By P. V. Swati:
Women’s subordination is not only due to male domination but also due to the basic economic and political structures of society which again are reinforced by the same male domination. The essentially patriarchal state structure in the Indian context and in fact in most Third world countries was to some extent influenced by their colonial past which shaped the nature of the independent states they eventually culminated into. But in this context, neither male domination nor imperialism alone accounts for women’s subordination, but both act upon the gender division, and are linked in perpetuating women’s oppression. The impact of foreign domination is an important factor in women’s subordination, historically and in the present. Adding on to this, women who participated in the national struggle were conditioned to subsume all their concerns under the national issues and it was not easy for them to raise their issues when the task of new nation-building with comprehensive planning was undertaken.
But, as it is evident even in the independent India, challenging the patriarchal ethos of the society has never been the agenda of the state itself. The gap between Nehru’s vision of modern and just India, and the reality of women’s continuing subordination could possibly have been explained if the planners, along with Nehru, had no access to any systematic information on the position of women in the social and economic system. However, this was not the case. Even before independence, there had been serious efforts to collate the available information on women’s position in India to recommend some measures for rapid change. Various studies were available documenting the same. Their invisibility was clearly more an outcome of the ideology governing public policy relating to women. Hence, women were noticeably absent from the discussions of development theory.
The recommendations of the document entitled ‘Women’s Role in Planned Economy’ had been prepared for the Congress Party in late 1930s were well in purview of Nehru. The WRPE report clearly indicated that women’s main oppressors were the patriarchal powers within the household, the society and the economy.
In 1940 the National Planning Commission (NCP) however significantly diluted the stance WPRE had taken in their report in its influence on policy formulation regarding women in independent India. Thus, pre-independence stirrings of a demand for women’s economic independence were effectively silenced. The WRPE had envisioned women being recognised as workers in their own rights, earning their own independent incomes; but the initial legislative policies as well as actual trends in the economy indicated that they were being further pressurised into becoming subservient creatures of the households. Thus, as Ritu Dhawan states, from its very inception the mainstream Indian political economy has been essentially abstract and insensitive to gender inequality.
The official policies vis-a-vis women in India’s plans for development continued to follow the unproblematic tradition of regarding them merely as targets for household and motherhood-oriented welfare services. The lack of concern on the part of the planners no doubt contributed to the further deterioration in women’s economic position. Even the few changes that took place in specifics sections of the economy mainly went to re-affirm women’s continued subordination.
One of the elements that led to the continued subordination of women was that in the early decades of planning in independent India they were only looked at as components of development. It was simply assumed that the development process with enable the tricking down the benefits of growth and it will eventually benefit women. Thus, there was no effort to address these continued inequalities of gender. The inadequate presence of women at the decision-making levels and in the political bodies was a result of it.
There was a singular lack of appreciation of women’s special needs in governmental policies. In the First Five-Year Plan, it was under social welfare that ‘women welfare’ has been specially discussed but was left to voluntary organisations. Following this in the Second Five-Year Plan women did not even figure under social welfare programmes, but figure only under Central Social Welfare Board Schemes/Services. The Third Five-Year Plan went only as far as to promote education for girl child and Maternal and Child Health (MCH).
On the whole, in the social sector there are allocations and programmes in which women are either presumed to be beneficiaries or there is a reference to their problems but no attempt to deal with women’s issues and concerns. Instead, there is only inclusion of some services and programmes catering to certain identified problems. Five-Year Plans thus, laid emphasis on providing services for women which would protect them as a weaker section of society and the services constituted mainly health, education and related welfare activities. The welfare approach ensured that the policy-makers and planners felt safe as this did not threaten patriarchal, feudal structures and at the same time enabled them to say that they were looking after all weaker sections including women.
