In India, gender inequality begins before birth. A land of paradoxes, the nation that recently bade farewell to its first female president and boasts the likes of Indira Nooyi and Indira Gandhi as natives, was also ranked among the top five most dangerous countries for women. In an ironic twist of fate, the technology that has saved the lives of countless women and children, ultrasound scans, has become instrumental in preventing the birth of an estimated 50 million Indian girls. Social preference for boys over girls and the increased availability of the scans has given rise to high rates of female feticide, or the sex selective abortion of female fetuses. However, being born is simply one of the many hurdles faced by a large portion of India’s women.
Women in India are routinely forced into child marriages, prevented from receiving an education, and victimized through sexual and domestic abuse. These issues are present in women’s lives, albeit in different forms, regardless of socioeconomic background, location, and social status. In what is perhaps one of the more grotesque depictions of the current climate for women in India, on July 9, a mob of roughly twenty men sexually assaulted a 20-year-old woman for over 30 minutes on a major city road. Despite the attack being caught on camera by a local news station, the police not only took an inordinate amount of time to reach the crime scene, but also failed for two weeks to apprehend the main attacker. This incident portrays not only the lack of safety experienced by women in India, but also the societal and governmental attitudes that perpetuate the cycles of abuse and repression. Unfortunately, this attack was by no means an isolated incident.
For India, the issue of women’s empowerment takes the form of both a moral and an economic concern. Slowed partly by a massive budget deficit and a largely unaddressed need for governmental reform, India’s economic growth rate is the lowest it has been in seven years. And if India plans to re-bolster its economic expansion over the long term, attention must be given to the country’s women. Research consistently has shown that giving women increased access to education, nutrition, and sanitation translates to higher levels of the same for their children. Reducing rates of domestic violence and abuse encourages women to pursue lucrative opportunities for both themselves and their families, thus improving the quality of life for everyone involved. Compound these effects over generations, and it becomes clear that if India wants to have a healthy, educated workforce going into the latter part of the century, it must begin to educate and utilize its women now. Though the empowerment of women is by no means the entire solution to India’s economic woes, it is obvious that the country can no longer afford to leave half its population behind.
Ensuring the social and economic rights of women, however, necessitates action by both Indian society and the Indian government. Various laws and legislative acts have prohibited child marriage, dowries, female feticide, and domestic violence; however, these practices remain prevalent throughout India as a result of longstanding social traditions and a lack of government enforcement. Realizing equality for women in India will occur only through a genuine government commitment to enforcement and major social changes, across caste, socioeconomic, and religious boundaries. Indian society and government must begin to think in the long term, not simply about the next year or the next election. This is a tall demand to make of a developing nation. But, if India’s recent economic boom has shown anything, it is that this land of contradictions has the ability to succeed against all odds. For the sake of the country’s women and economy, let’s hope this is true once more.
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