indian women

How much control do Indian women have over different aspects of their lives?

Not much, according to the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS), conducted by the University of Maryland and the National Council of Applied Economic Research in 2004-2005 and 2011-2012.

Only 4.99 per cent of women in India had sole control over choosing their husbands, while 79.8 per cent of women needed permission to visit a health centre, according to the 2012 survey, showing little change since a survey in 2005, when 5 per cent reported having sole control over choosing their husband, and 74.2 per cent reported needing permission to visit a health centre.

The IHDS survey in 2012 covered over 34,000 urban and rural women between the ages of 15 and 81, in 34 Indian states and union territories.

Overall, 73 per cent of the women surveyed reported that their parents or relatives alone chose their husbands, while as few as 5 per cent of women reported to have had sole control over choosing their husbands.

A similar survey for men has not been conducted.

Women need permission to visit a grocery store, healthcare center

Limited control over life decisions extended to visiting a healthcare centre, and a grocery store.

Almost 80 per cent of women said they had to seek permission from a family member to visit a health centre. Out of these women, 80 per cent said they needed permission from their husband, 79.89 per cent from a senior male family member and 79.94 per cent from a senior female family member.

Further, 58 per cent of women reported that they needed permission to visit the local kirana (grocery) store, compared to 44.8 per cent in 2005.

Such restrictions are also echoed in other indicators. For instance, only 27 per cent of Indian women are in the labour force, the second-lowest rate of female labour-force participation in South Asia after Pakistan, as IndiaSpend reported in April 2016.

Women, however, seemed to have control over what is cooked in the house, a decision that 92.89 per cent women reported making everyday. About 50 per cent reported that the husband took part in deciding what to cook, highlighting the gendered nature of household chores.

Since 2005, there has been a decrease in the percentage of women who decide what they cook (94.16 per cent in 2005), and an increase in the percentage of men (40.89 per cent in 2005) who took part in the decision.

A woman’s freedom to make decisions depends on where she lives

More women chose their own husband in states in northeastern and southern India as compared to northern India, as per 2012 IHDS data.

The percentage of women who had sole say in choosing their husbands was lowest in Rajasthan (0.98 per cent), followed by Punjab (1.14 per cent) and Bihar (1.19 per cent). It was the highest in Manipur (96 per cent), followed by Mizoram (88 per cent) and Meghalaya (76.9 per cent).

As many as 65 per cent of the women said they had met their husband for the first time on the wedding day, but wide variations exist across states. For instance, all women in Manipur had met their husband before the day of the wedding, while 94 per cent of women in Bihar met their husband for the first time on the day of the wedding.

This highlights the “arranged” nature of marriages in India, a process in which prospective partners usually meet for the first time with the intention of getting married, after their family vets the spouse-to-be, and the match is backed by the support of their extended social network.

A similar trend in regional variations can be seen in the percentage of women who needed permission to visit a healthcare center. As many as 94 per cent of women reported needing permission to visit a health center in Jharkhand, the highest of any state, while only 4.76 per cent of women in Mizoram needed permission, the lowest.

The top five states, which weren’t necessarily doing well in 2005 like Mizoram, Sikkim, Tripura and West Bengal, have improved since then. However, more women in the bottom five states reported they had to ask for permission to visit the health centre in 2012 as compared to 2005.

Does higher literacy lead to greater decision-making power? Not really

A woman’s power to make decisions regarding marriage, and visits to a healthcare centre are not correlated with literacy at the state-level, or to the sex ratio (the number of females per 1,000 males), suggesting the role of social norms, which might differ by state.

For example, in Chattisgarh, which has one of the highest sex ratios in the country (991), only 7.57 per cent women said they did not need permission from another family member to visit a healthcare center.

This paradox is not being observed for the first time — despite female literacy levels being higher than before, the child sex ratio (indication of son preference) in India is at its lowest since 1951, as IndiaSpend reported in December 2016.

“The bias against daughters can only end if women’s education is accompanied by social and economic empowerment,” concluded a study conducted over a period of 30 years in Gove, Maharashtra, by Carol Vlassoff, a professor at the University of Ottawa, as IndiaSpend reported in December 2016.

In Delhi, which has a literacy rate of 86.21 per cent (higher than the national average of 74.04 per cent), only 2.09 per cent women reported they had sole control over choosing their husband. Meghalaya, which has a lower literacy rate than Delhi (74.43 per cent), ranks third from the top in terms of women who said they had sole control over choosing their husband (76.9 per cent).

“Cultural climate also plays a role”, said Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the Delhi-based All India Progressive Women’s Association, which works on issues such as reservation for women in Parliament and violence against women. “In and around Delhi, there is no doubt a more rigid patriarchal culture that is hostile to women’s sexual autonomy — this may be far less the case in Meghalaya,” she explained.

“This study shows that denial of autonomy is in itself one of the central problems for Indian women. This problem can’t be addressed by literacy alone, and governments need to address the issue directly,” Krishnan added.

Lavanya Gargis a Research Associate with the University of Michigan.