Women in 21st century India are slowly gaining access to equal rights for the first time since the early Vedic period, around 1,000 BCE. The status of women in India had been in decline since the Islamic invasion of Babur, the Mughal empire, and later Christianity, which curtailed women's freedom and rights. Reformatory movements such as Jainism allowed women to be admitted to religious orders, but overall women in India have had to deal with confinement and restrictions. The biggest breakthrough for women in India came in 1917, when Annie Besant became the first female president of the Indian National Congress. The appointment of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit as the first woman president of the United Nations General Assembly in 1953 brought hope to Indian women, as did Indira Gandhi becoming India's first woman Prime Minister in 1966.
The movement for female equality gained new momentum with the Rajya Sabha (the Council of States) passing the Women's Reservation Bill in March In 2010, to ensure at least 33% of seats in Parliament and state legislative bodies are reserved for women. In June 2011, President Pratibha Patil called for gender sensitization at every stage in India - from the protection of the female fetus to security of working women - as well as outlining plans to introduce stringent laws against dowry, domestic violence and sexual harassment. Plans to focus on health, nutrition and childcare facilities, education and career counseling for women were also announced.
By 2011, India's female population numbered 364,000,000 aged between 15 and 64 years-old and 30,000,000 over age 65. Most are subject to India's traditions of caste, class and sex. Many women living in India still do not enjoy the same rights as their male counterparts. Experts have attributed this to the country's highly masculine sex ratio, which many believe is attributed to female infanticides and sex-selective abortions. The country's 2011 census highlighted a serious decline in the number of girls under the age of seven, which left activists fearing as many as eight million female fetuses may have been aborted in the previous decade. Women in India also face difficulties in obtaining an education, with only 40% of women being literate as many girls are taken out of school to help in the home. A large percentage of women in India work, yet only 16% of rural women and 11% of urban women claim waged work as their primary activity.
In India, a young woman is usually told by her family when she will marry. The legal age of matrimony is 18 but child marriages, which were outlawed in 1860, are still a common practice. According to UNICEF's State of the World's Children 2009 report, 47% of India's women aged 20-24 were married before the legal age. Entry into married life can be met with some trepidation, as more than 90% of new couples in India begin their married life living with the groom's parents and an incoming daughter-in-law will be expected to conform to the lifestyle of the new family.
Domestic violence against women in India is common and many women are unable to protect themselves as abuse laws are rarely enforced and martial rape is not a recognized crime. Violence against women in India outside the home is also prevalent. Data from 1999 registered an increase of nearly 102% over the year 1989. Among the crimes against women, torture, rape and sexual harassment were the most prevalent.
Indian women also see high mortality rates when pregnant and in childbirth, statistics suggesting that 11,000 die every minute, a rate 300 times higher than in industrialized countries. With little access to family planning, sterilization accounts for more than 75% of the country's contraception, with almost 95% of all procedures carried out on women.
Women in India largely stay in monogamous relationships but HIV and AIDS are prevalent. Based on data reported by NACO in 2001, of the total reported AIDS cases, 23% were females. Their infection was thought to have been caused because many women in India are economically dependent on their husbands and find it difficult for them to ask for protection during sexual activities. Although, life expectancy for women in India has increased to 66 years, the quality of life for many women has not improved. Doctors claim that women become prone to a variety of disorders like osteoporosis, which is usually linked to childhood malnutrition, common in the poorer nations.