The improvement in the status of Indian women especially after independence can be analysed in the light of the major changes that have taken place in areas such as legislations, education, economic and employment sector, political participation and awareness of their rights on the part of women, etc.
a. Constitutional provision for equality to women:
The constitution of India does not discriminate between men and women. All the men and women of India are equally entitled to individual freedom, fundamental rights including the right to participate in social, cultural, religious, educational, economic and political activities.
The constitution provides for equality of sex and offers protection to women against exploitation. It has given the voting right to women and in no way treats women as second grade citizens.
b. Social legislations safeguarding women’s interests:
The Government of Independent India undertook a number of legislative measures to safeguard the interests of women. Some of them may be noted here.
(i) The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 which prohibits polygamy, polyandry and child marriage and concedes equal rights to women to divorce and to remarry.
(ii) The Hindu Succession Act, 1956 which provides for women the right to parental property.
(iii) The Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956 which gives a childless woman the right to adopt a child and to claim maintenance from the husband if she is divorced by him.
(iv) The Special Marriage Act, 1954 which provides rights to women on par with men for intercaste marriage, love marriage and registered marriage. The Act has also fixed the minimum age of marriage at 21 for males and 18 for females.
(v) The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 which declares the taking of dowry an unlawful activity and thereby prevents the exploitation of women.
(vi) Other Legislations:
(a) The Suppression of Immoral Traffic of Women and Girls Act, 1956 which gives protection to women from being kidnapped and being compelled to become prostitutes.
(b) The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 which legalises abortion conceding the right of a woman to go for abortion on the ground of physical and mental health.
(d) The Family Court Act, 1984, which seeks to provide justice to women who get involved in family disputes.
(e) The Indecent Representation of Women [Prohibition] Act, 1986 which prohibits the vulgar presentation of women in the media such as – newspapers, cinema, T.V., etc.
(f) The 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Acts, 1993 which empower women and seek to secure greater participation of women at all the levels of the Panchayat System.
Women in the Field of Education
After Independence, women of India took to education in a relatively larger number. For example, in 1901, the literacy level of the females in India was just 0.6%; it increased to 54.16% in 2001. This brought down the gap between male and female literacy rates from 28.84% in 1991 to 21.70% in 2001.
Various benefits such as freeship, scholarship, loan facility, hostel facility etc. are being given to women who go for higher education. By making use of the new opportunities, a large number of girl students go for higher education today. For example, in 1950-51 the percentage of girl students pursuing higher education was 10.9% [that is, out of the total enrollment] and this increased to 32.0% in 1992.
In fact, the National Educational Policy 1986 has been in favour of empowering woman through education. It gave a call to remove the gender prejudices by the inclusion of relevant lessons in the curriculum. It promoted the opening of women study centres in colleges and universities.
a. Separate Schools and Colleges for Girls:
In many towns and cities, educational institutions meant only for female children have been established. For example, in 1958-59 there were 146 colleges meant exclusively for women and the number increased to 824 colleges in 1992. The educational performance of girl students at high school and college levels is proving to be better than that of boys especially after 1990s. This performance of girls makes it evident that intellect is not the monopoly of men alone.
b. Women Universities:
The nation has gone much ahead in the field of female education and we have today some universities exclusively meant for women.
(i) SNDT [Shrimathi Nathibai Damodar Thackersey] University for Women [Poona];
(ii) Padmavathi University For Women [Tirupati];
(iii) Mother Teresa University for Women [Kodai Kenal, Tamil Nadu],
(iv) Women’s University, Bijapur [Karnataka], Girl students are getting admitted on merit basis to the prestigious engineering and medical colleges in relatively a bigger number during the recent years. Women have now realised that education makes a lot of difference in the social status of the individual whether they are men or women.
It must be noted here that even though city women are quite conscious of education and its importance, more than 60% of our rural women are still illiterate and only a negligible number of them develop their educational career.
Women in the Economic and Employment Fields:
In both villages and cities there has been a remarkable increase in the number of women going out of the four walls of the household and becoming workers. In the ’employment market’, they are giving a tough competition to the menfolk. In some fields, the number of women employees is steadily increasing.
For example, women working as teachers, college professors, doctors, nurses, advocates, judges, managers, administrators, police officers, bank employees, clerks, typists, telephone operators, receptionists, personal assistants and so on are to be found in almost all major cities.
In big cities, women do not hesitate to work as bus conductors and drivers, police constables, autoriksha drivers and so on. Since 1991, they are being recruited into the three wings of the armed forces namely, military, air force and naval force. In urban areas, women white -collar workers are on the increase since 1970. On seeing the rise of these “new women”, M.N. Srinivas had exclaimed long back that “it is nothing short of a revolution”.
Women in independent India have more rights than their counterparts in many other countries of the world. But most of our women are not very conscious of these rights. Uneducated rural women do not have any awareness of their rights. Prof. Ram Ahuja conducted a study a few years ago in eight villages of a district in Rajasthan among 753 women belonging to different age-groups.
His intention was to assess the degree of awareness and measure the level of satisfaction among women about the rights sanctioned by the Constitution of India. He concluded that the level of awareness of rights by women depends upon the following four aspects.
(i) Individual background of women which refers to their educational level, aspiration level and personal needs.
(ii) Social environment of women which includes the social expectations of kins, husband’s values and family members’ perceptions.
(iii) Economic base of women which refers to the level of class-membership, that is, whether they belong to lower class, middle class or upper class, and
(iv) Subjective perception of women which refers to women’s own feeling and assessment of their statuses and roles.
In Prof. Ahuja’s study more than 75% of women were unaware of their rights; 20% of them did not have any awareness of their political rights; less than 1/3 of women had the chance of inheriting their husband’s property and only 0.5% of them got a share of the father’s property.
On the basis of the above study and some other general observations made by experts, it could be concluded that even today majority of our women are being identified not as independent individuals but only as daughters, wives, mothers or as family members. Women are also not ready for their separate or independent identification. Hence, women are still regarded as belonging to the “weaker section”.
It can also be said that majority of our women [surely more than 50%] are happy with their family life and do not cherish any ambition relating to political and public life. Those earning women members also do not have the full freedom to spend their money in accordance with their own will and wish. Most of the women do not prefer to take decisions on important matters but leave them to their menfolk’s discretion.
Thus, our women are not completely free from the hold of the customs. In the unorganised sector, exploitation of women continues, for they are illiterate, ignorant and unorganised.
In most of the homes male-children are still being preferred to female children. It appears that the societal approach towards women, their role and status has not radically changed.
Hence, bringing about more and more legislations to ensure better opportunities to grant more rights and concessions is of no benefit unless there is a basic change in the people’s attitude towards women and women’s role in society.