The Worst Place to Be a Woman in the G20

June 19, 2012

Indian women protest
According to TrustLaw's latest poll, India is the worst place to be a woman among G20 states (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

This week the G20, or the group of the world’s major economies, is convening in Mexico to consider progress and define new commitments toward economic growth and a shared agenda for the world’s wealthiest nations.

Ahead of the meetings, I participated in an expert poll conducted by TrustLaw Women, a project of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, to determine which G20 countries are the best and worst for women.

Our analysis–that reflects the views of 370 gender specialists from five continents and most of the G20 nations–found Canada to be the best G20 country for women. The worst? Perhaps a surprise: Not Saudi Arabia, but India.

This may not seem immediately obvious, given the company India is keeping. Saudi Arabia, infamous for violations of women’s human rights that range from the severe (there are no laws against domestic violence, citizenship can not be inherited from the mother and a woman’s testimony in court is worth half that of a man) to the absurd (restrictions on women’s ability to drive come to mind).

Then there’s Mexico, where Amnesty has documented extensive violence against women. There’s domestic violence. Violence associated with the country’s raging drug and gang wars. Police brutality in Atenco. Vulnerable groups, like migrants and the maquiladoras, face particular threat: In Ciudad Juarez we’ve documented the murderous campaign against women working in the city’s garment factories, and activists in Mexico have told me stories of women who go on birth control as they pass through the country, because they’re certain they’ll be raped along their way to the U.S.

So why India? Isn’t this the land of fifty percent quotas for women’s leadership in local government, or panchayats? Is it not the host of a vibrant civil society network of female activists pushing for women’s social, economic and political opportunities, from the villages to the the mega-cities of Mumbai and Delhi?

To understand why India is indeed the worst G20 country for women, we have to look at the status of women across the life cycle, from birth to death.

india women graphic
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Let’s start at the very beginning. A girl is born. Or is she? Some of India’s provinces have among the most extreme male-to-female sex ratios in the world. I was just in Mumbai, one of the world’s financial capitals, where only 860 girls are born to every 1000 boys (there are naturally slightly more girls than boys born).

The convergence of discriminatory norms for son preference, the threat of economic ruin for families facing dowry debt, and the accessibility of technology means Indian families are aborting girls right and left. On a global level, the World Bank’s 2012 World Development report estimates that there are nearly 4 million “missing women” each year, more than a third of which is due to son preference and sex-selective abortions.


What of girlhood? If the female fetus makes it to term and survives childbirth—two difficult feats—she’s less likely to receive equal access to education and health benefits than male children. School is only supported to the 7th grade, whereupon families have to take on the cost of educating children, who may have to travel outside of their local neighborhood to attend classes. For poor girls, this often spells the end of their education, as families are either unwilling to pay or girls are kept home for their own “protection.”

Then there’s the prospect of child marriage lurking round the corner. Roughly ten million girls are wed before the age of 18 around the world each year. Child brides are less likely to receive a full education and have skills to support themselves, and severely more likely to die in childbirth as their own bodies are still developing.

Though country rankings for child marriage tend to focus on percentage of child brides of overall population (India is 17th at 44.5% of girls married before 18), research by the International Center for Research on Women emphasizes the importance of looking at the number of child brides and at-risk girls, where India takes the cake due to its huge population and continued prevalence of the practice.


If she safely reaches adulthood, a woman still faces discriminatory norms that make it difficult for her to move about and pursue her dreams. The chance that she’ll face violence–either in her own home or being harassed on the street–is high, and the likelihood that the perpetrator will be held accountable very low.

Millions of women and girls are claimed by India’s huge sex trade, either as prostitutes, or sex slaves–India is a destination, source and transit country for sex trafficking. For prostituted women, the threat of violence, infection and social marginalization is acute.

The Golden Years?

A woman’s old age is by no means golden. Two-thirds of the country’s 60 million elderly women report facing abuse and harassment. They are more likely to be impoverished, surviving their husbands with little income or skills to support themselves. An estimated 62% are illiterate.

Widows are particularly marginalized. Some traditions cast widows out of their homes and communities, prohibiting them from remarrying and condemning them to live out the rest of their days in mourning. The city of Vrindavan is famous for this; thousands of impoverished widows live in its streets.

Although the Indian Hindu custom of sati, that instructs women to self-immolate over their husbands’ funeral pyres, is no longer much in practice and is explicitly outlawed, it surfaces occasionally in northern and central regions of the country.

The practice epitomizes the ultimate injustice: that a woman is only of value to the extent to which she is attached to and subservient to a man, and that a woman’s life should be snuffed out at the moment she no longer has a husband to serve.