Cautious Optimism on Gender Data in National Family Health Surveys (NFHS-5)

21 Dec 2021

Opinion: Anupma Mehta

Notable findings from the Woman’s Schedule component of the National Family Health Survey

The recently released compendium of Fact Sheets on various health and empowerment indicators under the fifth round of the National Family Health Surveys (NFHS-5) for the period 2019-21 give us something to shout about especially with regard to women’s empowerment and attainment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5) on empowering women and achieving gender equality.

The 14 States and UTs covered in the survey include a cross-section across the country including Arunachal Pradesh Chhattisgarh Haryana Jharkhand Madhya Pradesh Odisha Punjab Rajasthan Tamil Nadu Uttar Pradesh Uttarakhand Chandigarh NCT Delhi and Puducherry.

The indicators traditionally analysed in the Survey pertain to estimates pertaining to population health family planning and nutrition.

However what is remarkable about NFHS-5 are the notable findings from the Woman’s Schedule component of the Survey which covers a wide range of subjects including marriage fertility contraception children’s immunisations and healthcare nutrition reproductive health women’s empowerment and domestic violence.

Rise in Women’s Empowerment

The two key sections posing questions on gender-based indicators in the Survey include ‘Women’s Empowerment’ covering women aged 15-49 years and domestic violence focusing on women aged 18-49 years.

Under the Empowerment section each respondent that is a currently married woman was asked about the extent of her autonomy in three key household decisions about health care for herself making major household purchases and visits to her family and relatives.

Significantly 88.7 per cent of the women including as many as 91 per cent urban and 87.7 per cent rural women responded positively to this question showing a rise from the corresponding overall figure of 84 per cent recorded during the previous NFHS in 2015-16.

Among the other questions the opening and use of bank accounts by women showed the most promising results. A total of 78.6 per cent of the women in urban areas reported owning and independently operating their bank accounts going up from a much lower figure of 53 per cent in the previous survey.

There has also been a conspicuous rise in land ownership among women from 38.4 per cent to 43.3 per cent and in ownership and use of mobile phones from just about 45 to 54 per cent during the corresponding period. 

Persistence of Domestic Violence

A component that always attracts attention in any gender-based survey mainly because of its association with the respect that women enjoy within and outside their homes is that of the physical violence they are subjected to.

The data pertaining to gender-based or sexual violence for women aged 18-49 years in NFHS-5 is somewhat though not totally heartening as it shows a decline over NFHS-4 in the case of both spousal violence from 31.2 to 29.3 per cent and physical violence during pregnancy from 3.9 to 3.1 per cent.

However the celebration may be more guarded if these data are seen in correlation with comparable data pointing to a rise in domestic violence perpetrated against women during the nation-wide COVID lockdowns in 2020 and early 2021 which coincide with the period covered under NFHS-5.

For instance the number of complaints of domestic violence against women received by the National Commission for Women (NCW) rose sharply from 2960 in 2019 to 5297 in 2020. And in the first quarter of 2021 the NCW continued to receive over 2000 complaints every month of crimes against women with nearly one-fourth of them related to domestic violence.

More specifically the NCW data recorded 1463 complaints of domestic violence against women during the period January-March 2021. So is there a discrepancy between the NCW and NFHS-5 figures? 

At the State level the most impressive results on violence in NFHS-5 have been recorded by Chhattisgarh which showed declines in spousal violence from 36.8 to just over 20 per cent and in pregnancy-related violence from 4.9 to 0.9 per cent over the two survey periods.

Punjab and Haryana too have registered a significant fall in both categories of gender violence. In contrast the States of Jharkhand and Rajasthan are outliers with both recording a rise in violence during pregnancy the former from 2.8 to 3.1 per cent and the latter from 1.4 to 2.1 per cent during the corresponding periods.

The most alarming result has however been witnessed in Uttarakhand which has recorded a notable rise in both spousal and pregnancy-related violence.  

What Does IHDS Data Say?

When seen in totality however one wonders if the figures conceal more than they reveal. How far have we come from the findings of the nationally representative India Human Development Survey (IHDS)?

The IHDS which was conducted jointly by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and University of Maryland in two rounds in 2004-05 and 2011-12 interviewed 41554 households in 1503 villages and 971 urban neighbourhoods across India.

The IHDS posed a direct question to women on whether they were regularly beaten by their husbands for any of the following reasons:  leaving home without notifying their husbands failing to pay dowry neglecting household chores not cooking acceptable meals and indulging in extra-marital affairs.

Although having relations with other men was the most frequent reason for the beatings as many as 30-40 per cent of the interviewees reported being subjected to violence for the other four reasons too.   

Significantly the IHDS results suggest that economic empowerment such as having a job and a reasonable income could mitigate the incidence of domestic violence against women and ensure better outcomes in their marital lives.

The findings of IHDS also indicate that the empowerment of women through inheritance and education which would enhance their ownership of property and wealth are likely to produce more desirable results and reduce the perpetration of violence and abuse against them.

Interestingly as mentioned above the gender module in NFHS-5 too shows an overall improvement in the indicators of female ownership of land and income earned from paid work and the possession and independent operation of bank accounts by women.

Although it may not be possible to establish a direct causal relation between female empowerment in terms of wealth and assets on one hand and better treatment of married women by their spouses on the other hand there seems to be an underlying association between these two outcomes.

As of now the findings in NFHS-5 do offer some reason for a muted celebration.   

Anupma Mehta is Editor at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER). Views expressed in the article are personal. 

Published in: QRIUS, 21 Dec 2021