8 – Gender in Development – Social Development in Independent India


Gender in Development

S. N. Jha and Mamta Shree Ojha




One of the major concerns in the national policies over the last two decades has been to integrate a gender perspective into development, both in policy and in practice. It has been recognized that the failure to define development in a gender perspective has contributed to the marginalization of women, leaving unchallenged their shackles of hunger, poverty, illness, ignorance, exploitation and indignity. The multiple forms of violence that women are vulnerable and susceptible to can even impinge on their very lives. Thus, the traditional preference for male offspring translates into less favoured access for female infants and children to life-sustaining inputs like food, nutrition and health care.1 Not only are there ‘entitlement failures’ within the household,2 in the broader social sphere also women are disadvantaged. This may, for instance, take the form of a denial of women's property rights,3 or the exclusion of women from the public sphere, which stifles their political participation. The prejudice against females also, tragically, leads to infanticide and foeticide, which advances in technology have facilitated. Overall, in spite of the gender equality built into the Constitution and the increasing participation of women in different segments of public life, a large majority of women continue to be subject to discrimination in matters of political participation, education, nutrition, health, ownership of property, and so on.


Even prior to Independence, the nationalist agenda had recognized women's roles and contributions and built this sensitivity into the policy design to ensure most effective use of developmental resources. The perspective of the nationalists and the participation of the women in the national movement had resulted in the incorporation of the guarantee of gender equality in the Constitution.4 Taking into account the centuries-old tradition of subordination of women, the Constitution framers also incorporated Article 15(3), which enables the State to make special provisions in their favour. Adult suffrage added women to the electoral rolls, and political parties pledged their commitment to women's issues. The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948, providing for legal equality of sexes in Article 2, also had an impact on how women were perceived. Though socio-economic rights of women have not been guaranteed in the Constitution, the Directive Principles brought economic goals into their ambit, after criticism from women communists and some close followers of Gandhi, who saw economic and social change as more important than legal and constitutional rights.5

The Welfare Approach

The First Plan (1950-1955) focused on women's legitimate role in the family and in the community and emphasized the need for adequate welfare services like health.6 A social service department was set up to look after women and child welfare. Malnutrition was recognized as the primary cause of high rates of infant and maternal mortality, and as a counter, school-feeding schemes in the State Public Health Departments and Maternity and Child Health Centres were initiated. A Central Social Welfare Board (CSWB) was created at the central level in 1953 to promote welfare and development services for women and children, especially from marginalized and underprivileged groups. The Board encouraged women's organizations, especially at the grass roots, to promote welfare measure in partnership with the government, with mahila mandals conceived as delivery mechanisms. The state governments also set up state-level Social Welfare Advisory Boards at the CSWB to fulfil the same objectives. In 1954, two gram sevikas were appointed in every development block to address the issue of women's welfare. Thus, there was at least a ‘conceptual thrust (even though inadequately articulated) towards encouraging the participation of women in the processes of change’.7

The Second Plan (1956-1961) retained the welfare approach to women's issues, together with an appreciation of the need to organize women workers. The Plan took cognizance of the plight of the women workers on account of social prejudices/disabilities, as also the need to provide maternity benefits to them, protect women from injurious work, and set up crèches for their children. It was recognized that the equal pay for equal work policy required speedy implementation, together with the provision of training, to enable women compete for higher jobs.8 The Socio-Economic Programme (SEP) was implemented by the CSWB since 1958 to provide work and wage to needy women such as widows, deserted women, the economically backward, and the handicapped, and to initiate them into both traditional and non-traditional trades. Commencing from 1958, condensed courses of education (CCE) and vocational training (VT) for adult women have provided new avenues of employment through continuing education and vocational training for women and girl school dropouts. This period also saw the enactment of the Hindu Marriage and Succession Act, 1956, and also, the Right to Inheritance Act, which made it possible for girls to inherit the property of the parents, thus providing a boost to the legal and economic status of the women.

The Third Plan (1961-1966) envisaged female education as a major strategy of welfare. Under ‘social welfare’, the emphasis was on the provision of rural welfare services and CCEs. Health services were geared to maternal and child welfare, and also, health education, nutrition and family planning.

The Fourth Plan (1969-1974) emphasized women's education and the promotion of women's welfare within the family. The focus on family planning continued with greater concerns over reducing birth rates and increased budgetary allocation to the Family Planning Programme (FPP). The health agenda of the FPP was extended to the immunization of infants, and the supplementary feeding of children and expectant and nursing mothers. The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), which not only supports children aged 0-6 years, but also pregnant and nursing mothers and adolescent girls, and seeks to meet their special needs of nutrition, health and education, was begun.

The welfare approach, though commendable, saw the women largely as passive beneficiaries of programmes for them primarily in their roles as ‘mothers’ rather than as agents of development. However, new policy currents had begun to emerge. In 1971, a National Committee on the Status of Women in India was appointed to examine the constitutional, legal and administrative provisions that have a bearing on the social status of women, their education and employment, and to assess the impact of these provisions. The Committee's report, titled Towards Equality, showed the failure of the welfare approach practiced so far. It became clear that despite constitutional guarantees and governmental measures, the rights and opportunities available to women was limited. The majority of women were unaware of the social laws that were meant to mitigate their problems. The report concluded that ‘though women do not numerically constitute a minority, they are beginning to acquire the features of a minority community by the three recognized dimensions of inequality: Inequality of class (economic inequity), status (social position) and political power’.9 It made several recommendations to secure social justice for women, remove obstacles to their advancement and provide them with opportunities to realize their potential to the full.

