Thursday, December 12, 2013

The changing role of women in India

The three modernisations

The trajectory of a country is about three modernisations: social, political and economic. Social modernisation is about establishing freedom and rights of individuals. Political modernisation is about achieving democracy, where there is rule of law, where State power is dispersed and restricted, where elections generate contestability. Economic modernisation is about achieving a high growth modern market economy, about a government that gets away from expropriation and central planning to a government that is focused on solving market failures.

All three modernisations interact in complex ways and fuel each other. As an example, Milton Friedman's `Capitalism and Freedom' hypothesis is the idea that political modernisation fuels economic modernisation and vice versa. This is a well established idea in the discourse. I find it also interesting to think about the other two legs of the stool: the interlinkages between social modernisation and the other two kinds of modernisation.

The role of women

When we think of social modernisation and economic modernisation, the big thing that leaps out is the role of women. A society that does not respect women is under-utilising half its labour force. We would expect to see a causal impact of greater equality of women upon growth.

We in India are sometimes complacent about the role of women in India. India is famous for having women in leadership roles. In a dinner meeting by Larry Summers, I once said that India was world #1 on one measure of the role of women: the fraction of the top 100 financial firms that are headed by women. I once met Andre Beteille, and asked him: When compared with 1947, in what aspect have things in India worked out much different from what you expected. He said: The role of women in the elite. He said that for upper class women in India today, it's better than even Japan, which is otherwise a very advanced country. The daughters of the elite in India have no glass ceiling, which is better than what we see in most places.

On a population scale, however, things are vastly worse. Paramita Ghosh reports, in the Hindustan Times, on a crime victimisation survey of women with scary results. The India Today survey (link, link) shows us that 79.3% of men believe that marital rape is okay. We don't know how many men in India act out on this belief, but the report Why do some men use violence against women and how can we prevent it? by the United Nations, shows us scary facts from some Asian countries that have men who think similarly to what the Indian data is showing. The Supreme Court ruling of yesterday is a reminder of the distance that we have to go on achieving social modernisation.

Things are changing dramatically with the young

With human capital measures like literacy or graduating high school, a person tends to achieve them when young. If a person has not become literate or graduated high school by age 20, things are unlikely to change later on. Hence, the analysis of the cross section in the population is tantamount to looking at the history: what we see for (say) 50 year olds today is a description of what things were like, 30 years ago, for 20-year olds. Age-specific rates are like rings of a tree.

Literacy of the cohort aged 22.5
(Time-series reconstructed from age-specific rates visible in the cross section)

The graph above shows the literacy of the cohort entering the labour force, which I approximate as being the cohort at age 22.5. The blue vertical line stands for today. This is constructed using the cross-section visible in March 2013 from CMIE Consumer Pyramids, a quarterly panel dataset with 150,000 households covering 700,000 individuals. With children, high literacy rates are found early on, and this yields projections for literacy of the age 22.5 cohort in the future.

We see that overall literacy of the cohort entering the workforce has gone up from roughly 70% in 1990, when India began opening the economy, to roughly 90% today and will go up to 100% in the coming 15 years. In addition, there was a big gender gap, which has been significantly reduced and will fully go away.

Let's turn to high school graduation.

High school graduates in the cohort aged 22.5
(Time-series reconstructed from age-specific rates in the cross section)

It seems shocking to think that in 1990, roughly 7% of the cohort starting off into the labour force, at age 22.5, had passed 12th standard. This has gone up dramatically to 20%. Sharp growth is visible into the future when today's 15 year olds become age 22.5, and there is no gender gap with today's 15 year olds.

The third thing that I want to show from household survey data is the ownership of mobile phones.

Age-specific rates of mobile phone ownership

All of us have been hearing about miraculous growth of mobile phones in India for a while, and have become a bit inured to the story. While a lot has happened, however, a lot remains to be done. The black line shows that with males, roughly 75% of the young and 80% of the old have mobile phones. The work is progress lies in taking this up to 100% for everyone. What's striking is the women. The upper red line, for March 2013, shows that 40% of girls have mobile phones, and this decays to 20% at age 45. On a related note, Avjit Ghosh, writing in the Times of India, talks about a paper by Yvonne MacPherson and Sara Chamberlain which finds that only 9% of adult women in Bihar have ever sent an SMS. There is a high rate of change with mobile telephony, in even the short timespan between the latest data (March 2013) and the first data from CMIE (June 2010) which is the lower red line.


I feel that in the early decades after independence, we had a progressive elite, which was able to bring up daughters well and we made amazing strides at the top. But social modernisation took place only in the elite. For the bulk of the population, attitudes and indoctrination and levels of violence remained neanderthal.

M. N. Srinivas has emphasised the extent to which the rest of society aspires to catch up with the lifestyle and the values of the elite. In the early years, there was little catch up on the treatment of women: the elite and the proletariat coexisted like oil and water. Perhaps budget constraints came in the way of translating aspirations. Maybe poor households shortchanged daughters on nutrition and education and mobile phones and such like, thus encouraging subservience in daughters. In my opinion, the economic growth of the last 20 years is creating a new wave of households within which daughters are growing up differently. Daughters who have high school education and a mobile phone are going to engage with the world differently. As an example, they are less likely to accept sexual harassment and sexual assault. We may now be at the early stages of something very big.

