A new study using gender disaggregated statistical indicators has highlighted disparities in gender development across the different States and Union Territories of India. The study, entitled 'Gender biases and discrimination against women: What do different indicators say?' focuses on disparities across the diverse regions of the country, analysing individual indicators pertaining to health, education, mortality, economic participation, decision-making and safety and security. Describing it as the first of its kind, author Dr Preet Rustagi says that unlike its predecessors, which have clubbed all development indicators together to form a composite single figure, this study examines the different dimensions of gender biases prevailing in different parts of the country.

Most illustrative is the data on survival indicators, which reveals that demographic imbalances stem as much from socio-cultural practices as from economic factors. The BIMARU states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, despite some improvements, still show figures indicating backwardness in terms of various health indicators. Despite these adverse findings, demographic imbalances such as negative sex ratios are not highest in these states. On the contrary, it is the prosperous states of Haryana and Punjab that are among the worst with adult sex ratios of 869 and 886 respectively compared to the national figure of 934 females per 1000 males in 2001. The study, undertaken in collaboration with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), was released here on March 7, the eve of International Women's Day.

While economic factors such as poverty and deprivation seem to affect educational attainments and health status of women in most states, demographic imbalances or work participation levels are better explained through attitudinal biases in society, observes Dr Rustagi.
According to UNIFEM Regional Programme Director Chandni Joshi, sex-disaggregated data and gender specific indicators serve to unmask the socio-economic and cultural differences among women and men that exist within society and in the household due to inherent gender biases. The new study, in her opinion, throws light on some of the reasons behind the various forms of gender inequality by analysing seven development indicators in the light of the broader socio-economic and cultural factors prevalent in the respective states and by making inter-state comparisons. While economic factors such as poverty and deprivation seem to affect educational attainments and health status of women in most states, demographic imbalances or work participation levels are better explained through attitudinal biases in society, observes Dr Rustagi.

The high incidence of dowry deaths, torture or cruel treatment of women in northern states including Delhi and some Union Territories such as Chandigarh, Daman and Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands may all be contributing factors leading to relatively shorter life spans among adult women. Better sex ratios are noted among the southern states, some hill regions and in states where tribal groups are a significant proportion of the population. These, feels the author, could be due to the historical prevalence of matriliny, women's control over property and resources and their greater participation in decision-making.

Referring to child sex ratios, the study presents an even more dismal scenario. Since baby girls are biologically stronger, there would be more surviving girls than boys in the 0-6 age group population if there were no gender-based discrimination. However, the chilling reality is there are only 927 girls for every 1000 boys. "For every 1000 boys, therefore, at least 73 girls are missing in India today", the study points out. In fact, over the past decade the number of girls per 1000 boys has been declining in most states of India. The states that have much to explain over the significant drop in the number of girls are Punjab (793), Haryana (820), Delhi (865), Gujarat (879) and Himachal Pradesh (897). In fact, prosperity appears to have enabled the use of the advanced scientific technology of sex determination to do away with girls before they are even born in the northern belt of Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and Delhi as well as parts of Maharashtra.

What is it about contemporary social and economic pressures that is inducing the not so poor families to place so much emphasis on the need for a boy child, asks the author, a fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Women's Development Studies (CWDS). "At the core lies the low status of women that stems from patriarchal mindsets, social attitudes and cultural perceptions."

Drawing on data from different sources such as the Census of India, Sample Registration System (SRS), National Sample Survey (NSS), National Family Health Survey (NFHS) and the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Dr Rustagi makes a link between shrinking state resources to unavailability of health and educational services to women. States where poverty levels are high - such as Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh -give less importance to education, especially in the case of females. These states also seem to have lower levels of access to health care and organised sector employment that can help women lead a better life.

In the political arena, the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments have enabled the entry of nearly a million women at different levels through a policy of reservation of one-third seats for women in village-level panchayats (village councils) and urban municipalities. The best state in terms of highest participation is Bihar followed by Karnataka, Kerala, Sikkim and West Bengal. The representative quota was not achieved in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Assam, Tamilnadu, Rajasthan and Haryana, and the explanations vary from state to state. While questioning whether this participation of women is empowering or whether women are simply being co-opted by prevailing patriarchal structures, the study nevertheless describes it as a crucial step towards gender equality and empowerment.

One of the most common obstacles that hinder girls' education, mobility, income earning capacity and political participation is violence, which assumes various forms, not all of which are quantifiable. Safety levels differ depending on where women live and recorded crimes against women are highest in Rajasthan with a rate of 246 cases per million persons, says the study. Madhya Pradesh (221) and Delhi (190) follow this in 1999. There are no signs of crimes against women declining so far, with Mizoram and Madhya Pradesh recording particularly high rates of rape and molestation while torture and killing/burning of women is most prominent among the northern states. Since many of the problems associated with women are a by-product of social biases, tackling the problem of violence would to a large extent lead to improving women's status, the report recommends.

However, there is a need for greater investigation into the manner in which these gender biases and inequalities appear in different spheres of life by focusing on one issue at a time. Observing that the states of India are large geographical areas representing very heterogeneous groups within them, the author calls for more in-depth disaggregation at the sub-state levels.