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How Gender Inequality Can Hinder Economic Progress – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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How Gender Inequality Can Hinder Economic Progress

TK Arun

The manner in which government has described its cooking gas subsidy as a gift to Indian women reinforces gender stereotypes of women as the sole custodians of the kitchen. Cheaper cooking gas should gladden the hearts of not just women, but also of men, or it will over time, lead to our decline as a people, as an economy, as a nation. South Korea serves a warning.

Women should not be the sole custodians of the kitchen

The government has slashed the price of cooking gas by Rs 100 per cylinder, and extended the Rs 300 per cylinder subsidy under the Ujjwala scheme for another year starting April 1. You would welcome this relief to the less well-off in these straitened times, unless, of course, you are a fiscal hawk. As this special bird of prey, you would see the Rs 12,000 crore burden the subsidy places on the exchequer as both potentially inflationary, via its impact of widening the fiscal deficit, and morally corrupting, encouraging people to depend on handouts, instead of striving to stand on their own two feet.

What is not so innocuous is the manner in which the government has described its cooking gas subsidy as a gift to Indian women on International Women’s Day. What is wrong with that, you might ask. After all, women are the ones who feel the pressures on the household budget, especially outlays on food and the kitchen, most acutely. Why not describe a measure that provides relief on this front as a gift to women? The only thing wrong with it is that the uncritical association of women with their traditional roles could, over time, lead to our decline as a people, as an economy, as a nation.

Steep Fertility Rate Decline

If that sounds wild, take a look at South Korea. The total fertility rate, the average number of children a woman can be expected to have over her lifetime, is 0.72 there, about one-third the 2.1 required for the population to remain stable.

Intuitively, it is obvious that when a woman gives birth to two children over her lifetime, she would ensure that when she and her partner grow old and die, there would be two new humans to replace them. But, for a population, the replacement birth rate is not two, but 2.1, because not all children who are born grow into reproductive adulthood.

Japan, Hong Kong and Macau, have been following a similar trend in Asia. Japan has had a rising per capita income for years, even with a stagnant or a declining economy, because the population has been shrinking at a rate faster than the rate of economic decline.

Populations have been growing smaller in Europe, too. In Germany, wolves have famously made a comeback, thanks to declining human populations and their retreat from woodlands they had encroached on.

China used to be the world’s most populous country, but has yielded that place to India and now stares at a future of population decline. The total fertility rate in China is 1.7, well below the replacement level of 2.1. This means that, over generations, the cohorts who die out would be replaced by smaller cohorts, leading to population decline.

Prosperity has been a leading cause of fertility decline. As societies become better off, life expectancy increases. The earlier urge to have many children, so that at least some of them would survive infantile disorders and subsequent ravages of fortune, and make it to adulthood, has disappeared. When working the land used to be the main source of livelihood, having many members in the family helped.

When people shifted out of agriculture to industry and services, and individual rights and freedoms gained in importance, nuclear families replaced joint families. Bringing up children became the parents’ responsibility, and, thanks to the survival of patriarchal notions of gender roles, ended up becoming, predominantly, the female parent’s responsibility.

Women Vs Gender Stereotypes

Women joined the workforce, fought for equality and have won many battles in this continuing struggle, to mark which March 8 is observed as the International Women’s Day.

In Asian societies, women who work bear the double burden of managing the household, including caring for the young and the old, and of the work that earns them an income. In societies where single-child families abound, a married woman has to care for her husband’s parents, along with her own parents, while also performing the material toil of creating domestic bliss, for any shortcoming in which she alone is held responsible.

In India, middle class women professionals abound, primarily because they are able to pass on their domestic chores to other women, hired for the purpose. In East Asia, where women work in very large numbers, and hired help is very expensive, in relation to the incomes of their potential employers, working women face the stark choice between marriage, with the concomitant burden of domestic chores and care, including bringing up children, and staying single while pursuing success at the workplace.

A very large proportion of women refuse to marry, in consequence, bringing down the fertility rate and the birth rate, finally tipping the rate of population growth into the negative zone.

The solution, obviously, is for men to step in and share the task of running the home and caring for the young and the old. Some do. But traditional, gendered stereotypes of societal roles of men and women come in the way. Mothers and mothers-in-law can be scathing about change in gender roles, and men, too timid to stand up for what they think is fair.

The net result is women who prefer to work, pray and love, without being hobbled by marriage and the attendant responsibilities of solitary drudgery in what are supposed to be partnerships.

All roads lead to this societal future, except for the one in which what men and women do is freed from gender stereotypes. Women should not be the sole custodians of the kitchen. Cheaper cooking gas should gladden the hearts of not just women, but also of men. Especially on a day that marks women’s march towards equality.

TK Arun is a senior journalist.

The article was first published in Moneycontrol as The trouble with cheaper cooking gas as a gift for women on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more at IMPRI:

Nehru’s Vision and Strategies for a Newly Independent India

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a visiting researcher at IMPRI.

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