Magazine article The Brown Journal of World Affairs

Left Behind? Women, Politics, and Development in India

Magazine article The Brown Journal of World Affairs

Left Behind? Women, Politics, and Development in India

Article excerpt

ACROSS AFRICA, EUROPE, AND LATIN America, a number of women have in recent times been elected heads of government. More than four decades ago, India's Indira Gandhi was only the third woman in the world to lead a democratic country. Several decades earlier, tens of thousands of Indian women had participated in the movement for independence from imperial rule, many of them going to prison for the cause of freedom. But in the years following India's independence, it was mainly elite women who were visible in public life. Even today, there are at least three women leading major national political parties. But, for the vast majority of women, the triple burdens of gender, class, caste, and religion, overlaid with the power of patriarchy, make the constitutional promise of gender equality seem more symbolic than substantive.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2007-a composite index of economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival-ranks India 114th out of 128 countries.1 A year earlier, India's ranking on this index was 98th out of 115 countries; even counting only those countries, India's position in 2007 slipped 4 places to 102. This composite ranking places India below its South Asian neighbors Sri Lanka (at 15th place) and even Bangladesh (at 100th), higher only than Nepal and Pakistan.

The disaggregated scores in this index are significant. On three of the sub-indexes, India's ranking is even lower than its ranking of 114th on the composite index. On economic participation and opportunity for women, for example, India's ranking is 122th; on educational attainment, it is 116th; and on health and survival, it is positively abysmal-126th-with only two countries, Azerbaijan and Armenia, below it.

But contrast these with India's ranking on the political empowerment of women: 21st out of 128 countries, higher even than Australia, Canada, and the United States. Granted, India has had its share of female heads of state, and it could be argued that the index gives too much consideration to countries with female leadership, since the presence and even the longevity of elite female leadership is no proof of women's political participation being either widespread or robust. Even so, it is the case that there is a wide and puzzling gap between the political participation of Indian women on the one hand, and their human development indicators-that is, the social and economic opportunities available to them-on the other. It is this gap that this essay seeks to address.

Despite the emergence of India as a major economic player on the world stage, its poor record of human development reflects the persistence of poverty and inequality. These inequalities are accentuated in the case of disadvantaged social groups (caste and tribal), and especially in the situation of women who belong to such groups. The essay provides some data to illustrate these inequalities before proceeding to a discussion of state interventions and the political participation of women.


India's ranks 128th out of 177 countries on the United Nations Development Program Human Development Index for 2007. This presents a stark and curious contrast to the reality of India's record of surging economic growth, reminding us of the unequal distribution of prosperity in a country that is being seen as an emerging economic powerhouse. Forbes magazine's list of the world's billionaires includes 36 Indians, three of whom are in the top 20 (though none of them are female). In addition, companies owned by Indians-some of which are incorporated in India-have bought large European corporations like Arcelor and Corus. For some years now, the Indian economy has maintained an impressively steady 9 percent annual growth rate. Its economic success and projected potential have also attracted a substantial amount of foreign direct investment.

Notwithstanding this extraordinary economic success story, approximately 26 percent of India's population subsists below a rather sparely defined poverty line. …

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