In pursuit of gender equality: Interpreting India’s changing sex ratio & strategies to adopt

While recent improvements are noteworthy, we are far from winning the battle for gender equality

By Aarushi Jain
Published: Tuesday 31 October 2023
Photo: iStock

International Girl Child Day was celebrated recently on the theme ‘Invest in Girls Rights’ and the first and foremost right is the right of birth. 

The sex ratio of a country serves as a crucial yardstick to measure gender equality. It directly mirrors the status and well-being of women, serving as a barometer of societal attitudes towards gender. 

Changes in the gender composition of a population echo the complex interplay of societal, economic and cultural factors in place. 

Gender equality is a cornerstone of comprehensive socio-economic development, reflecting a society’s commitment to fairness and inclusivity.

With its diverse and vast population, India has been grappling with gender disparities. According to the 2011 Census, the country’s sex ratio was 940 females for every 1,000 males. This statistic exposed a noticeable gender bias, indicating that the female population was disproportionately smaller than males. 

The child sex ratio at 914 was even more alarming, reflecting deeply ingrained societal norms that favoured male offspring. It was evident that concerted efforts were needed to counteract these biases and create a more equitable society.

Closer look at NHFS-5 data

The 2019-21 Family Health Survey Data (NHFS-5) offered a glimmer of hope. It hinted at positive changes in the overall sex ratio, suggesting that the collective efforts of the government and various stakeholders were beginning to bear fruit. 

However, it is important to tread with caution when interpreting this data. While improvements are noteworthy, we are far from winning the battle for gender equality. Challenges persist and a deeper analysis of the numbers is necessary.

The Child Ratio at Birth (CRB), at 929 as per NHFS-5, remained below the WHO’s natural ratio at birth (952). This indicates that despite advancements, India is yet to reach the desired level of gender parity. 

Moreover, it is essential to consider the accuracy of the NHFS data. This survey, based on a sample of 636,699 households, may not fully capture the complexity of the nation’s demographics. 

For a more accurate picture, we await the forthcoming national census, which will provide a comprehensive overview of sex ratios nationwide.

To understand the full context, it is necessary to consider the external factors that could influence these data trends. The COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdown measures undoubtedly played a role in shaping these results. The dynamics of migration and reverse migration in response to the pandemic likely impacted the sex ratio statistics.

Multifaceted approach to gender equality

Comprehensive strategies for gender equality in India should encompass a multifaceted approach. First, there is a need to focus on districts where significant gender disparities exist, ensuring intensive interventions to efficiently allocate resources and efforts. 

Additionally, prioritising cities with low child sex ratios is vital, as urban areas often pose unique gender-related challenges and specific actions are essential to address these urban-centric issues. 

Moreover, promoting public discourse and awareness through discussions, conferences and debates plays a pivotal role in raising awareness and inspiring positive change. Innovative approaches, tailored to local conditions and sensitivities, are key to initiatives like Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, ensuring that strategies resonate effectively with local communities.

Engaging local communities in the development and growth of girl children fosters a sense of collective responsibility and action. Launching comprehensive communication campaigns advocating for girl child development and education can public support and raise awareness, while challenging deeply ingrained gender stereotypes and social norms through education and awareness programs is central to changing mindsets. 

Lastly, empowering local governing bodies and community groups to act as catalysts for social change at the grassroots level ensures sustainable progress, as they can tailor strategies to their community’s unique needs, making the efforts more effective and relevant. 

These comprehensive strategies form a multifaceted approach to addressing gender disparities in India, aiming to promote gender equality and empower women and girls throughout the country, fostering a more equitable and inclusive society where all individuals have equal opportunities and rights, regardless of their gender.

Government of India programmes like ‘Mission Shakti’ encompass various components aimed at protecting and empowering women and schemes like ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ have played a pivotal role in addressing the gender disparity in the country. 

The broader focus remains on addressing disparities in child sex ratios and challenging deep-seated norms and stereotypes perpetuating gender biases.

To improve sex ratios and promote gender equality, a multifaceted approach is essential. First, legal reforms and women’s empowerment are vital. Strengthening the legal framework with gender-sensitive legislation, promoting economic empowerment, and ensuring property and inheritance rights for women are key elements. 

Second, implementing gender-responsive education policies is imperative. This involves developing curricula that challenge stereotypes, fostering safe and inclusive school environments, and providing scholarships and incentives to encourage girls’ participation in education. 

Finally, creating public awareness and cultural change is imperative. Regulating media and advertising, engaging communities to challenge harmful practices and involving men and boys as allies in the fight for gender equality can drive societal change. 

These three policy options should be interconnected, and continuous monitoring and evaluation will be crucial for their effectiveness in addressing gender inequality and unbalanced sex ratios.

The initiatives are integral to a broader national effort to promote gender equality and empower women and girls, setting a course for a more inclusive and equitable society where all genders have equal opportunities and rights. 

In conclusion, pursuing gender equality in India is an ongoing journey marked by progress and persistent challenges that need to be continuously addressed. 

Aarushi Jain, policy director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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