Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Women Empowerment: Challenges & Prospects

Human beings are the most advanced life form on this planet that sits atop the pyramid of all sentient beings. Being sentient, puts the onus of moral duty on us to be just, altruistic and compassionate to fellow beings and lesser life forms, taking a lead in ensuring peace and order to sustain the balance on Earth.

While present day Homo sapiens are considered more civilized than their barbaric ancestors, it is disquieting to note that, the blessing of a civilized brain did not automatically render the virtues of liberty and equality to be bestowed on all fellow humans across the globe since the first rational human being descended some 40,000 years ago. Whether be it the exploitation of black versus white, poor versus rich or women versus men, human history is replete with innumerous examples of savagery, cruelty and suppression of weak, that defies the very attribute of being sentient. The best example of which being gender inequality and suppression of women even to this day of twenty-first century, so much so that it has become a buzzword both at  global and national forums.

Women empowerment refers to the conducive environment that provides the basic rights and a level playing field to women to excel in all spheres of life – social, political, economic. This also includes extension of specialized treatment by all stake-holders of the society, viz., government agencies, private institutions and NGOs in the areas of health, education, legal, etc. where there has been traditional neglect with respect to women. The crux being the ability to make free and fair decisions by women without being coerced by undue unfavorable circumstances allowing them to perform at par with men.

If one delves into the root cause of why women are treated as inferior sex even today at many parts of the world including India, it directly points out to the informal division of labour that has been the norm in our societies since eons. The quintessential role of men has been to take care of livelihood and protect the family while for women it has been about taking care of children, household chores and other activities within the boundaries of four walls. There have been exceptions though but these are few and far between. India and world as a whole were more tolerant of women a few thousand years ago, than it is today. If one talks about the glyphs of Egypt, Mesopotamia or Indus Valley civilizations, it depicts the various freedom that the women enjoyed – many of which went missing during the subsequent medieval and dark ages of our civilization. Even in India, women during Rig Vedic Period enjoyed greater freedom in all forms including the right to remain spinster and spend entire lives with parents, study and contribute to the hymns of Vedas which vastly diminished during the later Vedic periods. Thus, it is the traditional mindset of thousand years that needs to be broken free to empower women and bring them at par with men in all aspects. In a country like India where people are deeply religious and traditional in nature, it is a greater challenge to percolate the values and ideals of women empowerment, who constitute 49% of Indian population.

Firstly, men are the biggest stakeholders in Women Empowerment. Without their participation, it is bound to fail since it is the men who mostly formulated the rules of engagement with women in the societies. In one of her UN speeches on Women Empowerment, Hillary Clinton noticed that less than 30% of the audience were males. This is a big concern since awareness creation and gender sensitization needs to start with men. This was taken up so seriously that at the recent UNGA, Iceland and Suriname announced that they will be conducting men-only conference on gender sensitization campaign to secure greater cooperation and understanding from men. A welcome move indeed.

It must be mentioned here that some of the greatest reformists of modern India were men, whose contribution has immensely helped to transform the lives of Indian women. The crusade of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Vidyasagar, Jyotiba Phule against the evils of child marriage & sati and promotion of education of girls, widow remarriage are extremely commendable in a period where going against the norm could mean potential isolation from the society at large. They had the courage, will and determination to set the wrongs of Brahmanical tradition right which in turn gradually changed the conditions of women in India to a large extent. Still there is a long way to go.

Secondly, right to equality has to be implemented in earnest where women have equal rights just like men. A little over hundred years ago, New Zealand became the first country to allow universal adult suffrage that included women, ahead of other western countries. The first European country to do so was Finland followed by other Nordic countries. Today if one takes stock of the situation, Nordic countries are far ahead in terms of social well-being and rights granted to women along with other HDI factors. In every sphere of the society, women there today occupy important positions and have demonstrated their capabilities directly contributing to the growth of these nations. An example to put it in perspective – Major General Kristin Lund of Norway became the first female force commander of UN Peacekeeping Mission in Cyprus.

Major General Kristin Lund with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

The scenario in India is vastly different despite our constitution having provisions to ensure gender equality. The apex democratic institution of India – the Indian Parliament is yet to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill that reserves 33% [and not 50%] of the seats for women at both central and state legislatures. Due to prejudice, aborting female fetuses was a very common recurrence in India, which exists even to this day despite enacting Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act. The incidences have tapered down, but has not stopped completely. This has resulted in a skewed sex ratio in India where there are 940 females for every 1000 males – an alarming trend that has other ramifications like purchasing brides especially in north Indian states; a complete devastating infringement on women’s right and a direct challenge to women empowerment.

