The Worst Place to Be a Woman in the G20

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

Image from


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.

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37 thoughts on “The Worst Place to Be a Woman in the G20

  1. Though I mostly agree with what has been said in this article about the plight of Indian women, I take strong objection to the statement that self-immolation of women "surfaces occasionally in northern and central region of the country." True that women rights are in many ways violated in still male dominated Indian society but to claim that "sati daha protha" or the practice of immolation of the widow on the pyre of her dead husband is still prevalent even to a lesser extent is utterly false. India has a very free and fair media, better than many western countries have, but there has been no such report that I came across. I would like to request the author to run a report on the incidents of immolation that took place in India purely as a part of Hindu religious practice since independence if her reporting is not based on hearsay and if she has credible proof that the practice that we outlawed more than a century ago in 1829 is still on.

  2. Dear Muku, not rampant but in many rural areas it still happens, especially in Sikar district of Rajasthan. In fact in Junjhunu, there is a famous temple of Rani sati Dadi which has devotees in lakhs and the goddess signifies the sacrifices of women who had committed sef immolation.

    The article missed out on other kind of violence faced by India women, especially belonging to tribal and Scheduled caste community. Caste based violence like gangs rape, being paraded naked etc is happening to scheduled caste women everyday. As per the statistics every day 3 Sc women are raped…let's not forget honor killings and tribal women being branded as witches….these are the realities, no matter how ancient they sound..

    • Dear Ayesha, thanks for your link. I have no problem to accept I was not aware. The reason I did not google it is I never thought such barbaric practice could still be so ingrained in our society. I stand disillusioned.

  3. Thank you, Lyric, for your thoughtful article. I am by no means an expert on the rights and living conditions of Indian women, but I was surprised with some of the facts you presented.
    Only about a week ago, I ran into a New York Times article which focused on the 'right to pee' campaign in Bombay (if I remember correctly) and the connection between the high rate of urinary tract disease among poor Indian women. This is an unusual look at discrimination against poor women in India. For those who haven't read the article, it's really worth finding it by copying the following link into the tool bar or just by googling 'the right to pee', as strange as this may sound in a country like the US?

  4. Thank you Mukul, Ayesha and edl for your wonderful feedback and insights. Certainly, there is more to say. The lack of access to water and sanitation for women and girls, and the Right to Pee campaign as a response, is an excellent example of both a structural layer of discrimination and an important testament to the vibrant and strong civil society movement for women's rights in India. Agree also with regard to additional layers of violence and discrimination presented by caste and the sobering cases of self-immolation as important examples of additional areas where women's rights and status are compromised; thank you for raising those. Our poverty and human rights campaign work is geared around making those links and holding those kinds of violations to account. Finally, thanks to Ayesha for the more geographically detailed information on on sati.

    • Thanks Ma'am. I could not believe before I came across your report and subsequent comments on my response that 'sati' could still be possibly practised despite its brutal nature. I followed the links I was referred to but they provide sketchy information. I would therefore wait for an authoritative report by the Amnesty on violations on women particularly with regard to those that are portrayed as religious practice. I thank you once again for opening my eyes to this lingering problem.

  5. I have many Indian friends here in Australia, mostly female. No wonder they came here for higher education and better opportunities. Most Beautiful Souls one could meet. Things ARE changing in India, but unfortunately for a lot of people it's not fast enough. When this generation of Expats go home I think we'll be seeing some intersting things really start to happen on The Sub-Continent..

  6. Ayesha, I hate to point out the obvious, but if you read the first two links you posted they seem to contradict your comment. I didn't bother reading wiki as I have no faith in the accuracy of anything on wiki… articles may be right or may be wrong there is no way of knowing,

  7. great article – but it shows only the surface layers of the discrimination, prejudice and violence face daily from birth to death. traditional cultures and ancient myths further create the unconscious field in which women survive.

  8. Dear nick. I don't see how these articles contradict my comments. These are about recent cases, as recent as 2008. I agree with you that wiki cannot be trusted but I gave the reference for the statistics and facts which can be corroborated.

    If you need, I can give you references – research papers from academics and statistics from activists, maybe you will trust those. The reality is these incidents are happening in rural and remote areas, many are not reported

  9. The sharbati bad incident shows us how women are still ready to immolate themselves,not every woman is saved…she was an exception….

