Status of Women (1997)

Status of Women
S.Muthu Chidambaram
Manonmaniam Sundaranar University
Tirunelveli-627 008

This study on the status of women in Tamil Nadu tries to view their past, present and future in terms of the three core indicators viz education, economy and health. The periodisation is done  taking into account the major changes in the policies and programmes which reflect upon the life condition of women in Independent India. Tamil Nadu has a heterogeneous population  with variations in caste, religion, income, occupation etc.  Hence the life condition of average women in Tamil Nadu is taken for this study. More emphasis is given for the condition of women  in rural Tamil Nadu as they constitute a vast majority  in the population.

Education is considered the basic ingredient for improving women’s status and consistent efforts had been undertaken to  provide woman with basic education. While  the urban middle and upper class women availed such opportunities and began  to compete with men at higher educational levels, there  is an increase in the number of illiterate women in the lower socio-economic strata  especially those living in rural ares. However, the literacy rate of women in rural Tamil Nadu began to increase after the changes in policies in programmes on basic literacy for women.  And it is gaining momentum. Though women’s  achievement in  higher levels of education is outstanding  now, sex-stereotyping is strong in the selection of courses.

Considering women’s economic status in Tamil Nadu,  in the beginning women were adversely affected by the policies and  programmes on industrialisation and modernisation. Consequently there was a decline in their work force participation. After 1980 the condition began to improve with new economic policies and  programmes which reflected on their increase in work force participation. Another phenomenon is the educated  women of the middle and upper socio-economic strata entering into the work force. However, the enactment of laws on  women’s property rights did not bring about major changes in their lives.

The health status of women started improving rapidly in the recent years. It is reflected in the increase in age at marriage, life expectation at birth and lower infant mortality and total fertility rates. However, the decline in sex ratio requires serious consideration.

The increased momentum in women’s  educational, economic and health status is encouraging. However, the enactment of laws trying to remove the disabilities on women and the policies and programmes on women’s development did not yield the expected result due to the low  participation of women at the gross root level.  The recent developments in women’s  awakening, uprising, mobilisation and power positions at the gross root level show them a bright future.

 

Over the last thirty years, the world’s attention has been getting increasingly focused on the status and condition of women in society. Their particular concerns and issues, their familial and social positions and their disabilities in the way of their enjoyment of the rights and opportunities have become the subject of development and academic action.

As for India, the realisation to improve the condition of women started in the early 20th century and this ideal formed an important component in social reform movement which was a part of freedom struggle. Soon after Independence, this realisation led to the enactment of a number of laws and constitutional guarantees applying the principles of equality for men and women. The reforms in personal laws governing marriage and inheritance, the labour laws ensuring humane conditions of work, maternity benefits and welfare of workers and the social laws seeking the protection of women and children against immoral traffic and exploitation tried to remove the disabilities that contributed to the low status of women in Indian society. At the same time the policies and programmes for economic and social development initiated by the government attempted positive action to improve and widen opportunities for women to participate in the social processes in a more effective manner. Education, vocational training, health services, family planning and welfare and development programmes sought to change and improve the living conditions and enlarge the mental horizons of women. It was taken for granted that such policies and programmes will trickle down and bring about the desired changes in the life condition of women.

It is generally accepted that a change in the status of women is a good indicator of the pattern and direction of social change. If the direction of that change is towards a more egalitarian distribution of life conditions between men and women in tune with the constitutional directives then the direction of change is a holistic one. If however, the various modernising forces result in an intensification of inequalities then the society is moving away from the constitution. This realisation led to many changes in the policies and programmes for the development of women after 1975.

The year 1975 may be considered a watershed in the development of Government policies and programmes for women in India. In late 1974 the committee on status of woman in India submitted its report, Towards Equality. The report presented the generally disadvantaged position of women, as evidenced by a declining sex ratio, lower life expectancy for women than for men, higher infant mortality for female children, high maternal mortality, declining female labour force participation and higher illiteracy among women. Since then Indian Council of Social Science Research sponsored studies on the neglected sections of women. There was some progress in the field of research and data collection on women. These advances in awareness led to the formulation of certain policies and programmes targeted at women in addition to the existing programmes. There was growing acceptance of the notion that women should no longer be treated as victims to be saved or objects of social welfare. They should be equal and effective participants in different aspects of social processes as partners and leaders. However, it was in 1980s that women were recognised as a separate target group and given the rightful place in developmental planning by including a separate chapter “Women and Development” in the Sixth Plan document 1980-85. Since then all efforts of the Government have been directed towards mainstreaming of women into the National development process by rising their overall status on par with men.

