Category : 2021 in Review:
Author : Aura Staff

Many issues pertaining to women and gender have come up in the past year. Here is Aura’s brief summary of events. The list is not complete or comprehensive, but only a selection of the top headlines, stats, facts and developments that took place, and is only India-specific. Some stories that we have published in the year related to these topics have been included as well. If you feel we missed out something important, leave your input in the comments!

This is an attempt to go beyond the token representation end-of-news-cycle stories, where many news sources in India carried glowing news of how the Modi cabinet reshuffle had a high number of women; of how women can now be admitted to NDA; and even how more women are entering the super-rich club.

Indian media clearly prefers promoting a few women in high places rather than reflecting on the substance of their achievements, or whether they do any good for society at large. Going beyond inflated numbers and deceptive data, let’s look at some hard facts, some positive stories, and some women who really made a difference.

Stats & Facts

  • Global Gender Gap Report 2021 : The gender gap continues to widen in India, now at 62.5%. The report measures four parameters – economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. India has slipped 28 places this year. How much do schemes like Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao work in our country, with deep-set stigma and socio-cultural biases, as well as outright examples of violence on the basis of gender?
  • NCRB Data : Crimes against women dipped in 2020, due to the lockdowns and restrictions on movement, but seem to have risen again in 2021 in cities such as Delhi where data is available for the year. However, there has been no let up on domestic violence in the past few years, which has been dubbed as a ‘shadow pandemic’.
  • The NHFS 5 (2020-21) data has shown that for the first time, there are more women than men in India (but experts caution against over reading into the data on account of bias and sampling issues); additionally, anemia has worsened among Indian women, including a worsening in child anemia. A large % of women in many states such as Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka also justify wife-beating, particularly older women. The national fertility rate has also further dipped, pointing towards a stabilizing population.
  • In some disturbing data, also from the NCRB, it turns out that housewives accounted for 16% of all suicides in India in 2021, with 22, 372 housewives taking their own lives, at an average of 61 suicides every day. While concrete reasons have not been given alongside, some reasons that have been discussed by experts include rampant domestic violence, the drudgery of work, empty nest syndrome in older women, lack of support groups, and stigma attached to discussing mental health issues.
  • Women and COVID-19 : Women and girls have been severely affected by the continuing pandemic. Women have mostly been unable to regain their lost jobs, even as they make up a significant proportion of all healthcare workers in India, especially midwives and nurses. The State of Working in India 2021 report shows that 83% of women lost their jobs during the pandemic, with 47% unlikely to recover these jobs. Their income has been severely depleted, and many girl students have lost out on educational opportunities after returning back to their houses. There is a gender gap among COVID-19 vaccinations as well, something that has also been staggered on other social markers such as caste, class and region.
  • The Indian Women’s Health Report 2021 discussed the stigma white-collar women workers face in disclosing their health issues, even as 90% of those surveyed find it challenging to balance their home, work and social life. Majority of women surveyed revealed that discussing issues such as endometriosis, menstruation, breast cancer and PCOS are still taboo.
  • A United Nations study on The International Day for Rural Women 2021 revealed that were women provided equal opportunities to work, not only will agricultural production increase to 4%, but malnutrition will also see a significant dip. Women have outpaced men in non-farming jobs in the past two decades.
  • The Global Hunger Index has garnered great controversy, with the government dismissing the shocking data by questioning its methodology. However, even the government’s own National Family Health Survey has bad news regarding malnutrition, stunting and hunger. Instead of spending money on ICDS and other direct nutritional support, the government has spent crores on developing apps (ICDS-CAS, and later, Poshan Tracker) and on IT support for these apps to allegedly help angwanwadi workers.
  • On the same note, a recent report reveals that about 65% of India’s mid-day meal cooks are paid less than Rs 2000/month and in eight states and UTs, the salary remains frozen at Rs 1000 despite Parliamentary committees over the years recommending hikes.
  • Maternal mortality ratio (MMR)and infant mortality rates have declined in many states of the country in the past two years, but there is still a stratification with some states doing much better than others. In 2020, the MMR overall declined by 9 points.
Labour & Environment News

  • Powrakarmikas women sanitation workers in Bangalore – have been on strike, taking out rallies, and speaking out their demands for the past few months,
demanding better wages, safer work conditions and dignity of labour. They have also lost colleagues to COVID-19 and suicide. Like ASHA workers, who have been under immense pressure during the pandemic, their services are deemed necessary but as people and workers, they are seen as dispensable. Picking up used masks and gloves, putting their lives and those of their families at risk to ensure clean cities, working class women such as these bear the multiple burdens of caste, class, gender and face insecurity of life and dangers of many kinds in India.