The Development Approach

The Fifth Plan (1974-1978) saw a marked shift in the approach towards women from ‘welfare’ to ‘development’, with the plan document emphasizing the integrating of women's welfare with developmental services. A National Plan of Action for Women (NPA), adopted in 1976, became the guiding document for the development of women until the formulation of National Perspective Plan for Women in 1988. Changes in policy towards women's issues was given a significant fillip by developments such as the First World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975, which emphasized equality, development and peace, and the declaration of 1975 as the International Women's Year and 1975-1985 as the International Women's Decade. Efforts were directed towards the formulation of alternative strategies for women's development and an information system for monitoring and evaluating progress. The capacity of the administration to better plan and administer women's development programmes and the need to strengthen it too received emphasis.

The Sixth Plan (1980-1985) for the first time included a chapter on women and development. This marked an important shift in policy perspective whereby a central role was recognized for women in development. It focused on a multi-pronged approach with thrust on health, education and employment of women. Women's development needs and the numbers of beneficiaries were identified for several beneficiary-oriented programmes, such as the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas. Special institutions for women's development were established. Among them was the National Committee on Women under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister. Also, the Bureau of Women's Development was set up by the Department of Social Welfare, followed by the creation of the Department of Women and Child Development (under the newly created Ministry of Human Resource Development) and the setting up of special cells to deal with women's issues in different sectors. In 1982-1983, a scheme for employment and income generation and setting up of production units was launched with the objective of providing training and employment opportunities to women in non-traditional and upcoming trades. Women from economically weak backgrounds were provided training in electronics, computer programming, printing, binding, weaving, spinning, garment-making, etc. In 1980, the National Expert Committee on Women Prisoners, which had studied the condition of women prisoners in the criminal correctional justice system, made a series of recommendations, including legislation, custodial correctional measures and prison reforms with respect to women prisoners. Thus, the Sixth Plan saw a revitalization of the national administrative machinery with policy thrust in favour of women. A special provision for women was made in the National Health Policy and National Policy on Education (1986) and later in the National Population Policy (1993) and the National Nutrition Policy (1993).

The Seventh Plan (1985-1990) continued with the approach of development programmes for women with the objective of raising their socioeconomic status and bringing them into the mainstream of national development. Beneficiary-oriented programmes were promoted with the purpose of extending direct benefits to women and state governments were asked to give priority to households that had women as the head of the family. The chapter on women, which, according to Veena Mazumdar, demonstrated ‘some advance in the use of feminist language’,10 acknowledged the important role women play in agriculture and allied sectors. In 1988, the National Perspective Plan (NPP) sought to ease the process of linking women's issues with the mainstream policies and programmes. While recognizing the need to focus on women's concerns, however, it however discouraged women's development as a separate sub-stream. The strategy was to provide for women a democratic, egalitarian, secular and co-operative social structure. The NPP formulated an action framework for a holistic approach for development of women, emphasizing rural development, health, legislation, political participation, education, employment, support services, communication and voluntary action.

The Shramshakti Report of the National Commission for Self-employed Women and Women in the Informal Sector (1988), for the first time, brought to light women's contribution to the informal economy. It examined the entire gamut of issues facing women in the unorganized sector and made a number of recommendations relating to employment, occupational hazards, legislative protection, training and skill development, and marketing and credit for women in the informal sector. Lack of organization among women was identified as a key factor in their exploitation.11

The decadal plan, The National Plan of Action for the Girl Child (1991-2000), sought to focus on gender-specific needs of the children,12 and aimed towards an integrated development of the children especially girl children and adolescents, to ensure their survival, protection and development by preventing female foeticide and infanticide, eliminating gender discrimination, providing safe drinking water and fodder near homes, and rehabilitation and protection of girls from exploitation, assault and abuse.

From Development to Empowerment

The Eighth Plan (1992-1997) sought to ensure that women were not bypassed in access to the benefits of development from the different sectors. Special programmes were to be implemented to enrich the existing development programmes, and benefits to women in the sectors of education, health and employment were to be monitored. Women were to be equal partners in the development process. The approach shifted from women's development to women's empowerment. In keeping with this line of thinking, the National Commission for Women was set up in January 1992 as a statutory body under the National Commission for Women Act, 1990, to investigate, examine and review matters relating to the safeguards provided for women in the Constitution, to review the implementation of women-specific and women-related legislation and suggest necessary amendments, and to function as a watchdog agency geared to facilitating redressal of women's grievances.

In March 1993, the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh (RMK) was set up as a registered society to meet the credit needs of poor women, particularly from the informal sector. It operates through non-governmental organizations and provides micro-credit to women so as to help them attain self-sufficiency and meet contingency needs. It promotes the formation of self-help groups (SHGs) for promotion of thrift and credit leading to income-generation activities.

