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Beyond rape trial, a bigger question about women's status in India

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There is "great resilience in the basic features of gender inequality in India," says well-known development economist Jean Dreze, "in contrast with many other countries – including Bangladesh – where there are significant signs of social change."

The challenges faced by Indian women reflect broader contradictions: Two decades of economic growth and globalization have brought improved opportunities but also greater inequality. That paradox was captured in a July survey that ranked India as the worst place to be a woman among the Group of 20 countries that make up the world's biggest economies, based on parameters like health services, threat of violence, and property rights.

Slight gains, stronger inequalities

Ravi Das Camp, where four of the men accused of the gang rape lived, is not unlike the victim's neighborhood in the opposite corner of New Delhi.

Both are full of poor families reaching for a better life, including through the education of their daughters. Sharma worked in a gym and waited tables to help his father, a balloon seller, put his two younger sisters through school.

The young woman who stepped onto a private bus in Delhi one late evening in December before she was gang-raped, brutally beaten, and then left for dead was training to be a physiotherapist – the pride and hope of her father, a baggage handler at Delhi's new airport.

Over the past two decades, India has almost closed its gender gap in primary education and considerably improved the secondary school gap: For every 100 boys who attend school, 98 girls now attend primary school and 85 girls attend secondary school.

Political participation has increased, and some health indicators are also up: More pregnant women get hospital care and fewer die during childbirth.

On other fronts, however, the picture is murkier. Of most concern are low sex ratios, which reflect a persistent preference for sons across South Asia, and unabated violence against women.

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