Seven Kinds of Deprivation That Women Face Everyday

Patriarchal structures have ensured that women’s access to resources, health, education, and political representation among other things, have remained heavily unequal.

When you search for women and access on the internet, most of the articles that show up have to do with women’s access to safe sanitation. This betrays a larger tendency to cloister women and their issues and treat them as separate from the larger set of issues that society faces. Women face several kinds of lacks of access everyday. But these inequalities are often, not studied as part of a larger problem. 

Patriarchy decides who has access to what, because it defines the relationship between men and women. Therefore, “small” inequalities, such as women setting aside the better part of the available food for men, can have a domino effect and precipitate into other forms of inequality. The differential levels of access that men and women have to material and social resources are the result of these patriarchal social norms which are conventionally thought of as normal and customary. 

Generally, in India, policies have failed to adopt a gendered consideration that takes into account the differential needs of men and women when it comes to how they use resources. Attempts to reduce inequality have remained quantitative, which places men and women on the same platform and assumes that they will benefit from the policy equitably. This, therefore, disregards the inherent social inequality that exists between the two genders. Most policies take the household as a basic unit of measurement, because of which, these policies tend to subsume women, their identity, and their needs, under that of men. However, because the kind of work expected of men and of women is different, their resource needs are also different. Yet, policies that are formulated to improve access fail to take this into consideration. 

In this reading list, we enumerate the multiple dimensions in which women are not given access.    

1) To Clean Energy

The kind of energy needs that men and women have is different, but this is rarely taken into cognisance when formulating policy. As M Manjula has pointed out, India’s energy policy has focused on household electrification rather than the provision of clean cooking fuel. But it is women, who, because of the gendered nature of work, have to cook. In the absence of clean cooking fuel, they are forced to cook with firewood, charcoal, etc, because of which their health is often affected. She argues that though the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana has tried to provide women with LPG cylinders, “the low refill rates reported across the states are a cause of worry for the long-term sustainability of the programme.” 

These programmes have been implemented with the implicit assumption that benefits of electricity are gender-neutral, while more often women and men have differential use of electricity even within a household. Women prioritise electricity for drudgery reduction in household chores, while men prioritise it for running television and charging mobile phones. 

2) To Nutrition

Even in the manner in which household resources are divided, women suffer from a lack of access. For instance, Sohini Sengupta has found that women are rarely able to access the kind of nutrition they need, particularly in food-insecure households, because they are conditioned to focus on the well-being of children and men, which means that they often forego the better among the available nutritional options themselves. This naturally affects their overall health. 

Elderly women’s opinions about household resource allocation prevailed, and they exercised control over younger women’s decisions about childbearing, childcare and food practices. The relatively early age of marriage and fewer years in school help to perpetuate this unequal relationship. In many cases, older women’s advice around diets and childbirth and care might contradict the information given by government health workers, leading to partial or absence of compliance with government programmes. While women are a focus of nutrition policy and intervention, a narrow focus on “maternity” and insufficient attention to gender inequalities and household poverty may limit the effectiveness of maternal and child health strategies.

3) To Health

Even though gender norms structure work in ways that make women more vulnerable to poor health, families are often reluctant to spend very much on women’s healthcare. Manasee Mishra and Arnab Mandal have pointed out how the household is a site of inequitable distribution of resources, especially when it comes to healthcare. 

It is in cases of “extreme and incapacitating ill health” that women in the poorest households get hospitalised (Mishra 2006: 30). However, services accessed for females “are usually the ones that are convenient and cheap,” and the facilities accessed are those that are “cheaper and/or closer to the place of residence” (Mishra 2006: 31). The average expenditure per hospitalisation is lower for females in both urban and rural India, and in public and private hospitals (NSSO 2016: 45). 

4) To Water

Women’s involvement in the procurement of water is left out of the purview of the national water policy. The primary problem with this is that it invisibilises the amount of time that women spend in the procurement of water. As Tanushree Paul writes, in rural areas, women often have to travel long distances to access a reliable and clean source of water. On the other hand, in urban areas, they have to stand in long queues for hours on end. She argues that since this work is customarily allotted to young girls, they are compelled to spend their time away from school. Furthermore, she talks about property rights that also affect women’s access to water. In India, all surface water (such as lakes, ponds etc) belong to the government, but groundwater can be owned by individuals. But the number of women who own land or property is far lesser than men, which means that fewer women are able to own groundwater. 

