Gender (In)Equality in India: An Unwanted Problem

By Maxine Cleminson

Like many expectant parents, I spent hours during my pregnancy browsing through baby name books, trying out names for size alongside my surname.  Whether I liked the sound of the name or not, the tipping factor on whether it made the shortlist was often in its meaning. The cool sounding ‘Jabez’ became a hard no the moment I read that it meant ‘borne in pain’.  I’m no masochist to tempt fate so easily. So you can imagine the visceral reaction I felt the moment I learned the meaning behind the sweet-sounding Indian girls’ name, Nakusa. The name comes from the Marathi phrase, nako asalelii mulagii (नको असलेली मुलगी), which literally means ‘unwanted daughter’.

Unwanted.  Let that sink in for a moment.

Image: बेटी बचाओ - Betii Bachaao (Save Our Daughters); street mural in Pune. Photo credit: Maxine Cleminson, 2019.

Image: बेटी बचाओ - Betii Bachaao (Save Our Daughters); street mural in Pune. Photo credit: Maxine Cleminson, 2019.

Think about the pain the knowledge of that meaning must bring to those girls and women burdened with it.  Knowing that you are not wanted by your family is bad enough, but wearing it as a lifelong label for the rest of the world to see must be truly harrowing.  In a short but powerful documentary called ‘Nakusa: Unwanted is my name’ produced by V.J. Shijith in 2016, the surprising extent of this practice is revealed in a village district only about 75 miles from where I live in Maharashtra, India.¹ What is most shocking of all is that the 286 girls named Nakusa they identified living in Satara village district for the film are the unwanted ones who survived pregnancy.  In the last decade alone, almost half a million girls have vanished from the population of Maharashtra state before even taking their first breath. Sex-selective abortions by unscrupulous medical practitioners have skewed the population so much that for every 1000 boys born between 2013 and 2015, only 878 girls were delivered in the same period².  I see a very visible reminder of this fact every time I drive past a graphic mural in town emblazoned with the phrase betii bachaao (बेटी बचाओ). Save our daughters.

To be honest, I had never thought about gender so much until I moved to India two years ago.  India is an epic country with a rich history involving many social, religious, and cultural influences that have shaped its understanding of gender.  Like many Bronze Age civilizations, the ancient Indus Valley civilization was built around the worship of female deities, and in the ancient Vedic period of Indian history that was contemporaneous to the ancient Greeks, it is believed that women and tritiya prakriti तृतीय प्रकृति (meaning ‘third nature’ individuals, encompassing the full panoply of gender expressions that lie between the binary male and female) enjoyed equal status to men in all areas of life.³  Over the millenia, there have been numerous empires that have conquered and ruled India, including the Mauryans, Guptas, Mughals, Marathis and the British to name but a few, with each bringing new ideas and perceptions of what genders mean and how they should be divided.  Even now in parts of India, matrilineal, matrilocal, and even matriarchal societies exist, but these are in the minority. Patriarchy, and its bedfellow, misogyny, are the norm in India, but even these vary dramatically depending on geography, caste, religion, and socio-economic status.  

As anyone who has ever visited India will tell you, it is a land of vast contrasts.  It is secular and holy, majestic and impoverished, maddeningly bureaucratic yet impossibly unregulated, and jaw-droppingly beautiful and downright disgusting. One of the most surprising dichotomies I have observed is that modern India is admirably progressive in some ways yet oppressively archaic almost in the same breath.  The latter of these binary extremes is easy to find evidence of, and the statistics backing this up are pretty damning. Take, for example, the data on calorie consumption. It is clear that girls are given less food than their more valued brothers. In the rural communities around Pune where I live, there is a local proverb that asks, ‘Why water a flower destined for someone else’s garden?’. In trying to understand this, it is important to realise that girls are viewed as a huge financial and social burden.  There are big pressures on families to find suitable husbands for their daughters, and although payment of dowries has been against the law for several decades in India, it is poorly enforced and the financial strain it creates is huge. Parents also see little value in investing in the health and education of a daughter who will leave the family home the moment she marries, taking her labour (paid and unpaid) with her. It is no surprise that India ranks 147th out of 149 countries in the world when it comes to the gender gap in health and survival.⁴

Image: Female students participating in a Ashta No Kai project; one wearing a mangalsutra. Photo credit: Maxine Cleminson, 2017.

