New Delhi: More than a quarter of the women surveyed in seven states said they had experienced domestic violence, data released in the first phase of the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS) indicate.

Nine states reported an increase in the number of women who said they had faced sexual violence as children, and eight states reported a decline in their sex ratios. A marginally higher share of women said they had worked in the last year and were paid in cash--and not in kind--but the numbers could be misleading, experts say.

The National Family Health Survey is a nationally representative household survey that covers over 400,000 households, asking questions around marriage, fertility, vaccinations and health status, among others. This edition of the survey pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic that has seen a disproportionate impact on women in terms of gender-based violence as well as employment.

If initial trends indicated by data from the first phase of the survey hold for subsequent phases, many gains made in the recent past with regard to women and children's health and wellbeing could be reversed, as we reported on December 13.

More women report having worked in the past 12 months

While NFHS reports a marginal increase in the percentage of women who said they had worked for cash, it does not factor in the effect of the pandemic on India's already low female labour force participation (FLFP) of 24%, as recorded in the 2018 Economic Survey.

Employment data released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) for November 2020 indicate that 13% fewer women than a year ago were employed or looking for a job, compared to 2% fewer men, as IndiaSpend reported on December 15. Since 2011, close to 25 million women have fallen off the labour map in India and, as of November, according to CMIE, an additional 6.7 million women have been out of work since the beginning of the pandemic.

NFHS, however, reports that 17 of the 22 states and UTs show an increase in paid work for women in 2019-20 as compared to 2015-16.

Telangana had the highest percentage of women who said they had worked and were paid in cash in the past 12 months (45.1%, up from 44.7% in 2015-16), followed by Manipur (42.1% from 40.9%) and Andhra Pradesh (42.1%, the same as last time).


However, "gains in employment recorded by NFHS are too small to count, especially when you consider the five-year time lag between the last NFHS and this one", said economist Mitali Nikore.

In Bihar, only 12.6% of women said they had been paid cash for work, as did 19% in Assam and 20.2% in Himachal Pradesh.

Mahesh Vyas, managing director and CEO, CMIE, questioned the NFHS's definition of 'work' as an indicator of labour force participation. "Looking at only cash payment is too restrictive and would underestimate FLFP," he said.

But NFHS is useful in broader trends to women's employment in India. The southern states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have done much better than the northern states and this reflects attitudes to women's employment, said Nikore. "There is less mobility restriction and greater value attached to the education of women in the southern states," she said.

Similarly in the north-east, Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland are more welcoming of the idea of women in the workforce, she said. "Overall, the bottom-line is the same. Women are falling off the labour map because of social attitudes towards them."

In Karnataka, nearly every second woman reported facing domestic violence

The COVID-19 pandemic might have made another important gender data point of the NFHS redundant: gender-based violence. Activists and even the National Commission of Women (NCW) reported an exponential rise in domestic violence during the pandemic--particularly during the lockdown.

Even before the pandemic set in, the percentage of married women who reported facing physical or sexual violence from a spouse had more than doubled in Karnataka--from 20.6% five years ago to 44.4% in 2019-20, NFHS data show. While 15 other states and UTs have recorded a decline in spousal violence, more than a quarter of the women surveyed have reported facing such violence in seven of the 22 states.

In Bihar, as many as 40% of women continue to be victims of spousal violence even though the figure has come down from 43.7% in 2015-16.


In six states and UTs, fewer than 10% women reported facing such violence.

"NFHS is the government's own data and if the figures are so high pre-pandemic, one shudders to think what it will be like post-pandemic," said Sohini Bhattacharya of Breakthrough India, a women's rights organisation that works towards ending violence against women.

Nine states have also seen an increase in the numbers of young women who said they had been subject to sexual violence as children. But this, said Bhattacharya, could also indicate a greater willingness by women to talk about and report sexual abuse. "There is far less stigma than there previously was," she said.


Gujarat reported worst sex ratio among 17 states

Eight states and UTs reported a decline in the sex ratio--the number of females for every 1,000 males, data show. Gujarat is the state to have reported the lowest ratio at 965 females per 1,000 males.


Among the 17 states surveyed for phase one of NFHS 2019-20, Goa has recorded the worst sex ratio at birth for children born in the last five years--with just 838 females for every 1,000 males--a decline from 966 in 2015-16.

In Bihar, the sex ratio at birth fell from 934 in 2015-16 to 908, while the sex ratio for the state's overall population went up marginally from 1,062 to 1,090.

Kerala, hailed for having a positive sex ratio at birth of 1,047 girls for every 1,000 boys in 2015-16, has seen a setback with a slide to 951.

Meghalaya, another state with positive sex ratio at birth of 1,009 in 2015-16 now has 989 girls for 1,000 boys. In the north-east, Nagaland too has seen declining sex ratio at birth from 953 in 2015-16 to 945 in 2019-20.


In Maharashtra, sex ratio at birth for children born in the past five years slipped from 924 to 913 during the same period.

Data for states like Punjab (sex ratio of 860 in the 2015-16 NFHS under-five category) and Haryana (836), which recorded the country's worst sex ratio and from where Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao flagship scheme in January 2015, are not available in the first phase of NFHS 2019-20.

Two parameters have seen distinct, dramatic improvements. The first is the number of bank accounts operated directly by women. States such as Bihar and Manipur have reported an increase from 26.4% to 76.7%, and 34.8% to 74%, respectively.

The second is the increasing use by young women of hygienic sanitary methods during menstruation in all the 22 states and UTs, barring Mizoram, where numbers fell from 93.4% to 89.8%. States where over 90% of women use hygienic methods of menstruation include Goa (96.8%), Kerala (93%), Telangana (92.1%) and Himachal Pradesh (91.5%).

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