The Mahila Samriddhi Yojana (MSY), launched in October, 1993, sought to empower women by improving their economic status. It aimed at promoting the saving habit amongst rural women. The scheme offers small deposits with attractive rates of interest and operates through the network of post offices. In 1995, the Indira Mahila Yojana (IMY) was launched as a scheme aiming at organizing women at the grassroots level to facilitate their participation in decision-making. It was strategy to coordinate and integrate components of sectoral programmes and facilitate their convergence, to empower women. The National Nutritional Policy (NNP), 1993 articulated nutritional considerations in all the important policy instruments of government and identified short- and long-term measures to improve nutritional status of women, children and the country as a whole.13

The change in economic policy and the governmental preoccupation with the structural reforms and liberalization in the Eighth Plan period was evident in the Plan document too. In the sectoral chapters, the mention of women was restricted to the women-specific programmes. Moreover, the concept of a women's quota, was not even mentioned—not even in the rural development or poverty alleviation chapters.

The Ninth Plan (1997-2002) document reflected in much greater sense the earlier shift in the focus from development to empowerment. The empowerment of women was one of its nine primary goals, and to ensure this, it was recognized that an enabling environment was needed for women to ‘freely exercise their rights both within and outside home, as equal partners along with men’.14 Towards this end, the Ninth Plan document advocated the adoption of a National Policy for Empowerment of Women, and legislation to reserve not less than 1/3 of the seats in the Lok Sabha and in the State Legislative Assemblies for women, so as to ensure adequate representation of women in decision-making. The Plan advocated an integrated approach towards empowering women through effective convergence of existing services, financial and human resources, and infrastructure, in both women-specific and women-related sectors.

The Plan envisaged a Women's Component Plan to ensure funds flow to women from other relevant sectors, and underscored the need for organizing women into SHGs. A review of its progress in the Ninth Plan by the Planning Commission confirmed that nearly 42.9 per cent of the gross budgetary support (GBS) in 15 Central Ministries Departments, amounting a total sum of Rs 51,942.53 crore, was been spent on women. In five ministries and departments—Family Welfare, Health, Education, Women and Child, and Indian Systems of Medicine and Homeopathy, as much as 50-80 per cent of the plan expenditure was incurred on women.15

The IMY of the Eighth Plan period was recast to include a component of training for capacity building and income-generation activities, through a tie up with the RMK for credit provision. The Rural Women's Development and Empowerment Project (RWDEP) renamed as Swa-Shakti, was replicated in the states of Bihar, Haryana, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh with assistance from donor agencies. An Inter-Ministerial Standing Committee in the Department of Women and Child Development, composed of officials and non-officials, was constituted on the recommendations of the Task Force on Women and Children, to monitor gender mainstreaming in government.

The Tenth Plan (2002-2007) sought to translate the National Policy for the Empowerment of Women (2001) into action, by creating an enabling environment for women to develop and realize their potential. Women are to be ensured all the fundamental freedoms and human rights, provided easy and equal access to all the basic minimum services, and enabled to participate in decision-making in the social, political and economic life of the nation. Empowerment was to be achieved by elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against women, by strengthening the legal system, changing social attitudes and practices, mainstreaming gender perspectives in the development process, and building partnerships with civil society and corporate and private sector agencies. Women would also be provided with opportunities for training in income-generating activities and employment to make them economically independent and self-reliant.

Thus, down the Plan documents, one observes that in tandem with the changing concept of development, the focus has shifted from welfare to development to empowerment. From considering women as ignorant, lacking in resources, highly dependent and incapable of organizing themselves, there has been a visible perceptual shift towards considering women capable of forming self-reliant organizations, and moving from dependence to interdependence. Women, the new perspective acknowledges, have knowledge and resources, but need help to be able to mobilize and effectively utilize them. The new paradigm therefore believes in the integrated development of women, and adoption of a participatory approach so as to involve women in planning, designing and implementation processes. This new approach has also called for a greater coordination between not just the different actors in development (the State and the voluntary agencies) but also the different departments within the State machinery to enable the mainstreaming of gender concerns.


Poverty has been variously defined over the years. Whereas material deprivation is the more familiar face of poverty, lack of ‘voice’, powerlessness and the consequent dependence on those more powerful in order to survive, provide the broader, contextualized definition of poverty. The causes of poverty can be traced to the power relations that determine how resources are distributed in a society. Constraints to accessing entitlement or right over resources differ for poor men and women. Therefore, inequality and poverty go hand in hand, at least in the Indian context (both have deep roots in India's traditional social structure). Women comprise nearly 70 per cent of the population living below poverty line,16 and are often in situations of abject poverty. Lack of adequate resources constraints women belonging to poorer households from accessing services. Yet, for poor households especially, women's capacity to work, her health, and her knowledge and skills are vital for survival. Statistics show that the labour force participation of women and their proportional contribution to the total family income are the highest in households with the lowest economic status. Even within households, female needs are given least preference. Conventional development efforts had failed to eliminate poverty and inequality and promote respect for human rights, and, since the 1990s, there has been a shift to a more sociological view of defining poverty that brings in the rights issue to the fore and adopts a more participatory approach to defining poverty.

