Women Empowerment and Gender Equality in India

women empowerment
women empowerment

The path to women empowerment and gender equality in India is a journey of resilience, struggle, and hope. While there have been significant achievements in doing away gender inequality, the journey toward dismantling deeply ingrained patriarchy and achieving women empowerment and gender parity in India in a true sense remains arduous. This article of NEXT IAS delves into the multifaceted aspects of women’s empowerment and gender equality in India, highlighting women’s empowerment programs in India, the progress made, the obstacles that still remain, and the steps needed to build a gender-equal India.

  • Women Empowerment, broadly, refers to the process by which women gain power and control over their own lives and acquire the ability to make strategic choices.
  • It involves promoting a sense of self-worth among women, along with their ability to determine their own choices, and their right to influence social change for themselves and others.

As per the European Institute for Gender Equality, Women Empowerment, broadly, involves the following five components:

  • women’s sense of self-worth
  • their right to have and to determine choices
  • their right to have access to opportunities and resources
  • their right to have power to control their own lives, both within and outside the home
  • their ability to influence the direction of social change to create a more just social and economic order, nationally and internationally.

Though Women Empowerment involves enabling women across a plethora of dimensions, on a broader level, Women Empowerment consists of the following three dimensions:

  • Socio-Cultural Empowerment – It refers to enhancing women’s capacity and authority to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes, within the context of their society and culture.
  • Economic Empowerment – It refers to the process of providing women the means to achieve economic independence and strength, as well as ensuring their ability to participate fully and freely in the economy.
  • Political Empowerment – It involves enhancing women’s ability to participate in political processes, influence public policy and decision-making, and gain representation in political and governance structures at all levels.

  • As per the UN Women, Gender Equality refers to the equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities of women and men and girls and boys.
  • Gender Equality does not mean that women and men will become the same. Rather, it seeks to do away with gender inequality by stipulating that the rights, responsibilities, and opportunities for men and women will not depend on their gender.
  • Gender Equality is considered as both a human rights issue and as a precondition for, and indicator of, sustainable people-centered development.

The concepts of Women Empowerment and Gender Equality are interrelated and intertwined to each other. Promotion of Gender Equality is the first and foremost prerequisite for Empowerment of Women. At the same time, the pursuit of Gender Equality inherently necessitates the empowerment of women.

Thus, Women Empowerment and Gender Equality propel as well as require each other.

Ancient-Medieval India

  • Indian society has always revered women with many female deities Saraswati, Durga, Lakshmi, Kali, etc worshipped across the country. However, the patriarchal system has prevailed since the Vedic Period with customs and traditions favoring men.
  • Indian history finds mention of many prodigious women such as Gargi, Maitreyi, and Sulabha, whose faculty of reasoning was far superior to that of ordinary mortals. Similarly, there have been female rulers like Prabhavatigupta, and Rani Durgavati in various parts of our country.
  • On the darker side, with discrimination against them prevailing since ancient times, women have been silent sufferers.

Pre-Independence India

Socio-Religious Reforms Movements (19th Century)

  • The beginning of organized efforts for the empowerment of women and gender equality in India can be traced back to the Socio-Religious Reforms Movements of the 19th century.
  • Efforts made by social reformers such as Raja Rammohan Roy, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and their related organizations helped the cause of promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in India. (Sati Abolition Act of 1829, Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, Child Marriage Restraint Act (Sarda Act) of 1929, etc.)

Women’s Organizations

  • The horizon of demand for women’s rights increased with the setting up of Women’s Organizations in the early 20th century onwards.
  • Women’s Organizations such as Bharat Mahila Parishad, Women’s Indian Association, All India Women’s Conference, etc raised the issue of gender inequality in India and demanded women’s suffrage, and inheritance rights along with others.

Freedom Movement

  • Gandhiji put particular emphasis on the collective mobilization and participation of women in India’s freedom struggle. He encouraged women to fight for political freedom as well as for their social and political rights.
  • While this participation of women in national movements was not directly aimed at questioning the patriarchal society, it helped the cause of promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in India by:
    • generating a sense of self-confidence and a realization of their strength among women.
    • breaking away several barriers of old traditions and customs.

