India's incredible gender gap

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 12 Mar 2012 14:59 GMT
Author: Uma Lele
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Uma Lele, a former World Bank senior adviser, is an international thinker and policy analyst in the areas of food, agriculture, health, and the environment.  She is presenting at the Global Conference on Women in Agriculture,  in New Delhi on 13-15 March and sponsored by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, and the Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions. The opinions expressed are her own.

While the developed world and wealthier Indians are worried about obesity and related diseases, one of the puzzles in the phenomenon of global hunger is the “downward drift” in nutrition in India, where an estimated 350 million people remain undernourished. 

Given India’s tremendous economic growth in the past decade – the second-fastest GDP growth in the world in the period from 2000 until the 2008 financial crisis – how can it be true that so many are malnourished? 

India ranks 67th among the 81 nations ranked in the Global Hunger Index (GHI), which is compiled by the International Food Policy Research Institute and others.

The GHI report in 2011 called levels of hunger in India “alarming”, which was an improvement from “very alarming” in 2010.  

In a comparison of the 2009 GHI with the 2008 Global Gender Gap Index, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) concluded that higher levels of hunger are associated with lower literacy rates and poor access to education of women as well as to health and survival inequalities between men and women.

On various gender-related international comparisons, India (is) in the bottom 20th percentile among the major “gender gap” indexes.

India is also 129th out of 145 countries in the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index; 113rd among 135 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (lowest among the emerging BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China); 84th among 113 in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Women’s Economic Opportunity index.

The authors of the 2011 Global Gender Gap Index note: “The most important determinant of a country’s competitiveness is its human talent … [therefore] countries and companies will thrive if women are educated and engaged as fundamental pillars of the economy.”

In her analysis of the gender gap and why efforts to correct it had not achieved results, anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) observed that impetus for change must come from within developing countries.

She noted that the “Euro-American tendency” considered pre-harvest agricultural tasks as men’s work and post-agricultural tasks as women’s work (“food preservation, nutrition, child rearing, and home management”).

This tendency was spread around the world with consequences that Mead referred to as disastrous. Men grew to believe their own outside-the-home activities -- including agricultural research and service delivery to male farmers -- were more important than women’s work.

India’s commitment to women’s development is increasing. Locally, policymakers are allocating more resources to women’s development programs. The national government has  increased funding to programs that help women and programs that assist women in the agricultural field. Women’s self-empowerment organizations have accelerated and expanded their impact.

Ensuring that those expenditures and programs achieve real results on the ground is the challenge. To that end, India is hosting a conference of leading players and funders of global agricultural research and development in New Delhi in mid-March in an effort to find ways to reverse these statistics and chart a new course, different from that described by Mead. 

The Global Conference on Women in Agriculture aims to highlight tools to empower women and to lift them out of their abominable living conditions. The conference is intended to lead to transformative initiatives, identify technologies and innovations in delivery systems from around the world that will reduce drudgery and increase women’s access to knowledge, assets and inputs giving them the confidence to significantly improve their living conditions.

The dramatic decline in poverty rates in East and Southeast Asia show what can be achieved with the necessary political commitment.

One way to step forward is for countries to develop data for making policy decisions which help women overcome obstacles and constraints, something that Indian civil society organizations are increasingly demanding. The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) being released at the New Delhi conference is intended to do precisely that.

The index will measure the empowerment, and inclusion of women in the agriculture sector in five areas, including:

-          decision making in agricultural production

-          access to and decision making power over productive resources

-          control over the use of income

-          leadership in the community

-          time use

It will also measure women’s empowerment relative to men within their households. Applying it to women’s reality will help change the reality of their world. But to achieve results rapidly, countries must demonstrate strong, consistent political commitment to gender equality in areas of education, health and agriculture.

The global financial crisis and the subsequent decline in foreign aid has spurred the search for successful examples from around the world that include much more than a traditional north-south transfer. A Global Partnership Program for Women in Agriculture can foster the search for local, national, regional and international policies that keep the well-being of rural women and children at center stage, in India and the world.