India has climbed eight places in the annual Gender Gap Report, 2023, and is ranked 127 out of 146 countries in terms of gender parity, from 135 last year. But this improved statistic, closing 64.3% of the overall gender gap, is hardly a cause for cheer. On the four key markers of the index – economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment – India has a window of opportunity to improve in each so that one half of the most populous country in the world may contribute to the economy, growth and overall wellbeing of society. India has fared well in education, and in political empowerment, with representation of women of over 40% in local governance, thanks to efforts on the ground after the 73rd and 74th amendments. But, as the report points out, women represent only 15.1% of parliamentarians, “the highest for India since the inaugural 2006 edition.” This should spur Parliament to take it to the next level by acting on the long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill, which proposes to reserve 33% of seats in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies for women, and was first introduced in the House way back in 1996. To understand where things stand on women’s participation in politics, consider this: Nagaland, which became a State in 1963, elected its first two women MLAs only in 2023.
On providing even access for men and women on economic participation and opportunity, India ranks near the bottom with less than 40% parity. On the one hand, there are upticks in parity in wages and income, but then shares of women in senior positions and technical roles have dropped. Another concern is India’s performance in health and survival, though an improvement in sex ratio at birth has driven up parity after more than a decade of slow progress. It is imperative that girls get access to education through all levels of school and college; and they also need paid work. Women end up doing so much unpaid work at home that many do not have the time or energy to opt for paid work. Providing girls with a job-assured education will automatically improve all development indices including nutrition, and break the vicious cycle of early marriage leading to poor maternal and child health. If the pandemic revealed the fragility of life, it was infinitely harder on women, with their labour participation rates dropping, thus reducing household incomes. Often, even if they get a job, women are constrained by patriarchal and cultural norms; besides, there are serious safety concerns. The pandemic may have stalled progress to achieve gender equality by 2030, but work towards bridging the gap must go on in earnest.