The Indian Constitution requires the State to make available basic amenities to all citizens across India. It is binding that governments formulate programmes and policies and allocate funds to improve social conditions and alleviate poverty. Accordingly, there are a plethora of schemes in the country, to provide for education, health, subsidized food distribution and employment opportunities for those seeking work. Reservations have been made for women in some of the programmes. In the IRDP, the initial 10 per cent reservation was raised to 34 per cent in 1993-1994. Another programme, Indira Awas Yojana, provides dwelling units to women or allots them to women jointly with men so that women could own assets. Priority is given to widows and unmarried women. There are also programmes that encourage women entrepreneurs and encourage them to form cooperatives and SHGs. One such group, SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association), seeks to reach out to poor, illiterate, self-employed women through the formation of women's cooperatives. In the Swaranjayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana, it is envisaged that 50 per cent of the SHGs would be exclusively of women, who would form 40 per cent of the swarozgaris. The Jawahar Gram Samriddhi Yojana reserves 30 per cent of the employment opportunities for women. To combat the problem of poverty among women in urban areas, there are schemes like the Urban Self-Employment Programme (USEP) under the Swaranjayanti Shahari Rozgar Yojana, Development of Women and Children in Urban Areas (DWCUA), which provides assistance to the urban poor, especially women, for setting up gainful self-employment ventures. Other programmes like the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme (ARWSP) and Minimum Needs Programme also have special provision for women situated in rural areas that are affected by drinking water problems. However, many of the programmes have been severely criticized for poor implementation and lack of transparency.


Health of women and girls has traditionally been an area of less priority, reflecting the little significance attached to women's role in society and the economy. However, committees like the Bhore Committee (1943) and the Mudaliar Committee (1961), in their reports, had recognized the need to prioritize women's health. Thus, maternal and child health became a significant area of focus. In recent years, however, there has been another policy shift, and it is now recognized that women's health should not be perceived from a narrow standpoint of maternal and child health alone, but from a wider perspective of women's social roles and activities. The gender bias however persists, as, in practice, women's health continues to be perceived largely in relation to the reproductive function of women in society and family. Moreover, the increasing trends towards privatization and the resultant decrease in budgetary allocations for health are affecting poor households and especially, the womenfolk. The right to health and nutrition for women irrespective of the performance or nonperformance of their traditionally assigned roles is something that needs increasing emphasis.

Women's Health: What the Figures Reveal

Mortality and morbidity statistics for women have shown considerable improvement over the years since Independence. Life expectancy at birth for females has increased from 44.7 years in 1971 to 63.7 years in 2000-2004. The increase has been faster than that for men, and, in 1991, life expectancy at birth for women surpassed that for men. In 2000-2004, female life expectancy surpassed the male life expectancy in most states. Female infant mortality rate has declined from 138 in 1951 to 61 in 2005. However, there exist large differences in female health attainment across the states in India. Life expectancy for women at birth varied widely, between 57.2 years in Madhya Pradesh and 76.1 years in Kerala during 2000-2004. Similarly, female infant mortality rate was a low of 15 in Kerala and a high of 77 in Orissa in 2000-2004, (Table 8.1).

Female-Male Ratio

The female-male ratio (FMR) or the number of females per thousand males, a significant indicator of the social well-being of females, has consistently fallen below par, as per the testimony of the Census of India for more than a century. Census data also attest to a steady overall deterioration in the FMR since the turn of the 20th century, a trend evident even after Independence. While in 1901, there were 972 females per thousand males, by 2001, the figure had dropped to 933 (Table 8.2). The sharpest decline occurred between 1961 and 1971, after which the FMR has fluctuated marginally around 930.17 The drop in the number of girls has been especially high in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat over the last decade. The phenomenon has roots in the social preference for sons in India, which leads to neglect of the female infants and children; females have unequal access to life-sustaining inputs like food, nutrition and health care.18 In Amartya Sen's frame of analysis, the issue is one of entitlement failures within the household.19 There are strong evidences to suggest that even in the ‘socially redistributive’ schemes like the Nutritious Noon Meal Scheme of Tamil Nadu, ‘girls are increasingly discriminated against in access to such State schemes and that gains in nutritional status achieved during the decade 1982-1992 were massively cornered by boys’.20


Table 8.1
Health profile of men and women in the new millennium, India and states


  1. Adult sex ratio and child sex ratio: Census of India, 2001. Primary Census Abstract, Total population. Table 1: Population by sex and ratio, and Table3: Population in the age group (0-6 years) and sex ratio (0-6 years).
  2. Infant mortality rate (IMR): Office of the Registrar General India. In Women and Men in India. 2006. Government of India. Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. Central Statistical Organization, Social Statistics Division. Table 16: Female infant mortality as compared to males in major states.
  3. Life expectancy (LE): SRS based abridged life tables, 2000-2004. SRS Analytical Studies, Report no. 1 of 2007. Office of the Registrar General, India. March 2007.

Note: Female male ratio (FMR) figures exclude Mao Maram, Paomata and Purul sub-divisions of Senapati district of Manipur state.


Table 8.2
Female-male ratio, India, 1901-2001

Year Female-Male Ratio (FMR)
1901 972
1911 964
1921 955
1931 950
1941 945
1951 946
1961 941
1971 930
1981 934
1991 927
2001 933


  1. For 1901-1991: Census of India, 2001, Paper 1 of 2001—Provisional Population Totals, p. 85.
  2. For 2001: Census of India, 2001. Primary Census Abstract, General Population. Table 1: Population by sex and sex ratio.

