How Empowered are Indian Rural Women?

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 focuses on “Achieve[-ing] gender equality and empower[-ing] all women and girls’, and recognizes that ‘women and girls, everywhere, must have equal rights and opportunity, and be able to live free of violence and discrimination”. With the aim of empowering its women and brining in gender equality, India in 2015 adopted the SDGs. To see how close we are to the this milestone, this article analyses the current extent to which Indian women are empowered, based on the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2019-20 factsheets released by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for 17 states and 5 UTs, particularly taking a view of how rural women fare as against and urban women. To do that we look at literacy and education level in rural and urban women and a set of indicators defined by NFHS under the category of ‘Women Empowerment’.

Women Literacy

Greater Proportion of Urban Women are Literate than Rural Women; Urban-Rural Gap Widens at Higher Levels of Education

To analyze ‘Percentage of women who are literate’, we take a simple average across the 22 states and UTs and find that 88.6% of urban women are literate compared to 78.7% of rural women, leading to a 10pp urban-rural gap. This gap is further widened when the threshold of education is increased to ‘Percentage of women with 10 or more years of schooling’, bringing up the average urban-rural difference to 19 pp, with only 40.5% of rural women having gained higher education. States that have the maximum urban and rural education gap are NE states of Meghalaya (34pp), Mizoram (30pp) and Nagaland (30pp), while well-performing states/UTs are Lakshadweep (1.9pp), Kerala (3.5pp) and Goa (3.7pp) (Refer Figure 1). However, at a Pan-India level, data suggests an improvement in the percentage of women with higher education over the years, with 47% women having gained higher education in 2019-20, compared to 41.3% in 2015-16 (NFHS-4).

Urban Rural Gap in Women Literacy

Internet Penetration

Greater Internet Penetration seen for urban women compared to rural women – trend also seen in case of men

NFHS data reflects that across all the 22 states and UTs, ‘Percentage of women who have ever used the Internet’ is more for urban areas (avg. of 57%) than rural, with the urban-rural gap being a whopping 23pp. Maximum urban-rural gap for women is seen in the states of Mizoram (35.8pp), West Bengal (34.1pp), Himachal Pradesh (33.7pp), Gujarat (31.4pp) and Maharashtra (30.4pp). Further, on an average, internet usage in women is 20 pp lower than that in men. However, interestingly, the urban-rural gap is not particular only to women. We also see an 18pp gap for men, wherein an average of 74% urban men have used internet, compared to 56% of rural men. This reflects the need to strengthen the internet infrastructure, connectivity and affordability in rural areas.


Women Empowerment Indicators

Urban and Rural women have similar agency for factors concerning themselves – health, household purchases, family visits

We now look at the ‘Women Empowerment’ indicators identified by NFHS-5 factsheets. First, amongst these is ‘Percentage of currently married women who usually participate in three household decisions.’ These decisions include healthcare for herself, making major household purchases, visits to her relatives. This statistic varies between 80.4% for Ladakh to 99.2% for Nagaland. On an average, rural and urban women are at par with each other at 90.3% and 90.8%, respectively. These high numbers reflect greater agency of women, particularly for factors concerning themselves.

It was found that a slightly greater percentage of women in rural areas (29%) ‘worked in the last 12 months and were paid in cash’, compared to urban areas (27.6%). One of the reasons for this observation could be that urban working women, particularly in formal sector, are more likely to get paid digitally.

Women Literate Literacy Urban Rural Gap

Property ownership greater in rural women than urban women

With the exception of Lakshadweep, Sikkim and West Bengal, for all other states and UTs, on an average, rural women ‘owning a house and/or land (alone or jointly with others)’ (43.5%) is higher than urban women (40%). Maximum gap is seen in Meghalaya and Telangana, where 70% and 74.5% rural women own property as compared to 48% and 54% urban women, respectively. Overall, Ladakh (72%), Karnataka (67.6%), Telangana (66.6%), and Meghalaya (65%) showcased highest ownership by women.

Both Rural and Urban women own and use bank accounts; For many states, half the women don’t use a mobile phone

Women have performed significantly better in terms of ‘having a bank or savings account that they themselves use’. Pan-India, an average of 79% of women are able to operate a bank account, with urban women (81%) performing slightly better than rural women (78%). Looking at this in combination with, ‘Percentage of Women having a mobile phone that they themselves use’, we find a drop in national number, to an average of 69%. In states like Gujarat (48.8%), Andhra Pradesh (48.9%), West Bengal (50.1%) and Bihar (51.4%) nearly half or even lesser women have used a mobile phone. We also find urban women at an average of 79% are performing much better than rural women (63%). This simple comparison shows that digital-financial inclusion is yet to reach the roots of the country.

While more women in urban areas use sanitary products than in rural areas, overall improvement seen now than 2015-16

Lastly, the indicator, ‘Percentage of women age 15-24 years who use hygienic methods of protection during their menstrual period’, shows that while on average, 80% of rural women use locally prepared napkins, sanitary napkins, tampons, and menstrual cups, the same number for urban women is 89.5%, bringing the urban-rural divide to 9.5pp. States that perform the worst, in terms of maximum urban-rural gap are Meghalaya (26pp), Tripura (19.6pp), Assam, Gujarat and Bihar (all at 19pp). As compared to NFHS-4 data (2015-16), the overall average for India has seen a tremendous increase from 70.5% in 2015-16 to the current level of 82.5%.

Overall, the analysis shows that in 7 out of 9 indicators, rural women are performing worse than urban women. For some of these indicators like participation in household decisions and operating a bank account, the urban-rural gap might not be too significant, however, for others like 10 or more years of education, internet and mobile phone usage, the gap is substantial.


Acknowledgements: Ms. Mannat Singh, Consultant, EY for her inputs on the first draft.