  • A report discussed at the Cop26 summit found that 80% of those displaced by the climate emergency are women. The amount of adverse climatic events in India – floods and dam-related displacement, to take a case – affects women a great deal. Ironically, this was also the year that Disha Ravi, the climate change activist was arrested under the charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy and later released.
  • Sudha Bharadwaj
  • trade unionist, lawyer and a human rights activist – was released on default bail. Labour rights activists have been targeted by the state, particularly those working in areas such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, including Father Stan Swamy. UAPA has been the term of the year, in short.

Educational Developments

  • It was revealed that the school drop-out rate was actually better for girls than boys at the primary level, as mentioned by the Education Minister in the Lok Sabha. This reverses as the children get older. However, the data is of 2018-19, and will certainly look even worse if correlated post-pandemic, where it is well-known that many girls have been forced to drop out.
  • “…emancipation of the wife destroyed the parent’s authority over the children. The mother did not exemplify the obedience upon which she still tried to insist… In bringing the man down from his pedestal the wife and the mother deprived herself, in fact of the means of discipline.” This text in a Class 10 Term 1 English CBSE board exam paper created chaos and was later withdrawn.
  • ‘Gender neutral uniforms’ in some schools of Kerala have created a buzz, with a debate between those who support it and those who argue that there is an
  • issue with the fundamental idea of gender neutrality as well as the fact that shirts and trousers might not necessarily be the most comfortable clothing for all girls.
  • There have been five NEET-related suicides in 2021 itself, including a teen girl K Anu who succumbed to her injuries a month after she attempted suicide. NEET has been in the eye of the storm particularly after MK Stalin, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has initiated a political movement to repeal it.
  • The film Jai Bhim (dir. TJ Gnanavel, 2021) has been in the news for its depiction of the Irula and Koravar indigenous communities in Tamil Nadu. Recently, an Irula girl, Sangeetha, was in the news when she became the first in the Vallam block of Veeranamoor panchayat to go to college. Her parents are former bonded labourers in a brick kiln.
  • The Committee on the Empowerment of Women chaired by Maharashtra MP Heena Gavit tabled a report revealing the poor performance of the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme, with 80% of the funds being used for advertising and not on sectoral interventions.
  • The India Inequality Report (Oxfam) shows that women’s literacy has improved across groups, but SC/ST women still are worse off in educational deprivation. Muslim women’s literacy rate (64.3%) is lower than all religious groups but steadily improving.
  • There has been an overall increase of over 18% in female enrolment in higher educational institutes in the last five years, from 2015 to 2020. India also has a very high number of women registering for online courses, since the pandemic. The question remains – is this a good sign, or is this because they are finding it difficult to sustain in a traditional offline educational set-up due to the disruption of the pandemic?
  • Women schoolteachers outnumber men in the country for the first time ever, with 49.2 lakhs teachers out of the total 96.8 lakhs being women. Their working conditions, however, remain abysmal, worsened by mass contractualization and lack of job security.

