International Women’s Day 2021 in India: Little to cheer about

Indian women losing the numbers game


March 8, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

March 8 marks the International Women’s Day to celebrate women and their achievements. However, in India, despite many promises and a little progress, women continue to face serious gender discrimination and challenges, often even for survival even before they are born.

For a country that is home to the second largest population of women in the world and which has spiritually put women on a pedestal of Goddess, the women in India have continued to suffer from rampant discrimination in all aspects of life, right from gender selection before birth to continued severe restrictions on access to education, nutrition, health, employment, safety and every other right that men take for granted.

And despite increasing awareness and several policies focused on bringing about gender parity, India’s performance in numerous global indices on gender equality continued to deteriorate. For instance, India dropped four places to take the 112th rank in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020, the latest that there is. The Index measures the extent of gender-based gaps in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. In the health and survival parameter, India’s performance is even more dismal, ranking 150th out of 153 countries.

The Women, Peace and Security Index prepared by the Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS) ranks 167 countries for women based on three indicators – inclusion, justice and security. In this list, India on the whole is ranked at 133 out of 167 countries with an index score of 0.625.

Female foeticide

One of the most serious forms of discrimination faced by women starts from even before they were born. Even though female foeticide has been deemed a crime in India for decades, the practice continues rampantly across the northern part of the country. A UN report says 460,000 girls were missing at birth each year from 2013 to 2017 due to gender selection & female foeticide. Overall, nearly 45.8 million females are ‘missing’ in Indian demography in the year 2020, mainly due to pre and post-birth sex selection practices stemming from son preference and gender inequality, a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said.

It goes on to say that India accounts for almost 32.1 pc of the total 142.6 million missing females in the world and is the second highest contributor. The biggest contributor is China at 72.3 million or 50.7 per cent of all missing females in the world. The UNFPA report shows that between 2015 and 2020, India lost an average of about 360,000 females to ‘excess female deaths’ and 590,000 female children to pre-natal sex selection every year.

The report also shows that as in 2012, India had the highest rate of excess female mortality at 13.5 per 1000 in the world. This excess was around 11.7 pc of all deaths of females below five years of age indicating that one in nine such deaths was attributable to post-natal (after-birth) sex selection practices.

Violence against women

The violence against women remains equally serious much through their lives. Several surveys of women in India have shown that safety is the biggest concern that women of all ages, from early teens right up to their old age, in most parts of the country. According to data collected by National Crime Records Bureau, India recorded 405,861 crimes against women or over 1112 per day or 46 per hour and 87 rapes were registered every day or about 3.5 per hour.

Of the total crimes against women, 30.9 pc were labelled under cruelty by husbands or their relatives, while 21.8 pc were registered under assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty. There were 1,08,025 victims of kidnapping or abduction in 2019, out of which 84,921 were women. Among these, 55,370 female victims were children. Uttar Pradesh holds the worst record by laying claim to a 14.7 pc share of all crimes committed against women in the country.

A significant proportion of rape victims are Dalits. In 11 pc of the total 32,033 reported rape cases in 2019, the victim was a Dalit woman. Of all the reported rape cases in Uttar Pradesh, 18 pc victims were Dalit, according to NCRB data.


Another form of serious violence faced by women in India is trafficking, often sex trafficking. According to a report, 16 million women were victims of sex trafficking in India in 2014, 40 pc of them adolescents & children. However, very few cases actually make it to the police records and hence NCRB data shows only about 6000 cases of trafficking in 2019.


As with several other aspects in terms of education or financial independence, the problem of malnutrition too has a strong bias against woman and girl child. For instance, child mortality in India is higher for females than that for males. While the under-five mortality rates for males is 38.4, for females it stands at 40.4. This shows that girls have a higher probability of dying before attaining the age of five years than boys.

Research shows that girls are neglected since the time of birth and are not given food properly as they are considered to be a burden in most Indian households. Boys on the other hand are fed properly. The gap between feeding a girl and a boy child becomes sharper in adolescence, experts say.

