By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) - A massive increase in spending on women's security and empowerment is desperately needed in India's national budget, women's rights groups said on Wednesday, the eve of the country's most important economic announcement of the year.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram unveils what is expected to be India's most austere budget in years on Thursday, with cuts in public spending aimed at reining in a widening fiscal deficit and averting a sovereign credit downgrade.
Women's rights groups say the recent gang rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi, which prompted public protests and highlighted the poor treatment of girls and women in the largely patriarchal country, shows that women need to be prioritised in the 2013/4 budget.
"We totally understand that there is a fiscal deficit and there is a dire need to cut spending and balance the budget, we respect that," said Harbeen Arora, chairwoman of the ladies league of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM).
"At the same time, the whole of India knows that there is a pressing need today more than ever to look at women's issues in a holistic, multi-pronged way. There has to be at least a 10-fold increase in funds for women."
A poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year found that India was rated the worst G20 country in which to be a woman.
From access to healthcare and education to land and property rights, from threats of physical and sexual violence to harmful customary practices such as female foeticide and ‘honour killings’, Indian women face a plethora of challenges.
India introduced gender budgeting in 2005/6 to reflect the amount of funds spent on social programmes for women and girls. Last year, the government spent around 5.96 percent of its total budget on women's issues, up from 2.8 percent in 2005/6.
But many women's rights experts say the allocations to these schemes have been piecemeal, amounting to "token gestures".
"This kind of small, patchy allocations will not make a difference. Measures to improve the lives of women and girls need to be carefully thought out," says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a Delhi-based think-tank.
Rights experts said the issue of the safety and security of girls and women was by far the biggest priority.
There should, for example, be more funds to increase policing on the streets, as well as more female police officers, they said.
Investment is also needed to help implement laws such as the domestic violence law, as well as more money for rehabilitation and counselling for victims of physical and sexual crimes such as acid attacks, trafficking and rape.
"The issue of safety is the starting point for everything. If you give safety and security to women, women will help themselves through using other means," said ASSOCHAM's Arora.
"But if they cannot walk out of the home and be safe, women cannot educate themselves, they cannot get jobs for themselves, which in turn will have a negative effect on the economic growth of the country."
Rights groups called for a bigger budgetary allocation for schools, hostels and scholarships for girls, fast-track courts for crimes against women, improved health services for women. They also called for tax breaks for working women.
Thursday's budget is expected to be the last one drawn up by the Congress-led coalition government ahead of general elections due before May 2014, but women's groups said Chidambaram was unlikely to try to woo the female electorate.
"The sad reality of our country is that politicians take the women’s vote for granted," said Kumari. "They don't think the women’s vote independently matters, so they don't pay attention to it. The finance minister did not even meet any women’s groups in the run-up to the budget, despite repeated requests from various groups.”