Image: Female students participating in a Ashta No Kai project; one wearing a mangalsutra. Photo credit: Maxine Cleminson, 2017.

Another issue that shows the disparity in gender in India is in relation to child marriage.  This was an issue about which, to my shame, I was blissfully ignorant before moving to India.  My naiveté was revealed when I was shocked to see a mangalsutra (the Indian equivalent of a wedding ring) hanging around the neck of a 14-year-old girl in one of my English classes.  

Apart from the fact that child marriage is repugnant, there are a huge number of long-lasting socio-economic impacts, particularly for young women, that have resulted in it being classified as a human rights violation in international law.  Once married, the education of the child is usually interrupted or ended. This has lifelong and inter-generational impacts on earning potential and financial independence. India has strict laws regarding the minimum legal age of marriage which is set at 18 years for women and 21 years for men.  This is in contrast to the UK, that allows children aged 16 to marry with parental consent, and the USA where there is no minimum age for marriage in some circumstances in 17 of the states. However, the big difference is that in India it is the act of marriage that is illegal; the married status of a child is not void and any children born from the union are considered legitimate.  As long as you don’t get caught in the act of marrying a child everything is okay! Consequently, child marriage, while declining, is still commonplace with 27% of India’s girls marrying before the age of 18.⁵  The gender disparity is very apparent in the differing ages at which men and women are considered adults.  Child marriage is an issue that disproportionately impacts women.

Sadly, another big problem in India is that of gender violence, particularly sexual assaults against women.  Several high profile cases of horrific rapes in recent years have amplified the perception that rape is widespread in India.  The gang rape of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi in 2012 that resulted in her death is a particularly traumatic case.⁶  In actual fact, the official statistics don’t support this view.  For example, if you compare the rate of reported rapes in India to those in the USA, the difference is striking.  In 2015, there were 2.64 rapes reported for every 100,000 people living in India, whereas in America the rate was more than tenfold higher at 28.⁷,⁸  But this doesn’t paint the full picture.  Underreporting of rapes is a known problem across the world, but in India, the cultural pressures are such that statistics like these are believed to be the teensiest, tiniest sliver of the top of the iceberg.  An oft-repeated phrase in India is, ‘It takes two hands to clap’.⁹  This seemingly innocuous phrase is frequently used to imply a woman’s consensual participation in her own rape.  In fact, the driver of the bus on which Jyoti Singh was brutally assaulted, justified ignoring what was happening behind him by using these exact words.¹⁰  Victim blaming is pervasive.  

There is even a cutesy, playful euphemism for sexual harassment of women in India: Eve Teasing.¹¹  Most frustrating of all is the vicious circle this accepted behaviour perpetuates.  When a daughter reaches puberty, there is an obvious and understandable fear for her safety outside the home.  Consequently, some girls are stopped from attending school as their parents worry about what could happen to them en route.  It also exacerbates the problem of child marriage.¹²  There is a perception that by marrying the daughter sooner rather than later it will protect her from eve teasing.  If one is being cynical, it is also possible that the family worries that a daughter who has been sexually assaulted would be harder to find a husband for, as if ‘the family’s honour resides in her vagina’.⁹  In reality, being married offers no greater protection for women in India.  One of the most obvious indications of this is the fact that the Indian government continues to argue that marital rape is not a crime.¹³  A woman is a chattel to her husband.  He owns her, so how can it be a crime to use his personal possession in any way he sees fit?

Image: Students giving a demonstration of the karate they have been taught as part of one of Ashta No Kai’s initiatives; used for self-defence from eve teasing. Photo credit: Antoinette Louw, 2018.

Image: Students giving a demonstration of the karate they have been taught as part of one of Ashta No Kai’s initiatives; used for self-defence from eve teasing. Photo credit: Antoinette Louw, 2018.