The flow of benefits to women in the three core sectors education, health and employment is kept under close vigil as they contribute to a great deal towards mainstreaming women into national development. This study on the past, present, and future status of women in Tamil Nadu comprising 28 million women is viewed in the context of the above mentioned conditions. Consequently the temporal demarcation is done as follows:

Time                From                To

Past                 1950                 1980

Present             1981                 1996

Future              1997

The status of women in Tamil Nadu is viewed in the light of the basic indicators of life namely education, economy and health. More importance is given for the life condition of average women in rural Tamil Nadu since they comprise a vast majority in the population. However, continuous data on women in various aspects on the above indicators are not available. Hence wherever available, quantitative data are presented and they are interpreted qualitatively.

Educational Status

Consistent efforts that were taken even during the Pre-Independent India as the primary means to improve women’s condition was to provide them with basic education. Education is the basic condition that could not only develop the potentialities and enrich an individual but also it is a means of social change. Efforts were taken even by the pre-independent India by the Christian Missionaries, British government and the social reformers to provide women with basic education. But it did not produce the desired result because of the strong negative social attitude that prevailed during that time. Only 6 % of the girls were literate and only 0.05 % of them were enrolled in higher educational systems. In order to facilitate women’s education in a society that practised sex-segregation and sex seclusion it was in Tamil Nadu that the first women’s college was established a century ago. In such a social context very few women availed such educational opportunities and established themselves in medicine and teaching. Dr.Muthulakshmi Reddi was the first woman doctor in Tamil Nadu who was also a renowned social worker and parliamentarian (Tamil Nadu 1987). However for the social reformers the purpose of educating average Indian women was to make them more capable of fulfilling their traditional roles in society as informed wives and mothers.

Past

The constitution of the Republic of India guarantees equality of opportunity to all citizens irrespective of race, sex, caste and religion and directs the States to provide free and compulsory education for all children until they are 14 years old.

The report of the Secondary Education Commission (1953) made it clear that in a democratic society where all citizens, both men and women, have to discharge their civic and social obligations, differences which may lead to variation in the standard of intellectual development achieved by boys and girls cannot be envisaged. Another committee which examined the differentiation of curricula for boys and girls (1954) wanted to do away with the different curricula for boys and girls and recommended that both men and women should share the responsibilities in home and society outside. Thus, the emphasis on education equipping women to carryout their multiple roles as citizens, housewives, mothers, contributors to the family income and builders of the new society is consistent with the trend of discussions in international agencies on women’s education as a basic ingredient for improving their status.

It is easy to devise programmes but it is very difficult to enroll children in schools and still more difficult to make them attend schools regularly. Later the Indian Education Commission its report (1967) regretted for the failure to achieve the goal and recommended that five years of effective education should be provided to all children by 1975-76 and seven years of education by 1985-86. It also recommended that part-time effective education for one year should be made compulsory for children in the age group 11-14 who have not completed primary level. Table 1 shows the literacy rate for girls and women from 1951-1991.

Inspite of such efforts taken by the government for more than three decades there was disparity between men and women in literacy rates. The 1971 census shows that only 26.9 per cent of the women were literates as against 51.8 per cent of men. Disparity is wider in rural areas, compared to urban centres and more so in the case of girls from Scheduled Castes and Tribes. This results in the increase every year in the population of girl children not attending schools. This also shows that there is a high degree of wastage  and stagnation in the case of education for women.