  10. I have lived in India for more than 30 years (small villages, small cities to big cities), but have not seen or heard any forced or self immolation by women. This is a news for me. In fact I have seen recently remarriages have become quite common. Self immolation or force immolation is a crime and is banned in Indian Law. We are taking about a nation with more than 1 billion people. I am note sure how can a author can make a conclusion based on couple of crime attempts that a bad tradition is still followed in India. e.g. Couple of hate crime in Australia does not make Australia a racist country.

    @Ayesha: I am not sure what is your interest in supporting Lyric's findings? Can you pleas provide your background detail? How many years have you stayed in India?

  11. All this is bullshit..No evidences just gross generalizations, pathetic! Sick and tired of these types of attempts to paint a horrid picture about India based on one or two instances here and there, forgetting that India is a country of more than 1.2 billion people!!! If you are so concerned about "human rights" why don't you do something for the "victims" instead of publishing baseless utter crap whose only impact is to bolster false stereotypes!

    • This author knows nothing about stats… she should check and compare things per 1000 women across countries and then make any conclusion. Otherwise this article is more to grab attention whic h it has succeeded in. Agree utter bull***.

  12. thank for your precious work in all the world .. Really the woman condition is sometime very terrific in many parts of civil or ..incivil life . India is the first? I believe ..but the european and "civil " mediterranean country ..Italy is in a silent condition of violence : women killed for the hands of her partners . Since genuary 2102 , 69 women killed ..if this is a good country ..a better place to be a woman !

  13. Hi Lyric, I don't mean to undermine your research but there are a few points you should note.

    a) Just like how England is different from France and Germany from Italy, cultures and situations in India are different in different states in India because India is a subcontinent, remember? When such an article is written, we should clearly identify which regions it happens in, although in principle, I agree it should not happen anywhere.
    b) I have not heard about Sati in recent times. Are you sure the sporadic incidents that happened are not suicidal attempts?
    c) Do you really think that western women are better off compared to women in India? What % of them see themselves as sex objects wth serious masochistic attitudes although they masquerade that as "choice" conveniently? Don't rapes happen in the western world?
    d) Of the working women in India, many work as technologists, doctors, scientists and executives. Can you compare the numbers with the numbers in similar positions in , let's say, countries in Europe? I am sure you will be surprised.
    e) Last but not the least, has anyone even tried doing such a research in a country like Pakistan? I bet not. Because chances are you won't even survive.

    I am not saying there is no discrimination in India, there certainly is. More severe in some parts than others. I agree India needs to do more work on this. We unfortunately have a Frankenstein's monster called Bollywood that consumes and intoxicates people to the extent that they forget about their larger rights and needs. The breaking news in our news channels is mostly about a new Bollywood release. We are bombarded with images of half naked and self-important dumb women (and men) in all our channels, gyrating to some crazy tunes. We think that is what there is in life.

    But as every cloud has a silver lining, where there is a bit of progressive thought, it is far better than in the west.

  14. throughout the world horrific crimes are committed against women.Are they not our beloved mothers,sisters and wives. What is wrong with the human race?

  15. Do author take into consideration the size of the population of India? Prevailing caste based society or genesis of having male child in predominantly agro-based economy. These are the root causes of some of the problems that Indian women’s are faces even today.

    There are some sporadic incidents, but comparing the % with the size of population they are negligible.

    The last Sati was Roop Koonwar in 1987. This was a forced Sati incident. She was in her teens when her husband passed-away. There were people around her to glorify the image of Sati. Most of the human bombs are brainwashed in this age group. So do the Roop Koonwar.

    East-Europeans girls are traded for one meal or a peace of bread. They feel it is respectable to dance in Bollywood films and earn respectable money.

    There are occasional “Tandoor” incidents in India but nothing compare like serial teen-age killer, or serial prostitute killers in Europe and USA.

  16. There are 250mio middle class Indians and these are families headed by parents or couples that hold graduate and often postgraduate degrees. This is the same population as USA or W. Europe. Lyric… you have painted a completed biased picture of India. No India is not perfect, but that does not give you the right to paint a wholly one sided picture.