While India is ahead of many nations for right to equality at workplace, for example, providing mandatory maternity leaves to all female employees for a period of 84 days by law, it is not universally implemented, especially for those women working in informal sectors. Additionally, latest NSSO survey reveals that 2 out of 3 Indian women in their prime working years are engaged in unpaid housework. There is also an informal discrimination of wages and promotion even in formal sectors as well.

In most of these cases, the biggest roadblock seems to be education and poverty eradication – the third reason why women needs to be empowered in these areas that are critical for their upliftment in the society. Government and NGOs have taken definitive steps to battle the same. But it is happening in pockets. Social sector schemes like MNREGA have given definite employment to a big percentage of rural women, who otherwise would have had to look for jobs at a lower wage. Various women centric self-help groups and micro-finance institutions have sprung up to help women earn their own livelihood, making them less dependent on others. Swayamsidha Programme run by Ministry of Women and Child Development is one such example. Similarly, there are various state run schemes that focus solely on women, especially those working in informal sectors. But unfortunately, many of these schemes are mired in corruption which needs to be checked while the real beneficiaries are left high and dry.

It is encouraging to note that the introduction of Mid-Day meal scheme has not only reduced the school dropouts especially among girls, their participation is also increasing. Many of the state governments have further encouraged girl child to enroll in schools by providing special assistance programmes like gifting bicycles, books, etc. – such social welfare schemes need to be stepped up further. If Malala Yousufai, the youngest recipient of Nobel Peace Prize can fight for her right to education in Taliban infested North-West Pakistan, India, which enjoys democracy and freedom can definitely achieve goal of 100% education of girl child through proper implementation of RTE Act.

Fourthly, women’s health and sanitation is a big concern. Though India has been able to reduce MMR to 178 deaths per lakh live births, a key Millennium Development Goal, but it still falls below the target of 100 per lakh live births. Women have been empowered by government to be able to go for institutionalized deliveries as envisaged in Janani Suraksha scheme and take care of her livelihood during her pregnancy and post-pregnancy through Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana Scheme where government compensates wage loss for expecting mothers. Similarly, government’s latest movement of building clean India through construction of toilets in rural areas and important public places, preventing open defecation is a welcome move for sanitation needs of women and general population as a whole.

Shakti Devi being felicitated by UN officials
Last but not the least, an important area of focus should be women’s safety and legal assistance. While India has to cause to be proud of Shakti Devi of J&K police, serving in UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan who has been awarded UN International Female Police Peacekeeper Award, 2014 for her efforts towards helping victims of sexual and gender-based violence in Afghanistan, India as a nation has been put under scanner due to poor performance related to women’s safety. The Nirbhaya incident of Dec 16, Badaun Rape in UP, recurrent rapes and sexual violence against females not even sparing infants & toddlers are turning our society back in time. In a recent judgment, the honorable Supreme Court mentioned that the women are not even safe in matrimonial homes where there are instances of dowry deaths, physical violence, etc. Despite passing the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013, on the recommendations Justice Verma committee, things have changed little. Those clamoring for capital punishment for these crimes against women have seen a spike of such incidents in the recent past. The only remedy lies in changing the mindset of the society, especially males, imbibing in them the values of respecting women, in addition to enactment of stringent laws, putting in place an expeditious judicial and sensitive police system.

Even when it came to succession of properties, only recently, wives and daughters of the deceased have been given the legal right to claim property which otherwise was the dominion of male members of the family only.

If one takes a holistic view of the entire situation currently, India is ranked 132 out of 187 in Gender Inequality Index according to 2013 report of GHDR, even below Pakistan. This is a definitive cause for worry, but does not essentially mean that our efforts so far went in vain. There are imperceptible changes that have taken place, but in order to bring in a visible dynamic change, there needs to be cohesiveness in the plans and schemes that are being executed by the government. Our honorable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi has often emphasized on India’s Demographic Dividend as an edge over other countries. If we have to utilize it effectively, women empowerment has to be the most serious challenge that new government must face since women form 49% of our population. Keeping women empowerment out of development ambit will essentially be a stumbling block in India’s development despite launching radical and new schemes of financial inclusion, poverty elimination, National Rural Health Mission, Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, Make in India, etc.

A lot has been done so far and still a lot remains to be done to reach a stage where an Indian woman can proudly proclaim to the world that she is truly empowered and free from the clutches of family, society, poverty, inequality and illiteracy. To conclude the prospect of women empowerment presently, the following lines from Robert Frost’s poem aptly sums it up in my opinion:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

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