India Semester Abroad

India Semester Abroad

University of Guelph

  An informal pre-departure orientation from a participant’s perspective.




Academic: Gender Equality

UG India Semester 2008

























Equality: What Is It All About?

Equality is a value that is embraced by most modern governments. In theory, this means that all people should have fair and equal access to resources, opportunities, treatment, and power. In its constitution, the Indian government swears to protect the equal rights of all citizens; however, in practice, access to these rights is often determined by gender, class, caste, and wealth.

How do these overlapping systems of oppression affect Indians? Lets take a look.


In India, men and women are far from equal. Only 30% of Indian women are literate, compared to 70% of men. There is a high rate of maternal death due to childbirth, women have a lower life expectancy, and there is an unnaturally low ratio of women to men (national average of 933:1000), in all states except Kerala.

What these statistics indicate is that there is a lower value placed on women than men, making them less likely to receive health care, education, and proper nutrition. This inequity comes out of the traditionally patriarchal culture of India, which gives little value to the social, political and economic contributions of women.

There have been vast improvements in the treatment of women over the last 50 years, allowing women more independence and increased access to resources. For example, India consistently has more female politicians in power than Canada or most other developed countries. Women are increasingly finding empowerment through involvement with NGOs, which increase recognition of women’s importance in the family and community.

Particularly in wealthy urban areas, women have far more opportunities and freedoms than ever before. Some Indian women attend university, live away from home, and choose their own partners just like most Canadians.

Nonetheless, most Indian women are still heavily pressured by the traditional stereotypes of feminine behaviour and have fewer rights than male family members.

Photo: Women take an increasingly active role in the economic, political, and social culture of India.




Class is determined by a combination of income level, mode of production, and birth. Class determines how people interact, the types of networks that they access for support, and the power politics between groups.

People who are perceived to be of a higher class (with a high income, respected profession, or high-class parents) are often seen to be intrinsically better and more worthy of influence. As a result, elite groups of high-class citizens often exert an unequal amount of power over Indian politics, economics, and society.


In India, class is almost synonymous with the caste system, which developed under Aryan rule over 3000 years ago.

In the caste system, all Hindus are born into a particular caste and sub-caste. There are 4 varnas (castes), each with a traditionally corresponding profession and strictly defined rank: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriya (warrior), Vaishya (merchants), and Shudra (farmers). Below these are grouped Dalits (also known as Untouchables or Scheduled Castes), and Adivasis (often called Tribals).

Since the caste which people are born into is determined by virtuous behaviour in their past lives, high caste is seen as proof of superiority. Lower castes must therefore follow specific behaviours when interacting with higher castes (such as not touching bodies or even shadows).

Although the caste system was banned at Independence, it still has a strong influence on society. Political parties often rely on caste solidarity to get votes, and higher castes are more likely to be wealthy.

Photo: Children at a residential school for Adivasis perform a welcoming dance in our honour ... in return, we did a very successful rendition of "5 Green and Speckled Frogs"!



As discussed in the economics section, India has very unequal distribution of wealth. In Bihar and Orissa, the country's poorest states, at least half of the population is estimated to be under the poverty line. (This should be contrasted with only 10% in some other states). Although the rate of poverty has decreased since Independence, steady population growth means that the total number of Indians in poverty have increased.

Wealth is often a crucial factor in human security. The poorest people in India are those with extremely limited resources, in terms of land, education, or social networks.

If the poor are unable to make enough income to cover their most basic needs (such as food, water, fuel, shelter), it is much more difficult for them to access their right to education, health, and political participation. Likewise, it is hard for people to demand basic needs from the government if they don't have freedom. Which should come first? The jury is still out on that one.

Overlapping Oppression

It is important to remember that none of these groups is homogeneous. Not all women have the same wants or needs, just as not all Dalits have the same experience of being marginalizes. The categories of gender, class, caste, and wealth are useful tools for understanding Indian society, but they should seen as overlapping groups and not distinct categories.

For example, a woman may be marginalized by her caste and low-class status, but be empowered by her personal wealth. Similarly, a male farmer may have more power than his wife, but still have limited access to education and employment because of his poverty. Clearly, it is a combination of gender, class, caste, and wealth, which determines the level of equality experienced by individuals Indians.

Development projects often target the most marginalized groups, offering them skills, resources, and services to enable equal opportunities.The state has a hotly-debated system of positive discrimination, which reserves a percentage of seats at all levels of government for women and lower castes. Similarly, most universities offer significant assistance to low-income and low-caste individuals. These are important steps but have yet to translate India's ideals of equality into practice.




For an excellent in-depth look at gender equality in India, download the pdf version of the UN report "Women in india: How Free? How Fair?"

For a positive spin on the caste system and more information about caste professions, check out The Varna and Juti Systems.

Curious about the Role of Caste in Modern India?

Find out more about what the Indian government is doing about poverty at Livelihood Options, a research project on poverty, policy, and diversification. Guelph Professor Craig Johnson has made several contributions to the research, which you can find in the "Project Output: Papers" section of the site.

Reason for hope: a short case study of the urban poor's fight for fair treatment.

If you are looking for a more academic analysis of the issues, have a look at this UNDP Report.


Updated: 2006 November 16