Often referred to as the "motherland," the Indian subcontinent boasts millennia-old traditions and culture in which women are symbolically honored and revered. The Hindu pantheon, for instance, consists of a wide range of female deities; motherhood in India is a reverential undertaking. However, beneath this mythological and theoretical facade, women are systematically persecuted in India, denied equal access to the already impoverished health care, educational, and justice systems. Carol Coonrod's report on the status of women in India lists seven major areas of discrimination against women in India: malnutrition, poor health care, lack of education, overwork, being unskilled, blatant mistreatment, and legal powerlessness. However, the problems extend far beyond these categories alone. For example, female infanticide is not uncommon; nor is the practice of satee, either willing or coerced suicide by widows. The message these practices send are clear: women are not as worthy of being born than men; likewise, women serve no purpose in society other than to live for and through their male counterparts. As women are afforded a fundamentally inferior social status, systematic maltreatment of women in the culture is not properly addressed. The country is home to one billion people, many of whom live in abject poverty, and India as a whole suffers from a wide range of social, economic and political problems that affect both sexes; however, most of these endemic problems particularly impact Indian women because of their inferior status in the society. In As Asish Garg states, "the bottom line is there are no human rights for the women in India, absolutely none."
Women's role in India is primarily that of wife and mother, or "breeder-feeder," (Smitha V. 2002). As such, she is not encouraged to pursue academic or professional goals, and in many cases she is expressly denied this right. Of course, the Indian government does not withhold equal access to education from girls, but even though the constitution guarantees free primary school education for all children, girls frequently do not attend school. Especially in impoverished areas in which agriculture is the primary source of labor, as few as one-third of all girls actually attend primary school (Coonrod). Therefore, from an early age, girls are taught their inferiority to boys because they are denied the same education. Girls are also taught to not be self-reliant or independent; their lives are to fully revolve around men, servicing and catering to their needs. Before she marries, a young girl is subject to her father, who will eventually pay another family to basically buy her hand in marriage. So dispensable are female children that the practice of dowry continues today, in spite of government sanctions against it (Mijar 2002). Once she is married off and living with her in-laws, a woman is supposed to think, act, and feel totally inferior to her husband. Her life will revolve around cooking and other household chores; childrearing; and if she lives in an agricultural village, also to backbreaking labor. Smitha V. notes: "If she is relaxing in the sofa after a long day at work, she is lazy, if hubby dearest is doing the same he is tired." Sexism and the strict roles afforded to women have their roots deep in Indian history. In 200 BCE, Manu laid down the sociological laws that continue plague Indian women thousands of years later: "nothing must be done independently, even in her own house." "In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent," (quoted in Coonrod 1998).
Sexism turns deadly when the inferior status of women leads to the practice of infanticide. Because female children are viewed as burdens rather than as boons (in large part due to the dowry system), they are frequently aborted, abused, even starved or smothered to death. Because of this, India is one of the only nations in which males outnumber females (Coonrod 1998). In some places in India, female infanticide is outwardly condoned, considered to be a "wise choice of action," (Dahlburg, quoted by Jones 2002). Female infanticide is considered to be a wise choice of action for several reasons. First, it is considered to be far more auspicious for a couple to have a boy than a girl: for example, "May you have a hundred sons," is a common Hindu wedding blessing (Coonrod 1998). Underlying the superior status of sons is the dowry system. For a poor family, a female child is indeed a burden. When she is to be wed, the girls' family is responsible for proffering a substantial amount of money or other material goods. Essentially, girls are sold off like farm animals. Another reason why girls are considered to be less worthy of being born than boys is because boys earn more potential income for the family. Moreover, boys will eventually take on wives, who come equipped with dowry and who can perform chores and labor in the fields for free. When amniocentesis arrived in India, the determination of the fetus's gender led to a widespread epidemic of aborting female children (Jones).
When they are permitted to live, females experience widespread discrimination. In areas where poverty, malnutrition, and starvation are rampant, women experience the brunt of the problem. They eat last and when they do eat, they consume nutritionally deficient foods. Pregnant and nursing mothers are often not exceptions to this rule, which leads to an exorbitantly high rate of maternal deaths, infant deaths, low birth weights, and other problems related to malnutrition in pregnancy. Furthermore, Coonrod's report (1998) shows that "gender has been the most statistically significant determinant of malnutrition among young children and malnutrition is a frequent direct or underlying cause of death among girls below age five." Women and girl children are viewed as expendable and therefore it is not seen as a problem if they die from malnutrition or at least suffer from health problems like anemia. Malnutrition is not the only problem facing young girls in India. Studies show that girls are not provided with equal access to health care, nor are adult women (Coonrod 1998). Pregnant women do not seek adequate health care because it is not considered to be necessary or important to do so. This is partly due to a general ignorance about the necessity of prenatal care, but it is also based on sexist attitudes and general disenfranchisement of women.
Generally poor working conditions in India particularly affect women. Problems like air and water pollution impact the health of women more than men because women are placed in positions of higher risk and they generally work longer hours exposed to environmental toxins (Coonrod 1998). Because they are unlikely to seek medical attention for their problems, women are at greater risk for developing preventable diseases than men are. Employment advancement programs are geared toward men because men are deemed more intelligent, more worthy of professional advancement and more able to succeed (Coonrod 1998). Women's work remains unappreciated, as they are simply expected to carry out their duties without complaint or rebellion. They are denied opportunities to extend themselves beyond their household or field duties. Women work longer and harder than men in general, up to twice as many hours, especially in agricultural areas where women perform hard labor. Their work is mostly unskilled, too, because they are denied education. Coonrod (1998) states, "education of girls brings no returns to parents and that their future roles, being mainly reproductive and perhaps including agricultural labor, require no formal education." It is considered counterproductive to educate girls because they better serve their families through hard labor.
Cultural norms also prohibit the empowerment of women because it would naturally entail that men would have to sacrifice their position of power. Female infanticide, maternal deaths,…