POLICE in Haldwani, a small town where the Gangetic Plain bumps against the Himalayas, shrugged when Kamini Sen lodged charges against her husband last October. What could be more ordinary than wife-beating and dowry extortion? The case got hotter when the 29-year-old, who holds masters degrees in both English and psychology, added that her spouse had also secretly married a younger woman. But only the final twist, revealed later when police tracked and caught Krishna “Sweety” Sen, shocked India. The two-timing swindler, said to like cursing, smoking and motorbikes, confessed that he was not a man but a woman.

Growing numbers of Indian women are, like Ms Sen, breaking traditional gender barriers. India’s defence and foreign ministers are women. A woman recently stepped down as head of its biggest bank. There have been a female president and prime minister, as well as female chief ministers in various states. Women are becoming better educated, better paid and healthier than they were. Literacy among 21-year-old women leapt, for example, from 60% in 1990 to 85% in 2011.

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Yet traditional practices still hold Indian women back. The problem is not just specific customs, such as the payment of dowries or living with in-laws. Deepa Narayan, a development consultant, argues in a new book titled “Chup”—meaning “be quiet” in Hindi—that women across social classes are still conditioned from early childhood to be subservient.

Indian women suffer handicaps at every stage of life, starting with birth. Although determining the sex of a fetus has been banned since 1994, and in spite of an intensified campaign to stress the value of daughters under the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, parents wanting sons have continued to find ways to abort girls. The skewed sex ratio for newborns has not improved since Amartya Sen, an economist, calculated 28 years ago that India had some 40m “missing women.” In recent years it has got worse (see chart 1). In some districts the sex ratio at birth has fallen below 800 girls for every 1,000 boys. Disturbingly, too, widening gaps occur in some of India’s richer regions, suggesting that rising income enables more parents to act on their prejudices.

Girl glower

The Indian government’s authoritative annual Economic Survey posits another alarming figure: the country may have an additional 21m “unwanted”—and often neglected—female children. This number was reached using research conducted by two economists, Seema Jayachandran of Northwestern University and Rohini Pande of Harvard, who examined the order of births. They found that the last child born to Indian families is far more likely to be male, since sex preference prompts parents to keep trying until they have a boy, and then to stop. In Indian states with a strong preference for boys, the Economic Survey calculates that, when a firstborn child is the last a couple has, the likelihood that it is male stands at nearly 2 to 1. The figure for “unwanted” girls was calculated using the gap between normal sex ratios at birth and the actual sex ratio for families that had more than the average number of children—very likely because they kept trying to have a boy.

Being “unwanted” can be measured in other ways, too. Recent reports from India’s 700 SNCUs (Sick Newborn Care Units), which were set up in a successful government effort to bring down infant mortality, show that parents are far more likely to bring in boys for treatment. Nationwide, boys accounted for 59% of patients in 2017, but in the most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, no less than 63% of the cases treated in SNCUs were boys. Ms Jayachandran has shown in other research that Indian girls are more likely than boys to be shorter than global norms. She posits numerous reasons for this, one being that mothers wanting a boy may prematurely stop breastfeeding girls.

Indian officials are rightly proud of boosting female literacy and school attendance. Gender gaps do remain in education, though. Notably, girls are far more likely to drop out of secondary school than boys (see chart 2). Perhaps more tellingly, an annual survey of education results for 14- to 18-year-olds, published in January, found differences in educational attainment. Whereas 82% of boys could count money and 66% could tell time in a simple test, the corresponding proportions for girls were 70% and 53%.

Although impressive numbers of Indian women now go on to higher studies, with ever more venturing into fields that were long male preserves such as engineering, their efforts may not bring similar rewards. One survey of college students across northern India found that whereas a sadly low 26% of men said that they themselves, and not their parents or others, chose their careers, the proportion for women was lower still, at 11%. And while women with college degrees are more likely to work than those with just high-school certificates, the number of them with jobs is still under 30%. In fact, the proportion of women in the workforce has been steadily dropping for more than a decade, reflecting both a steep decline in farm jobs and a preference among newly urban families to show that their womenfolk do not need to work (see chart 3).

Of all the hurdles Indian women still face, sex and marriage may be the highest. The vast majority of marriages are still arranged by families, and some 94% of them among Hindus are within the same caste. Women are expected, by and large, to become part of the husband’s family, and to bring along a sweetener. In-laws can press their demands in unsubtle ways. Aside from an annual average of around 8,000 “dowry deaths”—wives killed because they have not coughed up enough money—recent newspaper reports tell of such persuasive methods as beating with hockey sticks, stealing a kidney and blackmailing with sex tapes. More broadly, violence against women in various forms appears to be on the increase (see chart 4), although this may chiefly be the result of an increased tendency to report such crimes.

If so, the change is desperately needed. A research paper from 2014 that compared police records of sexual violence with survey results estimated that less than 6% of such crimes outside the home, and less than 1% of sexual assaults by husbands, are officially reported. Out of some 340,000 crimes against women reported in 2016, 110,000 were cases of cruelty by a husband or his relatives. And family health surveys reveal that 52% of women believe that husbands are entitled to beat their wives.

Part of the trouble lies with the caste system. The compartmentalisation of society into narrow layers negates what should be a supply-and-demand empowerment of women due to their shrinking proportion. In essence, women’s families still compete to ensnare the best husbands within a relatively limited pool. The conservative Hinduism of the northern Hindi-speaking heartland does not help, either. In parts of the south, Hindus have a long tradition of matriarchy. By the same token, Muslim and Christian minorities have long given women rights to inheritance and property. But Hindu inheritance law was only substantially reformed in 2005, and in the patriarchal north it is still considered proper for sons alone to hold property and perform religious rites. The north also happens to be the heartland of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which can make it awkward for the government to campaign too forcefully for women’s rights.

In important respects, however, not just numbers but attitudes are definitely changing. Within Indian homes, women are winning more respect: between national health surveys in 2006 and 2016, a striking number reported stronger participation in family decision-making. Ever more Indian women are also voting. In the national election of 1991, 10% more men than women voted. At the most recent election, in 2014, this gap was down to 1.5%.

Canny politicians such as Mr Modi have not failed to notice, and increasingly tailor their policies accordingly. His project to equip households with cooking gas to replace solid fuel not only saves thousands of lives that would otherwise be lost to smoke inhalation, it also directly targets women voters. Mr Modi has also courted Muslim women by attacking “triple talaq”, an arcane tradition long since abandoned in most Muslim-majority countries, which permits a man to divorce simply by saying the word three times.

Female voters have helped put issues such as public safety, underage marriage, alcohol abuse and sanitation at the centre of national politics. “We might be on the cusp of a real transition,” says Yamini Aiyar of the Centre for Policy Research, a think-tank in Delhi. “From the way people dress—rural women have dropped their dupattas [gauzy scarves] and now wear kurtas [long shirts] over jeans—to changing marriage expectations, to forging a woman-centred political narrative, the pace is speeding up.” The two-timing Ms Sen should have realised that men can’t get away with what they used to.

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