All of this paints a pretty bleak picture of a highly skewed gender imbalance in India, but that is, yet again, not the full story in this country of contrasts.  As already mentioned, India ranks 147th out of 149 countries on the health and survival of its women, yet it simultaneously outranks so many others (including Canada, Switzerland, Australia, and the USA) in the political empowerment of its female citizens, holding the impressive rank of 19th in the world.⁴ Enshrined in India’s constitution is the idea that men and women are equal.  Equal pay for equal work is mandated by India’s laws (although it has a gender pay gap of 20% that is comparable to the UK and USA14), and India has enjoyed universal suffrage since its independence from the British in 1947. There has been both a female Prime Minister and a female President since that date, and although only about 11% of the Lok Sabha (Indian Parliament) are women, this proportion has been steadily growing. More revealing than the small number of women MPs in the government, is the political participation of women from all backgrounds in India.  The current 2019 Lok Sabha general elections are predicted to see more women vote than men, and with a 65% turnout in a population of 1.3 billion, that is a lot of politically active women.¹⁵  

India also has a progressive legal position regarding people whose gender is non-binary.  It is one of only a handful of countries around the world that legally recognise a third gender definition.  The Hijra communities of India that include intersex and transgender individuals have had a tradition dating back thousands of years to the Vedic period.  In the modern era, they are frequently marginalised and face discrimination, but unlike in many countries, their rights are defined and protected in law.¹⁶

One of the measures often used to highlight gender bias in Europe and the USA is the doleful male/female ratio of graduates in STEM subjects.  It is a huge issue blamed on stereotyping of gender roles. Toys, clothes, colours, and activities for children are gendered and there has been a knock-on effect in the subjects young adults choose to study.¹⁷ However, this is not as much of an issue in India.  If you look at the statistics for degrees in maths and the sciences, the split by gender is almost equal between male and female Indian graduates. Furthermore, in new technologies such as artificial intelligence (a field in which India is one of the leading countries), India has a higher proportion of women than the UK, Germany, and many others.⁴

There are many other small indications of how India trumps countries in the global North in its policies, laws, and practices for gender equality. Indian law gives six months maternity leave on full pay for women working for companies with more than 50 staff and also has requirements for employers to provide creche facilities and opportunities for breastfeeding breaks throughout the working day.¹⁸  This is in stark contrast to the US which has neither.  India also abolished tax on feminine hygiene products in 2018, whereas the UK government has yet to accede to scrapping the ‘tampon tax’.¹⁹  

The questions left to ask are how has this political empowerment and legal protection of gender equality not translated into improvements in the other areas, and if women are so engaged in politics why are so few Indian politicians female?  In attempting to answer these questions it is important to note the big difference between the lives of those in middle-class urban areas and poorer, rural communities. There is no denying that women in the urban middle class enjoy far more gender equality than their rural sisters.  There is much talk of the growing middle classes in India, but it’s easy to forget when you see the modern, sprawling megacities, that almost a billion people out of the population of 1.3 billion still live in rural areas and work in agriculture.²⁰  

Whilst living in India for the last two years, I have volunteered with an amazing non-governmental organisation called Ashta No Kai that strives to promote empowerment of women and girls in rural communities near the city of Pune.  When it began 20 years ago, this NGO sought to help rural women to learn to read in the belief that illiteracy was the major problem holding women back from reaching their potential. However, after a few years of minimal impact, a grassroots consultation with the women in the community revealed the bigger problem: a lack of financial independence and no access to affordable credit.  These are intelligent, capable, entrepreneurial women, with big dreams for their children, daughters included. But without independent access to money, these same women were powerless against the whims and demands of their husbands. They were entrenched in the traditional patriarchal and often misogynistic practices of their community, and without an alternative model, their husbands also accepted this status quo.  So Ashta No Kai tried something different. They supported the women to create self-help groups and to set up financial and entrepreneurial cooperatives.²¹  These were run by the women, for the women, and safeguards were put in place to prevent husbands from accessing the money.  With increased financial independence, the women found their voices. They were able to force change within their communities.  For example, in one village they won a campaign to close an illegal still that provided bootleg liquor to many of their alcoholic husbands.  Furthermore, with the support of scholarship grants from Ashta No Kai, the majority are now happy to keep their daughters unmarried and in school until they are adults.²²  And in an unforeseen twist to the tale, many of the husbands, seeing the benefits to their family circumstances and wider community, are now firmly supporting their wives.  It is easy to forget that men are also often victims of the toxic masculinity in traditional cultural practices. Breaking the cycle caused by fear of emasculation is not easy, but it is liberating for all once achieved.

Image: Ashta No Kai help women in rural villages near Pune set up and organise self-help groups; here the women attend a meeting. Photo credit: Antoinette Louw, 2018.