There are many socio-economic conditions that are unfavorable for girls to avail the educational opportunities offered to them. Most of the girls who are not enrolled in schools and dropout after enrollment are from rural areas and belong to lower income families. This reflects the basic difference in parental and societal attitudes towards the education of their daughters. A majority of the non-enrolled or school dropouts come from families who have very limited income and assets and are low in the caste and occupational hierarchies. Girls of agricultural labourers, small farmers and artisan families are most likely to be withdrawn from school early as well as the daughters of the urban slum families working in low status occupations or in the unorganised sectors (World Bank 1991:113). Their parents are also illiterates and they do not realise the importance of education in the lives of their daughters. The direct cost of education also deter families from sending their girls to schools. Although school education is free, expenses on books and learning materials, uniforms and transport can be a heavy burden on low income families. Another factor contributing to low education levels for girls is the small return anticipated from girls’ schooling. While boys’ education is viewed as an investment in families of low socio-economic status as an old age security for parents, girls are destined to be married into other families and hence yield no return to their parents. Hence even if parents from such families decide to spend on their children’s education, they prefer to spend on their sons rather than on their daughters. Moreover, in such families both the parents work outside to meet their basic necessities. It is their girl children who assist their mothers in household chores and child care. Moreover a substantial number of girls are engaged in various occupations and contribute to their family income. (World Bank 1991:113-115). Out of the total main workers in Tamil Nadu girls constitute 7.06 per cent while boys constitute 3.61 per cent.

The girls in such families who avail primary education are uncertain of continuing their education in the secondary level. After they attain puberty, the sex-segregation practises in the society does not permit them to study in co-educational schools taught by male teachers. When such schools are far away from their residential areas, the problem is aggrevated since the parents are afraid of the safety of their girls. Lack of proper toilet facilities for girls in such schools make the condition more unfavorable for their education. Moreover, the type of education that they receive from such schools are neither directly related to their day to day life nor assure them employment. So neither the girls nor their parents gain benefit by educating them.

The proportion of enrolling students to the students completing education in the schools and in the university system, the proportion of girls in comparison with boys increases gradually at the school final stage and the rate of increase is much faster at the university level. This shows that the gap between men and women narrows more rapidly at the higher level than at the primary and secondary stages (India 1974:256).

Medicine and teaching were the first professions accepted as dignified for women even in the pre-independent India. Women entered into the professions in the early 20th century because of the social necessity to serve women with literacy and health care. However, the women and their families which broke away the tradition by entering into the professions had to fight with the social opposition that existed during that time (Mehta 1982:164). But the dignity of the professions gradually increased and it is well established now. The ideal of service, the romance of healing, high social status and the monitory gains attract women into these professions (YMCA 1981:95: Mehta 1982:132: Lebra 1984:133). The history of medical education in India shows that before an all male tradition could be established both men and women were admitted in medical schools (Lebra 1984:133). The percentage of women entering into medical college shows a progressive increase. Nearly half of them (47.2 per cent) were girl students in 1979. Apart from medicine girl students started entering not only into other courses like law, agriculture, vertinary science etc., but also into the male dominated professional courses like engineering. In due course, the educational performance of girl students has consistently improved and now girl students out number men not only in the percentage of successful candidates in the school final examinations but also in their performance in higher education. Majority of the merit awards are won by them (Kameswaran 1985:191).

TABLE 1

LITERACY RATE IN TAMILNADU

Census Year Total Male Female
1951 20.8 31.7 10.1
1961 31.4 44.5 18.2
1971 39.5 51.8 26.9
1981 54.4 68.0 40.4
1991 62.4 73.7 51.3
1991 (Rural) 54.59 67.18 41.84
1991 (Urban) 77.99 86.06 69.61

 It is worthy of note that the higher education for women is mostly an urban middle class and upper middle class phenomenon.

The sharp increase in the number of illiterate women on the one hand and the rapid expansion in the higher education of women in various fields on the other points to the severe imbalance in the distribution of educational efforts and resources among different sections of the population. Education is a double edged instrument which can eliminate the effects of the socio-economic inequalities but which can itself introduce a new kind of inequality between those who have it and those who do not (India 1974:266).

Present

One of the major recommendations formulated by the report on Status of Women in India (1974) to understand and analyse the suppressed status of women, to trace its origins and manifestations and to grapple with measures for remedying it was education, both towards increasing women’s literacy and knowledge as well as education on women’s concerns.

