A Toast To Hundred Years Old Struggle

The 8th of March 2011 marks the centenary of the very first International Women's Day which was celebrated in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, when more than one million women and men attended International Women's Day rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, and end discrimination. The UN theme for International Women's Day 2011 is: "Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women."

The new millennium has definitely witnessed an attitudinal shift in both woman's and society's thoughts about woman's equality and emancipation, and there have been many new laws recognizing equal opportunity status for women. While women do enjoy greater equality in legislative rights, and have an increase visibility as impressive role models in every aspect of life, they are still underpaid as compared to men, they are still not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and globally woman's education, health and violence against them is worse than that of men.

The inequities still exist, and the common woman has yet to reach, wherever she wants to reach, despite a few female astronauts, prime ministers and board room directors.

It would be worth mentioning here that, according to the latest NHFS Survey report 2005-2006 for India, just over half (55%) of the women in age group 15-49 are literate.

Only forty-three percent of women in age group 15-49 are employed (majority of them —59%--being agricultural workers), compared with 87 percent of men in the same age group. Two-thirds of employed women earn cash, compared with 91 percent of employed men.  More than half of the women are married before the legal minimum age of 18 years. By contrast, men in the same age group get married six years later. One in every three women has a body mass index below normal.

The sex ratio of the population age 0-6 years (girls per 1,000 boys) has worsened to 918 from the 2001 census figure of 927. What else would have one expected when one in five women and men say that they would like more sons than daughters and only 2-3 percent say that they would like more daughters than sons?

This is the ground reality of the much touted woman’s equality in the Indian context. Poor levels of education, employment and health, coupled with age old gender biases make the way forward difficult, if not insurmountable.

Yes, we do have ample reasons to rejoice, as women reach new heights of achievements--- the latest being the first ever Sena Medal (Indian Army’s gallantry award) being conferred upon a lady officer. But then we also have stereotypes of a Mumbai bound air passenger who held up the flight for almost an hour on being told that it was being piloted by a woman. His typical male remark was – "marna hai kya? Ghar nahi sambhalta, plane kya sambhalegi?" (I do not want to die. She can’t handle her home, how will she handle a plane?). It is another story that he was taken off the plane and allowed back only after an apology. As one feminist aptly remarked - He was apparently safe inside a woman's womb for nine months, but found himself threatened when with another.

So while we Indians may be venerating females in the form of goddesses, there are, unfortunately, still many horrendous stories of 'dowry deaths'; female infanticide; domestic violence and victimization by powerful community and family heads. These are not stray incidents and play spoil sport with other incidents of women empowerment. A word of caution here for us women too-- Is women emancipation linked to overt sexual promiscuity alone? Of late, even in a city like Lucknow, it is a common sight to find teenage girls in very compromising positions with their men friends in full public view in the city parks. It would be far better for them to not allow themselves to become targets of emotional and physical abuse. Kissing and smooching in public places is not a sign of modernity--saying no to dowry, sexual abuse and sex-selective abortions is. Why cover the face with a scarf while riding a two wheeler, as if trying to hide something? Why not lift the veil and look at the world straight in the eye? What is there to be ashamed of?

A social activist, working with abused women, Mamta Singh, who was conferred upon Shabri Samman 2011 to mark the 
International Women's Day, voiced her frustration at age old gender biases fed to us with mother’s milk. She said that it is not uncommon for a victim of domestic violence to plead-- It is okay if he beats like a husband, but why should he beat like a raakshas (animal)?

This is the stand taken by many women against physical abuse their marital duties, as they have been taught by family elders to take some beating as part of their marital duties. Emotional torture is not only difficult to document, it is rarely recognized by many of us as an offense.

To be forgiving is indeed noble, but to allow oneself to be exploited should not be extolled as a virtue.

On the birth of his daughter, a friend’s friend remarked ‘A mother is born’. I do not know if it was meant to be a sarcasm in as much as projecting the main role of a woman to help in procreation. But I view it in a different light. A mother is one who not only gives but protects and nurtures life. She should have the virtue of tolerance, without allowing herself to be victimized and abused. Indeed. We have to teach our daughters not to take in physical, emotional and social abuse, even when laced with material comforts. Life should not be a battle field for the two sexes, but a level playing ground, where both man and woman work as a team to maximize the joys of life and minimize the tribulations.

And so as we celebrate the positives, let us collectively strive to minimize the negatives, in order to make this world a more just and livable place for all of us women and men. The pathway to a decent living has already been laid. We just have to make it walkable by freeing it of stones and thorns.

Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also serves as the Director of CNS Diabetes Media Initiative (CNS-DMI).She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

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