Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

Indian Women Are Better Off — But It’s Not All Good News

About 75 percent of women are dependent on rural agriculture for work
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  • More women have their own bank accounts, cell phones
  • Sex ratio of men to women rises but many states see declines

A richer India is bringing more cell phones, bank accounts and schooling to women but other signs of female advancement in the $2 trillion economy remain patchy, including the most basic: births.

First, the good news. Education levels among women have risen in the past 10 years, according to the government’s National Family Health Survey 4, released this year. That’s helped push the percentage of women who are literate to 68 percent from 55 percent, though that remains below the male rate of 86 percent.

“There’s been a significant improvement in the status of women,” said Sayeed Unisa, a professor at the International Institute for Population Sciences in Mumbai. The institute conducted the survey of 601,509 households, 699,686 women and 103,525 men from January 2015 to December 2016. ‘You don’t have to talk about literacy rates or illiteracy anymore.”

As India’s middle class expands, women are also becoming more autonomous. The survey showed almost half had a mobile phone and those with their own bank account rose to 53 percent from 15 percent. Women owning a house and/or land, jointly with others, stood at 38 percent. The figures didn’t exists in 2005-06.

There are other markers of increasing independence, with the percentage of women getting married or becoming pregnant at a young age falling. Married women who reported spousal abuse also fell to 29 percent from 37 percent a decade ago, according to the survey. That puts them about on par with the U.S., where more than 27 percent of women reported contact sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in a survey published in April from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s the glass half full perspective. Other criteria show only marginal improvement in Indian women’s lives. The number of females born per 1,000 men in the last five years, known as the sex ratio, rose to 919 from 914 a decade ago. That translates to about 1.09 males per every female, still above natural rate which is considered to be 1.05 and the level in countries such as Canada.

In many states, the sex ratio continues to decline, including the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh as well as West Bengal and Delhi. The data suggest that sex selection continues to take place in some areas amid a cultural preference for males, even though doctors are prevented by law from revealing the sex of a fetus.

“There’s relatively less negative attitude toward daughters,” particularly in the middle class, said Bina Agarwal, a professor of at the University of Manchester, noting employment opportunities are opening to women that wouldn’t have been considered 20 years ago such as technology and management.

However women in poorer, rural villages are often at the mercy of a “cluster of disadvantages” where cultural norms mediate economic outcomes, Agarwal said by phone from Delhi. Families don’t want girls so they don’t educate them, they’re often married to distant strangers and they don’t get their rightful claim to land.

About 75 percent of women are dependent on rural agriculture for work, compared with 59 percent for men which also puts them at a disadvantage, said Agarwal, who helped push through the Hindu Inheritance Law of 2005 which made it gender equal. Change happens slowly however, as women are still expected to move out of the family home and pressured to cede their land rights to brothers, she said.

“The most important factor to improving women’s lives would be access to productive assets, particularly land,” she said. “We are in transition.”

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