National Policy on Education (1986 a:1986 b) has accorded top priority for empowerment of women by using education as the basic instrument. The parameters of empowerment have been identified as:

  1. a) enhance self esteem and self confidence of women
  2. b) building a positive image of women by recognising their contribution to the society, polity and economy
  3. c) developing ability to think critically
  4. d) fostering decision making and action through collective processes
  5. e) enable women to make informed choices in areas like education, employment and health
  6. f) ensuring equal participation in developmental processes
  7. g) provide information, knowledge and skill for economic independence
  8. h) enhancing access to legal literacy and information relating to their rights and entitlements in society with a view to enhance their participation on an equal footing in all areas.

In order to attain the above objectives non-formal educational strategies were adopted to spread literacy among the people in lower socio-economic groups. A large majority of the illiterates were women and this system was more suited to them. In 1975 non-formal education enlarged its scope to cover the children of the age group 6-14 who did not find it convenient to attend formal schooling as its beneficiaries. National Literacy Mission contained the components of functional literacy and later it launched Total Literacy Campaigns. Apart from government and voluntary organisations, students of the colleges, animators and retired army officials were involved in the programme. Out of the 23 Districts in Tamil Nadu, this campaign was launched in 11 districts and 3 districts were already declared as Total Literacy districts.

Moreover, in 1991 the total number of primary schools in Tamil Nadu stood at 35603. The gap in the enrollment of boys and girls in the age group 6-14 was also getting narrowed in 1991. In 1981 the percentage of girls enrollment in schools was 49.62 per cent as against 64.99 per cent of boys. In 1991 there were 78.7 per cent girls against 86 per cent of boys enrolled in schools. Primary schools are now available in all habitations with at least 5000 population and with in 1 k.m. distance. As such there is decline in dropout among girls and the following table reveals that:

TABLE 2

SCHOOL DROPOUT 1991

School Dropout Male Female
Primary Level 17% 19%
Secondary Level 35% 44%

 (Tamil Nadu ND:5)

But even today over 30 per cent of the Scheduled Caste girls dropout from primary school. However, Tamil Nadu ranks second in India next to Kerala with regard to educational attainment for girls (Tamil Nadu ND:2).

Though the enrollment of women students in higher education has been increasingly rapid, still there is a long way to reach equality between different sections of women. Among the 68 colleges in Tamil Nadu, 40 of them are located in urban areas. Consequently 58.82 per cent of the girl students study in urban colleges, 26.47 per cent in semi-urban colleges and 14.71 per cent in rural areas. This shows that higher education for women in Tamil Nadu is an urban upper and middle class phenomenon (World Bank 1991:113). This condition is reinforced by the disproportionately large demand for hostels compared to their availability. The demand for hostel accommodation is more in colleges located in rural areas than in urban areas. This is because the rural area colleges cater to the students from neighbouring areas whereas urban area colleges cater mainly to local students (Indiresan 1995:11-14). Moreover, though the number of girl students increases, women’s colleges offer feminine oriented courses rather than non-traditional courses (Indiresan 1995:13). However, the change in social attitude favouring women’s education is remarkable.

In higher education among the four women’s universities in India two of them are established in Tamil Nadu. Mother Teresa Women’s University was established only for the pursuit of Women’s Studies. Another was a Deemed University, Avinasilingam Institute for Home Science and Higher Education for Women.

ECONOMIC STATUS

The status of any given section of population in a society is ultimately connected with its economic position which itself depends on the rights and opportunities for participation in economic activities.

One of the reasons for women’s subjugation and subordination in human history is their withdrawal from productive labour force and their confinement to unproductive labour.

Thus the women in Tamil Nadu, until the early 20th century were confined to their homes and were pre-occupied with their household chores and in bearing and rearing children which do not bring them any monetary return. Their labour is considered as service and women are obliged to perform them in the interest of their families. The cultural norms that influence women engaging in manual labour outside their homes vary according to their position in social hierarchy. Historians and sociologists agree that withdrawal of women from active participation in manual labour outside their homes is a consequence of social stratification. The process of excluding women from labour outside their homes has itself become a symbol of higher social status. At the extremely higher level women are withdrawn even from household labour and also from child rearing. These activities are performed by paid help. Women in the middle strata were contributing their labour in their households in multi various forms. Apart from their household chores and bearing and rearing children, they had been contributing their labour by supplementary and assisting roles in their family occupations. Such was the case in agricultural and artisan communities. But their labour is invisible. The finished product is controlled by men and it is they who control the families by decision making. The women neither realise their contribution nor claim their right over such capital. The middle class norms prohibit them from such claims and expect them to submit themselves to the authority of the male members in their families. Women in the lower socio-economic strata have been toiling both inside and outside their homes for wages. Majority of such women work in agricultural sector. But they are subjected to wage discrimination in the sense they are paid less wages for the same or similar work performed by men. However, it is the women who are the bread winners of their families. While their full earning is spent on meeting the basic necessities of their families, the earning of the male members are spent on their extravagance (Muthu Chidambaram 1972:127). It is a fact that even in such families women do not realise their economic contribution and they consider that they are supported by the male members of their families. Hence the statistics collected even by official sources classify them as non-workers (India 1988c :27:India 1974:152).

