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Condition of women, girl child improving in India but many development indices remain below par

The sex ratio at birth has improved over the five-year period from NFHS-4, proving that a larger number of girl children are being born. So, more daughters are being saved. But literacy rates among women remain a concern since nearly every third woman in villages was still illiterate in 2019-21.

November 26, 2021 / 05:14 PM IST
Representative Image

Representative Image

India’s daughters now have a better chance of survival at birth, but many development indices for them thereafter continue to be below par. Data from the National Family Health Survey -5 (NFHS-5) shows that only the first part of the slogan coined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi - ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (Save the daughter, educate the daughter) – seems to have worked well. Women have outnumbered men for the first time, at 1,020 per 1,000 men in India.

The sex ratio at birth has also improved over the five-year period from NFHS-4, proving that a larger number of girl children are being born. So, more daughters are being saved. But literacy rates among women remain a concern since nearly every third woman in villages was still illiterate in 2019-21. Only one in four women worked and earned, the onus of family planning lay predominantly with women instead of men and one in four women was still being married off before reaching 18 years of age.

Smriti Irani, minister for women and child development, had quoted a NITI Ayog evaluation report about the BBMP (Beti Bachao Beti Padhao) scheme to say in the Rajya Sabha earlier this year that it had been able to generate “significant mass- mobilisation to eliminate gender discrimination and valuing the girl child and the scheme has been able to develop many good practices and community-level initiatives. The awareness about the scheme was also found to be high.”

The implementation of the scheme is monitored by the task force at the district, state, and national level.

But despite notable strides in improving overall literacy over the last decades, every third woman in India’s villages remains illiterate. At the all-India level, 3 in 10 remain illiterate. Illiteracy is more widespread among rural women than rural men (also urban women than urban men) since only about every fifth of rural male is illiterate.


Literacy, according to NFHS-5, is defined as schooling till class nine or the ability to read even a part of any sentence. If we look for further education, at an all-India level, every second male has had at least 10 years of schooling versus just four in 10 women. Is it any wonder then that with such wide gaps between education and awareness between men and women, two in three women have never used the internet, whereas more than one in two men have?

Not just literacy, women continue to lag men in many other indices too. At least one in four Indian women has experienced spousal violence between 15-49 years of age, as per NFHS-5. Another startling statistic proves why women’s self-empowerment remains a mere slogan: across urban and rural India, only one in four women worked in the last 12 months and was paid in cash for her labour. So, three in four Indian women either did not hold a job or remained unpaid during a debilitating global pandemic.

The data of women working and actually getting paid in cash for work done has changed little in the last five years, since NFHS-4 showed that 24.6% of women at an all-India level were working and had been paid in 2015-16.

Even when it is about operating a bank account or using a mobile phone, women fare poorly. The NFHS-5 data shows that just about one in two women in India have a mobile phone for self-use and in rural areas, this ratio is even lower at just about 47%. At least two out of every 10 women surveyed do not have a bank or savings account which they themselves use; though this is an improvement over NFHS-4 when just about one in two women had an account.

When it comes to the number of children born to each woman, again India has a cause for celebration since the total fertility rate has fallen below the replacement rate for the first time ever, indicating an eventual decline in the overall population. But here again, women bear a disproportionate burden of contraception.

The Population Foundation of India has pointed out that while the increase in the overall use of modern contraceptive methods is heartening, an increase in female sterilisation coupled with continued stagnation in male sterilisation uptake shows that the onus of family planning still lies with women.

“The government must adopt a targeted social and behaviour change communication strategy to ensure that men also take responsibility for family planning. Most programmes assume that primarily women are contraceptive users. There is a dearth of interventions that focus on improving male engagement in family planning,” said Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director at PFI.

Child marriage is another scourge that continues to plague the country. While the percentage of women married off before 18 years of age has been declining, the decline has not been fast enough. PFI has termed the decline in underage marriages as “marginal”.

In 2015-16, every fourth woman had been in a child marriage (26.8%) and this proportion increased dramatically in the case of rural women (31%). In the latest survey, the percentage of women in child marriage has dropped to 23.3%, and 27% of rural women were married off before reaching 18 years.
Sindhu Bhattacharya is a journalist based in Delhi who writes on a range of topics in business and economy.
first published: Nov 26, 2021 05:10 pm
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