India continues to struggle with gender disparity which is brought to the fore by the various reports that are released from time to time. The recently released National Family Health Survey has brought to light several such issues. It conducted a state-wise survey and we, at Femme First Foundation, analysed these reports in depth. Here, we look at the status of women in Assam.
Assam has a population of 3.65+ crore. Patriarchy reigns supreme with only 13% population living in a female-headed household. The report also points out that, in the majority of cases where children are living with only one parent (9% of total children), the parent is the mother. Hence, it would not be difficult to estimate that a large chunk of the 13% population under female-headed households is not because of women empowerment but rather because there is no male head available. This would also reflect on how much agency would the women be exercising. Similarly disturbing is the education rate where only 17% of women aged 15-49 have completed 12 or more years of education. This also transforms into employment disparities with only 3% women compared to 26% men were employed in agricultural jobs. Similarly, only 17 percent of women in comparison to 53% of men were employed in non-agricultural occupations. Harrowingly, 79% of women and 17% of men aged 15-49 were not employed in the 12 months preceding the survey. Two reasons can come out of the same. While in the first instance, the societal mindset itself does not prefer employed women, the other is in the occurrence of financial difficulties or slow down, it is the women who are thrown out of jobs first. Financial autonomy thus remains a distant dream for women which various scholars suggest as one of the primary reasons contributing to the reduced status of women in households.
Fertility and Education
Discouraging facts about the age of marriage and fertility are also quite evident in the report. The median age at first marriage is merely 19.8 years among women aged 20-49 years. Almost one-third (32%) of women aged 20-24 years got married even before attaining the legal minimum age of 18 years. The figure would inflate further with the proposed rise in the legal age of marriage. Only 32% percent of women aged 20-24 years have never married, while it is 75 percent for men in the same age group, showing that the age of marriage is much lower for women than men in Assam. The early age of marriage directly affects the educational prospects of women and hence contributes to further disadvantage in the status of women. Most women are quickly pushed into motherhood as well. The proportion of women childbearing rises sharply from 8 percent in age 15-17 years to 18 percent among women aged 18 years and to 33 percent among women aged 19 years. Cumulatively, among the young women aged 15-19, 12% are already child-bearing. Motherhood at such a young age often has very devastating impacts on the health of the mother. Here too, we see a direct correlation with the level of education. While 22% of those with no schooling have started childbearing, only 4% of those who got more than twelve years of education are childbearing. Interestingly, at current fertility rates, women with no schooling will have an average of 0.8 more children than women with 12 or more years of schooling. However, there is another possibility of intersection between class and gender, with those from upper classes doing better at both educating and delaying childbearing of women. To what extent this improvement might transform into the agency in their hands is very difficult to say.
The report also points towards several other disparities such as only 35% of women own land either alone or jointly with someone. The figure for men is 64% for the same. Equally disheartening is the fact that only 29% of women have money that they can decide to use. These disparities play a major role in perpetuating treatment and power disparities within the domain of the family.
Throughout the report, a point that can be observed consistently is how education contributes to women's empowerment in a great sense. As pointed above, the intersectional nature and thereby role of class cannot be neglected as well. Even in that light, education comes out as one aspect that deserves primary importance, investment, and sustained commitment for education has some inherently liberating aspects. It makes the oppressed aware of their own oppression and empowers them to challenge the system. It also acts as a fulcrum generator, leading to upliftment of the deprived sections. In light of this, when we see that 19% of women in Assam aged 15-49 have never been to school, we should not be surprised. Education thus comes out as a pivotal tool in the arsenal of the state and society to build bridges and cover the disparities.
(Falit Sijariya is currently a policy intern with Femme First Foundation. He is also India’s Member (Observer) of the Commonwealth Students' Association and a Working Group Member of the Global Students Forum on UNESCO World Higher Education Conference 2022)