Empowerment of women: Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5

India women's empowerment
The yearly celebration of Women's Day and the ritualistic adoration and reverence of women notwithstanding, there is an urgent need for a critical appraisal of women's status in India.

Celebrating March 8th as the Women’s Day goes beyond appreciating a few women with flowers and chocolates. It is an opportunity to remind the political leaders and policymakers about the unfinished agenda of gender equality. Each year, March 8 is celebrated with a specific theme. This year’s theme is ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.’

The United Nations assign specific days to promote the organisation’s objectives through awareness and action. International Women’s Day (IWD) commemorates the rich history of women fighting for equality. This day highlights women’s achievements across all fields and raises awareness of women’s struggle until this day.

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Historically of inequality, oppression

Historically, oppression of inequality spurred women to become vocal and active in campaigning for change. In 1908, 15,000 women took out a procession through New York City demanding shorter work hours, better pay and voting rights. The National Woman’s Day (NWD) was first observed in the United States on February 28 after a call by the Socialist Party of America.

On the last Sunday of February 1913, women in Russia began a strike for “bread and peace” in response to the death of over 2 million Russian soldiers in World War 1. Russia was following the Julian calendar then. This day on the Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere was March 8.

The International Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time by the United Nations in 1975. On December 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace and called to the member states to observe the day of the year following their historical and national traditions.

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Cause of women in SDGs

In 2015 the global community agreed to a road map to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030. Gender equity received its rightful place among the SDGs. Goal number 5 is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Over the years the IWD has expanded its agenda and the call to action for gender parity. Campaign themes over the years have included: #ChooseToChallenge, #EachforEqual, #BalanceforBetter, #PressforProgress, #BeBoldforChange, #PledgeforParity, #MakeItHappen, #TheGenderAgenda. This year’s International Women’s Day is like no other day. It is observed in the shadow of the massive global devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Social scientists have noted the transformative power of disasters. Disasters have significant consequences for community construct, community structures, social life, and even the communities’ culture and societies they impact. The Covid-19 pandemic forced most religions to take a hiatus from their elaborate daily rituals.

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Covid-19 impact on women

It may be worthwhile to do a detailed analysis of how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted women. The impact of the pandemic on men and women are different. Most women lost their social connection and social support networks. Most women confined to carers job. Women healthcare providers have to provide care and support for their families and the patients they provide care.

As of February 5, 174 doctors, 116 nurses and 199 healthcare workers have died due to Covid-19 in India, the government informed the Lok Sabha, citing data from states.

One of the main barriers to understanding women’s social contribution is the lack of gender-disaggregated data. It is a travesty that on-one knows how many women healthcare workers have lost their lives to Covid-19. A strong commitment towards ensuring gender-disaggregated data is essential for women’s long-term empowerment.

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Women provide frontline leadership to the Covid-19 response as healthcare workers, caregivers, and community organisers. Some proved to be exemplary and effective national leaders in combating the pandemic. Regardless of women making up a majority of frontline workers, there is scant representation of women in the national and global Covid-19 policy responses.

The pandemic also provided a heightened incidence of violence against women in domestic settings. The UN women named violence against women during Covid-19 as a shadow pandemic. According to the UN, one in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence. Mostly by an intimate partner. Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation.

Before the pandemic, 243 million women and girls aged 15-49 experienced sexual and physical violence by an intimate partner in the past year. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, emerging data and reports from those on the frontlines have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.

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Sexual violence against women

Sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women continue to occur on the streets, public spaces and online. Survivors have often limited information and awareness about available services and limited access to support services. In some settings, resources and efforts have been diverted from violence against women response to immediate Covid-19 relief.

The Covid-19 pandemic amplifies the consequences of gendered ageism, particularly against older women. Ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people based on their age, while gendered ageism refers to differences in ageism women and men face. Gendered ageism covers the intersectionality of age and gender bias, two disadvantaged groups. In workplace, age discrimination is becoming a liability concern a growing diversity and human rights issue.

Increasing poverty among women is an issue that needs urgent attention from political leader and policymakers. The “feminization of poverty” – that women have a higher incidence of poverty than men, that their poverty is more severe than that of men and that poverty among women increases.

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Political rights and gender justice

Today is the day to amplify the call for gender equality and gender justice. Gender equality is vital as it is intrinsically linked to sustainable development and vital to realising human rights. The overall objective of gender equality is a society in which women and men enjoy the same opportunities, rights and obligations in all spheres of life.

The level of women’s political participation indicates the level of women’s emancipation in society. Women in India participate in voting and run for public offices and political parties at lower levels than men. During India’s parliamentary general elections, women turnout was 65.63%, compared to 67.09% for men. However, India ranks 20th from the bottom in terms of representation of women in Parliament. It appears that all-male leaders of the political parties conspire to keep women from Parliament.

Women labour force participation is another indicator of the level of women empowerment. Despite India’s economic growth, less than 20.3% of women aged 15 and older participate in the labour force as of 2020 (compared to 76.0% of men). Contrary to public perception, Women account for only 19.9% of the total labour force in India.

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A patriarchal ideology locks down women’s full potential. Patriarchy refers to the hierarchical power relation in the society in which men dominate. Such a system is created and perpetuated through various means. The subordination of women is perpetuated in many ways, in both private and public space. Women are denied rights, and access to the benefit of social development such as education, health, and opportunities available to men is the immediate manifestation of the patriarchal belief system.

The yearly celebration of Women’s Day and the ritualistic adoration and reverence of women notwithstanding, there is an urgent need for a critical appraisal of women’s status in India. Such an appraisal should not be an academic exercise. It should be politically charged to fight for women’s emancipation. Women’s leadership in post Covid-19 reconstruction is yet another opportunity for such political action.

(Dr Joe Thomas is Associate Dean, Faculty of Sustainability Studies, at MIT World Peace University, Kothrud, Pune. Views are personal.)

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