Where have all the women gone?….

The 15th Finance Commission in India has just been set up and the announcement includes five members. For the fifteenth time, and to no one’s surprise, the Commission is composed entirely of men. The most-recent membership of the Niti Aayog also does not include a single woman in its ranks. And so we have to ask – in this great country of one+ billion, how can the government remain unable to find any woman it deems worthy and capable of serving in these policy and planning capacities? Where have all the women gone?

It seems that our current Government, which has co-opted many good initiatives of past Congress governments and leadership (e.g., concept of Mission, Aadhaar, GST, etc), has left out the most important one: real action in the spaces of female empowerment and gender equality.   Rajiv Gandhi’s Office had Mrs. Grewal at its helm for many years with a large number of senior women in his team.  But today’s PMO has only one woman on staff in a leadership capacity, and that too at the Joint Secretary-level (though there are several more at Director-level and below).

Our current Prime Minister is very fond of ancient history and so this fact may help the cause of my tribe. The recent archeological evidence shows that until 9,500 BCE or until the onset of domestication of agriculture and animals, there was complete equality between men and women. Experts believe that this was because men and women carried out the same tasks of hunting and gathering food. And it is only when specialization led to differentiation in work — i.e., women tended to agriculture or managing house while men continued to hunt — that inequality between the sexes seeped in over time. So perhaps for the modern-day gender crusaders: maybe we should start with equal representation at work to recreate history.

Back in modern day India, it is not just the Finance Commission where we’re seeing gross under-representation of women in senior leadership positions. In 2017, India ranks 139th in World Economic Forum’s gender inequality sub-index for Economic Participation and Opportunities for Women out of a total of 144 countries, ahead only of Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Syria. And omitting women altogether for opportunities like this, where they are elevated to the national stage and have the chance to make a lasting impact on policy, isn’t just confirming fears we all already knew. It’s also an opportunity lost.

Perhaps we’re living in an era of empty words: Because although the government seems to be working overtime to flood the national media with news about India’s improved rankings for World Bank’s Doing Business 2018 index, little publicized fact remains that India’s gender gap specifically for economic participation and opportunities under this government has worsened.

Most of us are too busy to notice the chasm that exists between the “alternative reality” – the world of words spun by the government, a “good” development narrative, or token empowerment for all achievement amplified to the national stage – and our own, everyday experiences. Fifteen successive Finance Commissions with just one single female member (that too in 2009) isn’t just an unfortunate coincidence; it’s a pattern. It’s our reality.

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