The major difficulty in assessing women’s economic status is their visibility in official data. The main strategy to improve their economic condition is to make them realise their economic contribution and to have control over resources.

Invariably among all the religious groups living in Tamil Nadu women are denied of their property rights. The only exemption is a small agricultural caste in Kanyakumari District where women had a claim over their ancestral properties. Even in such families the patrilineal line of descent and patriarchal value system entrust powers with men.

Past

After independence one of the important efforts undertaken to improve the economic condition of women was the enactment of a law – Hindu Succession Act 1956 – enabling women to inherit a share in their ancestral property. Even by the provision of this act, a son was entitled to inherit a larger portion than a daughter. However, women prefer to get dowry from their parents rather than claiming a share in their parental property. Various other acts were passed to safeguarding women working in factories, plantations, etc.. The first Factory Act was passed in 1948 which made crech facility and maternity leave mandatory for women labourers. The Act also prohibited the factories from engaging women in night duty. Such provisions were provided for women working in plantations by Plantation Labour Act 1951. Medical insurance  was provided by Employees’ State Insurance Act 1948. Maternity Benefit Act was passed in 1961 which made special provision for women labourers during delivery and abortion. Equal Remuneration Act was passed in 1976 which provides equal wages for male and female workers who perform the same or similar work.

However, the enactment of such acts to safeguard the interest of workers produced adverse effects rather than benefiting them. Many factories sent women labourers out of their job instead of providing additional benefits. Thus the participation of women in industry shows a distinctive decline after 1961. Another reason for this decline is the transformation of the role of household and small scale industries in the national economy. With the rapid increase in the modern and organised sector the share of household industries declined rapidly. Since they constituted the biggest traditional source of women’s employment outside agriculture, women were the greatest victims in this process of economic transformation. Many of the household industries like hand weaving, spinning, oil pressing, rice pounding, leather, tobacco processing etc., had to face stiff competition from factory production (India 1974:173).

The other reason for the exclusion of women from industry was the technological changes and rationalisation of the process of production which reduced the demand for unskilled female labour force (Mother Teresa Women’s University ND). Hence there was a heavy decline in female labour force participation and it varies for rural and urban areas. The following table shows the picture:

Another phenomenon witnessed during this period was the educated women entering into the labour market. This was the result of women’s higher education and the necessity to meet the demands of increasing prices and higher standard of living. They were mostly urbanities of higher socio-economic strata. Such women who were traditionally confined to their homes began to have not only an exposure to the outside world, but also an independent income. This altered their status both within and outside their families.

TABLE 3

WOMEN WORKERS IN RELATION TO THEIR TOTAL POPULATION

Year Rural Urban
1961 62.19 53.16
1971 21.19 16.40

Present

The status of Women in India report (1974) pointed out the accelerated decline in women’s education, training and employment, decline in women’s development since 1950s and invisibility of women’s contribution in official data. It also highlighted that women were found in least paid jobs working long hours and bearing full responsibility of household work but unrecognised. Shramshakti:Report of the National Commission on Self-Employed Women and Women in Unorganised Sector (1988 c) brought to light many of the problems of women in such sectors. Another document, National Perspective Plan for Women 1988-2000 AD ( 1988 b)shows that there has not been many changes in the employment pattern of women in spite of the efforts to improve their condition. Hence serious efforts were made to change the situation.

