By Karina Kaur:
Skewed sex ratios are a serious problem in Indian society and one which threatens to widen unless serious attempts are made by the Indian government to control them. The Northern states of Punjab and Haryana have the worst cases of skewed sex ratios, closely followed by many North Western states. In comparison, Kerala has relative gender equality, following a western model of development; it has achieved a higher standard of living for its residents, nearly full levels of literacy and advanced health care. Fertility rates are considerably lower at an average of 1.8 and mortality rates amongst infants are incredibly low when compared to the rest of India. This has resulted in an improved quality for of life for citizens, and parents can divide their time and finances more generously amongst fewer children. Participation in agricultural labour can similarly affect sex ratios. Wheat farming in the North requires the intense participation of men, whereas women still play an important role in rice cultivation in the South. Nevertheless some attention should be paid to the decreasing survival rate of infant girls in Kerala, between the ages of 0-6 years, which highlights that parents ultimately prioritise the healthcare of their son’s over their daughter’s.
The age old practice of infanticide, on many occasions assisted by informal midwives (Dai’s); traditionally a high caste practice, however recently adapted by lower castes, has been the most primary form of discrimination. Gender imbalance has exacerbated further with the introduction of prenatal testing technology, which is widely used in India at a comparatively low fee, to extortionate dowry payments which families must endure when having daughters. Other forms of discrimination such as female neglect, which often get overlooked, decrease the survival rate of female infants. Low literacy rates amongst women, due to the prioritising of male education, especially in rural areas, disadvantage them further and consequently decrease their autonomy within the home. Fertility is intrinsically linked to gender inequality, as women lack control over their bodies and are expected to endure as many pregnancies necessary in order to have sons.
A closer look at patriarchy, which is embedded within Indian society, highlights the inferior status of women. Marriage practices displace women from their natal home and, subsequently eliminate a support network, leaving many vulnerable. The emphasis in India lies in securing a male heir, in order to gain respect and old age security and therefore sons are treated as economic assets. In comparison daughters are considered financial liabilities because of the traditional practice of dowry which has increased rapidly in India and can impoverish poor households. The occurrence of modernisation seems to have contributed to the rise in dowry. Although, the social status of households increases, as no expense is spared in extravagant marriage ceremonies, which are always forked out by the bride’s family. The importance of caste should not be overlooked as the practice of ‘sanstritization’ has led to higher dowries amongst all castes and an increase in exogamous marriages. There is a huge emphasis on the male lineage and this is carried through generations which consequently results in the loss of female identities. The extended family contributes to a son preference in India, as men remain within their household as their women make all the sacrifices, often sever their links with their natal home in order to start their new life with unfamiliar people. There are economic returns in having sons and investing in their education as they provide income for their families in later life.
In order to achieve gender equality, the need for the empowerment of women is paramount. This is primarily through enforcing existing legislation such as bans on pre-natal testing and dowries by coming down hard on establishments and individual perpetrators. Socially, powerful female voices should be encouraged to use their position in order to truly put gender on the agenda. India should follow in the footsteps of the successful Kerala model of development; with fairer food prices; universal education and better healthcare which can eliminate the first instance of gender discrimination. Education empowers women, and with the introduction of compulsory, free education, more women can begin to enter the labour market and be formidable competitors to men. The existence of social movements, which are supported financially by organisations such as the World Bank, aim to invest in women in order to improve their position. Organisations such as SEWA, aim to protect women who work outside of the public sector and this economic power subsequently increases their autonomy. There needs to be less social stigma attached to women entering the labour force in general, and this can only happen with the formation of nuclear families. Inheritance laws should be reformed so that they do not favour men and this can gradually replace dowry practices, which would mean women do not lose their bond with their natal homes.
If India fails to close the gender gap, the long-term effects of male bias will be detrimental to society. It will ultimately lead to the further discrimination of women and eternal bachelorhood for lower caste men who will be left out of the marriage market, which is socially frowned upon in India. India’s modernisation aspirations will be jeopardised if it fails to give their women the most fundamental and basic human rights.