Prospects and Challenges in the Indian Context

Published on 2nd December 2010

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Key Points

1. Women in India face a number of difficult practices and customs such as: child marriages, selective abortion of females and caste discrimination.


2. Three key components need to be considered when attempting socio-political and economic changes for women: gender equality, empowerment, and emancipation.


3.  By 2020, the author aims to develop and implement a national agenda for women, which will focus on economic policy, the legal framework, and public policy. Youth will be key activists in implementing this agenda.



Under the Jamun1 tree in my ancestral home, I nestled in my grandmother’s lap as she regaled me with stories full of myths and magic. Like any Indian child, I was brought up by my extended family of aunts and grandparents. I sat wide-eyed as I listened to tales of the valor of the princess as she fought war for her kingdom and won it from the enemies. To append a cliché, the princess won the prince over with her courage and martial skills. It was the story of Chitrangada that fascinated me, a woman equal to man – brave, beautiful, and vivacious. Little did I know that such stories existed only in myths and glorious stories from the past. It was hard to find Chitrangada in the present day India where I lived.

Reality Check – The Insurmountable Barriers

“You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of women.”- Jawaharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of India

Before we speak of women’s empowerment, we need to ask ourselves why development efforts focused on women seem to bypass the intended beneficiaries. Of the 1.3 billion poor worldwide, nearly 70 percent are women. Women also constitute 75 to 80 percent of the world’s refugees and two thirds of the world’s illiterate. The situation in my country is much worse. India holds the last position in the health and survival index and the world’s worst gender ratio. As the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen pointed out, 25 million girls are missing from India’s population every year as they are not even allowed to be born! Almost 70 percent of women in rural India decide what to cook for the family, but they need permission from men to go out and make purchases. Such sexual stereotyping limits the role of woman to a glorified cook and unpaid domestic help, relegating them to a secondary position in the household and in society.

I believe India is a highly advanced civilization in a state of decay, caught in a series of paradoxes. The Indian woman is the victim of doubled prejudice: that of her gender and that of her caste. The traditional Indian society is ruled by the diktats of self-proclaimed caste leaders who are the guardians of the age-old traditions. They have the legitimacy, authority, and social sanction from the villages of India. The unwritten laws of caste are faithfully followed and the burden of honor invariably falls on the women. The medieval notions of purity and chastity that plague my country are anti-democratic and contradict the precepts of human rights. It is in this context of social realities that the barriers facing Indian women need to be analyzed.

The discrimination against a female child begins at her birth. Boys are preferred over girls. As such, female feticide and selective abortions are common in the country. Despite the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Technologies Act, India tops the list of illegal abortions. 90 percent of illegal abortions are performed to eliminate girls in the womb. The misery that pregnant women go through is heart wrenching. Qualified healthcare professionals attend only 42 percent of births in India, resulting in the death of 300 mothers every day. The ordeal that an Indian girl faces prior to and at birth is only the beginning of a lifelong struggle to be seen and heard.

Another crippling social reality is the barbaric practice of child marriages. A UNICEF report suggests that 40 percent of the child marriages in the world happen in India. Girls are pushed into a relationship that they do not understand well before they are grown. Almost half of Indian girls are married off before they are 18. The poorly prepared girls enter into compassionless wedlock, become mothers, and fade into oblivion. They are not given a chance to go to school, finish their education, or dream a life separate from their marriage. While a law is in place to restraint the custom, our society is an enthusiastic participant in the deliberate perpetuation of this entrenched tradition.

People say that marriage is the celebration of love between two people, that women enter the holy portals of matrimony in boundless joy and nervous anticipation. For many of the women in my country, marriage could easily be their death warrant instead. Families arrange marriages, rather than the individuals concerned. Orthodox and puritanical beliefs dictate that the most appropriate match must be decided based on caste, birth, and heredity. Bride price or dowry is an ancient Hindu custom integral to marital rites. What began as a woman inheriting her parent’s share of wealth has degenerated into a pernicious custom. Extortion by the groom’s family has lead to the ruin of daughters and their family. Failure to pay an outrageous bride price has lead to physical abuse, even bride burning. This deeper malaise has led the average family to believe that girls are financial burdens.

In my journey through my country, I have come across customs and traditions unique to particular regions or ethnic groups. In a region in the south of India, there is a custom of Jogini. Girls from the lower castes are wed to the local deity in the village, after which the girl is expected to serve the village by granting sexual favors to men. It is nothing but glorified forced prostitution. Killing the newlywed bride if she marries out of caste is referred to as an ‘honor killing.’ When I look at the average Indian girl, I realize that her life is given to her as alms are given to beggars. She holds out the begging bowl of her life and cherishes the little that others throw at her out of pity.

The family, community, and society are all quintessential factors in an Indian’s life. There is a glaring discrepancy between our laws and social reality. Female empowerment and equality must become a priority for Indians. Unique circumstances call for unique solutions.


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The author, Deepa Kylasam Iyer is a Writer, Researcher and a Published Poet based in the southern coast of India. After graduating with a Gold Medal (First Rank) in Botany and Communicative English, she took up writing to bring stories to a world audience. She has published in ‘Cyclamens and Swords’ (a U.S based Magazine) and her poem ‘Tryst with Destiny’ was included in the Anthology of poems ‘Journeys’ that was released at the Birmingham Book Fair U.K in October 2010. Deepa speaks 10 languages including French, Italian and Spanish and has written and directed a play, ‘The Dream Machine’ in English and French for the Alliance Française, Pondicherry in September 2010. She blogs at


This essay was a winner in the Center for International Private Enterprise's (CIPE) 2010 International Youth Essay Contest. For more information on the essay contest and to read the rest of the winning essays please visit

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