Guest In Depth

A land of gender disparities


The population counts from Census of India 2011 show sharp gender disparities.

There is no source of gender-based data quite as thorough and as revealing as Census data. One reason for this is that the United Nations guidelines for Population and Housing Censuses stipulate that all population data must be published gender wise. The other reason is that a lot of thought goes into designing census questions to bring out gender aspects, and the universal and neutral nature of census taking eliminates sampling bias.

The population counts from Census of India 2011 show sharp gender disparities. There are only 943 women to every 1000 men in the country. More distressingly, there are only 919 girls to every 1000 boys in the age group 0-6 (this figure is called the child sex ratio). While 81 percent of males are literate, only 65 percent of females are literate. 53 percent males are recorded as being engaged in economically productive work as opposed to only 25 percent of females.

These figures vary across rural and urban areas, and across the states and Union territories. Since data is available for these indicators right down to the village level, and in a continuous time series since 1961, a lot can be learnt through detailed study about the reasons for disparities and why some areas do better, or worse, than others. The age at marriage, and fertility particulars, would be major data sources when released.

However, there is another rich set of Census data, already available for 2011 that offers detailed knowledge of gender conditions, even though it is household based, not individual based. This is the Housing Census data, which has sub-district level rural and urban indicators about housing quality, amenities and assets. Since it is women who carry out the bulk of household activities, these indicators say a good deal about the difficulties in their daily lives.

Consider the distance of the source of drinking water from the household. This is the distance from which water has to be carried, a physically draining task almost exclusively performed by women. The Census defines three categories for this indicator- drinking water source within the premises, near the premises (within 500 m for rural and within 100 m for urban areas), and away from the premises (at a distance of 500 m or more for rural areas, and 100 m or more for urban areas).

graph 2

Census 2011 data reveals that the percentage of households for which the drinking water source is away from the premises in rural areas has actually increased in the past decade, from 19 percent in 2001 to 22 percent in 2011, and has only marginally improved from 9 percent to 8 percent in urban areas. There are significant increases in Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. (The graph shows state-wise data for 2001 and 2011). This has serious implications both by way of gender welfare, and, equally importantly, by way of actual availability of drinking water. Detailed study of this data is essential to understand what is really happening.

Firewood as fuel

Another important factor for the daily life of women is the cooking fuel used. The most discomfort is caused, when firewood is used, both because of the difficulty involved in traversing large distances searching for and carrying it, as well as the smoke and lack of control on the flame involved in cooking on a firewood stove. Census 2011 data finds that nearly two thirds of rural households and one fifth of urban households use firewood for cooking. These figures have fallen by a few percent over the last decade. However, this fall is not uniform across the states, and the figures have, in fact, increased in several major states, where they were already quite high to begin with, such as J&K, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Furthermore, it has increased even in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where the use of cow-dung cake, which used to be quite high, has come down sharply. (State-wise data for 2001 and 2011 are shown in the graph). This is a mix of relatively prosperous and relatively poorer states, showing that the factors behind this phenomenon may be more complex than mere income levels. The implications for deforestation and biodiversity are worth examining too.

The Housing Census also has data for the existence of a separate kitchen in the premises. The data shows that nearly half of rural households do not have a separate kitchen. In rural Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, this figure is over two thirds. In urban areas, one fifth of households do not have separate kitchens; the figure for urban Bihar is nearly one half.

Not having a separate kitchen would mean either cooking in the open or within a room meant for other living purposes, which would not be likely to have a proper exhaust outlet. This has grave implications for the health of women who are exposed to smoke and for their simple safety by way of protection from catching fire. What, then, are the chances for a good quality of life for these women?

The figures for toilets have been in the news a good deal; seven out of ten all households in rural India, and one fifth in urban India, do not have a toilet within the premises. Apart from the issues of comfort and dignity, this has severe consequences for the safety of women, because they are extremely vulnerable to sexual assault when they go out to the fields in the early morning or in the evening for ablutions. The correlations between these factors need to be studied further.

Thus, Census 2011 data shows that the quality of life of women in India continues to be worse than that of men in manifold ways, some being more readily visible than others. All of these have major implications for development planning. The data has great scope for more detailed study in itself and in comparison with other data sources. It is hoped that researchers would make the most of this opportunity to dig deeper into the data and make a difference to the lives of half a billion women.

Varsha Joshi is an IAS officer, currently with the office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner India. The views are personal.



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