India's sex ratio has widened in 8 states: National Family Health Survey also reports high level gender-based violence

NFHS is the government’s own data and if the figures are so high pre-pandemic, one shudders to think what it will be like post-pandemic, said Sohini Bhattacharya of Breakthrough India, a women’s rights organisation

Namita Bhandare December 14, 2020 20:36:29 IST
India's sex ratio has widened in 8 states: National Family Health Survey also reports high level gender-based violence

Representational image.

Gender gains made by India in the recent past are in danger of being reversed, data released by the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS) for 2019-20 indicates.

The survey pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic which has disproportionately impacted women in terms of gender-based violence as well as employment.

While NFHS reports a slight increase in the number of women who said they had worked for cash, it does not factor in the effect of the pandemic on India’s already low female labour force participation (FLFP) at just 24 percent, according to the 2018 Economic Survey.

Employment data released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) for November indicates that labour force has contracted by two percent for men and 13 percent for women over the previous year.

Since 2011, close to 25 million women have fallen off the labour map in India and, as of November, according to CMIE, an additional 6.7 million women have been out of work since the beginning of the pandemic.

NFHS, however, reports that almost all 22 states in the first phase of its 2019-20 survey, conducted before the pandemic, show an increase in paid work for women.

States with the highest number of women who said they had worked for cash in the past 12 months are Telangana (45.1 percent, up from 44.7 percent in 2015-16) Manipur (42.1 percent from 40.9 percent), Andhra Pradesh (42.1 percent, same as the last time), Meghalaya (40 percent from 35.9 percent) and Karnataka (37 percent from 29.1 percent).

But “gains in employment recorded by NFHS are too small to count, especially when you consider the five-year time lag between the last NFHS and this one,” said economist Mitali Nikore.

In Bihar, only 12.6 percent of women said they had been paid cash for work; 19 percent in Assam and 20.2 percent in Himachal Pradesh.

Mahesh Vyas, CMIE managing director and CEO questioned NFHS’s definition of ‘work’ as an indicator of labour force participation. “Looking at only cash payment is too restrictive and would underestimate FLFP,” he said.

But NFHS is useful in broader trends to women’s employment in India. Southern states, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka have done much better than northern states and this reflects attitudes to women’s employment, said Nikore.

“There is less mobility restriction and greater value attached to the education of women in the southern states,” she said.

Similarly in the North East, Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland are more welcoming of the idea of women in the workforce, she said. “Overall, the bottom line is the same. Women are falling off the labour map because of social attitudes towards them.”

The COVID-19 pandemic might have made another important gender data point of the NFHS redundant: gender-based violence.

Even according to NFHS, gender-based violence remains distressingly high. Karnataka has recorded a startling rise from 20.6 percent five years ago to 44.4 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 49 who have experienced either physical or sexual violence from a spouse.

While other states have recorded a decline in gender-based violence, it remains unacceptably high. In Bihar, for instance, as many as 40 percent of women continue to be victims of spousal violence even though the figure has come down from 43.7 percent in 2015-16.

Manipur at 39.6 percent, down from 53.2 percent, Telangana at 36.9 percent, down from 42.9 percent, and Andhra Pradesh at 30 percent, down from 43.4 percent have recorded significant declines in gender-based violence but looking at the low prevalence in states like Nagaland (6.4 percent), there is clearly a lot of work that remains to be done in eliminating gender-based violence.

Activists and even the National Commission of Women (NCW) reported an exponential rise in domestic violence during the pandemic, and particularly during the lockdown. “NFHS is the government’s own data and if the figures are so high pre-pandemic, one shudders to think what it will be like post-pandemic,” said Sohini Bhattacharya of Breakthrough India, a women’s rights organisation that works to end violence against women.

Nine states have also seen an increase in the numbers of women who said they had been subject to sexual violence as children. But this, said Bhattacharya, could also indicate a greater willingness by women to talk about and report sexual abuse. “There is far less stigma than there previously was,” she said.

Perhaps the most worrying gender indicator, male-female sex ratio, or the number of females for every 1,000 males, has continued to slide in eight states.

Among the 22 states and union territories surveyed for phase one of NFHS 2019-20, Himachal Pradesh has recorded the worst sex ratio with just 835 females for every 1,000 males born in the last five years: a decline from 937 in the previous NFHS.

Goa, which like Himachal Pradesh has done well on spousal violence at 8.3 percent, also records a significant decline in sex ratio with 838 females for every 1,000 males born in the last five years, a fall from 966.

In Bihar, sex ratio for children born in the last five years fell from 934 in 2015-16 to 908, while the sex ratio for the state’s overall population went up marginally from 1,062 to 1,090.

Kerala, hailed for having a positive sex ratio in 2015-16 of 1,047 girls for 1,000 boys born in the last five years has seen a set-back with a slide to 951.

Meghalaya, another state with positive sex ratio in 2015-16 of 1,009 now has a sex ratio of 989 for children under the age of five. In the North East, Nagaland too has seen declining under-five sex ratio from 953 to 945.

In Maharashtra, the sex ratio for children born in the past five years slipped from 924 to 913.

Data for states such as Punjab (sex ratio of 860 in the 2015 NFHS under-five category) and Haryana (836), which recorded the country’s worst sex ratio and from where Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao flagship scheme in January 2015 is not available in the first phase of NFHS 2019-20.

There has been distinct and dramatic improvement in two parameters: The first is the number of bank accounts operated directly by women. States such as Bihar and Manipur have reported an increase from 26.4 percent  to 76.7 percent and 34.8 percent to 74 percent.

The second is the increasing use by young women of hygienic methods of protection during menstruation in all the 22 states and UTs, barring for some inexplicable reason, Mizoram, where numbers fell from 93.4 percent to 89.8 percent.

States where over 90 percent of women use hygienic methods of menstruation include Goa (96.8 percent), Kerala (93 percent), Telangana (92.1 percent) and Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh (91.5 percent in both).

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