People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 47

November 30, 2008


Gaps In The “Gender Gap Analysis

Brinda Karat

THE gender gap index report 2008 brought out by the World Economic Forum has ranked India a poor 113th out of 130 countries up one point from last year but down 15 points from 2006. The report looks at the four major areas of education, employment including wage disparities, health and politics. Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland hold the top four positions achieving around 80 per cent of the total score. Sri Lanka has the best gender index among all countries in Asia.

Socialist countries do better than their capitalist neighbours. Socialist Cuba ranked 25th in the world is significantly two points ahead of the world super-power, the United States of America which is ranked at 27. Cuba scores much better in political representation with a ranking of 19 compared to a rank of 56 for the United States. The female unemployment rate for women in America at 5.10 per cent is much higher than that of Cuba at 2.2 per cent. Whereas America does better in terms of labour force participation, as far as opportunities for professional and technical workers are concerned, both Cuba and America get the highest score. Whereas Cuba gives 18 weeks paid maternity leave, workers in the United States get 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. Socialist Cuba which inherited a low female literacy rate at the time of the revolution has made the most remarkable progress to achieve a perfect gender parity score in the areas of enrolment in primary, secondary and tertiary education.

Closer home, India is ranked 113th compared to Socialist China that is ranked 57th. China has improved its ranking by ten points over the last year compared to just one point by India. Like Socialist Cuba, China gets the top rank score as far as gender parity in technical and professional services are concerned whereas India in comparison is ranked 101 places behind. Importantly China’s ranking in gender equality in economic participation and opportunity is a 43rd in the world. Discrimination against India’s women in the job market is reflected in the low ranking of 125 that our country gets on the global scale, almost the worst in the world. China has greatly improved its infant mortality rate with 20 deaths per 1000 live births compared to the 57 calculated for India. In bringing down the maternal mortality rates, the health system in China has reduced child birth related deaths of women to 45 per 100,000 births compared to a high of 450 in India. The one area where India leaves China far behind is in political empowerment of women getting a rank of 25 in the world compared to China’s rank of 54. India has achieved a commendable record of being 25th in the world on this score. This is due to the reservation for women in the panchayat system and local bodies. If this system is expanded to parliament and the state assemblies, India will rank first in the world. Both China and India have very poor scores as far as sex ratios are concerned competing for the worst record in the world with China only one point ahead of India ranked 126 compared to India at 127. India may have better legislations against violence against women than China, but, as is known through other official statistics available, the number of cases of violence against women far exceeds those in China. India falls behind countries in our own region. Sri Lanka has one of the best gender indices in the world at 12th place and Bangladesh ranked at 90 is ahead of India. It also tops the list among all Muslim majority countries.

Afghanistan and Iraq are conspicuous by their absence in the 130 countries included in the index. This may not be deliberate on the part of the authors. To obtain facts from countries whose populations are being bombed out is difficult. Nevertheless both these countries were at one time high up on the gender index in terms of education, employment and health of women. Today their women are victims of the cultural prisons fashioned by fundamentalist ideologies on the one hand and by the American occupation and devastation caused by American bombs on the other.

Of those countries surveyed in 2007 and 2008, 87 narrowed the gender gap, while the gap widened in 41. While 24 countries have closed the gender gap in education, no country in the world has achieved total gender parity according to this index. It is true that as a result of women’s assertions in countries across the globe, governments are forced to address issues of discrimination. However, although the report measures some improvement, these are so negligible as to make a mockery of the assurances given by governments at the UN Beijing Conference in 1995, reiterated five years later in the Beijing plus 5 conference in 2000 and once again included in the UN initiated Millennium Development Goals.

Important indicators are not included in the present index. For example the incidence of violence against women has been identified repeatedly by women’s movements as a crucial measurement of gender equality. Women cannot be equal if they are vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence. Analysis of women’s employment should also include an index of safety at the work place from sexual harassment. If such indicators had been included in the World Economic Forum index, developed countries like the United States would have come down further in world rankings. The last decade has seen a huge increase in violence against women across the world but more so in these countries. According to one of the authors of the report, the index “assesses countries on how well they are dividing their resources and opportunities among their male and female populations, regardless of these resources and opportunities.” While this enables a useful gender comparison it becomes limited as it does not assess whether the “resources and opportunities” themselves are increasing or decreasing even relative to that specific country. At a time when the division of global resources becomes more and more unequal between countries as well as within countries between the rich and the poor, gender indices need to be redesigned to include gaps between social classes. This would show that the gap between rich women and poor women is far greater than that between poor men and poor women and that this gap is increasing.

Such indexes are surely not just for academic interest. They should be used as tools to inform and shape government policies. In this context, a narrow reading of gender such as that proposed by the World Economic Forum or by various World Bank reports by delinking from the social and economic context of gender disparity, tend to conceal the crucial issue of who in fact has benefited most by policies which have deprived women worldwide. Even while fighting for gender equality, the global resistance of women, more so in this time of neo-liberal induced crisis and recession requires a close linkage with other movements of the working people for justice.