In a country where its head of state, speaker of Parliament’s Lower House and president of the main ruling party are women, India's fairer sex seems to be on top.
While Pratibha Devisingh Patil, the first lady President of the country, is the supreme commander of Indian armed forces and Speaker Meira Kumar controls politicians in the Lower House of Parliament, Sonia Gandhi steers India’s main ruling coalition party, the Congress-I.
Indian women have gone out to become international beauty pageant queens in forms of Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen, PepsiCo CEO like Indra Nooyi or astronaut like Kalpana Chawala.
The urban middle-class women too have joined the ranks! With professional degrees in hand, these highly educated women are ambitious, financially independent, aware of their rights and know how to take charge of their life.
The economic growth of the country has gradually created various job opportunities for women.
However, the development has mainly taken place in metro cities. Those who hope to work in multi-national companies, corporate houses, media, and in high profile jobs must come to cities. Living in small towns means limited career choices with lesser salaries.
The search for better job prospects has created a migratory culture in the country-- moving from one state to the other, from town to metropolitan cities.
For example, 25-year-old Moakala Longchar, who works for a news agency in National capital New Delhi moved out from Dimapur in the north-eastern state of Nagaland to pursue higher education and for better job prospects.
“I did my secondary and higher studies from Bangalore (southern city). Later, I came to New Delhi to find work in media. Since Delhi is the hub of news and media centres, I thought it would be the best place to look for work and get exposure. Obviously, I would not have grown professionally and achieved so much if I would have stayed back home,” says Longchar.
Doris Dey, 27, she is a successful freelance writer and a creative director in India’s film city of Mumbai.
She chose New Delhi to pursue her graduation before moving on to Mumbai to find her dream work in TV production houses.
“Studying in Delhi can give you exposure. You can take part in extra curricular activities. You can study and work at the same time and by the time you graduate you already have a lot of work experience. I took lot of work experience by working for event management companies and got a job instantly after my graduation,” recalls Dey.
She is proud of her decision of moving to Mumbai and says, “If I had not left Guwahati I would not have made this soon.”
“Moving to Mumbai helped. It’s a safe and comfortable place for single people. You come with nothing and you make something. It’s not happening only with me but with a lot of other people as well who work hard. Coming here gives you bang on exposure to work.”
The educated, financially independent and upwardly mobile women are just one side of the coin. Its flip side is still a stark contrast. Marginalised rural and unskilled urban women continue to live on the fringes.
Roopmati, a daily wage earner, gets Rs150 (about $3) a day by carrying mortar and bricks on her head in building construction sites.
After a hard day at work she cooks meal for her family, tends to household chores, looks after her four children without any assistance from her husband. All he does is watch TV and smoke tobacco. The money both of them earn is mostly spent on raising the family.
She never went to school but hopes her children get basic education.
Most of rural and urban semi/unskilled women are like second-class citizens who are not given priority in education, health care, nutrition and property rights.
Indian female literacy rate is 54.16%, against 75% male literacy rate, according to 2001 Census. And only 46% of rural women are literate.
According to National Literacy Mission of India, the main reasons for low literacy level of women are “gender based inequality, social discrimination and economic exploitation, occupation of girl child in domestic chores, low enrolment of girls in schools and low retention rate and high dropout rate.”
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his address to a woman’s conference in Delhi on Saturday (March 6) said participation of girls in schools has improved over the last few years but their retention in schools continues to be a matter of concern.
Life of rural women is still ruled by males in the family. Unlike urban women they mostly have little or no say in decision making and have no financial control.
She is a mere puppet, perfect for all household chores and farm work. Even the choice whether to become a mother or not or the number of children she should have is not hers.
A woman is forced to continue to give birth until a baby boy is born leading to high maternal mortality rate. This takes a toll on her health which is already poor due to malnutrition.
Her life is further restricted by rigid social and cultural norms. She is way too much dependent and subjugated.
Untill women are economically independent not much can be expected to improve their status. The Constitution gives them equal rights but discriminations against them continue-- socially, culturally and traditionally in a male dominated society.
Government has launched many programmes to educate, empower and enhance women’s health and social status in the country to help them become equal partners with men.
Whether they have made significant changes in their life is yet to be seen.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day “Equal rights, equal opportunity: Progress for all” stresses the need to do more to empower women to be equal partners with men.