Peeling the Gender Onion

Gender inequality and societal norms around women in India

Author: Pushpraj Dalal

Director, Bhajan Global Impact Foundation

Tag(s) : Gender Equality

During the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, 1995, the Beijing Declaration committed participating governments to ‘encourage men to participate fully in all actions towards equality.’ As the male remains dominant in gender relations, women continue to be marginalised (Ruxton, 2004). Research conducted on males in numerous settings has shown how inequitable and rigid gender norms influence men’s practices on a wide range of issues, including HIV/STI prevention, contraceptive use, domestic chores, physical violence, caregiving, and health-seeking behaviour (Marsiglio, 1988; Kimmel, n.d.;Barker, 2005).

This article attempts to analyse issues related to gender inequality in India in Section One, and examines the prevalent gender norms in Section Two. It concludes with an exploration into the activeparticipation of men and boys towards achieving gender equality.

Key Issues related to Gender Inequality in India

  • Violence against women.Women are at the risk of violence from both intimate partners as well as strangers. Reliable prevalence data on both types of violence is difficult to obtain because this crime often goes unreported by both victims and the police (ICRW, 2005). There is a high prevalence of intimate partner violence in India, with 52 percent of the women surveyed reporting that they had experienced some form of violence during their lifetime, and 60 percent of men stating that they have acted violently against their wife/partner at some point in their lives. According to the study, men who exerted control through violence varied in age, educational level, place of residence, and caste group. Educated men and women who were thirtyfive years old or more were less likely to perpetrate or experience violence (Priya, 2014). A study conducted to understand individual and contextual determinants of intimate partner violence in north India states that the divergent effects of socioeconomic status on physical versus sexual violence are of particular interest, in individual-level risk factors. Although higher levels of education among both husbands and wives and greater household wealth were found to be highly protective factors against the risk of physical violence, no such associations were evident with respect to sexual violence. In fact, women married to more educated husbands (seven or more years of schooling) experienced significantly higher risks of coercive sexual intercourse (Koenig, 2006).
  • Son preference and adverse sex ratio.Astrong son preference in India is rooted in the patrilineal and patrilocal kinship system that tends to place strong normative pressure on families to produce at least one son. Traditionally, sons are essential to continue family lines, perform ancestral worship, fend for aged parents, and so on. Sons are preferred because having a son helps improve a mother’s ‘status and acceptability’within the family and a father’s masculinity and reputation’ within the community. Men and women without a son often experience strong pressures from the extended family and humiliation within the community (Michael A Koenig, 2006). The outcome of son preference can be measured by:
  • Mothers’ gender preference for their family composition, measured by women’s ideal combination of sons and daughters if they could start their families over; and
  • Gender differentials in child health, which can be measured by two variables:
    • Severe stunting; and
    • Level of immunisations(Malhotra, 2006).
  • Early marriage. Early marriage contributes to a series of negative consequences, both for young girls and the societies in which they live. Young married girls are at a greater risk of reproductive morbidity and mortality. The timing of early marriage almost always disrupts a girl’s education, reducing her opportunities for future financial independence through work. Young women are often married to men who are much older and find themselves in new homes with greater responsibilities, without much autonomy or decision-making power and an inability to negotiate sexual experiences within marriage. This relative lack of power is associated with higher levels of violence in marriage and higher rates of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, including HIV/AIDS (Sanyukta Mathur, 2003).
  • Reproductive health constraints. There are gender-based constraints and reproductive health effects among young women because of social taboos surrounding reproductive and sexual health. Many young married women are too embarrassed to voice their needs and instead forgo health services. In rural Tamil Nadu, 53percent of married women, aged 16-22 years, reported symptoms of reproductive tract infections (RTIs), but two-thirds of them did not seek treatment, largely because of perceived stigma and embarrassment (Pandeet al., 2006).