Image: Ashta No Kai help women in rural villages near Pune set up and organise self-help groups; here the women attend a meeting. Photo credit: Antoinette Louw, 2018.

An interesting and revealing thing for me personally, has been the change in my own circumstances since moving to India.  My husband’s employer offered us the opportunity to relocate to India when a new role came up for him. We jumped at the chance, mostly for the amazing intercultural experience it offers us as a family, and it is not a decision we regret.  However, that decision has come at a cost. Unlike other locations we have lived, I am unable to work in India on a spouse’s visa, so I have lost some of my own financial independence. I am now classified as a dependent; infantilised and reduced to the same economic status as my children.  I am not in any way trying to compare my privileged and pampered expatriate lifestyle to those of the women in the rural communities I have described, and I am certainly cognizant of the dangers of speaking for the ‘other’ as a white British woman living in a postcolonial world. However, it has certainly given me an insight into how being in receipt of remuneration for your labour is empowering.  I keep myself busy with voluntary work and studying for a masters degree, but my allotted role has definitely changed. Even in my own eyes, my ‘work’ now seems somewhat self-indulgent rather than necessary and has less of a priority in our family life. Consequently, despite my husband sharing my feminist outlook, my share of the domestic chores has increased. I now do almost all of the food shopping, cooking, and organising of the children.  We also have a female housekeeper that helps me with domestic tasks such as laundry and cleaning. I worry about the regressive impact that this arrangement is having on the gender role perceptions my three sons are internalising, and I try to stress to them that this is not normal and that regular service will resume at some point!

So what does the future hold for gender (in)equality in India?  Whilst I have focused on the extremes visible today, it is probably more appropriate to focus on the potential India has to become an equal society.  When you consider the centuries of oppression and abuse it faced under the colonial rule of the British, it is impressive to see how far this country has come in such a short period of time.  It’s clear that positive change is possible in India, and the key to achieving this change in gender equality is women’s financial independence. If you consider the UK in the 1940s and ‘50s, gender roles were hugely unbalanced and misogyny was rife.  Married women were expected to stay at home and raise the children, and most did not have bank accounts and were financially dependent on their husbands. It’s shocking now to realise that women in the UK could be denied credit by the banks without a male guarantor as recently as 1980.²³  But in the post-war era as women became more financially independent, the gap between the genders narrowed dramatically within a generation or two.  It is definitely still a work in progress, but it is heading in the right direction. India already has gender equality enshrined in its constitution and many laws in place to support women’s rights.  What is needed now is a push to help women become financially independent. Only then will they have the agency to demand that their rights are enforced.

One of the most moving and hopeful things I have been privileged to witness whilst living here in India was a scholarship ceremony held by Ashta No Kai, where modest bursaries were handed out to help the girls continue with their education beyond the compulsory age of 14.  As each girl came to collect her award, she was asked to explain to the assembled audience what she is studying and what her plans for the future are. Each girl's mother was also invited up to the stage. Some mothers stood proudly to one side, watching with tears in their eyes as their daughters spoke with confidence.  However, some mothers spoke, too. They told of their sorrow at the restricted opportunities in their own adolescence, but also of their pride in their daughters’ accomplishments and their hope for the future. These financially independent and empowered women would never dream of allowing their daughters to be called Nakusa.

Image: Student giving a speech at an Ashta No Kai scholarship award ceremony with mother looking on. Photo credit: Maxine Cleminson, 2019.

Image: Student giving a speech at an Ashta No Kai scholarship award ceremony with mother looking on. Photo credit: Maxine Cleminson, 2019.

Image: Students and their mothers proudly attending an Ashta No Kai scholarship award ceremony. Photo credit: Maxine Cleminson, 2019.

Image: Students and their mothers proudly attending an Ashta No Kai scholarship award ceremony. Photo credit: Maxine Cleminson, 2019.

Maxine Cleminson is an educator with more than 15 years’ experience teaching geography, history, social studies, and global citizenship in the UK and USA.  Currently living in Pune, India, she is undertaking an MA in Development Education and Global Learning with UCL Institute of Education. She is also an active volunteer working with Ashta No Kai, an NGO promoting the empowerment of women and girls in rural communities near Pune.  For more information about the work of ANK, please visit


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