Sunday, 16 February 2014

Women disappearance: Gender Inequality: Reflection of a deeper malady

Recently in Birbhum district, a tribal woman was tied to a tree on the orders of a tribal and was allegedly  gang raped as a punishment for falling in love with a man from a different religion.
What are the reasons behind such ghastly incidents?
What might be consequences of these? Is there a lack of political will to crack down on such councils which are running in gross violation of law or are there some others layers to it as well?  Or there is meagre representation of women in the political arena? Or Women have become a challenge in race of getting their rights, hence are being denied for their most basic right, that is, right to vote.

In 1936, Bombay legislative council debate, the speech by BR Ambedkar clearly stated that "the community which denies equality and promotes orthodoxy and encourage prejudices in favor of inequality, casteism, sexism . Can these communities can be trusted for justice? I don't believe we should surrender ourselves in hands of such communities".

For ages it was believed that the different characteristics, roles and status accorded to women and men in society are determined by sex, that they are natural and therefore not changeable. 

Incidents like Birbhum indicates the mentality of our society on one hand, and on the other hand it represents the political unwillingness of the concerned authorities. India is a democratic country, atleast in words and deeds as far as elections are concerned. Elections are held at regular intervals for State Assemblies and Parliament, how far they are fair and transparent is a debatable question. But, they do not reflect the true consent of people because a large number of women are "missing" from the electorate. According to an estimation, more than 65 million women (approximately 20% of the female electorate) are missing in the voters list. Thus, what these elections reveal is the preferences of a population that is more or less skewed against women. And this preference is also a key factor in gender inequality.

The "missing women" phrase was coined by Amartya Sen. He did a study a found that the ratio of women to men in the population is suspiciously low in developing world. The worsening sex ratio in India reflected the gross neglect of women. Missing of 100 million women was attributed to gender discrimination. And the key reasons found were- "boy preference at the birth", "mistreatment of young girls", "partiality throughout the life". Similar study showed that the number of female deaths from intentional injuries or  violence was alarmingly high in India.

There is agreement over the fact that the phenomenon of gender inequality is one of the most prominent problem faced by the developing world recently. And the way out is only through political action and public policy.
A study carried out by the professors at the Indian School of business computed the sex ration in the electorate across all the states in India over last 50 years. The analysis brings upfront 3 shocking facts:
  1. The absolute number of missing women has increased four times from 15 million to 68 million. This indicates the worsening of the trend with time. In terms of percentage, it has gone up from 13% to 20%.
  2. The adverse sex ratio for backward states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh has become worse. And this trend has not significantly changed over the 50 years.
  3. With the exception of few states like Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, the sex ration in the electorate is far worse than the general sex ration in the population.
These trends suggest that there  are more missing women voters in the population, so, fewer female voters can raise their opinions through elections. Political decision are based on election outcomes which also under-represent the female population. It is not a true reflection of the female policy preferences.
Not all the women who are eligible to vote in Indian elections are registered to vote and, hence, missing from the electoral list.

These worsening gender inequality in Indian electorate has long lasting consequences due to the democratic system of governance in India. Politicians compete to get elected and their policy preferences are also different, and this adverse sex ration make it more likely to neglect the preferences of women.
Competitive electoral process make this situation worse by perpetuating the gender biased policies in India. Because the fact is that the politicians respond to their vote banks or the existing electorate in the population and not the missed ones.
The participation of these missing ones would definitely going to influence the government policies and decisions. Unfortunately, even if an individual politician is not biased against women in his policy preferences. But the binding with party, the electoral competitiveness, and the will to win ensure that he chooses policies in favors of his traditional electorate which is male dominated in India.
This can easily explain why gender bias has persisted in Indian society for so long.

Despite having a well functioning democracy from such a long time, and higher per capita income,  India is the worst performer in the Gender Inequality Index(GII) of the World Bank. GII is the indicator for loss of achievement due to gender inequality within a country. It is based on measures of labor participation and empowerment. India is ranked 133rd out of 146 countries and even lags behind Iraq and Sudan which frequently faced war and adversaries

Way Ahead
Many opine that women's reservation in Parliament and State Assemblies can address this gender bias problem in India. But the not so successful experiment of women's reservation at the level of Panchayat since mid 1990s suggest the limited impact of the solution.
Professors at Indian School of Business coined the term-"compensatory justice", which suggest that the impact of the reservation depend on the exact nature of reservation policy.
 For example, if seats are reserved on a quick rotation basis then there might be no long-term policies favoring women and thereby having minimal impact. On the other hand, if seats are reserved for a certain number of election rounds then the impact would depend on the basis of the reservation at the constituency level. The objective of compensatory justice is that it should start with those constituencies where the neglect is highest. Thus the reservation policy of a constituency should be based on the gender ratio there. Because an adverse gender ratio is a measure of neglect of women in that society, and it would work in more localized and targeted way.
However, again the challenge is competitive electoral process. Even in reserved constituencies where there are less women than men, women political candidates who compete with each other to get themselves elected might choose policies which favor men. And again the whole process might perpetuate gender-biased policies.
To summarize, the competitive electoral process in Indian democracy with or without women’s reservation will fail to deliver policies that are not gender-biased. In the presence of missing women, whose consent cannot be taken into account in the electoral process, democracy will fail to deliver policies that promote women’s welfare (especially in those situations where there is a divergence in opinion between men and women). India can begin to address this disaster by first recognizing that an adverse gender ratio is a human rights problem which is an outcome of the sustained, gross neglect of women. And the solution for this lies outside the competitive democratic system, may be in the society first.

The importance of gender equality can be summarized in UN Secretary General Kofi Annan statement, "Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance." There is a need for new kinds of institutions, incorporating new norms and rules in the real world that support equal and just relations between women and men. 

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