Early Marriage

It was recognized at the policy level, even during the colonial period, that early marriage hampers the development of the girl child. Early motherhood increases health risks for both the mother and the child. Early pregnancy coupled with malnourishment during pregnancy and lack of adequate antenatal, natal and post-natal care increases the likelihood of mortality among mothers and infants, morbidity, underweight babies, birth complications and abortions. The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1976, raised the minimum age of marriage of girls from 15 to 18 years. The intention was to prevent child marriages, which led to early pregnancies and complications among girls and their babies. The aim was also to somewhat postpone the reproductive role of the women and girls in society, leaving them with more time and energy for self-development, education and employment. It has been a two-way process, with higher education among women and greater employment opportunities for them also having been responsible for raising the age at marriage.

Reproductive Health

Even though the total fertility rate (TFR) has been declining over the years, it is still quite high, especially in states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Frequent childbirths, lack of spacing between children and inadequate reproductive health services takes its toll on the health and well-being of the women. As per the National Family Health Survey II (NFHS II), every second woman in India suffers from some degree of anaemia.

The couple protection rate, which indicates access to safe methods of contraception, shows that less than half of the couples are effectively protected. The figures vary from 55 per cent in Karnataka to 18 per cent in Assam. It has to be remembered here that the way the family planning programme has been carried out over the years has meant that the onus of restricting family size has fallen largely on women, with female sterilization forming the most preferred form of restricting fertility. Lack of decision-making powers for women and their low levels of access to health care put hurdles in the way of women's self-regulated access to methods of contraception. According to the NFHS II, only 20 per cent of the women had received all the requisite antenatal care (ANC). However, there are wide state-wise variations. In Kerala, 65 per cent of the women had received ANC whereas in Uttar Pradesh, it was available in only 4 per cent of the cases. ANC is low in Bihar and Rajasthan where less than 10 per cent of women received ANC. Only one-third of the deliveries were in a medical institution and in 42 per cent of the cases, the deliveries were assisted by a health professional. Whereas more than 90 per cent of the deliveries were in a medical institution in Kerala, in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh only in 15-16 per cent of the cases, institutional deliveries had taken place.

Health Initiatives for Women

Several Maternal and Child Health Programmes (MCH) have become a part of the various Five-Year Plans. The Child Survival and Safe Motherhood Programme (CSSM), initiated in August, 1992, sought to intervene in the spheres of morbidity and mortality, vitamin A prophylaxis, immunization, prevention and treatment of anaemia, promotion of institutions for maternal care, treatment of maternal complications, management of obstetric emergencies and the promotion of birth spacing. Efforts have also been directed towards modernizing traditional maternal care and delivery techniques, including the strengthening of the role of auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM), the lady health visitor (LHV) and the multipurpose health workers in the health system. Health initiatives for women have taken cognizance of the following problem areas:

  • The lack of female medical officers in peripheral health institutes.
  • The need for improvement in interpersonal communication.
  • The need to rapidly organize village-level groups like mahila swasthya sangaths.
  • Low nutritional status of women—programmes like the Public Employment Programmes, the Special Feeding Programme and the Public Distribution System have targeted women and children as special groups with a need for food inputs.
  • The effect of environmental degradation on women's health.
  • Women's health is affected by the use of pesticide in agriculture.

However, the problem with the initiatives is that women have always been viewed from the perspective of their reproductive roles in society. However, the need is to consider the women as persons in their own rights with a right to lead a healthy life. This will then take into purview a variety of socio-economic and cultural concerns that need to be addressed to provide for the women a life full of health.


While literacy rates have been on the rise since the turn of the century, for both males and females, census data show that the female literacy rate continues to lag behind (Table 8.3). Of the estimated 60 million children still out of school, 35 million are girls. Data from another source—the UGC Annual Report 1994-1995, also attests to female disadvantage in the educational sphere; it reports the enrolment of women to total enrolment at a mere 33.8 per cent. Within the country, states differ vastly in terms of literacy attainments and in particular, in terms of the literacy profile of females. States with low female literacy rates are Jharkhand, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir. Yet, female literacy rates lag behind those for males in every state (Table 8.4). Even when children are enrolled in schools, the drop-out rates are higher for girls (Table 8.5).


Table 8.3
Literacy rates, India, 1901-2001


  1. For 1901-1941: Census of India, 2001. Paper 1 of 2001: Provisional Population Totals. Statement 30: Crude Literacy Rate in India by Sex.
  2. For 1951-1991: Census of India, 2001. Paper 1 of 2001: Provisional Population Totals. Statement 31: Literacy Rate in India. 1951-2001.
  3. For 2001. Census of India 2001. Primary Census Abstract: General Population. Table 7: Numbers of literates and literacy rate by sex.

Note: The data are not strictly comparable. Literacy rates for 1951, 1961 and 1971 pertain to population aged 5 years and above, whereas the rates for 1981, 1991 and 2001 relate the population aged 7 years and above. The rates for 1901, 1911, 1921 and 1941 are for undivided India, and are crude literacy rates, in which the base population comprises the entire population. Nonetheless, we can see that the growth of literacy showed a sharp increase in 1941 over the previous censuses. Similarly, post-1951, we see quite a large rise in the literacy rate in 2001.