Prevailing Gender Norms in India

  • Patriarchal norms in society. The term patriarchy means ‘the absolute rule of the father or the eldest male member over his family’. Literally, patriarchy means subordination of a social unit by a male leader or head (for example, a family, tribe, organised religion, caste, or social group). A summary report prepared by ICRW (2002)onstudies conducted in Punjab, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu indicates that violence is associated with rigid adherence to gender roles and expectations related to the notion of ‘masculinity’. Men reporting all forms of violence demonstrated restrictive notions of what women can and should do, while men reporting no violence disagreed with these restrictive notions. As expected, in keeping with their emphasis of control and power, sexually violent men are less concerned about women fulfilling prescribed responsibilities, and are more concerned about what women should be allowed to do outside the immediate bounds of their expected roles (ICRW, 2002).
  • Gender norms within households. A multi-country household survey to understand gender equality among more than 8,000 men and 3,500 women (aged 18-59 years)shows the population in India to have the most inequitable attitudes. 10 percent of men in Brazil, 61 percent, in Rwanda, and more than 80 percent, in India, agreed with the statement, ‘changing diapers, bathing kids, and feeding kids are the mother’s responsibility’. The survey also showed that married men and men with higher educational attainment had more equitable attitudes, whereas unmarried men had the least equitable attitudes (Promundo, n.d.).
  • Social norms about men’s ‘right’ to beat their wives. Structural aspects of groups – such as gender and nationality – influence beliefs regarding both gender and gender relationships. Beliefs that blame women for their victimisation, in turn, provide legitimacy to violence against women. A cross-national study with 189 male and female college students (with mean age of 19 years) from the undergraduate programme was undertaken. Beliefs appeared to be consistent with prevalent restrictive norms for women such as, those related to physical and social mobility, working outside the home and negotiation in intimate relationships, InIndia, Japan, and Kuwait than in the United States. (Nayak, 2003).
  • Social norms related to decisions and empowerment.Data collected on gender equality and women’s empowerment in India during the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 4 (2015-16)suggests that the gender differential is in agreement for almost all identified seven reasons related to justification for wife beating, social mobility, household responsibility, not fulfilling husband’s desire, and being unfaithful (to name a few). Further data suggests that the level of socialisation regarding this norm is similar for women and men.Attitudes toward wife beating have not changed very much since NFHS-3.
  • Social norms related to reproductive health decisions.Norms and attitudes that put men in a position of sexual dominance have dire consequences for women’s ability to control their own reproductive and sexual health. Social norms frequently hold that it is the male’s responsibility to procure condoms, since for a female to carry condoms may be perceived by society as being‘promiscuous’(Weiss, 2002). Gender-based power dynamics exacerbate these issues, and women often cannot negotiate condom use when they wish to do so (Pulerwitz, 2002).
  • Familial norms related to financial decisions.NFHS3 (2006) discusses the level of participation of women in financial decision-makingby measuring the extent of control over the use of own earnings. Stark differences between such participation by men and women point to gender inequalities that exist in the control of own earnings as well. More than 50 percentof earning, married women (aged 15-49 years),need their husband’s consent for the use of their own earnings. Men are also more likely to have unilateral decision-making authority in financial matters (ibid.).
  • Familial norms related tohousehold decisions. NFHS-3 (2016) reveals that women are most likely have freedom to decide about their own healthcare (62 percent), followed closely by decisions about visits to own family or relatives (61 percent), and then by decisions about purchases for daily needs (60 percent). Women are least likely to participate in decisions about large household purchases (53 percent). The multi-nation study on male attitudes shows that around 81 percent of Indian males agreed to the norm that‘a man should have the final word about decisions in his home’ (Barker, 2011). These statistics suggest that although women have relatively more agency on household decisions, ‘gender equality’ isyet to be achieved.

Recognising the importance of engaging men and boys mirrors the guidelines set out in the UN’s Sustainable Developments Goal5 on Gender Equality. It was also considered important to engage with both girls and boys at formative stages of their lives before gender biases and social norms are fully internalised. These efforts should aim to transform aspects of masculinity that are harmful to the socioeconomic progress, not only of women and girls, but to all members of society. Men and boys should not only be trained in healthy masculinity but also be involved in all levels of gender-based violence prevention and response (Anon., 2015).

There is a plethora of information on programmes that address the prevailing social norms against women(Anon., 2007). A question that comes to mind is if there are some indicators of attitude and behaviour that are more important than others in addressing these gender unequal social norms. There is also a need to understand the effect of policies in terms of how they can more adequately engage men and boys in achieving gender equality and reducing gender disparities in health and social welfare. It is also imperative to understand how underlying social norms and institutions can be changed to support men and boys in becoming more genderequitable. (Barker, n.d.).

There is evidence on emerging innovations in different parts of the world that are bringing about women’s empowerment through technology use for social norm change (Half the sky), and economic resilience (Impact of MNREGA). These innovations may achieve other goals, but they are only likely to generate large-scale change for women by mobilising them in the community (Petesch, 2009).


(ICRW), I. C. f. R. o. W., 2005. VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN MUST STOP, Washington, DC: ICRW.

: Barker, G. C. J. H. B. S. R. a. N. M., 2011. . Evolving Men: Initial Results from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey, Washington, DC: International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Promundo.

Achyut P., B. N. K. S. M. S. a. V. R., 2011. [Online]
Available at: click here
[Accessed 18 September 2018].