The Sixth plan emphasised economic independence for women along with access to health care and family planning services. It stipulated that women were to form at least one third of the beneficiaries. Accordingly various schemes were launched. One was the scheme of Training of Youth for Self Employment (TRYSEM). Another programme intended specifically to help women take up and conduct income-generating activities named Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA) was introduced in 1982. Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) sponsored various policies and programmes on women especially in agriculture. The programmes can be seen to span a continuum from self employment to wage employment as follows:

  1. programmes to promote self employment through subsidized credit
  2. programmes for self employment targeted towards women
  3. programmes for group formation and training in productive skills
  4. wage employment programmes.

Moreover, Women’s Development Corporations were established to provide an institutional base for the promotion of women’s economic advancement especially in identifying, training and facilitating women entrepreneurs (World Bank 1991:161). Apart from that many non-government organsiations started functioning with women as the target group. One such successful organisation is Working Women’s Forum which organised women working in the informal sector. Apart from capital mobilisation the Forum tries to solve many of the personal and social problems of women through participatory approach.

Table 4 shows the work force participation of women workers in Tamil Nadu in 1981 and 1991:

The female work participation rate in rural areas in 1991 is (38.50 per cent) nearly three times that of urban areas. The female work participation rate in rural areas has considerably increased from 33.65 per cent in 1981 to 38.50 per cent in 1991. Though the corresponding rate in urban areas has also increased during this period, the hike is lower when compared with the increase in the rural areas. The low work force participation among women in the previous years was also due to the omission of a large number of women workers who are widely engaged in unpaid workers on farm or in family enterprise. It is estimated that the under reporting was due to the conceptual difference which excludes self employed and unpaid family workers from visible data. Hence efforts were made to include them in 1991 census. The workers are called as main workers if they have worked for more than 180 days in the previous year.

TABLE 4. WOMEN’S WORK FORCE PARTICIPATION IN TAMIL NADU

Category of

Workers

Year Total

Present

Male Female
Main Workers 1981

1991

38.31

40.81

55.85

56.10

22.35

25.13

Marginal Workers 1981

1991

02.42

02.50

00.73

00.29

04.16

04.71

Non Workers 1981

1991

58.21

56.60

43.42

43.61

73.48

70.11

 However, the percentage of women workers in Tamil Nadu are higher compared to previous years and also it is above the national average.

The Table 5 shows the types of occupations that men and women workers are engaged from 1971-1991.

TABLE 5. TYPE OF OCCUPATIONS OF

MALE (M) AND FEMALE (F) WORKERS

Type of

Occupation

1971 1981 1991
Male Female Male Female Male Female
Mines and Quarry

Production

16 84 18 82
Supervision

Maintenance (Home Based)

28 72 38 62 44 56
The above but not

Home based

11 89 15 85 18 82
Consutruction 12 88 12 88 10 90
Trade and Commerce 8 92 9 91.33 8 92
Transport & Communication 4 94 4 98 4 96
Others 18 82 22 78 26 74

(India 1971: 1981: 1991)

 Among the women who are employed in white-collar occupations, they are mostly employed as clerks and typists. They are also found largely in teaching and medicine. This shows, that sex-stereotyping is very strong in the choice of occupations even among the educated employed women.

As for Tamil Nadu it took the lead following Andra Pradesh in enacting an act by which women are entitled to inherit an equal share in their parental properties on par with men. Thus the discrimination that was prevalent in the Act 1956 was eliminated. In spite of it, it is doubtful if women come forward asserting their property rights.

HEALTH STATUS

Women’s health status affects their productivity and thereby their roles in society and development. Health status of any section of a society is directly related to its overall status. In a culture that idolizes sons and dreads the birth of a daughter, to be born a female comes close to being born less than human. Born into indifference and reared on neglect, the girl is caught in a web of cultural practices and prejudices that divest her of her individuality and moulds her into a submissive and self sacrificing daughter and wife. For a vast majority of India’s daughters gender determines their meager share of the family’s affection and resources. Unwanted and unwelcome, girls grow up surrounded by indifference. If the resources are scarce, parents will ignore the needs of the girl to fulfill those of a boy in nutrition, medical care and in educational and employment opportunities.

