India links women’s safety with economic growth

India reached a global milestone this year. Its economy is now growing at a faster rate than that of China. This could be a source of pride for the country and its prime minister, Narendra Modi. Except that’s not the case.

In its latest economic report, the government said India’s future development depends on how women and girls are treated in society. The “intrinsic values” of gender equality are indisputable, he argues. And the economy will only continue to grow “if women gain greater personal agency, assume political power and attain public status, and participate equally in the labor force.”

For example, the cover of the Annual Economic Survey is colored pink.

The idea that economic growth requires gender equality runs counter to a common theory that growth will automatically reduce gender inequality. In a recent study, the International Monetary Fund estimated that India’s gross domestic product would increase by 27% if women’s participation in the labor force reached the same level as that of men.

This goal, however, will first require India to reduce violence against women out of moral concern, not just for economic benefit. After a notorious rape-murder of a student in 2012, the government made some progress on public safety for women, such as tougher penalties for rapists. And social media campaigns and street protests have raised awareness of the issue as well as other social biases against women. According to a survey, more women say they feel safe from physical and emotional violence than a decade ago.

But the economic survey reveals this startling statistic: India has 63 million fewer women than it should have because of a parental preference for boys. The abortion of female fetuses is still too common even though the practice was banned in 1994. In addition, India has 21 million girls who are “unwanted” by their families.

An asymmetric ratio of males to females is now a big economic problem in India. And that creates a gender dynamic that needs to be corrected in favor of women, such as protection from sexual misconduct.

The good news is that the percentage of educated women in India has increased from 59.4% in 2005-06 to 72.5% in 2015-16. And Mr Modi has pushed for “girl empowerment” at the village level, such as building girl-only toilets in schools. “We have to change our way of thinking and stop believing that boys are superior to girls,” he says. “We should change our mentality.”

Many pro-women movements in India – including the import of the #MeToo campaign – have defined a new freedom for women and girls. The more they spread, the more other constraints in society will be lifted, including constraints to economic growth.

Mara R. Wilmoth