In my school days (I passed 10th standard in 1992 under the state examination system of Odisha, India), I often observed that girls would outshine boys in the school board exams in terms of passing percentage. However, their representation among the top-ranking students used to be extremely low. It was invariably and overwhelmingly dominated by boys. However, steadily over the last couple of decades, girls have displaced boys in the toppers’ list. Moreover, there has been a steady visible increase in female presence in the higher learning institutes of India. These are welcome trends, especially in a country which has been largely a male-dominated society.
Now, let us contrast it with the Indian society’s attitude towards the girl child. One of the indicators through which it can be examined is sex-ratio, i.e., number of females per a thousand of males. As per the last census in 2011, the sex ratio of India is 940. This is an improvement as this figure had hovered around 930 for last four decades. Nevertheless, India’s sex ratio is abysmally low when compared to other regions of world. Sex-ratios in Europe, North America, Latin America, Caribbean, Sub Saharan Africa, and South East Asia are all 1000 or more, showing a greater degree of gender equity. In general, women outlive men because of their greater resistance to disease and death. Due to their higher life expectancy, in a gender-neutral society, women tend to be more in number compared to men, particularly in the older age group.
India’s low sex ratio is only comparable to the Arab world or that of China. The more disturbing figure for India is that the child sex ratio (0-6yrs) has been on a continuous decline since the last half-a-century; from 976 in 1961 to 914 in 2011. Child sex-ratio shows the underlying socio-cultural setting of a society, especially in its attitude towards the girl child. A falling child-sex ratio indicates increased preference for boys which is manifested in the prevalence of female foeticide, infanticide, abandonment of female babies, and neglect of girl children.
All the same, I do believe a turnaround is possible. The key to this possibility is greater female education at all levels. The correlation between Kerala’s high female education (it has the highest female literacy among all states and UTs) and favorable sex-ratio (Kerala’s sex-ratio is 1084) is not a mere coincidence. At its minimum, rise in female education would lead to improvement in the quality of life for women.
Educated women will be able to assert their position both within and outside the family. There has been an improvement in female basic literacy in the last two decades. As per the census data, male-female literacy gap, which remained consistent at about 25% points from 1961 to 1991, declined to 21.6% in 2001 and to 16.7% in 2011. This gap should further decline in the future. My hope comes from my recent field study in Odisha’s rural areas, where I have witnessed groups of young girls cycling to their schools and colleges. I see a similar scene every morning, when scores of girls traverse the road in front of my institute gate that leads to M.S. Ramaiah groups of institutions, Bangalore, India. Be it a remote village in Odisha or a colony in Bangalore city, girls are gradually not only outnumbering boys in educational institutions, but also outmatching them in performances.
Women well-being is complementary to the development of a society. Prof. Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in Economics, has advocated in his book ‘Development as Freedom’ the notion that societies need to see women as active participants and not as passive recipients of help. Women education is instrumental in preventing population explosion and improving quality of both individual and family life. Literature shows positive effects of female education on fostering economic growth and combating poverty and child mortality. Women in control of their household’s resources spend more on basic necessities and on the development of their children’s potential than men do in similar circumstances. This feature has been demonstrated in women self-help-groups and studies show this to be valid in larger public spaces and affairs.
With steady improvement in educational status for women, India’s future can only be better. The cascading benefits of women education would get reflected in girls’ performance in all walks of life and other socio-economic development indicators. I believe, in two generations’ time, the majority of important posts in India will go to women. And more power to females would be certainly healthy for the society. After all, contrary to the common belief, the female, with her tougher immune system, is actually the stronger gender.
The author is an Assistant Professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. Currently he is a Visiting Fellow (Subir Chowdhry Fellow 2016-17) at the India Observatory, London School of Economics and Political Science, London.