old age. With the societal expectation of a daughter getting married and moving to another house, a son is seen as economic security as one ages. The daughter-in-law is tied to food security. Thus, living together with the son and his family assures sharing of resources in a country with growing population and limited land. It assures economic, physical, food and emotional security as one gets older.

Summarized below are ways in which gender inequality is manifested in many Indian homes:

The scenario here is more dire now than in preceding decades. Earlier, families would keep producing children until sons were born. The birth of a girl was frowned upon, and still is, but foeticide was not as rampant. It was common to see families with many children, and a mix of boys and girls. Where the older children were girls, the younger ones would be boys (the girls being born while waiting for the son).

With the family planning and population control campaign of the 1980s and 1990s, the value of having only 2 children (shown in advertisements as boy and a girl) was widely propagated. Many Indian families have realized the value of being better able to provide resources to fewer children and ideally like to have no more than two children. Now, if the first child is a girl and the second is a boy, that’s not an issue. If both the children are boys, that’s fine as well. The biggest fear is what if the second child is also a girl.

That’s where a lot of families (and often economically well-off families) resort to female foeticide (which is illegal but rampant). When that’s not the case, there is pressure on the woman to produce the third child, in the hope that the third would be a son. When all else fails, and as a last resort, some families choose to adopt a male child.

The only day a married woman gets valued and (relatively more) empowered is when she becomes a mother. However, this empowerment only comes when she becomes the mother of a son (but not when she’s the mother of a daughter). By bringing in the son to the world, she would have assured the economic, lineage and food security, as well as the power equations of the family for a long time (the groom’s family is socially more powerful than the bride’s family).

Education and growing up:
1) The son(s) would often get more or higher quality education than the daughter(s). This includes sons being sent to better, private schools, and daughters being sent to government schools. Girls have had better chances of a quality education when they had no male sibling to give up resources to, and had only girl siblings. This trend is reversing in the past few years with both sons and daughter’s being sent to good schools (this is, of course, also linked to economic prosperity and being able to afford quality schools for all children).
2) The daughters being expected to take a greater load in household work than the sons.
3) When daughters get university education, there is pressure to study/work in the same city, while sons have more choice to travel to another city for education. This is also slowly changing.

Marriage and property:
1) The daughters having to leave their parental home and move in with the husband’s family is an integral part of the Indian cultural ethos and a major source leading to inequality. An attempt to change this status quo would require a change in the very structure of Indian society. This is also a reason why daughters are seen as an “investment that does not pay off” (as opposed to sons), leading to issues such as foeticide and no education or a lower quality of education.

Many of the issues – ranging from 1) dowry to 2) subjugation to 3) lack of right to work, stem from issues relating to living with the husband’s family. Personality and power equations often play a role in it. Once married, a woman is forced to adhere to a certain dress-code after marriage, while a man can continue to dress as he pleases. If a woman were to lose her husband, she is forced to give up the dress code that she is, by now, used to, and adhere to a different, more difficult dress-code and lifestyle.

A daughter is given less than 5% of her parents’ property in the form of wedding costs. Even in that, a major part is spent in pomp and showing-off. The gold ornaments that a daughter gets from her parents and in-laws is often the only security she has. Rest of the money is frittered away in wedding expenses in the name of the daughter. The son(s) end up inheriting a major part of his parents’ (father’s) property. While Indian laws allow for property rights to daughters, this is often not implemented.

Thus, if a daughter faces abuse in her in-laws’ house, she often has no-where to go. This, along with the cultural expectation of ‘leaving her husband’s house only after death’ ensures that she has no financial security whatsoever.