Economic modernisation has created this phase of social modernisation. The rise of capable women who will not be pushed around will, in turn, fuel economic growth because we are then getting a superior labour force. There is an enormous distance to cover. In my opinion, it will be a story spread over two generations (50 years) starting from 2000, through which we will endup with something satisfactory on the role of women. Economic growth will create opportunities for women and for sensibly bringing up daughters, and the rise of capable women will fuel economic growth.


  1. Sir, why is it that India has still not been able to achieve the ever evasive equality of genders? In my opinion it is because of the laws and the way they are framed and implemented. The current laws are heavily biased in favour of women - be it law on adultery (our law simply exonerates a women even if proved adulterous), be it law on financial support, be it law on sexual harrassment or be it the soon to be made law on Irretrievable Breakdown of Marriage (through amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act).
    Equality shan't be achieved till the time such bias exists in any society. It is akin to the laws around reservations. Have reservations helped people from castes who were expected to benefit from them? Similar will be and is the case with laws around women empowerment. What India needs is providing opportunities to women to be independent and not providing easy money through legal sections which is leading to plethora of false cases (evident by only 2% conviction rate).
    I am sure legal system has an impact on all three dimensions that you have focussed on in your post

    1. Bad laws don't help. But, surely you don't seem to imply that they are the cause? The problem has been around before any laws were framed. Its a matter of socio-economic reform as the blog post points out. Laws are largely irrelevant as the change has to happen in daily, common life even before one reaches the point of illegal behavior. Basic things like education and social attitudes are the underlying cause. Female infanticide and social attitudes are problems even before one considers the ineffective laws. In terms of a positive example, the banking sector is a good one as pointed out in the article. Nothing to do with laws there.

      Secondly, a low conviction rate doesn't necessarily imply false cases. Prosecution capability in India is very poor and that must surely be one reason for low conviction rates. Lack of faith in our judiciary and long delays would be another reason why cases will get dropped. Its ingenuous to attribute all the non-convictions to be false cases, even though they might be disproportionately higher than they should be, due to badly framed laws.

    2. lazy investigation and prosecution cannot be compensated by making draconian laws, which do nothing more than burden an already burdened system by promoting false and trumped up cases.

  2. This is a brilliant article Ajay especially given its timing.

  3. High school education & mobile phone will respond differently to sexual harrasment =
    This is the high emotional age for both sexes where adolescents r high in adrenelin n mood swings a stage were people dont think of outcome but r more reactive.

    ex: 2 schoolmates/college gng boy n girl were in luv n frndship. the boy hvng crush on a new girl in highschool.

    this may lead a mental agony fpr a girl n she may file a case of harrasment against boy out of rage/anger

    her one step will destroy boy n his patents n school/institution forever
    welcome to new era of draconian women laws..
    Now women association want a adolescent to be hanged ..

    I hope ur next article gives a true learning of society

    liked ur work though
    good day

  4. The rise of capable women SUPERIOR FORCE = capable women always rose in our society and always been welcomed by capable partners collegues at equal stage (men) Ur the master in history.. for the same.

    Only a CAPALE WOMEN n SUPERIOR FORCE knows that she can make Rs. 5 lac to crores only by

    Superior Force in anger/to benefit
    "he raped me"
    " they demanded dowry"
    " he teased me"
    " he stalked me"
    " he sent me a adult msg" etc

    Only this superior force can send anyome to jail including "u"as ur a MEN only by saying something in anger can puy u as well behind bars

    Time has come when WE society have to RESPECT WOMEN n MAKE EQUAL LAWS for both genders..


    but not
    SOCIAL RISE termed as Superior "FORCE" of women = Economical Rise.

    Mother is the Nature which has duties n responsibilities for every ond we tweek it n u will see imbalance.

    MAy future be kind to mankind
    good article though

    good day

  5. Coin shines on both the sides but the side u see is the one it shines the most

    Man aquitted of raping her collegue "Women said she filed it in anger n fit of rage"

  6. This article restored my faith and hope on humanity, especially in these times when we hear, read a lot of horrible things exerted on woman.

    Thanks Ajay Sir !! :)

  7. Really a good piece...

    But i just want to share one basic question as most of the reader are pissed off with the new laws (definitely raising the power of a woman) and the reservations... I just want to ask... do you think that the recent reservations and laws (within the short period after its implementation) will be able to fulfill the discrimination continued since antiquity ( :P ). Don't you think that before applying the law of equality for both men and women we should reduce the huge gap between the two??????

    And for those who are really irritated with the reservations for women... what is your opinion about the reservation of SC,ST and OBC (That is nothing but actually ruining the whole infrastructure of the society in all its aspects)???? Shouldn't it be on the basis of merit or economic condition of their family????


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