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GiveItUp: How do women fare in India’s public policies

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi on the occasion of International Women’s Day on March 8, invited1 eight women to take over his Twitter handle. Some have argued that this is next in a long line of perfunctory hat-tips to women, just now re-packaged in the social media age. However, concerns of tokenism2 aside, it is worth examining current female-centric public policies (either enacted by the present government or past), what motivated their design in the Indian context, and how they fare today. Thus, in addition to social media strategies aimed at improving the visibility of women, we should ask whether the policies implemented by the government walk the talk.

We set out to examine policies broadly across four critical domains as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Sanitation (Goal 6), Health (Goal 3), Education (Goal 4), and Financial Inclusion (identified as an enabler3, but also as part of Goals 8 and 9). In fact, Goal 5 itself speaks of gender equality across all spheres of life. In each of these domains, the current (and past) government has various policies in place that are either directly or indirectly aimed at improving the lives of women. These may broadly be called policies to empower women, but as there is no clear consensus on what constitutes empowerment (although there are several theoretical perspectives on what it might be), we focus on women-centric outcomes of policies in India.

Empowerment of women can manifest in several forms; there’s no rulebook for it. Across the world, it is typically discussed in terms of representation of women (in governance, private companies, schools), or at a more individual level as having access to finance and decision-making capabilities within her household.

To be sure, empowerment of women, cannot be achieved in the very short-term and often requires consistent efforts from the state and needs to be taken up by society at large. What differentiates an effective policy from a half-hearted one is its design and implementation, keeping the needs of its target group at its core.

Take the case of improving maternal mortality rates in India, which declined4 from 254 per 100,000 in 2004-6 to 212 in 2007-9. The Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) is one such policy introduced by the government of India in 2005 under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). A conditional cash transfer was implemented to aid poor mothers: it incentivized deliveries in institutions, and ante and postnatal care. Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) are also paid a certain amount to connect poor nursing mothers to such services. Figure 1 shows the change in maternal mortality rates after JSY was implemented (note that we cannot infer causality from this figure). JSY is widely reported to have increased institutional delivery among women in rural India, but the effects varied5 by state and also by socioeconomic class of women receiving benefits under the scheme. Other studies did not find a s ignificant impact on the number of hospital deliveries, and number of women seeking antenatal care. Reasons for this failure could be: the scheme only focused on institutional deliveries, and the chain of encouraging these deliveries was through ASHAs who only received a one-time payment in return for multiple rounds of services. In the targeted districts, the economic burden of giving birth was greater on the poor.

Souce: World Bank Databank (2020)

Next, consider the case of the declining child sex ratio in India. The NDA government also launched a two-step scheme called Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP) in 2015. The scheme targeted districts where the ratio was heavily skewed against female children. Overall, there is no observable change in the overall child sex ratio, and CSR declined in some districts. In addition, public records of the expenditures reveal that the amount spent on marketing and publicity was far greater than that given to the states. Communication and behaviour change was an important aspect of a scheme such as this, as a large part of reducing female infanticide involves raising awareness of its heinous nature. The hashtag ‘#SelfieWithDaughter’ also garnered attention as part of this scheme, wherein people would post a selfie with their daughter on social media.

Distance, physical and/or psychological, can prove to be a significant barrier, in the journey to empower women. Women and girls in India still have to travel a distance to gain access to a latrine, and typically defecate in the open. Therefore, under the NDA’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA), the target was to build 110 million household toilets. R ecent analyses revealed that toilet construction under the SBA was associated with a reduced incidence of sexual assault and crime against women. For an issue as sensitive as this, simply constructing toilets is not enough, their maintenance is equally important. Important work by Diane Coffey, Dean Spears, and Sangita Vyas suggest that household adoption of latrines is often distinct from the decision to construct toilets.

Empowerment is not divorced from autonomy. One way to increase autonomy is to enhance women’s access to credit and financial services, allowing them ownership of assets and the opportunity to work. T he Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (2014), although not targeted toward women specifically, aimed to provide affordable financial services to Indian citizens. In an experiment with the state government of Madhya Pradesh, researchers at Yale showed that delivering National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) wages directly into the female’s account increased her labour force participation. Despite reports that a large portion of these bank accounts remain d ormant, there is an opportunity here to target women for transfers and welfare schemes via bank accounts in their name.

No amount of paternal state interventions can empower women if policies account for gender in a nominal fashion. The increasing uptake of women in programs such as NREGS proves that even as an unintended consequence, empowering women is a distinct possibility via public policy in India. There is a need for public policy to recognize that the household (often the target for economic policies) is h eterogenous and that women often face a power imbalance within the household starting from their birth. Perhaps they don’t need an inspirational role model tweeting on their behalf, but a more robust way of targeting women as beneficiaries in public policy.

By Anchal Khandelwal and Anirudh Tagat
Research Assistant and Research Author, respectively, at the Department of Economics, Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai







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