The Struggle for Gender Equality: India


Gender inequality dictates the daily lives of thousands of women in the Indian Subcontinent and manifests itself in many ways. The incident on 16th December 2012 saw this manifest in the traumatic gang rape of a 23-year-old female that shook the pillars of Indian society. Many questions were raised as a result: What had led to this act? What was the mindset behind it? Had society allowed these attitudes to flourish?

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon issued this statement: ‘Violence against women must never be accepted, never excused, never tolerated’. The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women called on the Indian Government to do everything in their power to take up radical reforms, ensure justice and robust public services to help women. Responses have led to Indians questioning cultural mindsets and the effectiveness of the state’s legal status to protect women.

Let us firstly look at the cultural obstacles many women face not only in the Indian Subcontinent but also in many other countries in South East Asia and Africa for example. Amartya Sen has explored these issues greatly and highlights key obstacles to the betterment of women and the realization of gender equality. Sen argues that all too often the burden of hardship falls disproportionally on women; ‘gender inequality in India is not one homogenous phenomenon but a collection of disparate and interlinked problems’. We see this in mortality rates and natality inequality where the parent prefers a male child to a female. Moreover this is reinforced by inequality of basic facilities to women and lack of opportunities, further deepened by cultural attitudes of women’s roles in the public domain. Later in life this is also seen in property rights in rural societies and rights to inheritance in patriarchal family systems. This does not seem to fit the modern, upcoming Indian middle class image projected to the world. India now faces the problem in redressing these social ‘ills’ in light of its economic boom and newfound image.

India ranks 132 out of 187 countries on the gender inequality index – lower than Pakistan (123), according to the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report 2013. The report found that all countries in South Asia, with the exception of Afghanistan, were a better place for women than India. The gender inequality index in the report measures the loss in a country’s progress and human development because of gender inequality in three sectors: reproductive health, women empowerment and labor market participation. The report notes ‘gender inequality is especially tragic not only because it excludes women from basic social opportunities, but also because it gravely imperils the life prospects of future generations’. The UNDP study says that only 29% of Indian women above the age of 15 in 2011 were a part of the country’s labor force, compared to 80.7% men. In Parliament, only 10.9% of lawmakers are women, while in Pakistan 21.1% are women. This shows the work needed to be done by the government there and across the world to answer gender equality issues.

Gender Equality: A New Development Goal?

Perhaps we can suggest that gender equality must be recognized as a development priority by the United Nations. This has been part of the growing debate in sessions regarding what to include in new development plans since the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) expire in 2015. Many saw the lack of focus on inequality as a key drawback of the MDGs. Debates have centered on how we can find new ways to measure inequality and incorporate gender/social inequalities in examinations. The need to define gender inequality as different from wider poverty issues is also apparent from expert panels. The fundamental premise behind the demand for a standalone goal is that gender is not just one of many inequalities, but the most omnipresent.

Mainstreaming the issue of gender equality across the post-2015 framework will be imperative. Although maternal mortality was an important facet of the MDGs it fell under health goals focusing on service delivery rather than on much deeper causes of gender inequality; unsafe abortion, child marriages, domestic violence, male domination in household/health decisions.  So what should a stand-alone goal look like? We need to establish set criteria for the international community to work off. This would ideally address and reflect the priorities of marginalized women/girls in all areas from national legislation to cultural rights. Gender specific injustices need to be defined independently and deserve considerable focus as a forerunning issue.

By Mohanvir Singh Saran


Manash Pratim Gohain, TNN. “Ban expresses condolences on death of gang-rape victim, urges reforms to deter violence against women”. The Times of India.

Stenhammer, Anne F. (20 December 2012). “UN Women condemns gang rape of Delhi student” (Press release). UN Women. Retrieved 21 December 2012.

Amartya Sen, “The Many Faces of Gender Equality”, From the New Republic, September 17 2001