By Pallavi Ghosh:
We live in a time where opportunities for women have, no doubt, increased. And opinions about women not going out, studying, working, voting and so on are likely to meet more opposition today than they did perhaps 68 years ago when our nation – India- was born. Child Sex Ratio today (0-6 years) has dropped to 918 girls against 1,000 boys, the lowest since Independence. We have been eliminating more girls after sex selection than before independence, despite improving on the numbers slightly over the years.
A large factor behind this is the deep running social and cultural practice that breeds son preference in the country. Girls are usually seen as a liability to the family requiring a continued investment without returns. The whole idea of girls being a family’s “amaanat” or a temporary asset to be given away to another household makes them less desirable in many Indian households. Moreover, the perceived and real lower market value of women in a market-driven economy due to their supposed poor or relatively less productive capacity plays its own role in perpetuating such discriminatory beliefs and practices. And discriminatory they are, for work by its definition is not partial to any gender. Society is.
All these notions are fuelled by a host of biases such as – women are weak, intellectually inferior or just not ‘man enough’ perhaps. Hence the logic of differential wages props up. According to an earlier article at YKA, India was ranked 114 amongst 142 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap Index report. Such economic de-valuation of women forms part of a larger cultural de-valuation that explains as to why families prefer sons even when there is ample space for womenfolk in the labour market.
Even with increased employability, only one-third of women participate in the labour force in India. Moreover, in developing countries like ours “up to 95 percent of women’s employment is informal, in jobs that are unprotected by labour laws and lack social protection,” says a report on ‘Progress on World’s Women 2015-16’ published by the United Nations. Studies show that women are paid 24 per cent less than men globally on an average, whereas in South Asia they are paid 35 percent less than their male counterparts. Even Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has been witnessing a dip in women’s labour force participation rate. According to NSSO (National Sample Survey Office) data, rural female participation fell from nearly 25 percent in 2004-05 to 17 percent in 2011-12.
It is high time that we begin to value human lives and labour not for the money they cash in, but for the way they connect all of us in our modern lives. A daughter or a son is not just a minting machine, that we make decisions of life and death depending on the cash value they have. We need to re-sensitise ourselves to create a different economy of value and respect for all. It is only through such a process of re-sensitisation that we can hope that the value of girls would increase.
Cash related schemes like the “Sukanya Samridhi Account” or the older “Laadli” scheme do incentivise the birth of a girl child, but they have limited scope and fall way short of building a social security net. For example the money transferred can help investment in further education or for bearing the cost of marriage, but these do not provide a financial security or independence once education or marriage money has been exhausted. Therefore for all subsequent economic life decisions, there is no capital for women. Government initiatives such as celebrating National Girl Child Day, gender-sensitive education; along with policies targeted at providing a social security net and making the labour market more flexible for women can go a long way in valuing the lives of our daughters along with our sons. The sooner we realise and act on this ‘preference’ that devalues one gender over another, the faster we will become a truly civilised nation.