Kerala women taking part in a protest (file photo)
If numbers have any meaning in development, women in the southern Indian state of Kerala are the most fortunate, say social scientists.
“But numbers do not reveal the real social status of women. They remain secondary to men in social, political and economic spheres, and Kerala is very patriarchal at heart,” says T. N. Seema, a communist member of parliament.
Kerala is the only state in India where women outnumber men.
According to a 2001 census, 51.4 per cent of the state’s 32 million people are women.
The state has an impressive sex ratio with 1,058 women for every 1,000 men, compared to the national average of 933. Life expectancy for women in Kerala is 76 years, while it is 61.8 years at national level.
“Yes the numbers do favor us. But the realities are against us,” said Seema, who has been working closely with women for the past two decades and actively campaigns for women’s rights.
Kerala women do not get their due share in society, she says.
“As in other states, Kerala women working as casual or unskilled labor are paid less than men for the same work,” she explained.
According to the census, 58 per cent of educated women are unemployed. Among 3.9 million jobseekers, 2.6 million are professionally qualified.
“As well as that, Kerala women are subjected to patriarchal neglect and social invisibility. For many, marriage has become a livelihood option and a dowry is paid for a secure life,” Seema explained.
According to her, a 50 per cent job allocation on local government bodies has made a qualitative improvement for women.
Slowly trends are changing and more women are taking part in active politics, Seema added.
However, there are some negative trends that are increasing.
B. Sandya, a senior police official in the state, said Kerala has a high rate of domestic violence.
“Crime and sexual violence against women is also increasing,” she said, adding that the “suicide rate among women is also on the rise.”
Sandya, 48, says Kerala women still have to establish their position in society. “Nobody will offer you something until you demand it. I don’t understand why Kerala women shy away from demanding what is theirs by right,” she added.
According to Sister Jesme, a former nun who wrote the controversial autobiography, Amen - Oru Kanyasthreeyude Atmakatha
(Amen Autobiography of a Nun) the status of women in the Catholic Church in Kerala mirrors society as a whole.
“Whether you are Hindu, Christian or Muslim, the mindset of society does not change,” Jesme asserted.
Women, she said, are abused, haunted and tortured. No woman can travel freely in Kerala. It’s a social tragedy in this state.
“In addition to the sexual issues, the mindset of people makes the lives of women difficult. Hopefully the next generation of women will get a better deal,” she said.