India Adopts ICPD Goals,
but Gender Inequality Runs Deep

Box 28


India has adopted a comprehensive national development plan which incorporates the goals of the Cairo and Beijing conferences. Sex-selective abortion has been outlawed. The country’s Family Welfare Programme has increased funding for reproductive health and expanded the range of services. To ensure respect for individual clients, it has set up new rules for family planning programmes that use client-centred performance goals in place of method-specific contraceptive targets. India has also drafted a bill to ensure that women hold at least a third of seats in Parliament and state legislatures.

India still faces formidable obstacles to putting in place a human-centred population policy, however. Women generally continue to occupy a lower social status than men and suffer the effects of poverty disproportionately. Human rights groups report that constitutional provisions and laws intended to protect women’s rights are not always enforced, especially in rural areas.

There is a marked preference for boys over girls, reflected in nutritional and health differentials and a clear disparity between male and female infant mortality rates. Girls tend to receive less breast milk, are weaned earlier, are given less food and receive medical services less frequently. Because they are often malnourished, women are at heightened risk of dying in childbirth. Although 18 is the legal minimum age of marriage, child marriages are still quite common in rural areas. Early childbearing and a high rate of unsafe abortion contribute to the high maternal mortality, estimated at 570 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Dowry giving, although illegal, remains customary. Brides live with their husbands’ families, and often become victims of mental and physical abuse when they fail to meet in-laws’ demands for more dowry after the wedding. Some 5,000 dowry-related deaths were reported in 1993, and many cases go unreported or are attributed to accidents.

Official statistics show an increase in violence against women in the past decade, despite strong laws against it. Wife beating is reportedly widespread. Fearing they will be thrown out of their homes, women are often reluctant to report battering. Reports of rape have risen over the past few years. In court, rape victims are often stigmatized, and their testimony and integrity impugned. Sexual intercourse by a husband with his unconsenting wife is not punishable unless the couple is separated.

Child prostitution is reportedly rampant in India; minors are often held in bondage in brothels. The selling of child brides to foreigners has become increasingly common in some areas.

Source: Human Rights Briefs: Women in India. 1995. Ottawa, Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board, October 1995.