Post-Independence India

Lull Period

  • There was a lull in women empowerment and gender parity movement in the period that followed India’s independence. This was mainly due to the following reasons:
    • Most of the women activists got involved in nation-building tasks.
    • The trauma of partition diverted the attention from women’s cause.


  • Post-1970s, India witnessed a renewal of women empowerment and gender equality movement in India.
  • Widely known as the second phase of the Indian women’s movement, prominent women’s organizations took up a much wider range of initiatives, promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in India, such as:
    • Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) worked to improve conditions of women working in unorganized sector.
    • Annapurna Mahila Mandal (AMM) worked for the welfare of women and girl children.

Current Scenario

  • Of late, with a renewed focus on promoting gender equality and women empowerment, the government has launched several women’s empowerment programs in India.
  • While there have been some improvements in their conditions, women in India continue to be discriminated against and denied equal opportunities.
  • A detailed account of the current situation and efforts being taken are presented in the sections that follow.

With the patriarchal mindset and gender inequality in India continuing to prevail, women are made to adopt contradictory roles. The strength of a woman is evoked to ensure that women effectively play their traditional roles of nurturers as daughters, mothers, wives, and daughters-in-law. On the other hand, the stereotype of a “weak and helpless woman” is fostered to ensure their complete dependence on their male counterpart.

As far debate on women empowerment is concerned, two diagonally opposite views can be seen in the present Indian society:

  • Gender Disparity is Natural – The inequality between the sexes is based upon the biological or genetic differences between men and women.
  • Gender Disparity is Artificial – Gender roles are culturally determined and inequality between the sexes is a result of a long-drawn process of socialization.

The present status of women in India is characterized by a complex interplay of progress and ongoing challenges. Some significant achievements have been made towards Gender Equality and Women Empowerment. However, deeply entrenched societal norms, economic disparities, and political challenges mean that Gender Disparity continues to exist in India.

Paradoxically, in our Indian society where women goddesses are worshipped, women are discriminated against and denied equal opportunity. The present status of gender disparity or gender inequality in India can be seen through the following statistics:

Overall Gender Gap: As per the Gender Gap Report, 2023, India ranks 127 out of 146 countries in terms of gender parity.

  • Sex Ratio: As per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5, 2019-21), the Overall Sex Ratio in India is 1020 females per 1000 males. However, the Sex Ratio at Birth remains low at 929, indicating continued sex selection at birth.
  • Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR): As per the Special Bulletin on MMR released by the Registrar General of India, the MMR of India stands at 97 per lakh live births for the period 2018-20.
  • Malnutrition: As per the NFHS-5, 18.7% of women aged 15-49 years are underweight, 21.2% of women aged 15-49 years are stunted, and nearly 53% of women aged 15-49 years are anemic,
  • Education: As per the NFHS-5 (2019-21), the literacy rate in females is 70.3% compared to about 84.7% for men.
  • Gender-Based Violence: As per the NCRB’s “Crime in India” 2021 report, over 4 lakh cases of crimes against women were recorded in the year 2021. With this figure reflecting only the reported incidents, the actual figure remains much higher.
  • Child Marriage: As per the NFHS-5, 23.3% of women aged 20-24 years were married or in a union before age 18.
  • Employment: As per the latest PLFS report, only around 32.8% of females of working age (15 years and above) were in the labor force in 2021-22.
  • Informalization: According to the International Labor Organization, 81.8 percent of women’s employment in India is concentrated in the informal economy. This indicates that most of the female workers in India are not able to get into high-paying jobs.
  • Wage Gap: The wage gap between genders in India is among the widest in the world. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, on average, women in India were paid 21% of the income of men.
  • Representation in Parliament: At present, only around 14.94% of the total number of Members of Parliament (MPs) are women.
  • Representation in State Legislatures: As per the official data of the Election Commission of India, as of December 2023, the overall average female representation in State Legislatures is just 13.9%.
  • Representation in Local Panchayats: As per the Ministry of Panchayati Raj data from April 2023, around 46.94% of panchayat elected representatives are women. However, the prevalence of the ‘Sarpanch-Pati’ culture means that this figure is effectively very low.

