Home » India at 75 | The status of women in Independent India

India at 75 | The status of women in Independent India

by Narges Mohammadi

After 70 years of Independence, a look at where women stand in the quest for equality

“The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour?”

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spoke these words almost 75 years ago, during his historic address on the eve of the day that brought us freedom from years under British rule.

“To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman,” he said in his speech, called the ‘Tryst with Destiny.’

In the seven decades that followed, many have toiled to fulfil the vision of those who fought for freedom. India has undergone significant changes, both socio-economic and political, and seen successes on the global stage.

But where do women, who constitute half of the country’s citizenry, stand now in the fight for freedom, dignity, equal rights and representation?  

As India celebrates the 75th anniversary of its Independence, The Hindu takes a look at the status of women in contemporary India and what the numbers tell us about their freedom.

The widening gender gap 

The declining sex ratio has been a cause of worry for Independent India. The past two decades have seen positive signs with the ratio slightly improving to 943 per 1,000 men in 2011 from 933 in the 2001 census. The proportion of women exceeded men in 2021 for the first time in history. For every 1,000 men, there are 1,020 women, according to the Centre’s National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data. The development made national headlines as many saw it as a confirmation of a ‘demographic shift’. Experts, however, advised caution. They believed that the figure was not an accurate representation of India’s sex ratio due to the small sample size, compared to the decadal census.

A UNICEF report titled ‘Children in India’ notes, “India is the only large country where more girls die than boys, with the inverse sex ratio at birth being 900 girls born for every 1000 boys. Globally 7 per cent more boys die under the age of 5 compared to girls but in India, 11 per cent more girls die under the age of 5. India is home to the largest number of child brides in the world.”

Gender disparity has gotten worse in India, with boys having better odds of survival than girls across religions, castes and classes. According to Census 2011, the child sex ratio dropped from 927 in 2011 to 914 per 1,000 males. Several factors like discrimination towards the girl child and sex-selective abortions, are responsible for the skewed ratio.

A U.N. report raises the issue of sex-selective abortions resulting in deaths in India. Eight women die from causes related to unsafe abortions each day in India, making unsafe abortions the third leading cause of maternal mortality in the country, according to the United Nations Population Fund’s State of the World Population Report, 2022. Over 65 per cent of abortions in India were classified as unsafe between 2007 and 2011. The NFHS 2019-21 further shows that more than one-fourth (27 per cent) of abortions were performed by women without any assistance at home.

India also accounts for 4.6 crore of the world’s 14.26 crore “missing females” — yet another aspect of gender inequality. As per a United Nations report published in 2020, about 4.6 lakh girls in India were ‘missing’ at birth each year between 2013 and 2017. The U.N. report cited sex selection based on gender and post-birth female mortality as two main reasons behind the alarming number. The State of World Population 2020 defines missing females as those missing from the population at given dates due to the cumulative effect of postnatal and prenatal sex selection in the past.


The literacy rate was below 20 per cent when the British left India. Over the years, India made significant progress and improved the overall rate to 74.04% (Census 2011). However, at 65.46 per cent, the female literacy rate is 20 per cent less than the global average rate of 87 per cent.

The NFHS-5 report, which sampled a population of 7.24 lakh women and 1 lakh men in the age group of 15-49, found that the female literacy rate climbed to 72 per cent. Twenty-three per cent of women between the ages of 15-49 still had received no schooling, as compared to 11 per cent of men. More than one-fourth of rural women never attended school, while the number stood at 13 per cent for urban women.

Overall enrolment has increased over the years, but a lesser number of girls took admission than boys in primary, secondary and higher secondary levels between 2012 and 2021. According to the Unified District Information System for Education Plus, 14.2 per cent of girls dropped out at the secondary level in 2020-21, while 15.1 per cent dropped out in 2019-20.

Family pressure to leave education, early marriage, and household responsibilities are some of the reasons girls drop out of school.


India performed the worst in the “health and survival” sub-index of the Global Gender Gap Index this year, ranking last among 146 countries. Government data shows that around 20 per cent of women of reproductive age are undernourished. Nearly 60 per cent of women between the 15-49 age group are anemic, compared to 20 per cent of men. The number of anemic women increased from 53 per cent in 2015-16 to 57 per cent in 2019-21. 

The nutritional status of mothers has a direct impact on children. NFHS data reveals that children born to underweight mothers are more likely to be stunted or underweight than those born to mothers with a normal BMI or children whose mothers are overweight/obese. It also highlights the role of education. More than 45 per cent of children born to mothers with no schooling were stunted, compared with 26 per cent born to mothers with 12 or more years of schooling.

Women in the workforce

At a time when more women can join the workforce as an outcome of an increase in the female literacy rate, the opposite is happening as labour force participation of women drops sharply. About 9 per cent of women were employed or looking for jobs in 2021-22 — a decline from 15 per cent in 2016-17 — as per a report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).

The impact of the pandemic was severe for women as the unemployment rate shot up to 17 per cent, more than double the rate for men. This was corroborated in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2022 where India ranked 135 out of 146 countries. The report acknowledged the pandemic as one of the reasons and noted that the percentage of employed women has been quite low over the past decade, averaging 21 percent between 2012 and 2021. The proportion of working-age women taking part in paid work dropped to 19.2 per cent in 2021 from 30.7 per cent in 2006. 