There has been a variety of schemes to promote female literacy, like the National Literacy Mission, Mahila Samakhya, Operation Blackboard, Lok Jumbish and DPEP under the umbrella of non-formal education schemes. Female literacy rates have indeed improved but there are disparities across states, and the enrolment and retention rates of girls are still low when compared to boys, while dropout rates are quite high. Enrolment figures at primary and middle school levels point to a massive gender gap, starkly evident in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and even Chandigarh.


Table 8.4
Literacy rates for states ranked by gender disparity index of literacy (GDIL), India, 2001

Literacy rates, general population (7+), India. From: Primary Census Abstract, General Population Table 8 : Literacy Rate By Sex And Gender Gap In Literacy Rate

  • The literacy rates for Himachal Pradesh have been worked out by excluding the entire Kinnaur district, where enumeration could not be conducted in the 2001 census of India due to a natural calamity there.
  • The literacy rates for Gujarat have been worked out after excluding Kachchh district; the Morvi, Maliya-Miyana and Wankaner talukas of Rajkot district, Jodiya taluk of Jamnagar district, where enumeration could not be conducted in the 2001 census of India due to a natural calamity there.
  • The figures exclude Mao Maram and Purul sub-divisions of Senapati district of Manipur State.

Note: The Gender Disparity Index of Literacy (GDIL) is based on the disparity index (Gurupada Chakrabarty, Quality of life of scheduled castes and tribes in rural India, Yojana, June 1999, p. 37). It is calculated by the formula (Female literacy rate/male literacy rate) × 100. Literacy rates have been derived from census data by dividing the number of literates by the population, separately for females and males.


Table 8.5
Dropouts at different stages of school education (in per cent), India, 1960-61 to 2003-2004

Source: Data from Department of Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development. Reproduced in Selected Socio-Economic Statistics, India, 2006. Central Statistical Organization, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India. Table 3.13: Percentage of gross drop outs in different stages of school education by sex in India.

Note: `p´ stands for provisional.

Low female literacy can be attributed to a range of factors. The demand factors include poverty and the family's inability to bear schooling costs for all its children, and anticipation of discrimination against women in the job market. Supply side factors affecting the social attitude towards women's education include insufficient schools, distant location of schools (which makes parents apprehensive of sending young girls far away from home), inflexible school timings, and gender insensitive curricula. A deficiency of female teachers is also thought to be a factor at work. (However, there has been some improvement in this regard. While in 1986-1987, 38 per cent of the primary school teachers were women, this improved to more than 50 per cent in 1997). It is noteworthy also that, due to the play of varied factors, the dropout rate is higher for girls as compared to boys, at every stage of school education. Almost three-fourths of the girls dropout at the high school level.

The sixth report of the Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women, on Education Programmes for Women (2000-2001), recommended measures such as situating primary schools within a distance of 1 km walking distance from the place of residence; increased allocation of funds under various schemes, and other improvements such as providing drinking water, fuel, fodder and crèches. These latter measures, falling outside the purview of the education sector, would free girls and women from household chores. The committee has also made other recommendations which would benefit educationally disadvantaged groups. These include (a) the suggestion to promote the use of media, (b) shared centre-state initiatives in areas of pre-school education for the age group 0-6, to ensure an early start for growth and development, (c) appropriate teacher training, (d) providing cooked meals to children instead of rice or wheat and (e) the involvement of local community.


The social construction of gender relations affects the participation of women in the so-called ‘public sphere’, whether it is in politics, bureaucracy and judiciary or employment in the organized sector of the economy. The public participation of women is institutionalized in many different ways, in the type of employment they take up, in the type of sectors they are concentrated in, in the type of tasks they are assigned, and the types of contracts they are given. The representation of women in the decision-making bodies, in the administrative and legislative bodies, and in the organized sector, is very low. Here it needs to be pointed out that even though a lot is made out of the critical mass of women in public life in order for women to make a difference, mere increase in the numbers of women inside institutions and politics does not necessarily make an impact. The need is to inculcate feminist consciousness with which to challenge patriarchy and also the institutional representations of patriarchy.

Women in Parliament, State Legislatures and Panchayati Raj Institutions

India has produced some of the most illustrious women politicians of the world like Indira Gandhi, Amrit Kaur, Durgabai Deshmukh, Vijayalaksmi Pandit and Krishnabai Rau. Women also vote in substantial numbers. However, their representation in the decision-making bodies is still miniscule when compared to that of the men. The best of women's representation figures for the Lok Sabha is less than 10 per cent. On an average, women formed around 6 per cent of the representatives in the Lok Sabha since Independence (Table 8.6). The picture in the Rajya Sabha and the state legislatures is also not rosy, and women remain a grossly underrepresented lot (Tables 8.6 and 8.7). The representation of women in the central ministries is equally poor. Of the 74 ministers in 2000, only 8 were women.21 Notwithstanding the disparities in socio-economic development between the states, the under-representation of women is evenly spread across states. This points to the fact that women's political representation is unrelated to the other indicators of women's socio-economic development. States like Kerala, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu with comparatively high female literacy fare worse on this score. Surprisingly, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, marked by a poor record on female literacy, have shown a better than average representation of women.