A more effective measure would have required penetrating analysis into the household asymmetrical division of labour and power, overcrowding of women in low skill jobs, roots of difference in the educational background and working experience between the sexes and continued different socialisation of boys and girls. And this is what the polity-makers did not want. They clearly accepted the existing unequal economic and social relations without questioning the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of these relations. The planners and policy-makers were reluctant to question them though these were contrary to the very constitutional guarantee of social, economic and political justice in the Preamble and the Directive Principle of State Policy. They dealt with the specific problems of women only through provisions of welfare service. But, even in this arrangement in times of financial crisis welfare services were the first to face cutbacks thus effecting women the most. Thus, the welfare policy approach and this low priority to women’s programmes had their origin in the basic ideology which treated women as only a weaker section, a housewife and a mother and hence with the lowest claim on public resources.
The development plans did not take into account women and their concerns till the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI) report. But, the report could go only as far as to enable public policy to marginally incorporate women’s concerns.
Public policy addressing women’s concerns must take note of the need to challenge the old tenets of patriarchal society and also address fundamental questions about the nature of their inequality, of exploitation and subordination and of the type of social change necessary to eliminate them. But, the welfare policy as reflected in the Five-Year Plans till date continue to be based on classifying and treating women as a weaker group needing special material assistance to bring them up to level of others.
By 1970s, it was evident that the state was in crisis. It had failed to integrate a large section of the Indian population into the political process and to the benefits of economic development, and it seemed unlikely in the near future. It set stage for rapid growth of the movements. In the context, the CSWI report helped in the formulation of the voice and the revival of a new and assertive movement.
The spur of the moment did lead to new legislation regarding matters concerning women workers, adverse social practices, women’s equal rights and property rights, etc. But these were seen followed by ineffectual enforcement and inadequate administrative support. New programmes were introduced but these always had inadequate resource allocation.
Starting from early 1990s the government of India adopted the structural adjustment programme in the backdrop of growing financial crisis. The liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation of the economy undoubtedly led to new openings in the economy for women. But, at the same time there was severe unemployment in certain sectors which were now mechanised. The expansion in the employment of women in other sections of the economy was due to feminisation of work force. The nature of organisation of their work was still unfavourable. Due to the increased informalisation of labour most of the women were concentrated in unorganized sectors in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs. The casualisation of their work led to low wages, unstable environment of work place and absence of job security. Thus, the state policies still did not take account of the structural inequality in which women were already placed before they enter the wage market.
Besides, the entrance of women into work place has not radically altered women’s domestic responsibilities, nor has it generated major changes in family support systems. Even when women are employed outside the confines of household, they are essentially considered secondary workers. The process of informalisation and casualisation of employment are further oppressive to women.
Work Participation Rate (WPR) on its own cannot be an indication of women’s progress. A whole range of other factors have to be considered in determining women’s socio-economic position apart from their statistical work participation.
Another trend of employment women are involved in large numbers are part-time piece rate work. Not only is this pattern of employment is extremely low paid and unstable, the very existence of part-time paid work is premised on women’s primary role within the family, and therefore reinforces the sexual division of labour that makes women primarily responsible for the home and the children. The drawback is that state too has been increasingly prescribing this line of labour for women. In the recent inauguration of 44th session of Indian Labour Conference, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated that he regretted that women work force in India is extremely low and called for ‘understanding the constraints they faced balancing family and work responsibilities’. Hence, he emphasised on making provisions for pat-time. Such continued presumption of women as essentially household creature and the attitude of state legitimising it are highly detrimental.
The continued differential curricula for boys and girls in schools are an example of the design of state policy shaping women’s jobs and earning, and reinforcing the sexual division of labour. Besides, governmental legislations like the Minimum Wages Act or the Equal Remuneration with all short-comings do not touch the bulk of the unorganised sector where the majority of the women are employed.
The gap between acceptance of women’s needs and concerns and the policy, programme and resource support continues even today. The state through its policies appears to be constantly aggravating and creating female subordination. Hence, it is important to examine the ways in which the state contributes to women’s subordination. The examination of the nature of policies affecting various aspects of women’s lives lays bare the mechanism by which policies reproduce sexual divisions, the way in which the issue of equality for women has been defined by policy makers and the effect of measures designed to achieve greater equality between the sexes.