Eating less than her brother a girl, nevertheless does twice as much work, not only at home but also in the fields and often in kitchen and this state continues throughout her life. The girls are treated as a liability and the parents are particular to shift the burden of their daughters by marrying them off as early as possible. Hence women in Tamil Nadu had more malnutrition, more death rate at all stages of life and low sex ratio. The worst mainfestation of this problem is the practice of female infanticide and foeticide prevalent in several Districts like Madurai, Salem, Darmapuri, North Arcot and Periyar (Tamil Nadu 1993:114)

In such a situation, the health status of women in Tamil Nadu is assessed by some important indicators like age at marriage, total fertility rate, infant mortality rate, expectations of life at birth and sex ratio.

Invisibility of women’s contribution in their families and society at large and associating them primarily as child bearers and rearers have been the main reasons for women’s low age at marriage, high maternal and infant mortality and high fertility rate. Early marriage is both a cause and effect of women’s low status, low level of schooling and formal employment. It denies her opportunities for participation in outside activities. Early marriage invariably leads to early child bearing which is detrimental to the health of young girls who are at considerable risk of malnutrition and are not yet fully grown. It also leads to a high rate of maternal mortality, low birth weight babies, high rate of infant mortality and high fertility rate. Concomitant and prolonged child bearing affects a women’s health conditions adversely (World Bank 1991 :139-141). The indicators like women’s expectation of life at birth and sex ratio are the reflections on the above life conditions of women.

Past

Ever since the attempts were taken to improve women’s status in India, efforts were made to increase women’s age at marriage. After Independence the Hindu Marriage Act 1955 fixed the minimum age at marriage for girls as 18 years. The same was the provision made under Special Marriage Act 1955. Family Planning Programme was launched even in 1950. In the initial stages it attempted to reduce birth rate not in the interest of improving the health condition of women but mainly to control the population growth in India. However it indirectly benefited women by reducing the birth rate though at a slow rate. Moreover, more medical facilities were provided all over Tamil Nadu offering maternal and child health facilities. There was improvement in age at marriage, infant mortality rate and total fertility rate during the period from 1951 to 1971. It is shown in the following Table 6.

While the life expectancy for women improved from 37.23 years in 1951 to 48.5 in 1971 it is significant that the sex ratio declined from 1007 to 978 during this period. This declining sex-ratio is inversely related to women’s social economic value and is against the biological nature.

TABLE 6. HEALTH STATUS OF WOMEN IN TAMILNADU

Year –

Total Fertility Rate

Age at Expectation Marriage of life at Birth Infant Sex ratio mortality per 1000

1000 Male live births

1951

37.23

202

1007

1861

4.5

18.37

38.24

109

992

1971

4.3

19.61

48.50

110

978

1981

3.4

20.25

51.90

104

977

1991

2.2

20.50

58.50

74

974

  (India 1951;1961;1981;1991; Goyal 1983)

Present

The alarming trend in declining sex ratio in the population was pointed out by the report Status of Women of  India in 1974. Hence many programmes were launched taking women and children as the target group. One was the change in the concept of family planning as family welfare programme incorporating health and medical services for mother and children. Rather than pursuing a segmental approach, a holistic approach was undertaken to improve women’s literacy, economic condition and health. In recent years, evidence has emerged which shows a close relationship between female education, small family size and improvement in the survival, health and nutrition of both the mother and her children. There is considerable evidence from around the world that women’s employment has the potential to benefit household nutrition through increasing household income especially among lower socio-economic categories where women’s income is the primary resource for the basic necessities of their families. Women’s education and employment may also exert influence on household nutritional status by increasing women’s decision making power (World bank 1991:132-135). Hence many such programmes were combined with functional literacy, economic development and empowering women. Moreover, specific programmes were launched to improve the health of women and children in particular. Among all the health and nutrition programmes operating in the state at the grass root level, mother and child health programmes which emphasise integrated approach to child development need mention. These programmes provide a combination of services to the pre-school children and pregnant and lactating mothers. They have components like:

  1. supplementary nutrition
  2. immunisation
  3. health checkup and referral services
  4. non-formal pre-school education
  5. nutrition and health education for women

Some of the programmes are Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) introduced in 1975-76, Tamil Nadu Government Nutritious Meal  Programme (TNGNMP), Tamil Nadu Integrated Nutrition Project (TINP)- 1980, Danida Assisted Health Care Project (DANIDA)-1981 and Tamil Nadu Government Nutrition Meal Development Project (MUDP).

