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Economic Survey 2017-18 emphasises on women empowerment, highlights need to disaggregate data by gender

Pink is the colour of the Economic Survey 2017-18, signifying the support and promotion of the growing movement to target and end violence against women and to promote women's rights. The chief economic advisor of the finance ministry, Arvind Subramanian stated how the choice of colour is a symbol: "In our bid to further the cause of women's empowerment, the cover of Economic Survey 2018 is pink."

The preface of the Survey talks about addressing the deep, ingrained societal issues of gender inequality and how this reflects in the education and reproductive, as well as the economic agency of women in the country. The annual document looked at advancing the gender equality agenda, as it also analyses the progress around gender so far: "Addressing the deep societal meta-preference in favour of sons and empowering women with education and reproductive and economic agency are critical challenges for the Indian economy."

 Economic Survey 2017-18 emphasises on women empowerment, highlights need to disaggregate data by gender

File image of the Economic Survey 2017-18 document. PTI

The Survey, which has been tabled in the Parliament, has a chapter exclusively on gender inequality and India's missing girls. The chapter begins with the poems of Subramanya Bharati and Maithili Sharan Gupt, and also with the #MeToo hashtag signifying the extant environment of inequality against women and the upcoming global movement against sexual harassment.

Throughout the chapter, the Survey calls for a "collective self-reflection by Indian society" on its preference for male children. The Survey talks about a phenomenon known as "meta preference" for sons, wherein parents continue to have children until they have had the desired number of sons – this has resulted in an immense number of "unwanted" girls – about 2.1 crore.

The chapter also reminds us that despite an "improvement" in various parameters related to the empowerment of women, the preference for male children has not reduced: "In some sense, once born, the lives of women are improving, but society still appears to want fewer of them to be born".

The chapter highlights that the biologically determined natural sex ratio at birth is 1050 males per 1000 females. Sex selection was declared illegal in India in 1994, and the sex ratio at birth during that time started to steady. In 1970, the sex ratio at birth was 1060 males per 1000 females, and in 2014, this number rose to 1108, much at odds with the notion that development would fix the skewed sex ratio.

The Survey pointed that "son meta preference" does not only occur in impoverished rural families but also in middle and upper-middle class families, where according to tradition, a son is thought to carry on the family business or inherit ancestral property, even though a daughter is equipped to do as well, legally.

Gender issues are assessed on three specific dimensions in the Survey, though it is pointed out that gender equality in itself is "an inherently multidimensional issue". The three dimensions are:

  • Agency: This relates to the ability of women to make exclusive decisions on reproductive rights, financial independence and spending on themselves, and on their households, as well as their own health and mobility.
  • Attitude: This dimension relates to attitudes about violence against women, and the ideal number of female children preferred against the ideal number of male children.
  • Outcomes: This relates to the phenomenon of son preference, which is essentially measured by sex ratio of the last child, choice of contraception, education and employment of women, age at marriage, age at first childbirth and all types of violence experienced by women.

According to the Survey, India's score in 14 out of 17 indicators that relate to the agency, attitude and outcomes have improved over time. In seven of these indicators, there has been such consistent progress that India's performance is better than or at par with other countries.

There has been notable progress in the agency dimension for women, who now have an active decision-making power regarding household purchases and visiting family and relatives. There has also been a decline in physical and sexual violence against women, according to the Survey. Moreover, education levels have also improved. The percentage of educated women have gone up from 59.4 percent in 2005-06 to 72.5 percent in 2015-16.

Table 1

Out of 17, 10 indicators exist where India has to catch up to other countries. For instance, the employment of women in the workforce has declined from 36 percent employed in 2005-06 to 24 percent in 2015-16. It can be seen that while the number of educated women has gone up, the number of employed women has gone down significantly.

The Survey does not point out the rationale for such a skewed education to employment ratio, but it would be interesting to examine this. Almost 66 percent of women take up "unpaid work", despite increased education levels.

There has been an increase in the number of women who earn equal to or more than their husbands from 21.2 percent in 2005-06 to 42.8 percent in 2015-16, which has resulted in a rise of the number of women in non-manual jobs from 18.9 percent to 28.2 percent.

Lastly, there is a positive downward trend of violence against women – the number of women not facing physical and sexual violence has gone up from 62.6 percent to 70.5 percent between 2005-06 to 2015-16.

The Survey also points out that only nine percent women are members of legislative assemblies (MLAs) amongst 4,118 members across the country. The highest percentage of women legislators are from Haryana, Bihar and Rajasthan (14 percent), followed by Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal (13 percent) and Punjab (12 percent).

This means that women do not have equal opportunities for political participation, and the government should be committed to strengthening the agency dimensions of women for their empowerment and for the overall objective of building a just, democratic and progressive society.

The Survey briefly mentions the government's Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao and Sukanya Samriddhi initiatives as well as the mandatory maternity leave rules as initiatives that promote the objective of women's rights and empowerment. The Survey also pointed out that overall the North Eastern states outperformed the rest of the states in India on most of the indicators; Subramanian stated these states are models for gender equality and surprisingly fair better than some southern states, such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Table 2

Overall, it can be said that India has progressed when it comes to development vis-à-vis women's empowerment. However, as the Survey suggests, a collective self-reflection around "son meta preference" is certainly imperative. The obsession towards sons has led to 21 million "unwanted" female children, and owing to sex-selective abortions, an estimated 63 million "missing" women.

Following the Survey, it is important that the government takes into account more feminist analyses of census data. Moreover, it is also important that there are tools and techniques, that the government spearheads so that there is a more rights-based, as opposed to empowerment-based, reading of gender-disaggregated data. According to Naila Kabeer, rights-based reading would result in examining underlying causes of inequalities in various institutions of society – family, community, market and state.

The Survey, in its chapter on women's empowerment, indicates that it is important to look at development through gender-disaggregated data so that there is a critical understanding of the status of women in both national as well as state-level institutions over time.

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Updated Date: Jan 31, 2018 17:11:04 IST

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