NEW DELHI, Aug 12 (Reuter) - Asha Das, one of India's most senior women bureaucrats, says she has been amazed throughout her career by the lack of women's toilets in government offices.
It is a reminder that nearly half a century after the Indian constitution declared them equal to men, women are still waiting for their presence to be acknowledged.
As India prepares to celebrate 50 years of freedom from British colonial rule, its women say independence is not a familiar word.
"Although men have accepted the fact that a woman can work, that she can be another source of income in a poor family, the average Indian woman is by no means independent,'' says Das, who heads India's Department of Women and Child Development.
Development in India seems to have skipped over women. Although India is one of a handful of nations to develop an independent space programme and conduct a nuclear test, fewer than four in 10 women can read.
India's only woman prime minister Indira Gandhi ruled for 17 years, but less than 40 of the 543 members of the lower house of parliament are women, and three of them are illiterate.
It took nearly 30 years after independence in 1947 for Indian law to give women the right to equal pay. In 1993, India enacted a law reserving one third of local government seats for women, and plans to enact a similar federal parliamentary law.
But despite such legislation aimed at hoisting women off the lower rungs of the social ladder, only the more educated, affluent women appear to have moved forward.
Women's rights activists say village men nominate their wives to fill the 33 percent quota, and then run the village as its de facto chief using her as a mouthpiece.
"The rural woman has remained within the confines of her home,'' says Veena Nayyar, who heads a pressure group called Women's Political Watch. "Structures are still patriarchal. The decision-making process has been dominated by men.''
In 1990, more than 50 widows were burnt alive when their husbands' bodies were cremated in an archaic ritual known as "sati,'' based on the belief that a Hindu woman has no existence independent of her husband. In 1993, about 16 women were killed every day for dowry by greedy in-laws, although the government declared accepting dowry illegal in 1961. Women's groups say the number of cases reported is a fraction of the real figure.
The average Indian woman gets married before she is 21. Only 41 percent use contraceptives, and one in 12 has her first child before the age of 19.
A recent United Nations report said up to 50 million girls and women were missing from India's population, the result of systematic sex discrimination extending to the abortion of female foetuses, which is officially banned.
In 1921 there were more than 97 women for every 100 men in India. Seventy years later, the number dropped to 92.7.
"Why should it be economically feasible to have a girl child when all the laws reflect a gender bias against them?'' says Health Minister Renuka Chowdhury.
"We have couples who want only male children because only male children have legitimate social support. The laws of the land are unequal, and they are made by the 50 percent of the population that is male,'' she said.
Under Indian law, Hindu women cannot ask for ancestral property to be divided so that they can sell their share. A Moslem woman's share of inheritance is half of her brother's.
"Women are becoming a party to the own destruction of their own species as they are unable to break out of the vicious cycle of undervaluation by others and by themselves,'' said a recent report by a voluntary women's group, Tinnari.
"They crave for the birth of a son who is seen as their saviour in an environment that is hostile to females.''
Experts say many Indian girls remain illiterate not only because they are expected to run the house and raise their siblings while their parents work, but also because working women have no safe nurseries for their young daughters.
Yet when girls do go to school, government statistics show that they consistently perform better than their male peers.
In 1994, more than 75 percent of the girls who took India's final high school examination passed -- fewer than 64 percent of the boys cleared it. In 1992, fewer than half the boys passed while 68 percent of the girls did.v "After a girl is nine or 10 years old, the dropout rate increases because her parents would rather take her out of school than leave her alone after school hours. The thing we have to look at is providing day-care facilities,'' Das said.
Government figures show that about a quarter of the 12,223 women raped in 1993 were under the age of 16. About 80 percent of the rape cases reported between 1991 and 1993 remained pending for trial for at least three years.
"What we really have to do -- and we're still wondering how best to do it -- is to make it a movement and change the attitudes of people towards women,'' Das added. "That can actually change the crime rate, the infant mortality rate and the status of a woman at home.''