“If we see the dietary plans of a girl in rural India, we will see that large amount of the diet lacks protein and nutrition especially micronutrients, and the diets mostly nowadays consist of carbohydrates and junk food and junk food has reached the rural part of India. Why I am talking about a girl and not a boy is because a boy is always fed more. Gender bias is always there. The girl is eating less in terms of both quality and quantity. So, girls have borderline anemia when they hit puberty and get periods. When she gets married and then pregnant, she already is anemic. Then she is carrying a child with a low quantity quality of food and obviously the intra-uterine problem starts from there and then there is the whole cycle that keeps repeating itself for generations,” Prachi Pandit, a nutrition expert from Pune, tells Media India Group.

According to the World Health Organisation, 22.9 pc of women of 15-29 years are underweight as against 20.2 pc of men in same age group. Also, as many as 51.4 pc women of reproductive age suffer from anemia.

This situation has become worse due to pandemic, says  recent report by Lancet, adding that the pandemic may lead to increase by a sixth in stunting or wasting of children below five years of age in 118 low-and-middle income countries across the globe, including India. That translates into seven million more stunted children, to add to the pre-pandemic estimate of 47 million stunted children. Lancet also said that over 100,000 children may have already died this year due to malnutrition.


For centuries, equal access to education has remained one of the biggest challenges for women in India. According to a UN report, 23 million women drop out of school every year when they start menstruating in India & 30 pc girls from poor families have never set foot in classroom. This, despite the fact that it has been 10 years since the government of India brought in the Right to Education (RTE) Act which made education mandatory for every child. Yet, nearly 40 pc of adolescent girls in the age group of 15-18 years are not attending school. Another report said that 30 pc of girls from poorest families have never set foot in a classroom, according to status report.

A report by Right to Education Forum and Centre for Budget Policy Studies with support of the World Bank and UNICEF revealed alarming data It says poor compliance of RTE has been primarily due to the downward trend in financing school education which has come down from 4.14 pc of the government spending in 2014-15 to 3.40 pc in 2019-20. The report also cited that education and empowerment index are directly related to per-child expenditure. Kerala tops the index with a spending of INR 11,574 per child per year with Bihar at the bottom with a spending of just INR 2,869.

Work place discrimination

LinkedIn Opportunity Index 2021 says that 85 pc of women in India miss out promotion or wage hike due to gender discrimination (MIG Photos/Aman Kanojiya)

According to a report by TeamLease, a placement firm, more than 72 pc of women in India feel gender discrimination is still prevalent at workplace. They attribute the unfairness to privileges men receive both at organisational and societal level, pro men practices, male dominated peer eco-system, and skewed career advancement pathways. A recent World Economic Forum report shows that only 14.3 pc of science researchers in India are women and the country’s ratio is worse than that of countries in West Asia. Data from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) shows that the percentage of women working in finance, insurance, real estate and business services, which includes informational technology services, is only 13.4 pc across rural and urban populations.

Another survey, the LinkedIn Opportunity Index 2021 says that 85 pc of women in India miss out promotion or wage hike due to gender discrimination.

A report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that equal participation of women in the workforce could increase India’s GDP manifold. A McKinsey Global Institute study calculated that the economic impact of achieving gender equality in India is estimated to be USD 700 billion of added GDP by the year 2025.

Yet the participation of women in India’s workforce has been abysmal and is one of the lowest in the world.  Women’s participation in India’s workforce stands at under 28 pc. According to the Global Gender Gap report released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) India finished 139 out of 144 countries on economic participation and opportunity.

At home discrimination 

Women also face serious discrimination at home, even after marriage. The pandemic and the prolonged lockdown last year worsened the situation of women even though they were at home. According to official data, the National Commission for Women (NCW) registered an increase of 2.5 times in complaints of domestic violence in April last year. The NCW received 1,477 complaints between 25 March and 31 May.

A UN report has recently analysed the impact of COVID-19 on women, urging nation-states to include prevention of violence against women and girls as a part of their COVID-19 action plan. With a sharp increase in domestic violence cases across the world, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, has termed this increase in violence as a ‘shadow pandemic’.

A study by researcher Priyanshi Chauhan found that “approximately 22.5 pc of married women, as compared to zero men and unmarried women, worked for more than 70 hours per week” during the lockdown. The study also said unemployed women witnessed the highest increase of 30.5 pc for those who spent more than 70 hours per week on unpaid work.

British charity Oxfam’s India chapter says that women & girls in India put in 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work every day, an economic value of INR 19 trillion.



    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *