By Vanisree Ramanathan
The world observes March 8 as the International Women’s Day with great fervour. Meetings, seminars and symposiums are held across major cultural centres in India with a focus on women’s rights. Of course, women’s empowerment is the buzzword used by all participants in these ceremonial events. The media, including social and visual media, give extensive coverage of the functions along with images representing emancipation of women. But the status of women in the country remains more or less the same with marginal progress, that too in very few segments of the society.
Unfortunately, the term women’s empowerment is often misunderstood and wrongly interpreted. Empowerment is the ability to use the capabilities and opportunities to expand the choices with which women could control their destinies and achieve self-esteem in the face difficult situations.
India lags in women’s empowerment
Today, different measurements such as gender inequality index, household autonomy index and attitude towards domestic violence index are constructed to quantify different dimensions of empowerment. India’s ranks at 112 among 153 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index 2020.
There are stark contradictions in India. While women in India are considered to be among the most oppressed in the world, they are also among the most liberated, the most articulate and perhaps even the freest. Though India is well known for its women leaders and remarkable achievements in improving the status of women through progressive legislations, what makes them vulnerable is the shocking gender divide in the workforce and violent crimes against them.
The efforts made by the Indian government for mainstreaming of women are commendable. National Policy for the Empowerment of Women, 2001 aimed at bringing about the advancement, development and empowerment of women. Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, Swa Shakti, Stree Shakti, Swayamsidha, Balika Samridhi Yojana and STEP are some of the government programmes launched to bring about gender equality. The initiatives such as Kudumbhasree, women cooperatives, gender budgeting and gender equality in social auditing, She Taxies and safety gadgets like 112 India, Himmat and LT personal are steps in the right direction.
Violence against women
The civil society and the growing support system have strengthened the network of strong and inspiring women. Though the percentage of elected representatives in Parliament and state legislatures is low, the extent and nature of Indian women’s electoral participation are much higher than that in most developed countries. However, the ground reality is still unimpressive. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), crimes against women such as rape, incest, sexual harassment, dowry related murders, deprivation of food, kidnapping, trafficking, and domestic violence are increasing among all sections of the society.
It is disheartening to note that domestic violence is the top crime Indian women faced in 2019. It shows their own family space is not safe for women. Several cases have not been registered because of the insistence of documentary proof, thereby blocking judicial remedies at the inception. It is a fact that women are far behind men in terms of access to education, information, employment, fair remuneration and health. The participation in IT sector, where women make 20% of the work force, is a positive development in women’s empowerment.
Although new reproductive technologies are expected to empower women, lack of awareness, accessibility and availability of women-friendly technologies do more harm than good. Due to environmental degradation, displacement and disaster-induced poverty, women’s access to resources has been seriously affected. Conservation of natural resources and promotion of environmental protection cannot be done without involving women.
Practical steps to women’s empowerment
The need of the hour is the change of the mind-set through socialisation, value-based education and awareness. The only way out is to educate the new generation, orient the teachers and parents, and revise the textbooks and teaching methods to ensure that the next generation of women grows up with values of self-confidence, equanimity and integrity. Women’s education is the stepping stone for achieving reproductive and sexual health. Decision-making based on informed choices is a distant dream for women without education, awareness and economic self-reliance. The society will have to recognise their decision-making capacity and make them part of the solution rather than the problem.
Combined efforts from all stakeholders — the government, civil society, community heads and educational institutions — will facilitate Indian women’s empowerment. Increased participation of women in social, economic and political activities is essential for this transformation. Legal intervention is the catalyst, but not the answer as women continues to be blamed for misusing the law. Legal rationality cannot comprehend the complex ways in which sexual violence is perpetuated.
Women’s empowerment is facing multiple roadblocks, mainly in the tussle between humanity and cruelty, justice and fairness, opportunity and prejudice and peace and hostility. Empowerment is not only about freedom, rights and choice, but also about duties, responsibilities, mutual dependence and desire for justice for others. Convergence beyond the boundaries of binaries is crucial to imbibe the principles of equanimity, inclusion and diversity.
In the era of globalisation, urbanisation and nuclear families, the expectation from women is high. What is needed is the democratisation of family, and acceptance of the individuality of women. The market has already emerged as a dominant force with full control over the state and individuals. As a result, women face double exploitation by vested interests.
In the wake of drastic socio-economic, political and scientific changes, let us hope that the Draft National Policy for Women 2016 will draw up a new roadmap to fulfil India’s national and international commitments, especially the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with regard to education, economy, environment and violence against women.
Gender equality is not an end in itself. Women’s empowerment to participate in economic activities across all sectors is essential to achieve sustainable development and improve the quality of human life at the grassroots level where women and men walk hand in hand towards a better tomorrow without fear and discrimination.
(The author is Associate Professor, Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth, Cochin. The views are personal.)