This low representation of women in elected bodies such as the Parliament, the legislatures and the Panchayati Raj bodies is despite the direct participation of women in the Independence Movement and the advent of democracy in India. The under-representation was recognized as a cause for concern by the Committee on the Status of Women in India in its report, Towards Equality, which said that the right to political equality guaranteed in the Constitution has not enabled women to play their roles as ‘partners and constituents in political process’.22 The Report recommended the formation of ‘women's panchayats’ in every village as a part of the local government, and that the political parties increase the proportion of women among their candidates.23 Before this, in 1957 the Balwantrai Mehta Committee had recommended the introduction of two women representatives into Gram Panchayats to look into the programmes relating to women and children. The National Perspective Plan for Women in 1988 recommended that 33 per cent of the seats in all elected assemblies, from the village to the union level, be reserved for women, and that political parties give at least 33 per cent of their tickets to women candidates. States like Karnataka and Gujarat first implemented some form of reservations for women in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs).


Table 8.6
Women's representation in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha


  1. For women's share of seats in the Lok Sabha: Women and Men in India. Tenth Issue, 2006. Government of India, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. Central Statistical Organization. Women's share of elected members of Lok Sabha calculated from Table 80: Number of persons contesting and elected in various general elections in India. (Data provided by Election Commission).
  2. For women's share of Rajya Sabha seats. Women and Men in India. Tenth Issue, 2006. Government of India, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. Central Statistical Organization. Figures computed from Table 38.2: Composition/allocation of seats in the Rajya Sabha. (Data provided by Rajya Sabha Secretariat).

The 73rd and 74th Amendment to the Constitution provided for a one-third reservation for women in the Panchayati Raj bodies. This provision has brought in a new dynamism in the local leadership. Some states like Karnataka and West Bengal have allotted even higher quotas for women than those stipulated by law. All-women panchayats before and after 1992 have been spread across different States: Mathupalli, Kurnool district and Gandhinagaram, Warrangal district in Andhra Pradesh; Vanjara in Maharashtra; Pidghara, Dhar district in Madhya Pradesh, Kultikri, Midnapur district in West Bengal, Mirza in Tripura, Prem Khera, Karnal district in Haryana and Bhinu Khurd, Ahmadnagar district, in Maharashtra. Though there have also been reports of dummy women candidates (the biwi-beti brigade) acting for their male relatives in absentia, a field study of several states concludes that ‘the growing self-confidence, increasing commitment, firm determination to learn, the self-conscious pride as movers of the community and the consciousness that they are here as agents of socio-political changes, are writ large on the elected women's faces…’.24 At the same time, it need to be noted that there are large variations across states in women's representation in the three tiers of PRIs (Table 8.8).


Table 8.7
Women in state legislatures 1952-1997 (percentage of the total number of seats)

Source: CSDS Data Unit. Quoted in Seminar, No. 457, September 1997.
Notes: Table entry stands for percentage of women MLAs elected to state legislatures in the relevant elections.
—: States did not exist; NE: No elections held in that year/period; *: Two elections held during this period. The figure given here is an average of the two; **: In 1952, the Election Commission did not recognize women as a separate category. The figures given here are based on name recognition and hence liable to under-reporting of women representatives.


Table 8.8
Women representatives in panchayati raj institutions

Source: Rural Development Statistics 2002-2003, National Institute of Rural Development. Derived from Table 9.2 (PRI: Number of elected representatives in the three-tier panchayati raj system as on 17.8.2001) and Table 11.11 (PRI: Number of elected women members by various states as on 17.8.2001).
Note: Figures are given as percentage of the total number of members. For Madhya Pradesh, the figures are for October 1997, because elections were not conducted. For Punjab, elections were due.

During the 1996 elections, all the major political parties of all hues emphasized the need to ensure a strong presence for women in the elected parliamentary bodies and state assemblies. Yet, they themselves gave less than 15 per cent of their tickets to women25 and the representation of women in the decision-making bodies of the parties was poor. Among the contestants to the general elections (either assembly or Lok Sabha), females constitute a smaller number as compared to the males, yet the winning rate of the females has been higher than that of the males.26

The Women's Reservation Bill was introduced as the 81st, 84th and 85th Amendment Bills in 1996, 1998 and 1999, respectively, proposed to reserve 33 per cent of seats in the Parliament for women. Each time it met with strong opposition and could not be passed. Groups in favour of the Bill argued that reservations would enable an increase in the number of women in the Parliament and more women would lead to definite policy level interventions in the interest of women.27 However, there were several doubts raised over the Bill. It was said that it was against the policy of equality enshrined in the Constitution and that since women do not form a socially homogenous group, they could not be equated with the socially backward groups. Questions have also been raised over the issue of eligibility of the women, and about the category of women benefiting from the reservations. The proposed system of rotation of reserved constituencies has also raised doubts over the nature of relationship of the elected women with their respective constituencies. Reserved constituencies would also mean that women would always contest only women, depriving them with a chance to contest males as well.28

The participation of women in the voting in the general elections, however, has been very encouraging. Studies have shown that gender gap in voting trend of men and women in general elections of India, from 1952 onwards has been gradually diminishing. In the 13th general elections of 1999, of the 296 million registered women voters, 56 per cent cast their votes.

