Consumer Rights and Gender Inequality in India

06 March 2020

Our blogs highlight a range of consumer issues from different perspectives. Unless otherwise stated they do not represent the position of Consumers International.

GUEST BLOG: Pritee Shah

As part of our blog series for International Women's Day, we asked inspiring women leaders from the consumer advocacy world to tell us what the day means in their country, and some of the issues for female consumers. 

Pritee Shah, Chief General Manager and Editor at Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC), India discusses how discrimination towards women is a barrier to them achieving their consumer rights. 

Women in India start facing discrimination even before being born. A male child is preferred traditionally and till a few years ago, many pregnant women were forced to undergo gender determination test and abort a female fetus. Although sex determination has now been banned under law, it is still done clandestinely in places. That hasn’t solved the problem. As children, girls face prejudice against her male siblings. This is carried on in adulthood where women are subdued and exploited not only by families and society but even at policy level in various areas.

Consumer rights and discrimination

Women are the largest consumer group by numbers, yet their rights are not protected adequately. Here we talk about some areas of discrimination faced by women in India in the context of their rights as consumers.

Basic needs- food and nutrition: In rural areas and urban underprivileged class, the girl child is denied food whereas boys are fed well. Education is a privilege granted to boys, whereas girls are taught housework to fulfil their traditional roles in adulthood. As adults too, a woman is often deprived of proper nutrition as she has the last priority in food and other resources in household.  Women face many such discriminatory challenges from a very early age, which denies them a life with self-esteem and dignity.

Safety: This right is compromised in a big way for women in their households. Safety in usage of household electrical appliances like food mixers, iron, toasters and geysers etc., mostly used and operated by women is usually a question mark.Only recently, big manufacturers have started paying attention to product design and built in safety features. However, accidents still happen. Moreover, a significantly large marketshare of appliances is from small manufacturers or even those imported without many safety and quality checks. Women face the brunt of this disregard to safety. Another hazardous product used in homes is LPG gas. Most housewives in middle and lower income groups are uneducated and ill-informed about safety precautions to be taken.

Health: Apart from the fact that women do not receive attention and medical help when needed in families, the medical system is also prejudiced against them. As an example, test subjects for most clinical trials for drugs are men, with hardly any focus on women. Women have a very different physiology than men and effectiveness of drugs and their side-effects would be different in both showing gender discrimination by the healthcare industry.

Insurance: Women consumers of insurance are denied more rights by the sector than any other. Pregnancy is not covered under any mediclaim policies by government run insurance companies. Women specific health problems like menopause related issues are not covered. Insurance companies routinely deny claims for serious women’s health issues related to pregnancy disorders, breastfeeding, abortions etc. Claims for Uterus removal for any reason are not allowed in the first 2 years of medical policy. Women are not being protected for their specific needs and are clearly being denied their right to good health.

Education: The right to education is not granted to women by default in India. If there is a resource crunch in the family she is denied education. Among the rural and urban poor, girls are seldom sent to school or facilitated an education. Her perceived traditional role is of a homemaker, for which education is not considered a requirement. Lack of education deprives women of opportunities, information for a better life and also makes them dependent on parents and husband for a living. They continue to be exploited and repressed through their lives because of this.

Redressal:  Half the consumers are women, a majority of them housewives and a lot of them uneducated. Faced with problems in goods and services consumed, they either do not know that they can complain, or if they do, they have no idea how to get redressal as the process in intimidating. They shy away from away from logging formal complaints in case of a dissatisfying post-purchase experience, which needs to be paid attention to by companies by creating easier interactive processes. Complaints handling procedures and systems need to be very simple and consumer friendly.

Right to choose: Women are denied the right to choose products for their specific needs by the lack of availability. Many products are designed for men while ignoring requirements of women. For example, cars are now being bought and driven by a whole lot of women in India. But hardly any of them are designed to provide driving comfort to the Indian woman considering her physical attributes. Refrigerators are still not designed properly to provide storage space as needed in Indian kitchens.

Right to Information: Women are the primary consumers for the huge market for personal care products. These products are loaded with chemicals and can directly affect the body and health when not used properly. Still, hardly any information about precautions while using, in storage, dates of manufacturing and expiry is available on these products. Lack of crucial information hampers the right product choice and the knowledge about the right way to use. Are consumers of this huge industry not entitled to this basic right of information just because they are women and not organized to raise their voice? It is disturbing indeed.

In conclusion, it is well known universally that educating a woman educates the whole family, and the next generations. Women do have a multiplier effect through families, communities, societies. A woman who is aware of her rights as a consumer, will pass on the attitude to her children, family, community. This strengthens the society and places women in a position of influence. Increasing consumer rights awareness could prove to be one of the easiest ways to decrease the gender gap at the most basic levels of society.