Ensuring gender equality has been an articulated commitment, and the goals for gender equality have been defined, redefined and refined over time. Affirmative policies and programmes have facilitated important changes with crucial implications for the status of women. However, it has been difficult to arrive at definite conclusions on the impact of these interventions towards the attainment of a gender-equitable social, economic and political order due to contradictory trends and patterns. For example, while literacy among women has increased considerably across the country, many States continue to struggle with the challenges of adverse child sex ratios and increasing incidents of violence against women. In this context, the initiative taken by the Delhi Policy Groups Governance Program under the leadership of Radha Kumar to come out with an Atlas analysing and mapping the performance of the country and the States is commendable.
The first challenge faced by those who want to specifically assess and address women’s status or advocate gender-sensitive policies is the lack or inadequacy of gender specific statistics. Statistics are essential for analysing the relative positions of women in various contexts and to understand whether and how their conditions are changing. Furthermore, women-specific analysis of statistics can play an important role in improving the comprehensiveness of the statistical system, by expanding its scope to hitherto unaddressed gender dimensions in social development. Despite the fact that the importance of gender statistics is now well-acknowledged, the limited data available to study women’s issues and gender dynamics is still often overlooked. Lack of awareness on the data sources and specifics of the available data is common, which even the authors of the book admit saying, we ‘were pleasantly surprised to discover the wide range of data on gender issues.’
The Atlas looks at women’s status through a set of thirty-eight sub-indicators, across seven broad themes such as sex ratio, education, health, political participation, decision making, employment and crimes against women, giving both all India and State wise data. The indicators used not only give a one-time statistical picture but also provide insights on changes over time. The efforts to select or develop gender indicators to assess the status of women have to, however, confront some inherent challenges: First, the challenge of attempting to reflect the many dimensions of living conditions through a limited number of objective measures. Second, for a country as large as India, steep variations in demographic, social and economic processes are inevitable in the face of the vast spatial diversity in physical, social, and economic dimensions.
The Atlas is divided into two sections after the introduction. In these sections, using the existing data available on the select seven heads, through thirty-eight pre-selected indicators across various themes, women’s status is analysed. While Section Two provides all-India statistics Section Three gives it for all States and Union Territories. The analysis uses individual indicators as well as a composite measure through score cards and thus becomes useful for a wide range of users. The individual-indicator approach allows for considering a number of indicators to study a particular aspect of women’s life. It has often been argued that individual indicators serve as a far better method for both the identification and evolution of effective intervention strategies compared to a composite index which hides many dimensions under a number. On the other hand, there is a need to track gender-based indicators at a broader level to get a comprehensive understanding of women’s status, for which composite measures are required. The scorecard that the book offers not only provides the aggregate measure but also helps in evaluating the performance of the country in a comparative perspective. The most important contribution of the Atlas is the State-wise statistics across the selected themes, and its analysis.
The complexity of gender captured through these indicators shows how social and economic indicators and the various sub-indicators under these broad categories can go in multiple and diverse directions. Some of the States with poor social indicators are found to perform better in terms of women’s employment and vice versa, questioning some of the existing understanding on women’s status across States. The performance of the States across the selected indicators are evaluated in the Atlas to develop a scorecard,which provides the overall performance of the States in a comparative perspective both with respect to the national picture as well as with that of other States.
Many indicators are linked to, or are outcomes of a continuous, interlinked, entwined process. Hence, though each of these indicators may reveal specific realities at a given point of time, they are also part of a larger dynamic process. To capture this, the rate of change scorecard for the period 2001-2015 is a very useful measure that the book offers. This is again available for both the country as well as for the States. India has been among pioneering countries which ratified the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action. Affirmative policies and programmes have facilitated important changes with crucial implications for the status of women. However, it has been difficult to arrive at definite conclusions on the impact of these interventions towards the attainment of a gender-equitable social, economic and political order due to contradictory trends and patterns. The rate of change scorecard does provide some broad insights into long term changes.
The Atlas provides detailed tables and charts on the selected standard indicators and is useful for getting a broad profile of the issues both at the national level and across States. Nevertheless, the scope to generate further debates or discussions is limited, as it is not linked to policy discourses or intervention programmes. The Atlas would have been more meaningful if it had, alongside the statistics, provided an overview of some of the major policy interventions and their analysis. This would help in situating the poor overall status and the differential performance of States across various indicators more meaningfully.
For any concrete insights to emerge from the analysed data, it is important to know the underlying definitions or concepts, the methodology followed in the data collection, and, more specifically, the limitations of data sets. The sample size, details of sampling methods used, and the coverage of samples across various locations and categories are parts of critical information which need reflection. Lack of clarity on these aspects may lead to wrong comparisons and faulty conclusions. The specificities and limitations of selected sources in terms of coverage, methods and concepts used are missing in the discussions which could have added to the usefulness of the volume.
The Atlas does provide useful insights into the possibility of varied performance of indicators even across a particular theme, with various indicators for a specific theme showing different patterns and changes over time. Though all the indicators across each theme are important, the differential performance of indicators during the same period needs to be situated and understood in the larger context to arrive at an overall picture. When indicators and/or sub-indicators move in different directions or at different rates, to arrive at an overall performance is not easy and hence, the scorecard may not actually convey real issues. The Atlas could have immensely contributed to the existing literature if it had explicated the meaning and implication of the different indicators and sub-indicators, its status and changes.
The data analysis followed in the Atlas is very broad, based on averages for the entire population. This is surely a decision that is determined by the practicality of dealing with voluminous statistics which any disaggregation would demand. However, the process of data analysis to some extent has to take into account diversities among women, which is the only way to counter the highly abstract and potentially-misleading statistics that describe the average characteristics of an entire population.
Another issue with any analysis based on statistics is its limitation in terms of availability of data, which sometimes means using data which is outdated. Statistics get outdated with the coming of fresh rounds of data. For example, the Atlas uses NFHS data for the period 2005-06 for some key indicators. Now that the fourth round of NFHS data (2015-16) is available, it makes the analysis outdated unless it is revised and updated.
Despite these shortcomings, since there has been little effort to collate, analyse and disseminate such information in the public domain in a systematic manner, the book becomes an important reference material for a range of stakeholders including data collecting agencies, policymaking bodies, decision makers, groups and individuals striving for the advancement of gender equality. It is sure to facilitate informed public debates, monitor and evaluate the efficacy of various policy interventions, and promote research on different aspects related to the life conditions and relative status of women in society.
Neetha N, Acting Director and Professor in the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, is the editor of Working in Others’ Homes: The Specifics and Challenges of Paid Domestic Work (Tulika, 2018). She has also published extensively in national and international books and journals.