Women in Administrative Positions and in the Judiciary

Even though a few illustrious women have occupied important positions in the administrative machinery, the overall representation of women in the Indian administrative machinery at all levels has been poor. In 1981, women constituted 4 per cent of the central government employees and by 2000, their representation had increased only marginally to 8 per cent. The representation of women in the state government and in the local bodies is comparatively higher. The representation of women continues to be dismal even in the All India Civil Services—the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service and the Indian Foreign Service. Women formed less than 10 per cent women of the IAS officers, and only 2 per cent of the IPS personnel in 1996.29

The picture is equally dismal when it comes to the representation of the women in the judicial bodies. Of the 25 judges in the Supreme Court, only one was woman both in 1996 and in 2002.30 The picture is equally bleary for the High Courts, where women form less than 7 per cent of the judges (Table 8.9).


Table 8.9
Women's representation among the High Court judges in India (in per cent), 1996-2005

Source: Women and Men in India. Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India. Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Central Statistical Organization, Social Statistics Division. Computed from data for various years.

Women's Economic Participation

As per the national accounting system, most of the work done by women fall outside the coverage, either because they do not involve payment of wages whether in cash or kind or because of the manner in which their economic activities are interspersed with their domestic chores making it difficult to account them. Women's participation in economic activities is a significant indicator of their empowerment status as increased economic participation means improved economic status. However, empowerment also depends on the women's control over the way their wages or the earnings are spent, which is dependent on several socio-economic and cultural factors.

Women constitute about a fourth of the work force in India, a significant presence when compared to their representation in the political sphere or in top administrative posts. Yet, the representation is higher in the unskilled informal sector (especially the women from the poorer families) and these women fall outside the social security net provided for the workers by the formal sector. Agricultural sector provides maximum employment to women, whether they work on their own farms or as hired labourers on others’ lands, or in other activities such as animal husbandry. Other sectors such as construction industry also provides employment to a large bulk of unskilled women workers in rural as well as in urban areas. However, even these jobs are not easily available, and women are the worst sufferers when there is an overall depression in the labour market.

In the more secure and relatively better paid organized sector, women constitute only 17 per cent of the employed. There is a sharp inter-state variation in this regard, ranging from 6.7 per cent in Bihar to 38.6 per cent in Kerala. The share is higher in the states with higher female literacy for the obvious reason that education and literacy are very often the criteria for employment in the organized sector. Most of the women in the organized sector are in the lower rungs of the hierarchy. Possibly, lack of proper educational opportunities and training act as a constraint in women aspiring for better jobs.


In the recent past, there have been instances when women have decided to act collectively to safeguard their interests. This occasional assertion of collectivity by women is a conscious recognition of their identity, which may at times transcend social and economic divisions. To cite two cases in point, the collective movements under the banner Nisa Band (Prohibition) and Meira Paibi (Torch Bearer) in the North East have been effective in campaigning against alcohol, trafficking in drugs and other anti-social activities such as theft and gambling. The Meira Paibi have guarded groups of families at night, and sometimes imposed a fine on the sale and consumption of liquor. At other times, they have gathered at police stations to mobilize for the release of person who they felt had been arrested without reason. The Chipko Movement is another instance of spontaneous participation by women to protect the environment, the destruction of which would affect their burden of work. The environmental consciousness shown by the village women and the action taken to protect the environment shows the remarkable ability of women to see into the future and transcend the boundary between the public and the private when it comes to their interests. The anti-arrack (liquor) movement in Andhra Pradesh was an instance of providing a public face to the supposedly private affair of domestic violence. Such collectiveness on the part of women also serve as a training ground for women who enter politics. For instance, the leadership of the Mahila Mandals provides women with political aspirations, training in financial and political matters, and also with support networks and experience. Collective action also teaches women to articulate their practical needs and also to question the oppressive societal relations of power. Yet, at times organizations facilitating collective action function within the boundaries of the existent social norms, thus perpetuating them even while they question them. For instance, studies show that the lower class and lower caste women are kept out of the leadership and decision-making positions in the Mahila Mandals, thus restricting their participation in the public domain.

Another form of collective action by women can be found in the shape of women organizing themselves at the local levels in SHGs for developmental purposes. These groups are for positive action, striving towards betterment of the life for the women and their family. Participation in the SHGs has helped women to speak up, discuss and decide for themselves, besides increasing awareness about several issues of importance such as health and education, and inculcating in them the habit of monetary saving for future need. Women have been active agents in the process of their own empowerment. Women have started certain cottage industries based on their skills to supplement the income of their families at times working from home.

The various civil society initiatives have played a significant role in providing the women with a ‘voice’, have taught them to construct new spaces for themselves, at times in places where none exist for women's participation, and have made them aware of their rights. However, ‘voice’ in itself does not necessarily lead to better outcomes for women. It is important that these ‘voices’ reach the institutions, and there is an accountability interface between the institutions and the citizens. The need is to demystify institutions, and to understand the structures and processes of policy formulation, planning and implementation. However, there is a general air of distrust between the State and the voluntary agencies, especially with some of the voluntary agencies becoming close to a particular political party. The recommendations of the Krishnaswamy Committee set up in 1988 to review the State-NGO relationship have not yet been implemented. There is another fundamental difference that separates the way the two agencies think: the thinking in the policy circles is still largely in terms of ‘organizing’ and ‘mobilizing’ women rather than ‘lobbying’ and ‘advocacy’ as well.