Page 1 of 2 Women's natural role overlooked in India
By Abhismita Sen
"You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women," said Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India. The empowerment of women has emerged as a sine qua non of progress in recent times. 
The 2013 Report "The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World", released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), noted that India is ranked 136 among 186 countries in the UN's Human Development Index (HDI).
The related Gender Inequality Index ranked India at 132 and the Inequality Adjusted HDI rank was 91, as measured by this
composite index of reproductive health, years of schooling, parliamentary representation, and participation in the labor market. 
The 2011 Human Development Report "Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All" offers important new contributions to the global dialogue on this challenge, showing how sustainability is inextricably linked to basic questions of equity - that is, of fairness and social justice and of greater access to a better quality of life.
Sustainability is not exclusively or even primarily an environmental issue, as the report so persuasively argues. It is fundamentally about how we choose to live our lives. There must be an awareness that everything this generation does has consequences for the 7 billion of us here today, as well as for the billions more who will follow, for centuries to come.
Major disparities in power shape these patterns. New analysis shows how power imbalances and gender inequalities at the national level are linked to reduced access to clean water and improved sanitation, land degradation and deaths due to indoor and outdoor air pollution, amplifying the effects associated with income disparities.
Gender inequalities also interact with environmental outcomes and make them worse. At the global level, governance arrangements often weaken the voices of developing countries and exclude marginalized groups.
Women in poor countries are disproportionately involved in subsistence farming and water collection, they face greater adverse consequences of environmental degradation. Many indigenous peoples also rely heavily on natural resources and live in ecosystems especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as small, island developing States, arctic regions and high altitudes.
According to a study by UNICEF, the principal collectors of water in an Indian household are women between the ages of 15 to 35 years collecting about 192 liters of water a day for an average household. 
Girls are more often adversely affected because they are more likely to combine resource collection and schooling. Access to clean water and improved sanitation is also especially important for girls' education, affording them health gains, time savings and privacy.
Historically, women's intimate knowledge of nature has helped to sustain life. With colonial intervention and capitalist development, production in traditional societies was disrupted. It resulted in a capitalist economy dominated by men in charge of production of exchange-commodities, while women were pushed increasingly into the domestic sphere, responsible mainly for reproducing the workforce and social relations. Under the capitalist system, reproduction is subordinate to production and the sustainability of nature is ignored.
Women have long been neglected in the process of development; a secondary role is usually assigned to them whether in taking part in crucial issues related to development as beneficiaries of the process itself. Women's participation in development is a positive concept, related to their ambitions and aspirations that symbolize their conviction about their personalities in relation to society.
An analysis of the past efforts at development of women only reflects discontent with respect to their status and position. A host of realities ranging from pervasive poverty to lack of dignity and economic independence become evident. Sustainable development therefore directly reinforces permeation of quality in developmental efforts related to women, with pronounced concern for justice, equality and economic freedom for women.
The Gender Inequality Index (GII), updated this year for 145 countries, shows how reproductive health constraints contribute to gender inequality.  This is important because in countries where effective control of reproduction is universal, women have fewer children, with attendant gains for maternal and child health and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
For instance, in Cuba, Mauritius, Thailand and Tunisia, where reproductive healthcare and contraceptives are readily available, fertility rates are below two births per woman. However, substantial unmet need persists worldwide, and evidence suggests that if all women could exercise reproductive choice, population growth would slow enough to bring greenhouse gas emissions below current levels.
The GII also focuses on women's participation in political decision-making, highlighting that women lag behind men across the world, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Arab States. This has important implications for sustainability and equity. Because women often shoulder the heaviest burden of resource collection and are the most exposed to indoor air pollution, they are often more affected than men by decisions related to natural resources. Recent studies reveal that not only is women's participation important but also how they participate - and how much.
In addition, because women often show more concern for the environment, support pro-environmental policies and vote for pro-environmental leaders, their greater involvement in politics and in non-governmental organizations could result in environmental gains, with multiplier effects across all the Millennium Development Goals.
These arguments are not new, but they reaffirm the value of expanding women's effective freedoms. Thus, women's participation in decision-making has both intrinsic value and instrumental importance in addressing equity and environmental degradation.
The government of India had floated zealously its grand ideas for the country by declaring the year 2001 as Women's Empowerment Year, with a focus on achieving the "vision in the new century of a nation where women are equal partners with men".
What followed was a spate of programs and schemes with fine names: Swashakti and Stree Shakti for women's empowerment; Swayam Siddha to benefit nearly 100,000 women through microcredit programs, Balika Samrudhi Yojana for the girl child and a number of other projects, doubtlessly launched with the intention of creating a greater common good. 
In contrast to the tragedies of communities affected by drought, flood or civil conflict, the poverty, powerlessness and ill health which accompany illiteracy are not easily captured on the camera and brought to the attention of international public opinion. Today, 125 million primary school age children are not in school in India; most of them are girls. 
The current literacy rate for women in India stands at 65.46%, compared to 80% for males. Efforts are, however, being made to raise standards for the girl child. There are several programs being undertaken. 
Women are the major contributors in terms of economic output, but their contribution still remains invisible. Men and women are not equally distributed across the types of work.