    I come from a family with six siblings, four are female – one never married, one asked for an arrange marriage and two had love marriages, one love marriage ended in divorce. Now based on this you could say that a significant number of Indian women are forced into marriage or that a significant number divorce. But it would not be the complete picture or balanced.

    In my experience as an Indian, almost 50 years old, married to a European and having lived in India and Europe… most Indian women are respected. They are not molested when walking on the street. And if you think that Indian men have the final say in all things – you really have no clue. If you look at Indian history, and Indian professions you will find a lot of women – as fighters, leader, doctors, spiritual Yogis… the list goes on.

    Finally, I have worked directly with NGOs on the ground in India and I can tell you first hand that even in remote villages, it's the women who take care of kids education, basic health care and key decision making. And you understand that only men hold the power…..!!!!

    Your report has served only to discredit Amnesty International. Even if there are problems in a country, you must present a fair and reasoned argument not a sensationalist and emotional piece of crap.

    That last part of the previous sentence was me being sensationalist… just so you see how it feels.

    When one sided arguments are documented for the world to read, some will conclude the worst. A case in point, would be young Neo-Nazis in Germany, who even today do not believe the holocaust took place. So ten years down the road, there will be some, who will read your article and conclude, that India, the seat of one of the oldest civilizations and deepest spiritual truths, did in fact treat it's women with utter contempt and demeaning subjugation; that having female deities in Hinduism was nothing but a cover up for mass rapes and baby murders….!!!

    Finally, consider that Christian Missionaries are tearing apart whole villages with their forced conversions and denial of water and medicine to non-Christians. How much damage do you think that causes to the structure of society.

  17. in my opinion – this is the worst country for the men and women to be really born there

  18. After going through the article and the comments from different Indians and others. I feel sad for the injustices committed against women. But I will reiterate here that the Author missed out on one important aspect. She forgot that being in G20 is an economic achievement for India and a pride. That doesn't mean you can compare India to the developed nations' numbers. The comparison should have been in terms of an apple for an apple. Maybe compare USA with UK or Russia. Just to get an insight please visit the 'worldclock' that has a ticker going on all the way for various different regions. Compared to 3 to 4 reported rapes in India a day, it is about 40 rapes a day in a State in the US. The Author should also have mentioned about the vibrant multiculturalism of India with its richness that is a jaw dropper for moat of the world. Women in India are traditional in most terms. And the west would never ever be able to understand the relationships a women has in India. She is the center of gravity for the society. She is the daughter, the sister, the wife, the sister in-law, the mother in-law, the mother, the grandmother and the list goes on. In all her different roles she is mostly selfless. Not by force but by choice. The west would never understand what satisfaction an average woman from India gets when her man comes home from work, finds the food delicious and appreciates the wife for it. There is a huge cultural disconnect that the author needs to bridge before writing such a piece. We give tribute to our women for their harmonious nature and the balance that they create in all the relations. The west is deprived of the importance of the Maa, Nands, Devars, jethaanis, behnaas, saalis, nanis, dadis, and all those little things that they do with the big hearts that they have. I wonder if the author ever had such links.

  19. Unfortunately I think this article is extremely inaccurate. Firstly this article sounds like all women in India live this life, however in reality very few women go through all the atrocities described. I have lived in a tiny very poor village in Rajasthan for over 5 months, and honestly, the women here are happier than many others I have met living in big cities around the world. They are respected, they have a lot of support and love from their families. Agreed a lot of the older women have never been able to complete their education, but it is these families that encourage all their daughters to go to school and obtain the education they themselves were never able to.
    I can go on forever. It is articles like this that are probably true for 3 percent of the Indian population, that taint and put down the India that is working so hard to improve in areas of gender equivalence and has definitely come a long way. I think the author is talking about an India that existed maybe more than 20 years ago. It's time to visit again and not make a decision based on one village that you may have visited.
    I can think of many more countries that women are treated a lot worse than India.
    Absolutely terrible article that gets me really angry. No evidence, very basic understanding of India and its culture.

