NEW DELHI – Last December’s fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi triggered an unprecedented public outcry in India. Tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets to demand an end to police indifference to women’s safety, stronger laws, and speedier trials for those charged with crimes against women. The protests launched a countrywide movement, spurring nonstop media coverage of women’s issues. So, has significant change followed?
Within eight days of the rape, a special commission, led by former Supreme Court Chief Justice J.S. Verma, was established. The commission’s roughly 700-page report, completed in only 29 days, urged the government to take swift, far-reaching action. Among the report’s recommendations were stronger penalties for sex crimes, including harassment; a requirement that police officers report every instance of alleged rape; and broader measures to address pervasive discrimination against women.
India’s government responded two weeks later, announcing a new ordinance that not only expands the definition of rape, but also makes behavior such as groping, stalking, trafficking, and voyeurism serious criminal offenses. But, as the commission’s report highlighted, India does not lack laws intended to deter sexual violence against women. Rather, amid widespread ignorance and apathy, government and law enforcement have lacked the motivation to administer existing laws adequately.
The recent explosion of long-dormant public outrage should be a tipping point, precipitating genuine progress toward a more equal society. But designing effective policies to diminish the obstacles confronting women and girls requires measuring the prevalence of the attitudes and habits that limit their potential. If the recently enacted laws are to have the intended effect, Indian society must reject discriminatory mindsets and practices.
Unlike conventional indicators, which capture inequality in outcomes like education and employment, the OECD’s Social Institutions Gender Index (SIGI) evaluates the underlying drivers of such outcomes, comparing factors such as preferential treatment of sons over daughters, violence against women, and restrictions on property rights. According to this metric, in 2012, India ranked 56th out of 86 countries for gender equality, lower than other major emerging markets like Brazil, China, Indonesia, and South Africa.
But Indian society, which comprises more than 1.2 billion citizens, is hardly homogeneous. Indeed, India is a complex amalgam of 28 states with widely varying social indicators. For example, the nine states that the government has labeled “high focus” account for 62% of India’s maternal deaths and 70% of infant deaths, but contain only 48% of the country’s population.
Meanwhile, the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh account for roughly 22% of the population, but less than 12% of maternal deaths. Similarly, while infant deaths account for less than 5% of all deaths in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, more than 20% of babies born in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan (all high-focus states) do not see their first birthday. So, given the limited value of countrywide generalizations, India’s leaders must focus on the differences between states in order to devise targeted policies.
India’s National Rural Health Mission has adopted such an approach, using region-specific data to identify low-quality prenatal care, unsafe deliveries, and lack of access to birth control as high-priority issues in 18 states. The measures that the mission has implemented since 2005 – including free contraception, pregnancy tracking, prenatal care, compensation for hospital delivery, and regular home visits to new mothers – contributed to a 20% drop in fertility rates in the targeted states by 2010, and helped to reduce maternal and infant deaths.
But this approach is not sufficient to address the gender inequality that characterizes Indian politics and society. Women comprise just 10% of India’s parliament, and only two of 35 ministers with full Cabinet rank are women. And, while the 33% quota for women in local-government bodies has placed a million of them in elected positions at the grass roots, the extent to which this has actually improved women’s status has yet to be measured.
Moreover, discrimination in India often begins in the family. Indian families’ tendency to prefer sons has resulted in an adverse sex ratio, particularly in some northern states. Moreover, in the same region, more than 60% of girls are married well before the legal age, making pregnancies among anemic and malnourished teenagers a common occurrence. But, at the same time, most girls complete 12 years of schooling in the northern mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, demonstrating that the north-south distinction is no more conclusive than countrywide generalizations.
To facilitate the design of effective targeted policies, India’s Central Statistical Organization is working to provide detailed data through a pilot project that captures Indian states’ SIGI indicators. The study will highlight the variations in social, cultural, and economic barriers to female empowerment across India.
Policies based on generalities will not work. To initiate a fundamental shift in citizens’ gender-related attitudes and behavior, India’s leaders must understand – by the numbers – the often-dramatic disparities between their country’s individual states.