Global Gender Gap Index

India’s rank fell to 135 in 2022 from 87 (India’s highest rank since 2006) in 2016

Government data also shows that men continue to be more likely to be employed than women in India. In comparison to 75 per cent of men, around 25 per cent of women are currently employed, as per NFHS data. The last survey had shown an increase in the employment rate among married women (15-49 age group) from 31 per cent to 32 per cent, albeit a marginal rise that is unlikely to effect a significant change to transform the lives of women. Meanwhile, 98 per cent of married men aged 15-49 are employed.

Here are some more findings of the NFHS report that shed light on women’s financial autonomy in India:

  • Among working girls and women, 83 per cent earn cash, while 22 per cent do not receive any compensation. Fewer women are able to make independent decisions regarding their earnings. The survey shows that 18 per cent of married earning women make independent financial decisions. 85 per cent of married women who earn cash say they make decisions alone or jointly with their husband on how their earnings are to be used.
  • The husband is the sole decision-maker regarding the use of a woman’s earnings for 14 per cent of females.
  • 79 perc ent of women have a bank or savings account that they themselves use. Just a little more than 50 per cent of women in the age group have a mobile phone that they themselves use.
  • 42 per cent of women own a house alone or jointly with someone.
  • The percentage of employed women who earn about the same or more than their husband has decreased from 42 per cent (NFHS-4) to 40 per cent.
  • 10 per cent of women make decisions about their health care alone, compared with one-third of men.

Literacy levels, the burden of marriage and social norms dictating the role of women in the public domain are some of the important drivers for lower participation in the workforce. Another reason is that majority of Indian women continue to be engaged in unpaid household work. Women continue to wait for greater autonomy over their life and financial freedom. 

Crimes against women

The numbers tell a disturbing tale— not much has changed for a woman living in Independent India. Data shows that over the years, there has been an increase in cases of abuse, harassment, and sexual violence, including marital rape. Government data on crimes against women revealed that India reported a rape every 15 minutes on average in 2018.

Things have worsened in the digital age, with women getting harassed online. and morphed photos, abuse, and rape threats becoming common. Recent incidents have revealed how Muslim women are harassed through social media, with their photos being put for sale on apps.

The NFHS data (2019-21) found that in India, around one-third of women have experienced physical or sexual violence. Thirty per cent of women between the age of 18 and 49 have experienced physical violence since they were 15 years old and 6 per cent have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.

Married women in India who identified the following individuals as those who forced them for the first time to have sexual intercourse or perform other sexual acts.

Domestic violence against women marginally declined from 31.2 per cent to 29.3 per cent, but 32 per cent of married women experienced physical, sexual, or emotional spousal violence. Data revealed that over 95 per cent of married women in India who endured sexual violence identified their husbands or former husbands as the perpetrator. Over 90 per cent of those who endured sexual violence did not seek help from anyone. And those who did, never approach a lawyer to seek legal recourse. About 18 per cent of married women said they cannot say ‘no’ to their husbands even if they do not want to have sexual intercourse.

Representation in decision making

Not much has changed in seven decades as far as the representation of women in decision-making is concerned— Parliament remains a male-dominated institution. The stature of women in Indian politics can be ascertained from the fact that only 14 per cent of MPs in the current Lok Sabha are women. The global average is 25. 

India ranks 144 in a list of around 200 countries in terms of the percentage of elected women representatives in the Lower House of Parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Such is the gender disparity that representation of women in Lok Sabha has failed to breach the 20 per cent-mark in around seven decades of Independence. At 81 elected MPs, Lok Sabha currently has the highest number of women lawmakers elected to the 543-member House in history. The Upper House, meanwhile, has 33 women MPs out of a total of 245 (eight seats are vacant). 

Not much has changed since the first Lok Sabha in 1952, when 24 women were elected. The number remain unchanged in the second Lok Sabha and increased to 37 in the third Lok Sabha (1962-67). The next three terms saw a drop in the number of women MPs. It crossed 50 in the 13th Lok Sabha when 52 women were elected. In the 16th Lok Sabha, 64 women were elected MPs. In 70 years, India has added less than 60 women MPs in Parliament since the first Lok Sabha. 

Over the years, political parties have promised 33 per cent reservation to women multiple times but it has only remained a dream. Bills seeking to reserve one-third of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies were first introduced in 1996 and three other times. But all four versions of the Bill lapsed.

The situation is no different in the Indian judiciary— earlier this year, the Chief Justice of India raised concerns about the low representation of women in the legal field. The CJI noted that women constitute around 30 per cent of the judges in the lower judiciary, 11.5 per cent in the high courts and only four sitting judges out of 33 in the Supreme Court are women. “The situation of women lawyers in the country is not any better. Out of 1.7 million advocates registered, only 15 per cent are women,” he stated. Since its inception in 1950, the SC has seen only 11 women judges. 

How long for freedom? 

More than a 100 years. It will take India 132 years to reach gender parity, according to the Global Gender Report 2022 of the World Economic Forum. The report shows that gap reduced by four years since 2021 and the gender gap closed by 68.1 per cent, but there is a long way to go.  

The Global Gender Gap Index considers four sub-indices — economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health & survival and political empowerment to measure gender parity.

India “recovered” ground since 2021 in economic participation and opportunity, but the labour force participation shrunk for both men and women (-3 per cent). India also recorded a declining score on political empowerment due to the diminishing share of years women have served as head of state for the past 50 years, the report added.


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