Hard times hit vulnerable sections of a society the most. Two recent global studies are timely reminders that gender inequalities, which persist in varying degrees across the world, are a dampener on economic growth, and that they should not be overlooked in the looming global economic downturn. The reports, one by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the other by the World Economic Forum (WEF), differ in their approach to this global reality, but agree on the p oint that there are compelling economic advantages flowing from the empowerment of women. The crisis, as the UNFPA report— “Reaching Common Ground: Culture, Gender and Human Rights” — points out, is both “widespread and deep-rooted in many cultures.” The inequities are shocking. Nearly 60 per cent of the world’s one billion poorest people are women and girls; 66 per cent of adult illiterates are women, and 70 per cent of the out-of-school children are girls. The UNFPA advocates giving due regard to cultural sensitivities while addressing gender inequities. At the same time, it makes clear that this does not mean the “acceptance of harmful traditional practices.” One area in which its suggestion has direct relevance is maternal health. In India, the percentage of births under the supervision of skilled attendants is a mere 47 per cent, compared with the global figure of 66 per cent. The National Rural Health Mission can make a meaningful intervention by mainstreaming cultural sensitivities in its approach.
The WEF’s “Global Gender Gap Index” places India at an abysmal 113 among 130 countries. Its rank is even lower in three of the four sub-indices — economic participation and opportunity (125), educational attainment (116), and health and survival (128); but it scores high (25) in political empowerment. The report brings out the correlation between gender equality and the economic performance of countries and, in the current economic climate, warns that “investment in gender equality, along with other important global challenges, may fall.” In the Indian context, an important area where the approach indicated by the two reports can make a difference is in correcting the bias against the girl child. This year’s Economic Survey points out that the incidence of female foeticide is higher in urban-educated, prosperous classes and in States with low sex ratio. India’s multi-dimensional strategy to ensure the rights of a girl child to be born and to survive will benefit from these reports. Culture-specific approaches that emphasise economic advantages of empowerment make for a better and more effective strategy to bridge gender gaps.