Bihar is one of India’s poorest and most under-developed states and social indicators for women are much lower than national averages, according to the 2011 census.
For example, female literacy in the largely agricultural state stands at 51.5 per cent against male literacy of 71.2 per cent, and a national female literacy rate of 65 per cent.
“This will help end gender bias and prove to be a great leap towards women’s empowerment in Bihar as their confidence level will rise,” said Brajesh Mehrotra, principal secretary of Bihar’s cabinet, which approved the policy on Tuesday.
“The purpose is that women march ahead in every field.”
There are no figures for the number of women currently employed in Bihar’s government sector, but government officials estimate it at about 10 per cent.
India’s economic liberalisation and rapid growth over the past two decades have helped expose people to more liberal views about women, especially through the media, satellite and cable television and the internet.
As a result, more women are stepping out of traditional roles. Female doctors, lawyers, police officers and bureaucrats are common, and well-dressed women in Western attire driving scooters or cars to work is now an everyday sight in cities.
Yet women make up only 22 per cent of the workforce, and though 79 per cent of rural women work in agriculture, more than 90 per cent of them are in the informal sector, with little social protection or land ownership, according to UN Women.
Gender rights experts say such affirmative action policies, in the public and private sectors, need to be passed nationwide, empowering women, dispelling sexist attitudes which see girls as liabilities and dismantling customs like child marriage.
This is not the first initiative aimed at boosting gender equality in certain professions in the state. Bihar is one of a handful of Indian states which have already allocated a certain percentage of jobs to women in fields such as teaching and the police.
Women’s rights activists welcomed Bihar’s latest initiative but said the state government also had to work to create more jobs in the civil service.
“This will bring huge change in the state as it will empower women both socially and economically,” said Shanti Ojha who runs a Patna-based charity called Jago Behan (Wake up Sister), which provides skills training to poor and marginalised women.