The Big Story: The dreaded modern woman

“Modern Indian women want to stay single, are unwilling to give birth even after marriage and desire children by surrogacy.” With these remarks made on the occasion of World Mental Health Day, Karnataka’s health minister Sudhakar K, who holds a medical degree, sparked a storm. “Atrocious, misogynist and sexist”, said Swaraj India. “Regressive”, added state Congress chief DK Shivakumar.

The 48-year-old Sudhakar hastened to clarify that his words had been taken out of context. He had relied on a 2020 YouGov-Mint-Centre for Policy Research survey which found that one in four young adults don’t want to get married, and another 19% had no interest in having children. Since the survey does not — by and large — make a gender distinction, it’s hard to understand why the minister would.

Quick reality check: Women all over the world face a “motherhood penalty” — the reason why they often quit work mid-career to take care of children. “Having a young child in the home depresses mothers’ employment,” found a March 2017 World Bank policy paper by Maitreyi Bordia Das and Ieva Zumbyte. The paper found a stark difference between the labour force participation of women with no children, and those who had at least one child under the age of six.

But motherhood is not the only factor that keeps women away from employment. A 2018 report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) looked at 90 countries, and found not even one where housework is equally divided between women and men. In India — as in much of South Asia — the gap is particularly large. According to the 2019 National Sample Survey (NSS) report on time use, Indian women spend an average of 299 minutes a day cooking, cleaning, caring for husbands, children and the elderly, fetching firewood and water — all essential, but unpaid, work. Men, on the other hand, spend 97 minutes a day on this work. And it is this unpaid care work that is the “main barrier to women’s employment”, found the ILO study.

Instead of lumping together all single women under one umbrella — the dreaded “modern” one — he should have been better informed (ANI)
Instead of lumping together all single women under one umbrella — the dreaded “modern” one — he should have been better informed (ANI)

Instead of making sweeping generalisations on “modern women” (in which other era did Sudhakar expect to find the women of modern India?) and questioning her agency on when to get married or have children, it might have been more useful to hear from the minister on plans and policies that would enable women to continue in the workforce, thereby boosting the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as well.

Instead of lumping together all single women under one umbrella — the dreaded “modern” one — he should have been better informed. India is home to the world’s largest number of single women, but this is not a homogeneous group. Categories include those who have never been married, and those divorced, widowed, and abandoned. It would be instructive to hear from the minister on how his government plans to help these women by way of working women’s hostels or an increased number of shelters for abandoned and destitute women.

A little knowledge, as the cliché goes, is a dangerous thing. But the minister is not the first to put both his ignorance and misogyny on public display. He joins a long list of worthies that include Mulayam Singh Yadav (“boys will be boys”), and even Ram Manohar Lohia who once dismissed Indira Gandhi as a goongi gudiya (dumb doll).

Stories you might have missed:

Gendered digital divide: This year, International Day of the Girl Child on October 11 focused on the gender digital divide. The day assumed special importance in the wake of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on girls and women. Girls, for instance, have far less access to digital devices than their brothers, and so, are less likely to be able to attend online classes. An end to education, for many, means early marriage.

Khushi, a student of class 9 attends an online class (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
Khushi, a student of class 9 attends an online class (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)

Women leaders: It wasn’t all gloom and doom. To celebrate the day, as many as 30 girls took over influential leadership positions at embassies, high commissions and corporate bodies.

Sons rise: A strong preference for sons, declining fertility, and the availability of sonographic scanning are reasons why India’s sex ratio at birth has only become more skewed towards boys over the past few decades, finds a new study by the United Nations Population Fund.

Gender pay gap begins at home: Wives don’t earn as much as their husbands, finds the first global survey of intra-household wage gender inequality, reports BBC’s Geeta Pandey. Conducted by the Centre for Public Policy at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, the study found that even in the richest and most developed countries, wives do not earn as much as husbands.

But, when wives do earn more than their husbands, they are more likely to face domestic violence, finds another unrelated study, reported by IndiaSpend.

Women of the world:

The building blocks of gender equality: Lego, the world’s largest toymaker, has announced that it will work to remove gender stereotypes from its toys, after a global survey commissioned by the company found that attitudes to play were unequal and restrictive. While girls were becoming more confident, the same wasn’t true of boys, 71% of whom said they feared they would be made fun of if they played with “girls’ toys”. Read the survey conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media here.

In an unrelated development, a new California law will force large retailers to have non-gendered toy sections by 2024.

Students celebrate International Day of the Girl.
Students celebrate International Day of the Girl.

Mind The Gap is a weekly column that adds perspective to the gender developments of the week.

That’s it for this week. If you have a tip or information on gender-related developments that you would like to share, write to me at: [email protected]

Namita Bhandare writes and reports on gender

The views expressed are personal

Marika Gabriel contributed to the making of this page.

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