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Another International Women’s Day, another occasion for a national assessment of the status of women in a country where the glass ceiling is within reach but not broken, where health statistics are still determined by gender, where public entertainment is dominated by patriarchal cliches and where female foeticide continues despite strides in so many sectors.

It is often said that India lives in several centuries, its gleaming highrises resting uneasily against desperate poverty. And so it is with its women – the corporate boss in the city walking in stride with the woman sarpanch in the village but against a backdrop of child marriages, school dropouts, domestic violence and every other form of gender discrimination.

In the shifting sands of differing realities, figures tell their own story.

According to one report, India recorded the world’s highest number of maternal deaths in 2008 at 63,000, more than countries like Afghanistan and Ethiopia. The maternal mortality rate, the number of deaths per 100,000 live births, has improved but is still unacceptably high at 230 (in 2008), far from the millennium development goal of 109.

Gender disparities continue in education, nutrition and early marriage. According to a Unicef report, underweight prevalence among adolescent girls aged 15-19 years is 47 percent, the world’s highest; 30 percent of girls aged 15-19 are married or in union, compared to only five percent of boys in the same age.

The sex ratio is still skewed with 933 women to ever 1,000 males, and so is the literacy rate. According to the 2001 census, male literacy rate is 75.96 percent and female literacy rate 54.28 percent.

Add to this, dowry deaths, the girl child being killed in the womb, rape, sexual harassment at the workplace, unequal pay. the picture is sorry indeed.

There have been stirrings of change in a country that has a woman president, a woman speaker and a woman heading the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

Women have broken into many male-only preserves, and we have women pilots and taxi-drivers steering change. Women are making it big in the corporate sector, there are increasing numbers of women doctors, scientists and engineers.

In villages, some women are breaking the mould to enter the workstream in non-traditional roles such as plumbers, panchayat heads and have organised themselves into self-help groups.

‘. a very big difference has been made by reservation for women in panchayats. They are changing the image of women. However, women are still far behind in education and health and that worries us the most,’ said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research.

‘I think it’s great that women are entering every field. It’s about time!’ said Chandigarh-based Geeta Bector, vice president of (Product Development), Cremica Foods.

But are these only cosmetic changes, mere tokenisms that pale in the face of the larger reality and the lack of political will?

Parliament would be a good example. The 33 percent reservation for women is still a distant dream with only 10 percent women in parliament.

Annie Raja of the National Federation of Indian Women feels the delay in passing the women’s reservation bill is a major issue.

‘Political parties are not interested in bringing the bill. Atrocities on women are on the rise irrespective of their age, how they dress, whether they are educated or not. It is a very painful situation.’

The change has to come from within in a deeply traditional India, many sections of which still demand that its women fast for husbands and a male child and subsume their identity. Or objectify them to sell cars and washing machines.

It’s a stereotype that is driven home everyday – in advertisements, on television, in cinema. The Rs.587 billion media and entertainment industry banks heavily on women viewers but has done little to address their problems.

Women in our soaps are either portrayed as vicious or pathetically docile – perpetuating the age-old mother-in-law, daughter-in-law syndrome. Cinema is much the same. Though some filmmakers have broken new ground, the woman as a sex object is still a leitmotif in many films with a ‘Sheila ki jawaani’ item song seen to be a necessity to draw the crowds.

The polarisation runs deep, the segregation still near complete. Why would there be need for a separate women’s compartment in the Delhi Metro otherwise? Just last week, a man stopped a Delhi-Mumbai flight because the pilot was a woman.

Funny for some, a telling comment for others. Just like the status of women in the country this International Women’s Day.

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