India is sadly known as one of the worst countries for women to live in. Statistic after statistic, the country still appears in the rankings related with violence against women. Rape, dowry crimes and domestic violence are common, and affect women throughout all socioeconomic backgrounds and religions.
But in the two years that I have been living in India, I have learnt that not all women are victims, and not all Indian society is (nor has always been) misogynist. Whereas patriarchy is still the prevalent norm, inspiring female figures can also be found within its history: India became the second country in the world to elect a woman as leader of a democratic government, in 1966, way before the UK, Norway or, (still waiting) the US. In the southern state of Kerala, the Marumakkathayam system guaranteed that descent and inheritance of property was traced through females. Rani Lakshmibai is a national hero, and a symbol of the resistance to the British Raj. And nowadays, there are many relevant female figures in areas as diverse as politics, sports or finance: five of the biggest Indian banks are led by women.
“Not all women are victims, and not all Indian society is (nor has always been) misogynist”.
When it comes to discussing women´s participation in the economy, there are certain systemic barriers that need to be addressed. These are issues that affect not only their status and position within society, but also their chances of becoming empowered.
In the last decade or so, India has made a considerable effort to improve the access of girls to education. The female literacy rate increased 11% between 2001 and 2011, and stands now at 64.6%. Although it is still almost 20% lower than male, even in the poorer rural areas families have understood the importance of girls attending school, and now it is considered as something positive. The troubles come when families are pressured by economic necesity: then, it is usually girls who drop out of school to work and contribute to the household.
It is the case of Sailila, a construction worker whose two teenage daughters had to quit school three years ago, and start working as maids, because her salary was not enought to sustain the family. The youngest son is still attending school, but his sisters have a plan: each month, they save a few ruppees from their salaries, so they can enroll in a course to become seamstresses, and be the first ones in the family to work outside construction.
Safety and Security
If women want to work, they need to feel safe. Not only in their workplace, but also in the streets and inside their homes. And, around the world, this is still very far from being a reality. Thousands of women are raped every day all over the world. 360 in Mexico. 175 in South Africa. 230 in England and Wales. And these are only the reported figures. Rapes is considered the most underreported violent crime around the world. And thousands more are harassed, atacked, insulted, humiliated… and murdered.
In 2015 the UN declared violence against women as a global pandemic.
Violence against women is an endemic problem in India. Most of the women I have met hide horrific stories of abuse, violence and harassment, by parents, brothers, friends, cousins, bosses, partners… It has become so common that not even those who see themselves as feminists, and are aware of this being crimes, were able to report those assaults.
Logically, this violence affects the capacity of women to work. In many cases, families want to protect them; they don´t want them to go out unaccompanied, they don´t want them to expose themselves to an attack. But, leaving aside the fact that violence comes from within the home in the majority of the cases, the truth is that hiding women does not protect them: it makes them invisible.
“I have to go to school, I have to study an MBA… and all so it can look good, so that HE will like it! What´s the point?”. These are words from a friend, and reflect a common reality amongst young urban middle-class women. They go to university, they invest time and effort in studying and training… But they never get to work. Working was never part of the plan. All those efforts go towards finding a better husband.
Arranged marriages are still an extended practice in India, and for the well-off families, academic education is a key factor when choosing candidates as wives for their sons. On the other side, to choose a groom they will pay attention to his salary and career prospects. Even when the marriage is not arranged, the parents will usually have a say: as another friend confessed to me while talking about her future engagement, “my parents will want to know how much does he earn, even when I have my own job, because they need to make sure that he will be able to take care of me when we are married”.
For many families, once the woman is married her career takes a back seat. Her role as wife and as mother will be, from then on, the most important one. It is not only that there are no incentives to balance work and family life… But also the huge expectations regarding women´s role on family represent a tremendous pressure for young females. Marriage age is also decisive: in the past decades, the average for women has been delayed up to 22 years old, which is still lower than than the global average.
The idea that women cannot learn skilled professions (…) perpetuates a vicious cycle of underpaid, unstable work.
Traditional gender Roles
What is considered as “traditional” women’s work is usually unqualified, low paid manual labour: basic agriculture, unskilled construction jobs, domestic work, handicraft manufacture… In adittion, these are mostly informal jobs, without any legal protection or safety regulations.
The idea that women cannot learn skilled professions is still prevalent amongst large sectors of the population. This prevents women from accessing qualified jobs, and perpetuates a vicious cycle of underpaid, unstable work.
Creating employment opportunities for women in non-traditional, highly skilled sectors will improve their chances of becoming financially independent. It will also help to break taboos and to change the perception of women´s value and contribution to society.