Gender Inequality in India and Lessons from Iceland

The Great Indian Kitchen is considered a breakout movie of 2021. This Malayalam movie was a brave attempt to make a statement about the lives of millions of women in our country. The movie reflects what is expected of women in a household, institutionalised sexism and how men are products of upbringing. The protagonists in the movie are not named because it could be every Indian household. The deep misogynistic set up is visible even in the ambush of modernism, where attitudes and mindsets often remain rooted in traditional notions. The movie questions the burden of unpaid care work placed on women by Indian society.


According to an International Labour Organization report, in 2018, women in urban India spent 312 minutes a day on unpaid care work while men spent 29 minutes. In villages, it was 291 minutes for women as against 32 minutes for men. Through examining the trends in time spent on paid and unpaid care work over the last twenty years, this paper shows that women have unequal access to the labour market due to a significant extent to the disproportionate amount of time they spend on unpaid care work. The lower Labour Force Participation Rate among women in India (20.79) validates this finding. Women are paid less than men once in the labour market, reaffirming the lower status in the household and society. Why does twenty-first-century India hesitate to respond to blatant sexism and deep-rooted gender disparity?


In the Global Gender Gap Index released by the World Economic Forum in 2021, India stands at 140th position among the 156 countries. The ranking is based on economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. Among these categories, India is among the last five countries in economic participation and opportunity and health and survival. In 2019, India's position was 108; in 2012, it became 112, but in 2021 we came 28 ranks down to 140. If this trend continues, the day is not far when we are the last country on this list. Let us accept that India is not a gender-equal country, let us talk about it, let us discuss it and let us find solutions for this.



Movie poster on the left; Iceland's first woman President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir on the right (Source:Wikipedia)


When we look for answers, we always look for the best. Iceland is a country that has remained in the first position in the Global Gender Gap Index for the past 12 years. It is a Nordic island nation situated in the middle of the North Atlantic- the best country in the world to be born as a woman. Icelandic women's participation in the labour market is the highest in the world. How could Iceland increase the representation of women in its Parliament from 5% in 1975 to 48% in 2016?


It all started with the women's strike on 24th October 1975. It is known as women's day off in Iceland. About 90% of women in Iceland participated in the strike by staying away from jobs at their offices and houses. They all gathered and rallied in the capital, Reykjavik, bringing the traffic to a standstill. The strike under the feminist organisation Redstockings saw various other women's right organisations participating in it. Without going to their jobs and refusing to do the unpaid care work at their homes, they could show their importance in the society and economy.


The women in Iceland got the right to vote in 1915, but only nine women entered the Parliament in the sixty years till 1975. In 1975 there were only three sitting women MPs in Parliament or the 5% of the Parliament. It was a significant source of frustration. The strike paralysed the economy of Iceland. Businesses, factories, government offices, schools and nurseries were closed- leaving many fathers with no choice but to take their children to work. The local newspapers the next day had the stories of men who had to do household labour for the first time, take their kids to work, prepare meals. Sausages, easy to cook and popular among kids, were in such demand that shops sold out.


The strike had a significant impact on public opinion. In 1976, Iceland formed the gender Equality council and passed a Gender Equality Act. After five years in 1980, Iceland became the first nation to elect a woman as President, Vigdis Finnbogodottis. She defeated three men in elections to become the first woman President in Europe and the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as the head of a state. She became so popular that she was re-elected unopposed in two of the three next elections. Vigdis remained the President of Iceland from 1980 to 1996. In Vigdis's own words - "there is a very sweet story about a little boy in Iceland who saw Ronald Reagan as the President of the US on television and said -' Mommy, mommy can a man be a President?'. That was the moment when children had accepted that it was natural to have a woman as a President."


1975 Icelandic women's strike on the left (Source:Iceland Magazine); Kerala's Vanitha Mathil on the right (Source: The Indian Express)


On 1st January 2019, women in Kerala formed a 620 km long human chain, probably the lengthiest in the world created solely by women to uphold gender equality. Although the event had political backing from the ruling party in the state and did not sustain as a movement, it displayed solidarity among women. The women-led protests in Shaheen Bagh and the large scale participation of women in the farmers' protest are the apt display of women claiming their spaces. Women-led movements like Pinjra Tod claiming rights set the ground for constructive campaigns on gender issues in the coming days. Gender equality doesn't come on its own accord. It requires collective action, the solidarity of women human rights defenders, political will and tools such as legislation, gender budgetary and quotas. Although he said this in a completely different context, quoting Bal Gangadhar Tilak-we will not see our labour succeeding if we croak like frogs once in a year.



Aparna Dev, Advocate, Women for Politics


Aparna is an IISER Thiruvananthapuram alumnus. She is passionate about public policy, politics and would like to promote diversity, inclusion, and equity at workplaces.


She could be reached on LinkedIn here.


Also Read "Women in Politics: Challenging political parties for 50% tickets" by the author here


This article gives the views of the author, and not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics.


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