All the world knows of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and other accomplished Indian women. But out of the limelight, life for most women in India holds hardship rather than fame and glamour.
Often married off by their late teens, many toil for abusive husbands and in-laws, powerless to make even the most rudimentary decisions for themselves. Thanks to neglect, violence and malnutrition, Indian women typically live to age 63, compared to 72 among Chinese women and 82 for American women.
Indian women routinely suffer from domestic abuse. A recent United Nations survey found that 65.3 percent of Indian women have been subjected to some form of domestic violence. The most common reason for the abuse: meals not prepared on time.
Even worse, statistics indicate that more and more women are being kidnapped, raped and killed. Indeed, each year thousands of women are murdered — often burned to death in faked kitchen fires — by their husband and his family when they feel that the dowry collected from the wife's family is insufficient. Killing a wife allows the husband to remarry and, hopefully, collect a better dowry.
Women in rural India fill their water jugs. Life for most women in India is unremittingly difficult. The average woman in India dies at age 63, and more than 65 percent suffer domestic abuse, according to the United Nations. (AFP Photo)
Recent statistics show that between 1999 and 2001 the number of reported dowry-related deaths rose almost 4 percent — to 6,220 in 2001 — despite new laws requiring criminal investigations into the sudden death of a new bride and imposing stiff sentences on anyone involved in dowry murder.
Indian women also suffer significant discrimination outside the home. The average Indian woman earns 60 percent of what men in the same job earn, and women occupy only 3 percent of the management positions in the business sector. Moreover, only 54 percent of women are literate, compared with 76 percent of men.
Perhaps the most chilling statistic is India's man-woman ratio. Currently, there are only 933 women for every 1,000 men. Other societies typically have about 5 percent more women than men. The shortage of women reflects not only their lower life expectancy but also the widespread practice in India of aborting female fetuses and, to a lesser extent, female infanticide.
Boys are more prized in India because they don't require their families to pay a dowry when they get married. Dowries — outlawed since 1961 but still widely paid — can cost up to $1,000, or two years' wages for the average Indian. Boys offer another economic advantage: They bring their wives to live in their parents' house, which allows both of them to contribute to the family income. The economic hardships associated with having girls leads to an estimated 2- 5 million aborted female fetuses every year.
The Indian Constitution bans all gender-based discrimination, and several laws — such as those punishing dowry deaths — now guarantee women's rights. “There were many laws passed in the 1990s regarding the physical, economic and social position of women in the family, in the workplace and in the public sphere,” says Partha Chatterjee, director of Calcutta's Centre for Studies in Social Sciences. “These were among the most progressive laws anywhere. But actual practices on the ground have not necessarily changed much.”
Chatterjee says old prejudices often make the police and other authorities loath to enforce a law that raises a woman's status. “When women go to the state authorities, prevailing practices and prejudices within the [police] administration or the courts work to deprive them of the protection,” she says. As a result, many domestic abuse and dowry-death cases have been inadequately investigated or dismissed.
Ignorance and fear among women themselves also hinders improvements in their lot, Chatterjee says. “Often, women are not aware of their rights,” she contends. “Even when they are, they often do not have the courage or the resources to flout the authority of family or community power structures and seek the protection of the law.”
While huge problems persist, Indian women are becoming more politically active. Women's groups established in every major city and even in some rural areas routinely sponsor women's-rights demonstrations and rallies.
To celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, thousands of women demonstrated and held panel discussions around the country, speaking out against violence and exploitation and demanding new laws to protect women and expand their opportunities.
In New Delhi, the capital, India's first lady, Usha Narayanan, joined the activists, saying India could not become a modern, prosperous state without dramatic improvements in the lives of women.
“The upliftment of women by widening opportunities for their full participation in every area of activity will be the harbinger of sustainable development,” Narayanan told activists. “Development, if not engendered, is endangered.”