Achieving the Empowerment of Women and Gender Parity is significant for multifarious reasons. The importance of women empowerment, spanning across socio-cultural, economic, political, and other dimensions, can be seen as follows.

  • Social Justice – Gender Equality is recognized as a fundamental human right by the United Nations. Thus, achieving true women empowerment and gender parity would promote the cause of social justice.
  • Nation’s Progress – Women constitute 50% of India’s population. Leaving behind them is not an option if the nation wants to become “Viksit Bharat @2047″
  • Peaceful Society: Societies having gender parity and empowered women tend to witness lesser gender-based violence, including domestic violence, sexual harassment, etc.
  • Social Inclusion: Gender Equality is essential to ensure the social inclusion of women in a true sense.
  • Social Change: As compared to men, women tend to make better choices and invest more of their earnings in their families and societies. This leads to a ripple effect of positive change in our society.
  • Promotes Education: Educated girls are more likely to marry later, have healthier children, and send their own children to school. Thus, education and women empowerment have a strong link.
  • Better Health: Educated girls are more likely to marry later and have healthier children. All these lead to improved health of society.
  • Development: Studies show a strong correlation between gender equality and overall development and increased economic prosperity.
  • Workforce Participation: Providing women equal opportunities for employment and fair wages will promote gender equality in the workplace. This, in turn, will promote the Female Labor Force Participation Rate (FLFPR), and hence diversity of skills and perspectives.
  • Increased Innovations: Gender parity brings diverse perspectives and talents to the table, leading to more innovations and better solutions.
  • Better Decision-Making: Gender equality in political spheres ensures that women’s perspectives and needs are represented in policymaking processes. This leads to more inclusive and effective governance that benefits all members of society.
  • Better Outcome: Encouraging and supporting women in leadership roles can lead to more diverse and innovative solutions to national as well as global challenges, including economic inequality, social injustices, and climate change.

The Constitution of India contains several provisions that support the cause of Women’s Empowerment. Some of such prominent provisions can be seen under the following heads:

Fundamental Rights

  • Article 14 guarantees equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws to all citizens, including women.
  • Article 15(1) prohibits discrimination on grounds only of sex.
  • Article 15(3) permits the state to make affirmative discrimination in favor of women in order to mitigate their cumulative socio-economic and political disadvantages.
  • Article 16 provides for equality of opportunity for all citizens, including women, in matters of employment or appointment to any office under the State. It also prohibits discrimination or being made ineligible for any employment or office under the State on grounds of only sex.
  • Article 21, which provides for the Protection of Life and Personal Liberty, contains within its ambit several rights, including the right of women to be treated with decency and dignity.
  • Article 23 prohibits traffic in human beings, including selling and buying of women, immoral traffic in women, prostitution, etc.

Directive Principles of State Policies

  • Article 39 directs the State to secure equal pay for equal work for men and women.
  • Article 42 directs the State to make provision for just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief.
  • Article 44 directs the State to secure for all citizens a uniform civil code throughout the country. Such a code will ensure equal rights for women in personal matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.
  • Article 45 directs the State to provide early childhood care and education for all children, including female children, until they reach the age of six years.

Fundamental Duties

  • Article 51A casts a Fundamental Duty on every citizen to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women.
  • Article 51A also casts a Fundamental Duty on every parent/guardian to provide opportunities for education to their child or ward between the ages of six and fourteen years.

Other Constitutional Provisions

  • Article 243D provides for reservation of not less than 1/3rd of seats for women in various levels of PRIs.
  • Article 243T provides for reservation of not less than 1/3rd of seats for women in various levels of ULBs.
  • Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyan (Women’s Reservation Act) 2023 [128th Constitutional Amendment Act] has added three new articles providing for women reservation in Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies
    • Article 239AA provides for reservation of 1/3rd of seats for women in Delhi Legislative Assembly
    • Article 330A provides for reservation of 1/3rd of seats for women in Lok Sabha
    • Article 332A provides for reservation of 1/3rd of seats for women in State Legislative Assemblies.