Anon., 2003. Gender, sexuality and HIV: making a difference in the lives of young women in developing countries. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 15(3).

Anon., 2007. Engaging Men and Boys To Achieve Gender Equality: Engaging Men and Boys To Achieve Gender Equality, s.l.: ICRW.

Anon., 2015. Transformation by 2030: How Ending Gender-Based Violence and Engaging Men and Boys will Contribute to the World’s Next Development Framework, DC: ICRW.

BASIC CONCEPTS : SEX AND GENDER, M. A. F. P., n.d.  [Online]
Available at: click here
[Accessed 20 September 2018].

Council., C. a. H., 2008. Sakhi Saheli: Promoting Gender Equity and Empowering Young Women – A Training Manual, New Delhi: Population Council.

Council, P., 2006. Yaari Dosti: Young Men Redefine Masculinity, New Delhi: Population Council.

Dangi, K. S. a. S., 2011. Married Migrant Women in Haryana: A Pilot Study. Journal of Psychosocial Research, 6(2), pp. 265-273.

ELLEN WEISS, D. W. &. G. R. G., 2002. Gender, sexuality and HIV: making a difference in the lives of young women in developing countries. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 15(3), pp. 233-245.

Garry Barker, C. R., 2005. Young Men and the Construction of Masculanity in Sub Saharan Africa: Implications of HIV/AIDS, Conflict, and Violence, Washington,DC: The World Bank.

Gary Barker, C. R. a. M. N., 2007. Engaging men and boys in changing gender-based inequity in health: Evidence from programme interventions, Geneva: WHO.

Gary Barker, M. E. G. E. G. S. M. N. M. S. C. R. J. G. F. J. F. J. R. R. M. R. J. D. P. F. A. M. S. A., n.d. WHAT MEN HAVE TO DO WITH IT: Public Policies to Promote Gender Equality, s.l.: International Center for Research on Women & Instituto Promundo.

Gill, S. M. &. K. K., 2011. Human Development and Gender: A Feminist Perspective of Haryana. Journal of Economics and Social Development, 7(2), pp. 48-61.


ICRW, 2002. Men masculinity and domestic violence in India: Summary report of four studies, s.l.: ICRW.

Jatrana, S., 2014. Explaining Gender Disparity in Child Health in Haryana State of India, s.l.: Research Gare.

Kimmel, M., n.d. The Gendered Society, Newyork: Oxford University Press.

Madhabika B. Nayak, C. A. B. M. K. M., 2003. Attitudes Toward Violence Against Women: A Cross-Nation Study. Sex Roles, 49(7/8).

Malhi, D. P., 1995. Influence of Gender Preference for Children on Fertility Behavior : A Comparative Study of Men and Women in Haryana. The Journal of Family Welfare, 41(2), pp. 53-60.

Malhotra, R. P. a. A., 2006. Son Preference and Daughter Neglect, s.l.: ICRW.

Marsiglio, W., 1988. Adolescent Male Sexuality and Heterosexual Masculinity: A Conceptual Model and Review. Journal For Adolescent Research, 3(3-4), pp. 285-303.

Michael A Koenig, S. A. R. B. S. J. C. C., 2006. Individual and Contextual Determinants of Intimate Partner Violence in North India. American Journal of Public Health, 96(1).

Nanda Priya, G. A. V. R. K. A. K. N. B. D. B. S. a. K., 2014. Study on Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference in India, New Delhi: International Center for.


Petesch, A. M. J. S. P. P. P., 2009. Innovation for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality, s.l.: ICRW.

Promundo, I. C. f. R. o. W. &. a. I., n.d. Evolving Men: Initial Results from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey, s.l.: s.n.

Pulerwitz J, A. H. D. J. W. G. S. R. R., 2002. Relationship power, condom use and HIV risk among women in the USA. AIDS Care, 14(6), pp. 789-800.

Ruxton, S., 2004., Oxford, UK: Oxfam Gb.

Sanyukta Mathur, M. G. A. M., 2003. Too Young to Wed The Lives, Rights, and Health of Young Married Girls, Washinton, DC: ICRW.

Sethi, I. G. a. N., 2007. Mapping out Gender Dynamics of Farming Systems of Haryana. Journal of Economics and Social Development, 14(3), pp. 281-288.

Verma, R. J. P. V. S. M. S. K. A. K. S. S. S. D. S. M. A. N. G. B., 2008. Promoting Gender Equity as a Strategy to Reduce HIV Risk and Gender-based Violence Among Young Men in India , Washington, DC: Population Council.