Make Lakshmi(‘)s Smile

On March 8 this year, one thing is clear: India might be poised but its women are not. A few statistics would suffice to drive home the point. Life expectancy at birth for men and women is almost the same, whereas we all know that women tend to live longer. The sex ratio in India has steadily declined over the 20th century, from 972 females per 1,000 males in 1901 to 933 in 2001.

What’s worse, masculinisation of the sex ratio at birth is no longer restricted to the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, but has spread to the south and west where literacy levels are higher and fertility rates lower.

The 2001 census tells us that while Kerala still leads the way, with a sex ratio of 1,065 women for every 1,000 men, a declining trend is in evidence in some districts and talukas, pointing to the growth of sex selection practices. Why? A relatively new conservatism, spearheaded by the religious and political right, has made matters worse for women.

This force, coinciding with the march of modernity, holds out the biggest threat for all women, irrespective of religion and economic status. As a result, socio-cultural attitudes seem out of sync with a modernising India that compels women to join the workforce and thereby educate and empower themselves. In the name of protecting traditional sensibilities, gender stereotypes continue to dominate school textbooks.

Not surprisingly, so-called educated and economically empowered communities lead the way in sex selection practices. While women in urban India are not as chained to the home and hearth as before, dowry deaths and harassment continue, as does the practice of working women handing over their income to their husbands.

One way to attack this congealed conservatism is to make the girl child an economically attractive option. In Haryana, for example, women can register property at a discount of 2 per cent of regular rates. This has evoked an enthusiastic response. Income tax benefits for women should be raised further. Women should be levied a lower rate of gift tax. While the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan thrust is all very well, making education free for the girl child up to the age of 18 should become an integral component.

India is a country in transition, with women bearing the brunt. A political, cultural and economic assault on their exploitation is the need of the hour. A smiling Lakshmi ought to be the face of modern India.