However, the NWP, 2012, primarily focusing on increasing groundwater availability through hydrogeological interventions, fails to make even a perfunctory reference to social equity concerns in this context, let alone talk about gender. Empirical evidence from India suggests that women’s limited access to groundwater is further complicated by the development of informal groundwater markets in India for the sale of irrigation water, and of urban markets for the distribution of domestic water (Sarkar 2011). Given that women do not have property rights/ de facto control over property, and lack the ability to pay, they remain in a marginalised position.

5) To Education

As outlined in the previous section, we know that women’s access to education is already limited because of the gendered nature of work. But even when women are sent to school, is the kind of education they have access to qualitatively the same as men? Divya Vaid argues that a woman’s academic acumen rarely decides what disciplinary choices or educational options she can access. Women do not get to exercise much choice in what they study and up to what level. Consequently, disciplines get gendered owing to social attitudes as more and more women are pushed away from studying science. 

The fact is that a large majority of women may be deprived of exercising free options at the school level (eg, being discouraged by family to take up science subjects) or not being sent to expensive private “good quality” schools. After schooling they may not be provided the financial investment in coaching/tuition for entrance tests (eg, there is now an entrance test for coaching classes for IIT entrance tests) because they are very expensive and women, after all, are not socially expected to work and earn before marriage. Discipline boundaries not only limit choices, they are also dependent on the future options of “life chances” of women. For example, even though higher education for young women is taken for granted nowadays among the upper and middle strata in the cities, it is still not viewed as an immediate investment in their careers. 

6) To Financial Institutions

The inability to access quality education might translate into lower financial literacy for women. Pallavi Chavan has also found that women are generally disadvantaged in terms of access to banking services, irrespective of whatever criteria their access is measured by, such as the number of accounts, amount of loans, irrespective of rural and urban areas. Gender can be seen to be playing a decisive role even in terms of access to credit. 

Agriculture, the largest employer in India, has seen growing féminisation of its workforce in the recent years. In 2007, women formed about 40% of the agricultural workforce in India [ncw 2008]. According to the population census of India, in 2001, women constituted' about 33% of the total cultivators in India as compared to 20% in 1991. Despite their growing importance in the agricultural sector, women received on an average only 6% of the total direct agricultural credit in 2004-06. The remaining 94% of direct agricultural credit was given to men, who formed about 67% of the total cultivators.  

The 2018-2017 Economic Survey had a separate section titled “Gender,” but according to Rahul Lahoti’s analysis, “the typical stereotypes on gender were still prevalent among policymakers at the highest level.” He argues that the survey seems to presume that economic development will be a blanket solution for gender inequality, without suggesting specific policy measures that take into consideration the social relationships that perpetuate gender inequalities.  

The ES claims that the improvement in most gender indicators for a unit increase in wealth is higher in India than in other countries. The survey concludes that “even if India is lagging in development time, it can expect to catch up with other countries as household wealth increases” (Economic Survey 2018: 109), but this does not stand upon deeper scrutiny. If the increase in the level of household wealth really reduces gender inequality then one would expect that richer states that have higher average household wealth would be more gender-equal than poorer states. But no such relationship is shown in the survey itself. Richer states like Delhi and Haryana perform worse than poorer states. So, it is clearly not the case that increase in levels of household wealth leads to gender equality. 

7) To Space

Given the limited access women have to education and credit, their ability to be financially independent is also stymied. Consequently, their ability to access public spaces suffers. 

From his study of rural Haryana, Prem Chowdhry writes that the existence of “male spaces” is a good indicator of the strength of patriarchy in a society. He argues that when men and women do not have equal access to a space, the latter are seen as illegitimate occupants of that space. Because of this differential access, women are subjected to violence in public spaces which also acts as a deterrent to keep these spaces “male spaces.” When women access these spaces, the reasons for them doing so need to be clear and justified. They cannot be free and purposeless as when men access these spaces. For instance, women, especially in rural India, cannot inhabit public spaces for leisure.

Despite this association of productive work essentially with men and not women, men can be seen to have ample leisure time in the rural areas. And if leisure can be taken as a form of capital then it is apparent that women have less of it, have reduced access to it, and are less able to negotiate their activities with it (Whitehead 2002: 140-43). Men on the other hand are given to observing certain social norms and practices for their leisure which are all-male, like hukka smoking, sitting round the fire in winter, card-playing, or playing popular all-male sports, as well as drinking alcohol, especially visible in the increasing numbers of sharab ke adde (liquor joints) and dhabas (local eateries). Being strictly male-oriented these have tended to enlarge the nuclei of male assemblage in the public spaces. The constant presence of so many men reinforces the ideology of segregation of sexes, control of female mobility and dominance of men. 


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