1) Pray for a healthy child, not a boy or a girl
2) Give the best education you can afford to both the son and the daughter
3) Do not limit the choices of the daughter when growing up, or force her to adhere to gender stereotypes; allow the creative potential of each child to flourish
4) Make sure that the daughter gets professional college education
5) Insist on ‘right to work’ when you marry your daughter off. An earning woman will be empowered [many families know this, and systematically prevent the daughters/daughter-in-laws from studying/working/earning]. In turn, she will provide economic security to her children, her family, and also contribute to the economy of the country. Do the math: Which country will progress more? Where all its’ grown-up population is earning versus only 50% is.
6) Insist on simpler weddings. Instead, spend the wedding/dowry cost on property for the daughter, or bank balance in the daughter’s account.
7) As a husband, insist that both the husband and wife earn, and that both husband and wife share in the house work [a recent OECD survey ranked Indian men very low on contributing to housework]. Apart from giving birth, there is no other task that a man cannot contribute to. This would also empower both the man and the woman in many ways.

Solution in the longer term (one that will require a change in mindset and a major overhaul in cultural and value-system):
The only way to address this in the long run would be to see both the sons and daughters as equally bad investments for old age: meaning that both would move into their separate homes after marriage. This is how Singapore, US, and many other societies with greater gender equality have addressed the issue. The expectation (or lack of it) of living with your children and grandchildren as you get older is the major difference between Indian and western societies, and also the major reasons why they are on two opposite sides on gender equality (see Appendix below). If parents would know that they’d not live with either their son(s) or their daughter(s) as they grew older, they would plan ahead for their retirement, or at least be better prepared. At the moment, many Indian parents would shudder at such a thought. As a bird takes care of its young, and lets them fly once they develop their wings, that’s the only way for parents to avoid disappointment at old age. It would be hard, but that’s the only workable solution I see for the long term.

So, what about needing help when you become old and frail, or if you want to spend your golden years seeing your grandchildren grow?
In the Indian context, the long-term solution to this is for parents and grown-up children to live close to each other (in attached but separate homes). The homes could be on the same floor, neighboring or in two separate floors/apartments of a building. When that is not possible, families should plan two separate kitchens in the house once the son gets married. Parents need to plan this right from the outset, rather than letting deteriorating relationships drive this. The idea is to provide space to each other, and yet be close-enough to be there for each other.

We need to reach to a stage where we see every human life as precious and sacred! Each person, irrespective of gender, has a right to grow, right to make one’s life choices, and the right to realize one’s true potential! If we are denying this right to the women in our lives – be it our wife, daughter(s), sister(s) or daughter-in-laws, we’re doing something wrong. The song from ‘Umrao Jaan’ talks about the next life. The Indian woman deserves better in this life itself! Happy International Women’s Day!

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The 2013 Global gender gap report by the World Economic Forum examined the gap between men and women in 136 countries in four fundamental categories: 1) economic participation and opportunity, 2) educational attainment, 3) health and survival, and 4) political empowerment.

Countries in the top of the list on gender equality include: 1 Iceland, 2 Finland, 3 Norway, 4 Sweden, 5 Philippines, 6 Ireland, 7 New Zealand, 8 Denmark, 9 Switzerland, 10 Nicaragua, 11 Belgium, 12 Latvia, 13 Netherlands, 14 Germany, 15 Cuba, 16 Lesotho, 17 South Africa, 18 UK, 19 Austria, 20 Canada, 21 Luxembourg, 22 Burundi, 23 United States and 24 Australia.

Those towards the middle and sliding down in the rankings include 55 Sri Lanka, 58 Singapore, 69 China, 75 Bangladesh, 93 Bhutan, 95 Indonesia, 101 India, 102 Malaysia, 105 Japan, 109 UAE, 111 Korea, 112 Bahrain, 115 Qatar, 121 Nepal, 127 Saudi Arabia, 130 Iran and 135 Pakistan.

India ranks towards the bottom in the gender inequality ranking (rank 101), and of it’s neighbors, does better than only Nepal (rank 121) and Pakistan (135). Yet, as we look closely at India’s rankings in the 4 indicators:

1) economic participation and opportunity (rank 124)
2) educational attainment (rank 120)
3) health and survival (rank 135)
4) political empowerment (rank 9)

we find that India ranks towards the very bottom of 136 countries in most scores that concern the average Indian woman. It is only political empowerment of women where India does well, and which moves up its overall ranking to 101.