Create jobs, disposable income for rural women, urges expert

The India Express. 10 December 2013

Gender equality and inequality in India. Carol VlassoffA study of a rural Indian village called Gove in Satara district of Maharashtra, spanning over 30 years (from 1975 to 2008), has revealed that funding for family planning, health and education programmes has made great strides. But the final step — creating jobs and disposable income for rural women — has not achieved any significant success.

Demographer and women’s health specialist Dr Carol Vlassoff, in a new book, Gender Equality and Inequality in Rural India. Blessed with a Son, has published the results of the study and said that aid donors to India are going down the wrong path when it comes to bringing millions of rural women into the modern economy. 

“So if India wants to compete in the global economy, a missing piece of the puzzle is getting young rural women to work in the modern labour sector,” Vlassoff said in a release issued Tuesday. 

Vlassoff showed, comparing survey information over thirty years, that employment, specifically of rural women, pays off in other ways as well. 

She found that self-employed and professional rural women were more likely to use contraceptives and delay having their first child than unemployed women with the same amount of schooling. Ultimately, says Vlassoff, this can help slow population growth by increasing the age that women have their first child, and hence, the space between generations. 

A key finding of Vlassoff’s study is that the desire for sons in India has not changed over the years. Although families are now limiting their total number of children to one or two, having a son is still considered essential. Further, couples who only have girls continue having more children than they planned in order to produce a son. While some have argued that sons provide economic security for their parents, whereas daughters move away, Vlassoff did not find this to be the main reason for wanting sons in modern rural society. For example, widows living with sons were no better off financially than those living alone but they still were unhappy if their sons were not taking care of them. Vlassoff found that a preference for sons has emotional and cultural roots that go beyond economic, inheritance and kinship reasons. 

Most rural families expressed great fondness for their daughters, saying that girls were more loving and caring than boys. But girls also meant that parents had to pay huge costs for their marriage. “Whereas having one girl was desirable, a bonus, having at least one son was a must,” she writes. 

Sex determination was a thinly disguised practice in the area, with one full room of a small local clinic dedicated to the “medical termination of pregnancy”. The study found while dowry was legally abolished, it was replaced with other substantial gifts demanded by grooms from the bride’s family. “So,” said Vlassoff, “for poor families, having daughters could mean economic disaster”.