By: Lindsey Cawood
THE CURRENT STATUS OF WOMEN IN INDIA
In recent years, India has made great strides in improving the status of women. The constitution bans discrimination, calls for equity between the sexes, and prohibits paying women lesser wages for the same work as men. Dowry has been outlawed, and government aid programs help women improve their lot. India even elected a female as its 12th president.
Although on paper it seems gender equity has been achieved, in practice, this is not the case. Women throughout India are often treated as second-class citizens. They have lower rates of school attendance and achieved grade level; higher rates of malnutrition, anemia, and mental disease; and earn 66% less in wages for the same jobs, as compared to men.1,2,3 Indian women also fall victim to domestic violence, traditionally do not own land, and frequently play no part in household decision-making. Attacks such as rape, acid throwing, and bride burning are too common, while traditions such as child marriage, dowry, and female infanticide have been difficult to extinguish.
The status of Indian women is further portrayed by beliefs surrounding the menstrual cycle. In some areas, when a woman is menstruating, she is viewed as a gateway to hell. During this time, women are considered unholy and frequently are forbidden from sleeping in the house, cooking, and having contact with others. Anything touched by her must be thrown out. If one accidentally comes into contact with a menstruating woman, s/he must seek purity by touching a cow, a holy being. Without the presence of a cow, a person may sprinkle themselves with cow urine or in other cases, take a bath.
ROOTS OF THE PROBLEM
Oppression of women dates back thousands of years, and in many instances, has been codified into cultural and religious practice. Across the diverse array of cultures, ethnicities, and religions in India, the low status of women has been an unfortunate common thread.
The practice of dowry has played a main role in the low status of women, particularly because it nearly guarantees financial hardship among lower-income families with female children. Those who are unable to afford dowry for their daughters must either sell their land or take out loans they have little hope of repaying. In Jamkhed, a poor, rural, farming area, CRHP staff estimate dowries range from 2,000-10,000 rupees, while among wealthier families, dowries could range from 500,000-1 million rupees. In addition to dowry, the bridal family also incurs wedding expenses and the possibility of future monetary demands from the groom’s family.
Compounding the problem is that Indian women traditionally marry at a young age, when they may not have the necessary skills to obtain an income. In rural areas, 69% of Indian women are married before their 16th birthday; the median age at first pregnancy is 19.4 Combined with an inability to own land, this makes them functionally dependent on their husbands, and may contribute to the common viewpoint that women and girls are a burden to families, husbands, and society at large.
Infrastructure plays a part in the low status of women as well. Many schoolhouses, especially in rural areas, do not contain bathrooms. Although men are allowed to relieve themselves wherever they please, this is not the case for women. Lack of access to a private bathroom has consequently kept many women and girls from attending school, and therefore, improving their circumstances.
CRHP ADDRESSES THE ISSUES
CRHP strongly believes in female empowerment and has launched several programs to help create equity between the sexes. Men’s Groups, Women’s Groups, the Adolescent Girls Program, and the Adolescent Boys Program all provide enrollees with health and social education. Topics discussed include gender equity, domestic violence, and rights of women, reproductive health, hygiene/ sanitation, nutrition, communicable/ non-communicable diseases, as well as practical skills such as entrepreneurial development.
Over the years, CRHP has seen a multitude of successes in changing the social and economic standing of women. Women in CRHP project villages have seen increases in household decision-making and landholding, less anemia and malnutrition, and a rising age at marriage. Compared to non-project villages, CRHP areas also have higher rates of school attendance and a more equal male/ female ratio (less female feticide).
The Adolescent Boys Program has been especially successful, with differences in the boys’ behavior noted by parents, teachers, and female villagers alike. CRHP is excited to start this year’s program, but needs your help! With less than 1 day left, we are about $2,000 short of our goal.
Please see some of the first-hand stories of how the Adolescent Boys Program has influenced the lives of community members, and join us in our fight to achieve female equity.
1. Kalyani, Menon-Sen. “Women in India: How Free? How Equal?” United Nations. http://web.archive.org/web/20060911183722/http://www.un.org.in/wii.htm
2. Unicef: Picture in India – The Children – Nutrition. http://www.unicef.org/india/children_2356.html
3. Silicon India. “Women’s salary in India, less than a third of men’s.
4. Med India: Network for Health. Average Age at Marriage- India. http://www.medindia.net/health_statistics/general/marriageage.asp