When will the good times (achhe din) come for women in India?

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service - CNS
While stone statues of the female form (Saraswati, Lakshmi, Durga/Kali) are worshipped in temples and religious rituals, a large number of those made of flesh and blood face violence on the streets and in homes, and encounter discrimination throughout their lives that begins at (or even before) birth, and continues during childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

A girl child is often treated differently from her male sibling in terms of nutrition, health care and education, especially in families with limited financial resources—with the insufficient means allocated unevenly in favour of the male offspring. Under the existing cultural and social norms, a married woman in India is no longer considered to be part of her parents’ family and has to translocate from her parental home to live with her husband's family after marriage —moving from the subjugation of her father/brother to that of her husband.

What is it to be a woman in India?
For Dr Pooja Ramakant, an endocrine surgeon, it is quite challenging to be a woman in India. 'She has to grow up fighting for rights, which are rightfully hers. A woman needs to be become very strong to realize that her life is her own and not of others who keep advising her what is right and what is not. Once a woman breaks all these stupid bonds of society then only can she start living in earnest.'

Manisha, a homemaker, is saddened by the fact that an Indian woman is expected to sacrifice her happiness to keep others happy (sab ki khushi key liye apni khushi kurban karti hain).

Pallavi, who works in the corporate sector, is ‘fed up with discrimination at the workplace— it is tough to be a woman in workplaces earmarked as men’s territory. It is terrible to be in India working with men who do not heed/value your opinion just because you are a woman. In the corporate world you tend to lose out on promotions and appreciations if you cannot join your partners for cigarette breaks and crack obscene jokes with them. If we have more female managers and a strong women’s leadership in companies things are bound to improve.’

Then again, even though, according to Smriti, ‘a woman is the heart of the family and drives society’, Ritu rues that women in India are continuously under the scanner; judged for their actions by others; and expected to prove their worth (as defined by society).

India is a signatory to the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and was represented at the 2013 session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), where governments committed to ending all forms of violence against women. Yet, despite pro-women laws that support gender equality and aim at ending discrimination, violence against women is not only increasing but also becoming more and more brutal and targeting even girls as young as 5 years (or even younger in age). As if the poor sex ratio of 940 females per 1000 males (as per 2011 census) was not enough, the National Crime Records Bureau reports that on an average 92 women are raped in India every day. There is also a large disparity in male literacy rate (82%) and female literacy rate (65%).

The World Economic Forum's 2014 Gender Gap Index has ranked India a poor 114 (13 spots below its ranking of 101 in 2013) out of 142 countries in removing gender-based disparities in the field of education; health and equal pay for equal work. Its rank is lowest among the BRICS nations and it is also one of the 20 worst performing countries on female labour force participation, estimated earned income, literacy rate and sex ratio at birth indicators.

The High Level Committee on Status of Women that presented its first copy of the Preliminary Report in February 2015, identified Violence Against Women, Declining Sex Ratio and Economic Disempowerment of Women as three key burning issues which require immediate attention and action by the Indian government.

Linked! Masculinity, gender violence and son-preference
Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference in India – a study done by the International Center for Research on Women, establishes a link between masculinity, gender violence and a preference for sons, which represents the most powerful manifestation of gender inequality. The study found that the average Indian man is “convinced that masculinity is about acting tough, freely exercising his privilege to lay down the rules in personal relationships and controlling women. Men’s controlling behavior and gender inequitable attitudes strongly determine their preference for sons over daughters as well as their proclivity for violence towards an intimate partner – both of which are manifestations of gender inequality”.

52% of the women surveyed had experienced violence during their lifetime, and 60% of the male respondents had acted violently against their wife or partner. An overwhelming majority of men (76%) and women (81%) considered it very important to have at least one son in their family. Also 50% of the men and women were unaware of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) law, which prohibits prenatal sex determination for non-medical reasons.
How can we reverse these trends?
Roy votes for a thorough, transparent, respectful sex education from kindergarten through high school and junior college, in an age-sensitive way. He also calls for genuine respect for women and girls at home, in schools, in the workplace, and everywhere else, with men leading by example.

Sumita would like the government to ensure safe public transport, streets with proper lighting and surveillance cameras to make Indian roads safer for women travellers/commuters. At a societal level, she wants people to be more permissible on sex outside of marriage. ‘As age of marriage increases, people must have the opportunity to form consensual sexual relationships without fear of being judged/labelled promiscuous’.

Anushi endorses safe travelling options and fast track courts for dealing with cases involving crime against women. And as for society—“Stop degrading women in films, stop showing women as objects in advertisements, stop domestic violence of any kind and show both boys and girls from an early age in the family itself that females are to be respected. Oh there is a lot for the society to mend its ways”.

George feels it is high time we stop being lenient on rapists and eve teasers—“They should be given harsher punishments as mere fines will not help. Also it should be made mandatory for girls to learn some form of self-defense in schools. Government should also have special packages for families with the girl child. It will definitely make a difference if every man has a daughter. I have a daughter, hence whenever I hear about crimes against women I feel angry and upset and also more committed towards gender equality”.

'Make It Happen': IWD 2015
Accountability in our work and respect for humanity would go a long way in improving the status of women in India according to Dr Pooja Ramakant. The theme for International Women's Day 2015 is ‘Make It Happen' by encouraging effective action for gender equality. This year, the celebrations also highlight the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a historic roadmap, signed by 189 governments 20 years ago, that sets the agenda for realizing women’s rights, and envisions a world where every woman and girl can exercise her choices, and live in societies free from violence and discrimination. Let us heed the clarion call of UN Women’s Beijing+20 campaign—‘Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!’

Working on changing norms of gender equality during childhood is critical. It is essential to carry out reflective learning programmes on gender equality to reach young boys early in their lives, and to bring men and women together to create spaces where traditional gender roles are confronted and challenged.

Unless we break the social construct of lauding beautiful women and macho men; unless we denormalize the ‘girls will be girls and boys will be boys’ attitude; unless we stop gifting kitchen sets and Barbie dolls to girls and cricket bats and toy guns to boys; unless, we as parents, do not give preferential treatment to the boys (even subconsciously) that makes them feel that their needs as males have preference over those of their sisters; and unless we address the neglected issue of ‘shame’ that is, more often than not, at the root of all types of violence and crime, the good times will never come.

Boys and men have to be seen not only as part of the problem but also part of the solution in reducing the perpetuation of traditional masculinity that abets violence against women. I read these beautiful lines somewhere: ‘While we raise our girls to be powerful and independent, can we also raise our sons to be kind, meek, and compassionate?’ It is high time that we start bringing up our children (sons and daughters alike) to be independent, strong, compassionate, tolerant and loving human beings.

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service - CNS  
5 March 2015
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service - CNS. She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA and received her editing training in Singapore. She has earlier worked with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also co-authored and edited publications on gender justice, childhood TB, childhood pneumonia, Hepatitis C Virus and HIV, and MDR-TB. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

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