Legal Desk

  • The proposed increase in age for marriage for women from 18 to 21 has created controversy. Many political and social groups have opposed the move, citing medical, social and economic reasons. While the government has cited maternal health and women’s education as reasons, experts argue that this is not backed by data or science as the root cause of such issues is not marriage but poverty, malnutrition, misinformation, and gendered exclusion. This was proposed by the Prime Minister in his Independence Day address, stoking concerns that this would disproportionately target rural communities, minorities and other indigenous communities. This can also be misused by parents opposing their children’s choice of partner, as it was done by applying kidnapping or habeas corpus cases.
  • The Women’s Reservation Bill was back in the news, partially thanks to Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi raising the issue. Still, while the bill itself is contentious, it remains a victim of political apathy, more than two decades after it was introduced in the Parliament in 1996. India is 148th in a list of 193 countries, based on the percentage of women representatives in their parliaments.
  • Two women journalists, Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha were arrested on grounds of disturbing communal harmony while reporting on the Tripura violence and later released on bail and granted relief by the Supreme Court.
  • CJI NV Ramana has asked women to push for 50% representation in the Indian judiciary, at a programme hosted by women lawyers of the SC to felicitate the newly appointed nine judges, including three women judges. It begs the question, however, beyond representation, how does the highest court envision gender justice?
  • Love jihad laws have been a raging topic all year – with many vigilante groups attacking couples, separating them and putting innocent Muslim youth behind bars. This, along with what is being dubbed the ‘religious conversion racket’, is a flagrant violation of India’s constitutional protection of religious freedom.
  • One year of Hathras’ case was observed in September by many women’s groups and organizations. The case is moving slowly, in a state limbo for the most part, as the entire state machinery is focused on harassing the family, who have been forced to sell their cattle, live isolated, depend on ration and live in fear. The victim’s brother was questioned for five hours in court. Meanwhile, journalists who dared to report on it languish in jail.
  • The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act was amended to extend possible termination pregnancy for some special categories of women – minors, victims of rape or incest, and women who become widows or divorcees while pregnant.
  • Population Control Bills have been introduced in multiple states, with proposed penalties on those couples who have more than two children, with incentives to have fewer children. This is based on a flawed understanding of population and human capital, wherein in reality, it is the gross accumulation of wealth by a few in India that causes lack of resources, not sheer population. This can also lead to forced sterilization, giving leeway to vigilante groups to further target religious minorities and in particular, Muslims.
  • An amendment to the Code of Wages proposes that conviction for sexual harassment can be grounds for denying bonus dues from the employer. This comes in a year when Priya Ramani, the journalist and writer, was acquitted of the defamation charges alleged by MJ Akbar when she had filed a case of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment has been taken more seriously in the last few years by civil society and movements, especially in the aftermath of the MeToo movement.

Some Inspirations

  • Recently, the Supreme Court declared that it would allow no more adjournments in the long-running Zakia Jafri case. Running into 23,000 pages, the case – and the aged

but determined petitioner – is witness to precisely what the government wishes to erase from history. She continues to fight the ‘clean chit’ and absolving of responsibility that has made the Gujarat 2002 a crime without a criminal, allowed to be forgotten in the public sphere. Despite her advancing age and ill-health, the case continues

    • It’s been a good year for women’s sports : The shooter Avani Lekhara became the first Indian woman to win two Paralympic medals. India’s women hockey team might have just missed a medal at the Olympics, but they won the hearts of many who followed their journey. This comes after a lot of struggle, with viewers and the government alike barely giving any attention to women’s sports overall. It was saddening to note how Vandana

Katariya’s family, one of the stars of the team, was harassed with casteist slurs and abuses after the loss. Her teammates, however, stood firmly by her and spoke up in her support.

  • Dr Roshan Jahan, a doctor who lost both legs in a railway accident thirteen years ago, completed her MD this year despite legal struggles, medical health issues including a bone tumour, and financial responsibilities. Her journey shows us that nothing is impossible, but more importantly, that instead of merely celebrating success stories, we need to create a society where women do not have to overcome mountains to achieve their most immediate dreams!
  • Kerala PhD scholar Deepa Mohanan’s hunger strike and victory in Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam marks a pivotal movement in the history of caste discrimination in Indian universities. The deaths of Dr Payal Tadvi and Fathima Latheef mark a sombre past; but the successful expulsion of Deepa’s harasser, Dr Nandakumar Kalairakkal, is a sign that students, particularly those coming from marginalized backgrounds, will not stay silent in the face of abuse.
  • Hidme Markam, a 28 year old former school cook who struggled to stop a government owned iron ore from being run by the Adani group languishes in jail. There were 29,000 Adivasi undertrials and 6000 in jail as of December 2019. She symbolizes the state of affairs in our country currently, where there is severe and swift punishment for any seeker of justice, but especially those who seek to represent their communities already pushed to the margins.
  • Haritha KK of Kerala became the first woman to captain a fishing vessel.
  • Khabar Lahariya, the only fully-women run news organization in India was recently featured in a documentary “Writing with Fire”, for their grassroots reporting in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
  • Tulasi Gowda, a 72-year old Halakki indigenous woman from Karnataka received the Padma Shri for her contribution to saving the environment.


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