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Making Bihar great for its women

Ranjana Das, Mayurakshi Dutta and Apoorva Mahendru | Updated on November 05, 2020 Published on November 05, 2020

Labour woes Female workforce participation in Bihar is among the lowest in India, with 6.4 per cent women employed in urban areas and 3.9 per cent in rural areas istock.com   -  ISTOCK.COM

Along with equal representation in politics, women in Bihar need enhanced access to education, health and employment

* While reservation for women in politics is a stride towards a more gender-just society, we need structural reforms to address the underlying social norms that limit equal footing for women. A higher budgetary allocation towards women-specific interventions is the need of the hour.

A recent campaign by women’s groups in Bihar, demanding 50 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and state legislatures, gained traction in light of the Assembly elections. The state now has 28 women MLAs (11 per cent of the total). This is six less than the 34 women elected to the Assembly in 2010. Of the 28 women, seven are Dalits and one is from a Scheduled Tribe, giving mere representation to marginal sections.

But Bihar was the first state to declare 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayats in 2006. The state has attempted to address gender inequality through flagship schemes such as the Arakshit Rozgar Mahilaon ka Adhikar (employment for women), Mukhyamantri Kanya Utthan Yojana (for the girl child) and Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana (to reduce the gender gap in education). The Bihar government also imposed an alcohol ban across the state as a result of women-led campaigns to curb domestic violence.

In spite of the efforts to level the terrain of politics by increasing the representation of women, Bihar continues to be plagued by gendered social norms that perpetuate inequality. Despite state efforts to guarantee 50 per cent representation of women in panchayats, Bihar sees a practice of proxy candidacy — that is, women contest elections as proxies for male members of the family, mostly their husbands, who are referred to as sarpanchpatis or mukhiyapatis — husbands of female mukhiya or sarpanch. This practice shows that ensuring equal representation of women in politics through reservation is not enough to empower them.

So, here are four social norms that need to be addressed at the grassroots to foster gender equality:

Promote literacy

According to government figures, the literacy rate of women is 20 per cent lower than that of men in Bihar even though it increased by 35 per cent between 1991 and 2014. Adult women in Bihar are twice as likely to not be literate compared with adult men. Only 11 per cent of urban women and 2.7 per cent of rural women complete graduation. Even schemes launched as an incentive for girls to complete Std VIII are not effective and rural girls end up dropping out of secondary school. One of the triggers for this is early marriage and pregnancy.

Stop early marriages

Government figures show that not only do 42.5 per cent women get married before 18, but 12.2 per cent in the 15-19 age group also are adolescent mothers or pregnant. This could be one of the reasons for the decline in the level of education for rural women that starts around secondary education. Other reasons behind girls dropping out of school include domestic compulsions and migration.

A study by Child Rights and You (CRY) across Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat and Haryana found that in over 60 per cent of cases, early marriage, household chores and cost of education were the reasons that hindered the education of girls. Bihar experiences approximately 3.5 lakh teenage births, which contribute to a high maternal and infant mortality rate.

Improved sexual and reproductive health

A worrisome aspect is the state of the sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) of women in Bihar. Moreover, three in five women in Bihar are anaemic compared to 1.5 in five men; this has an adverse impact on their health and that of their child. The total fertility rate for Bihar is the highest in India at 3.4 (the national average is 2.28). Between 2005-06 and 2015-16, the use of family planning, which was already very low, declined further. Only 24.1 per cent of married women used any contraception as compared to 42 per cent unmarried, sexually active women in the state. This reveals that women experience limited choices and lack the decision-making power in marital relationships. Education goes a long way in increasing women’s awareness of contraception.

Women workforce participation

Women have been adversely affected by the jobless growth trend in Bihar. Female labour force participation in Bihar is among the lowest in the country, with only 6.4 per cent of women employed in urban areas and 3.9 per cent in rural regions. The all-India figures stand at 20.4 per cent and 24.6 per cent respectively. The lower participation is a result of the patriarchal social norms that restrict women to the confines of family, domesticity and unpaid care work.

Women work in large numbers in small household industries such as bidi making, pickles and papad making, but are underpaid. There are 1.3 crore women in the informal economy of Bihar and are major contributors in the agrarian sector. They account for 79.5 per cent of the workforce engaged in animal husbandry in the state.

Another reason for low female labour force participation is the under-recognition of women’s work. Unpaid care work remains unacknowledged and undervalued. This calls for a re-evaluation of the contribution of women’s work and addressing gendered social norms to redistribute unpaid care work.

While reservation for women in politics is a stride towards a more gender-just society, we need structural reforms to address the underlying social norms that limit equal footing for women. A higher budgetary allocation towards women-specific interventions is the need of the hour. This will enhance women’s access to education, health and employment, thereby reducing gender inequality.

It will also be important to analyse the gender indicators placing women and girls at the intersection of gender and caste in the case of Bihar and not just demand more women’s representation in politics but ample representation of women from marginal communities, too.

Ranjana Das, Mayurakshi Dutta and Apoorva Mahendru are with Oxfam India

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Published on November 05, 2020
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