Economics and finance, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | South Asia

10 May 2022

Although India has one of the fastest growing large economies in the world, the recent Union Budget does not do nearly enough to tackle the rampant gender inequities that persist across the country, Phanwin Yokying writes.

In early February 2022, the Government of India released its gender budget alongside the 2022-23 Union Budget, its annual practice since 2005. However, in the context of the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and longstanding gender inequities, this budget was a disappointment, with analysis showing that overall gender budget spending decreased as a proportion of both gross domestic product (GDP) and total expenditure.

Much more needs to be done to improve outcomes for women and girls in India. In 2019, India scored 0.820 in the United Nations Gender Development Index, which was significantly below Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and other lower-middle income countries in South Asia.

Many women and girls, especially members of low castes, can only realise a subset of their basic rights, with access to basic economic, social, and political opportunities remaining unreachable for them.

Nearly one-third of Indian women over the age of 15 have experienced domestic violence. India has a higher number of male births than female births, with strong son preference resulting in sex-selective abortions and female infanticide.

Economic indicators also paint a worrying picture for gender equity, with women’s engagement in the labour market still alarmingly low. The female labor force participation rate was 21 per cent in 2019, compared to 73 per cent for men.

This is, at least in part, because women still bear the bulk of responsibility for household tasks. The amount of time women, particularly those in rural areas, spend on domestic and care work is nearly four times more per day than men.

More on this: India’s women are the key to its future

These issues need to be tackled with effective public policy, but this Union Budget continued the trend of placing gender issues at the bottom of its priority list. Expenditure on women and girls slipped to 4.3 per cent of total budget expenditure, down from 4.4 per cent and 4.7 per cent in 2021 and 2020 respectively.

Approximately 267 billion Indian Rupees will be devoted to schemes that allocate 100 per cent of funds for women and girls, and 1.4 trillion Rupees has been allocated towards programs that dedicate at least 30 per cent of their funds for women and girls. Within the budget, there are some promising initiatives, particularly in education, which was the largest beneficiary. Roughly 18 per cent of the total gender budget is allocated to enhancing access to and the quality of India’s education, with an emphasis on promoting gender parity in terms of enrolment rates, access to learning materials, and learning outcomes.

Increasing the number of girls’ secondary schools and toilet facilities, providing sanitary products, self-defense classes, and free uniforms for girls are among the steps the central government is taking to invest in girls’ education.

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Undoubtedly, these programs have the potential to empower young women and lay the groundwork for more equitable relationships between men and women in Indian society.

Unfortunately though, women’s economic empowerment received significantly less emphasis than education in this budget, and gender-sensitive strategies to explicitly address the underlying causes of low female labour force participation are lacking.

Increased access to essential labour-saving technology and infrastructure, such as electric cooking stoves, piped water and electricity, especially in rural areas, can reduce women’s vulnerability to time poverty.

This would increase their time budget for other essential activities, such as paid work, education and leisure.

Although the Union Budget does allocate funds towards promotion of agricultural mechanisation and infrastructure that might reduce women’s domestic work burden, these initiatives are not gender sensitive and may not be designed and implemented in a way that genuinely benefits women and girls.

Still, the country’s current small allocation of funds for women and girls could yield significant positive results if it is used effectively, and programs are well-designed and carefully and regularly monitored. As such, collection of gender-disaggregated data on targeted outcomes is critical to monitor the performance of the Union Budget with respect to women and girls, and cost-benefit analyses or impact evaluations will be equally important to ensuring that these outcomes are attained.

The dwindling emphasis on gender in the Union Budget will hamper India’s progress towards combating inequalities and developing an inclusive society – gender sensitive policy-making and increased investment by the Indian Government are necessary to reverse this trend.

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