Such programmes contributed to a significant decline in malnutrition. The immunisation programmes reported full coverage resulting in a significant decline in the number of polio, neonatal, tetanus and measles cases. A total number of 1385 primary health centres and 8651 sub centres were established in the rural areas in Tamil Nadu to cater medical services.

There is a remarkable improvement in women’s health status during the past two decades. Tamil Nadu succeeded not only in reducing the infant mortality rate in general but also the infant mortality for female children in particular. The infant mortality rate for female children is less than that of male children starting from 1981. The Table 7 shows the infant mortality rate for rural and urban male and female children:

TABLE 7. INFANT MORTALITY RATE IN TAMIL NADU 1981

Total Male Female
Average 104 114 93
Rural 116 129 103
Urban 78 84 71

 

This shows that infant mortality rate for female children is more in accordance with the biological nature than due to social neglect. In the same way Tamil Nadu succeeded in reducing the fertility rate. Tamil Nadu ranks second in India next to Kerala in fertility. As for the mean age at marriage for girls, there is a greater increase in the mean age at marriage for girls in urban areas than in rural areas. And Tamil Nadu ranks second in this aspect also next to Kerela. For the first time in the history the expectation of life at birth for women execeeded that of men which is once again in accordance with the biological nature. However, the data still shows a declining sex ratio which needs severe consideration.

This shows that the cultural preference for sons and bias against daughters is still deep rooted in society which mainfests in their neglect and consequent higher mortality which are not reflected by the health indicators studied.

FUTURE

The study points out increased momentum in improvement in educational, economic and health condition of women especially after 1980’s. However, the target level always lagged behind its achievement. In respect to the status that is accorded to women by law and by the constitution there is a gap between theoretical possibilities and their actual realisation. As the Status of Women in India Report (1974, 280-281) rightly points out, the deep foundations of inequality of the sexes are built in the minds of men and women through a socialisation process which continue to be extremely powerful. The drawback of the programmes is that the policies were framed from above and executed in the form of programmes through government missionaries without much awareness and participation from the target group viz women. In order that such programmes are effective the effort should start at the gross root level with increased awareness regarding its rights and responsibilities and the active participation in developmental activities.

Awareness and education are considered the basic requirements in this direction. It is widely accepted that every woman should be made literate and empowered with knowledge not only to be a better mother but also to be able to take control of her own life.

Hence the increased momentum in the rate of literacy among women in Tamil Nadu shows them a better status in future.

Another unprecedented opportunity to empower women at the gross root level is offered by the 73rd constitutional amendment, the Panchayati Raj Act 1992 and by the 74th amendment for urban local bodies. The act gives the elected village and urban councils control over a wide range of social and developmental activities of the government. As per the provision of the act, the Panchayat members are to be elected  and one third of the elected members should be women with similar proportion in leadership positions. Scheduled Castes and Tribes are to have representations in proportion to their population. The panchyat elections were held in Tamil Nadu in October 1996. It is too early to judge the achievements of such an elected body. However, the successful functioning of elected women members in other states where panchayat elections were held a few years back provides additional hope for a better future for the women in Tamil Nadu. Moreover, policies are being framed to reserve one third of the seats for women in State assemblies and parliament. This may enable more women to have control at higher levels in decision making bodies.

Apart from the autonomous women’s organisations mobilising women and fighting for womens causes from 1980s sporadic and voluntary uprising of women in villages at gross root level against the social evils that affect their lives are often reported. One such incident that was recently reported in Tamil Nadu was women’s success over fighting against alcoholism in their village. The precedence set by women of Andra Pradesh in completely wiping out alcoholision by their mass mobilisation and participation in some of the districts gives hope that more improvement could be foressen in the status of women in Tamil Nadu by their united action.

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S. Muthu Chidambaram:

Reader in Sociology Department.  Specialisation : Sociology of occupations and professions, women’s studies, Folk lore.  Four Books published.  Thiruppur Tamil Sangam  Award.   Tamil Nadu State Award, N.C.C. Officer.  Countries visited : Spain, Germany, Australia, Singapore.