  20. I see lot of people sharing the comments and views. But how many of you really noticed or gone thru the human rights issues in india ? I have experience in india on the human rights issues and my own family member( including brother) gone thru this issue. I make lot of money here, but my family had to hide in orphan homes and other unknown places and it is going on for more than a decade. EVERYDAY i make calls to these stupid cops there and it is just useless. so, unless you face the issue, you just don't know what the practical experience of being harassed, tortured and other things to people. INDIA is WORST for any gender, it is a horrible place to live. I have letters, emails, faxes from a person who makes 1000 rs a month to 1crore a month ( minister) and still no use.

  21. I love India. I am an American woman (not of Indian descent), who lived in India for two years. I worked in human rights while there and befriended wonderful people, both poor and wealthy. I read the article and comments, and I must commend the author for recognizing the huge discrepancy in the male/female birth ratio, of which those commenting have generally neglected to recognize. The author stated that 860 girls are born everyday in Mumbai to 1000 boys. This is due to gendercide, which is the systematic killing of unborn baby girls or newborn girls, because of the preference for sons; and it is practiced all over the subcontinent. This is such an atrocity that the Prime Minister noted the huge discrepancy in the male/female ratio in the 2011 Census and recognized that something must be done to stop this practice. To those commenting, rather than focusing on whether Sati is practiced and becoming upset because you do or do not think it is, please examine the current barbarity of gendercide. This is a slippery slope and will affect the entire country over time. Even now, men in some villages do not have women to marry. This, therefore, inevitably leads to the trafficking of women to become brides. Please recognize the problem and DO something to combat it. There are wonderful Indian organizations working to rescue baby girls and educate families on the value of girls. Discover who they are and support them financially or with your time. I am in the U.S. now, and I love India so much that I do.

  22. One Indian Husband is suiciding every 5.45 Minutes .Who is responsible for this ?

    In the Year 2005, the Crime Against Men, More than Twenty-two Lacks sixty Four Thousands ( 92.88%) vs One Lack fifty-five thousands against women( 6.38%)?
    Comp. Sue Moto By Police(FIR Registered): 24,37,973/-
    Crime Against Women : 1,55,553/-
    Crime against Child : 17,975/-
    Crime against Men : 22 ,64 , 445/-
    In the Year 2005 the Crime Against Men, More than Twenty-two Lacks sixty Four Thousands vs One Lack fifty-five thousands against women?

  23. child marriage is big issue in India and now a days also in small village they prefer this this it is very bad imprecation on Indian society how to resolve this kind of issue.

  24. Although, I certainly don't advocate journalists practicing a wiki-like neutral tone, I wouldn't mind an unbiased one. It's important to note, while, this is a blog piece, it's being written in a reporting fashion is confusing, to say the least.

    Some facts on domestic violence in the US can be read here –… , and are equally shocking!

    The point is, women are unsafe and subject to abuse, subtly or in a more grotesque fashion, everywhere! And it is rather immature to bring out comparative studies on such a matter. Amnesty should instead work on changing mindsets of people all over the world, uniting them in the cause and not dividing them in the process.

    We ask for equality in a world where people are busy drawing boundaries, although there is practically just a 0.01% genetic difference between us all. Stop drawing boundaries. Every man is my brother, and every woman and child, my kin. And the fact that I can have this dialogue with all of you means the internet has truly democratized us. Peace.

  25. Curious that where we find more feminist groups and more women complaining about their situation, is in countries where women have more rights; rights that even prejudice the men rights.

  26. So 2 points: India is an incredibly diverse country where contradictions exist side by side. Esp with respect to womens issues- we are a schizophrenic country. On the one hand, the most powerful politicians in India right now, are women. If you look at the top business leaders in the country- especially in banking- a lot of them are women. Parallel to this world is the world you describe in the article- where indeed it is terrible to be born a female. There can be no two opinions on this- we have to work very very hard to dramatically improve the lives of women in our country. It is a matter of absolute shame that this is the state of women in our country.
    But my second point, or question rather, is how on earth India came off worse than Saudi Arabia in your survey! Are you saying that you, as a woman, would rather live in a country where, BY LAW, you have half the rights of a man, than a country where, legally, you have the same rights as a man? Yes, "in principle" and "in practice" are two very different things- especially in India- but the fact that in the eyes of the law, every human being is the same, regardless of gender- makes India a very, very different place from Saudi Arabia.

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