Are women better off today, or worse off? The answers, like most things in India today, are contradictory.

On February 26, the front pages of many newspapers carried a report about a man who delayed a Delhi-Mumbai flight because he did not want to be flown by a woman pilot. After everyone had boarded, and the plane was ready to take off, he heard during the routine announcements made before take-off, the name of the captain. It was a woman! He was adamant that he wanted to get off and reportedly told a fellow passenger, “I don't want to die! She can't handle her home, how will she handle a plane.”

The drama ended after several hours when the passenger was persuaded to apologise to the woman pilot and to the women on the crew. The airline explained that the passenger was of “unsound mind”.

Shared perception?

So we can laugh it off. A cranky passenger holds up a flight. Does that mean the majority of men fear for their lives if a woman is piloting a plane? Probably not. Yet, do men secretly ask the same question: Can she really handle a plane, a business, a bank, the stock market, a newspaper, a TV channel, the defence department, the police etc etc?

In this day of political correctness, few voice such apprehensions openly. There are always the exceptions. Like Maharashtra Industries Minister Narayan Rane. Speaking at a seminar on women and politics in Mumbai on February 24, Rane took the bull by the horns and stated his position: “It's all very well to demand women's quotas in politics but take care of the house and children first,” he reportedly told his largely female audience. “That is our sanskriti and that is what I believe.” Not a hint of political correctness there. Yet, is the minister exceptional in having such views, that women should abide by our ‘sanskriti' first and then worry about things like political participation, or is he echoing the thoughts of the majority of men in this country?

In the context of March 8, International Women's Day, we do have to ask these questions. Are Indian women better off today, or worse off? Has there been change, or do we still have a long way to go? Have mindsets and perceptions about women's role, their status, their worth to society changed or does it largely remain the same?

Just as India's economic growth story is one of contrasts and contradictions, so too is that of women's status in India.

On February 28, even as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee was reading the budget in Parliament, the last day of the census exercise ended. For three weeks, 2.7 million enumerators have collected data on our 1.2 billion people. It is being called the biggest census ever attempted anywhere in the world.

For Indian women, the census data holds a special significance. In 2003, the results of the 2001 census were made public. And one of the more shocking statistics that emerged was the male-female ratio. It shook up policy makers and those fighting for women's rights. For, despite economic growth, health programmes, specific mother and child programmes, the sex ratio in the zero to six years group was heavily skewed in favour of boys. Girls were either not being born, or were dying before they reached the age of six.

The story of entrenched son-preference leading to the misuse of technology for sex-selection is now well known. But it was the 2001 census that gave us the real picture, the actual numbers. Will the 2011 census indicate an improvement, or a further decline? We will have to wait until 2013 for that.

Perplexing

In the meantime, there is always news that defies the logic of sex selection and the declining sex ratio. Haryana, the state with one of the lowest ratios of women to men, has been producing a slew of remarkable women athletes. They shone not just during the Commonwealth and Asian games last year but just last week the Haryana women's hockey team came away with a gold medal in the recently concluded National games. How is this happening? Are Haryanvis finally valuing their women more than they did in the past?

Admittedly, these visible signs of change do not represent the whole story. We should not delude ourselves into believing that a few women making it to the top in the world of sport, business, media, or any other arena where women were formerly not noticed, means that Indian women have overcome all barriers. It is also true that the signs of change are more visible in urban areas where you now see women everywhere – even at the on-going World Cup matches as never before.

Just as the census figures will finally confirm whether the efforts to make a dent on son-preference are allowing more girls to be born and to survive their first six years, the latest report by UNICEF on the State of the World's Children reminds us of the distance still to be travelled.

Focusing this time on adolescents (15-19 years), UNICEF's data is not reassuring. It covers the estimated 243 million adolescents in India and points out that 56 per cent of adolescent girls in India are anaemic, that 30 per cent of them are married, and that three out of five women in the age group 20-49 were also married as adolescents. Despite the ban on child marriage, 29 per cent of adolescent girls in urban areas, and 56 per cent in rural areas are married before they turn 18. Worse still, the data reveals that one in five women in the age group 20-49 years had given birth before they turned 18.

Read together, this means that millions of girls, who are underweight and anaemic, become wives and mothers before their bodies are ready to bear children. And these are the women who then form part of the depressing statistic of maternal deaths in this country.

Such data does not discount the real victory of the Haryana girls on the sports field. The media, in its constant effort to appear celebratory about India, tends to discount one reality while overplaying the other. But both are part of the same story, one that indicates some success and many failures.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com