Some of the major statutory provisions promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in India can be seen as follows:

  • Indian Penal Code (IPC): Contains various sections addressing crimes against women, including rape, sexual harassment, dowry death, and acid attacks.
  • Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005: Provides a civil remedy for victims of domestic violence and empowers them to seek protection orders and residence rights.
  • Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961: Prohibits the giving or taking of dowry and prescribes punishment for violations.
  • Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987: Makes the practice of sati, where a widow is forced to immolate herself on her husband’s pyre, a punishable offense.
  • Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006: Raises the legal age of marriage for girls to 18 years, aiming to eradicate child marriage and its associated harms.
  • Minimum Wages Act, 1948: Sets minimum wages for all workers, including women, across various sectors.
  • Equal Remuneration Act, 1976: Prohibits discrimination in matters of wages and salaries based on sex, hence promoting the cause of gender equality in the workplace.
  • Maternity Benefit Act, 1961: Provides maternity leave and other benefits to women employed in establishments.
  • Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013: Creates a mechanism for preventing and redressing sexual harassment at workplaces, both public and private. Thus, it helps the cause of gender equality in the workplace.
  • Representation of the People Act, 1950: Guarantees women’s right to vote and contest elections on an equal footing with men.
  • Delimitation Commission Act, 2002: Mandates consideration of the number of women voters while determining constituencies, potentially increasing their electoral potential.

The government has launched several programs for promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in India. Major Women’s Empowerment Programs in India are discussed below:

  • National Policy for Empowerment of Women: Aims to bring about overall advancement, development, and empowerment of women.
  • National Mission for Empowerment of Women (NMEW): Aims to strengthen overall processes that promote the all-around development and empowerment of women.
  • Gender Budgeting: Gender Budgeting is being implemented in India to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment.
  • Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Yojana (BBBP): Aims to improve the child sex ratio and ensure the education and empowerment of girls.
  • National Scheme of Incentives to Girls for Secondary Education (NSIGSE): Focuses on promoting the enrolment of girl children in secondary schools and ensuring their retention up to 18 years of age.
  • Pradhan Mantri Swasthya Suraksha Yojana (PMSSY): helps improve access to quality healthcare services for women and girls.
  • One Stop Centre (OSC): These centers provide integrated support services to women affected by violence.
  • Nirbhaya Fund: This fund has been set up to support initiatives aimed at improving the safety of women.
  • Stand Up India Scheme: Promotes entrepreneurship among women from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and minority communities by providing them with bank loans.
  • Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY): Promotes access to basic banking services to women, thus promoting their financial inclusion.
  • Support to Training and Employment Programme for Women (STEP): Aims to provide skills that enable women to become self-employed/entrepreneurs.
  • Mahila E-Haat: An online marketing platform for women entrepreneurs.
  • Training and Capacity Building Programs: Various initiatives taken up by government and non-governmental organizations aim to equip women with skills and knowledge for effective political participation.
  • Women Leadership Development Programmes: Government agencies like NIRD&PR (National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj) offer skill-building programs to women, focused on developing leadership and political participation.

Achieving gender equality and women empowerment in India is a complex challenge that involves socio-cultural, economic, and political factors. Some of the prominent hurdles coming its way are as follows:

  • Discriminatory Social Norms: Historical legacies mean that socio-cultural norms for men and women continue to remain discriminatory in many parts of India, especially in rural regions. While men are allowed to be “loud”, women are expected to be soft-spoken, calm, and quiet.
  • Role Stereotyping: A large section of Indian society still considers that women are meant to stay limited to taking household chores. All the financial responsibilities and work outside are considered exclusive for males.
  • Low Literacy: Traditional practices like dowry, and other factors mean that many families find it economically unviable to educate the girl child. Thus, the literacy rate of women in India, especially in rural areas, still remains poor.
  • Safety Concerns: Women in India continue to be silent sufferers of gender-based violence such as female feticides, domestic violence, rape, trafficking, forced prostitution, honor killings, sexual harassment at the workplace, etc.
  • Lesser Employment Opportunities: Gender role stereotyping attributed to women leads to prejudice and discrimination against women in the economic sphere. For example, women may be considered to be less reliable as workers because of their child-rearing and other household responsibilities.
  • Glass Ceiling: The prevalence of the “Glass Ceiling Effect” means that women not only in India but across the globe face unsaid barriers, preventing them from reaching higher levels of professional success.
  • Economic Disparities: Lesser work opportunities as well as access to finance mean that women in India suffer from economic disparity vis-a-vis men. This remains a major barrier to making them independent.
  • Low Political Representation: The representation of women in different legislative bodies, including the Parliament as well as State Legislative Assemblies, remains low across India.
  • ‘Sarpanch-Pati’ Culture: The prevalence of ‘sarpanch pati’ culture across India, wherein men relatives of elected women run the office in their place, means that even meager political representation of women is mostly nominal.
  • Inadequate Implementation of Laws: While strong legal frameworks exist for promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in India, their effective implementation remains a challenge due to weak enforcement mechanisms and societal attitudes.
  • Emerging Challenges: While Globalization and Urbanization have brought new opportunities to women, they have also exposed them to new vulnerabilities like trafficking and exploitation.

The continued prevalence of gender disparity or gender inequality in India means that achieving gender equality and women empowerment in India requires a comprehensive, multi-pronged strategy that covers multiple dimensions. Some of the suggested measures to achieve these goals are discussed below.

  • Changing Social Attitude: The fact that the problem has persisted despite so many legislations says that a social problem cannot be tackled only through legislation. What is required is a sustained campaign to change the social attitude.
  • Better Education Opportunities: Education and women empowerment have a strong link and enabling access to education is the best tool for empowering women. It goes a long way in improving the status of women in India by instilling in them enough self-confidence to decide and build their own destinies.
  • Ensuring Women’s Safety: Ensuring effective implementation of existing laws through efficient judicial systems and law enforcement will help reduce gender-based violence faced by women.
  • Skilling: Providing women with market-relevant skills will help them enter the labor force easily.
  • Access to Credit: Enabling access to credit through tools such as micro-financing can enable women to participate in economic activities. This, in turn, will make them financially independent.
  • Promote Political Participation: Women should be promoted in leadership roles so that they become architects of India’s progress and development, rather than being passive recipients of the fruits of development.
  • Leadership Development: Offer leadership development programs for women to prepare them for roles in politics and civil society. This will go a long way in doing away with gender disparity in India and improving the status of women.

Women empowerment and gender equality in India are not just goals in themselves but are fundamental to the nation’s overall development and prosperity. As India strides towards its vision of “Viksit Bharat @2047”, the government, civil societies, communities, and individuals, should put their collective efforts into fostering a society where every woman has the opportunity to thrive. Measures, as suggested above, can help in this direction.

What is meant by Women’s Empowerment?

As per the UN Women, Women Empowerment refers to the process by which women gain power and control over their own lives and acquire the ability to make strategic choices.

What is the Importance of Women Empowerment in India?

In India, where women comprise 50% of its population, the importance of Women Empowerment spans various dimensions including socio-cultural, economic, and political among others. Overall, promoting gender equality and women empowerment is important for the overall development and progress of the nation.

What are the Objectives of Women Empowerment?

Women Empowerment aims to promote a sense of self-worth among women so as to make them capable of determining their own choices.

What is Gender Equality?

Gender equality refers to the state in which access to rights, responsibilities, and opportunities are unaffected by gender.

What is Gender Inequality?

Gender inequality refers to the disparity in opportunities, resources, rights, and power between individuals based on their gender.

What is Gender Disparity?

The term ‘Gender Disparity’ is used interchangeably with ‘Gender Inequality’, and refers to the differences in outcomes, opportunities, and resources available to people based on their gender.

What is the Women’s Empowerment Index (WEI)?

The Women’s Empowerment Index (WEI) is a composite indicator designed to measure and track women’s empowerment over time across different countries and regions.


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