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View PointOpinion: Her right to equality

Opinion: Her right to equality

Published: 6th Sep 2021 12:00 am

By Tej Singh Kardam

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In most parts of the world, the voices of women are rendered silent by the vicious trinity of oppression, denial and victim-bashing. Violence against women seems to erode women equally around the globe. India has the same tragic saga to tell. Violence against women is not defined or confined to some particular circumstances. It is a random action exercised by men to punish women for stepping beyond the defined gendered boundaries set by the patriarchy.

Though their support and work are needed in nation-building, they are compelled to spend their lives in fear, both in private and public spaces. Traditional and patriarchal views mould the experiences of women in India. Orthodox views on gender make women and girls less valuable to their parents. This has been manifested especially in the areas like female foeticide/infanticide, practices like dowry, honour killing, rape, abandonment of widows and domestic violence. Those with power don’t want to know, hear and believe indeed, they don’t want women to have their voices and their say.

This poem fairly narrates the same: “It is a battlefield, a regular laboratory, an everlasting treasure trove, a permanent prison, an altar. It is a women’s body, an inner rant, the essence of the soul. It is the same, irrespective of gender. Yet disrespected, because a woman. My murder happens before my eyes.”

Persistent Disparities

The persistent disparities include segregation in women’s activities, gender gaps in earnings, male-female differences in responsibility for house and care work, gaps in asset ownership, etc. The progress in these spheres is not encouraging despite greater prosperity in many parts of the world. Many of these gender disparities are seen even among the richest countries. A few years ago, the World Bank in its report ‘Gender Equality and Development’ mentioned that in societies where social norms give greater power for decision-making to men, women have less voice in the household and societal decision-making.

Broadly there are three spheres — within households, in economic spheres and in political spaces — wherein the impact of gender inequality can be seen around the world. Women who made household decisions jointly with their husbands, including the decisions about the use of their own earnings, were less likely to experience violence from spouse. Women have much Unpaid Care Burden, which is deeply entrenched in social norms and lack bargaining power within their households to transform them.

Toothless Acts

An International Labour Organisation study revealed that Indian women spend 312 minutes per day in urban areas and 291 minutes per day in rural areas on unpaid work as compared with men who spend only 29 and 32 minutes respectively. Around the world, women spend two to ten times more time on unpaid care work. India has the largest gender gap as women spend ten times more time on unpaid care activities than men because it is considered predominantly a familial and female activity.

In addition, women experience invisible physical, mental and sexual violence. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act came into being in 2005. Unfortunately, assurances made in the Act have not been actualised, which is mainly attributed to not providing quick relief by the judicial system.

Gender disparities have also crept into healthcare delivery for women, which has to be improved by adopting a life-cycle approach in managing their health needs. Women also face workplace sexual harassment, though, for its prevention, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was enacted in 2013. The Act mainly propagates conciliation – undermining the dignity of women.

As per the Global Gender Gap Index by the World Economic Forum in 2018, India ranked 142 amongst 149 countries in economic participation. Currently, female labour force participation is only 20%, and India is 13th from the bottom. A study by Catalyst found that Fortune companies with higher representation of women board directors attained almost 50% higher returns than those with lower representation.

The Constitution of India promises equality to women and also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex but the ground reality is very different. The issue of gender equality is complex, being intrinsically intertwined with a variety of factors; sociological, religious, political, economic and biological.

Critical Mass

Various studies have shown that differing priorities of women parliamentarians change broader development outcomes. Yet, in India, even though women constitute about 48% of the population, of the total MLAs, only 9% are women. Similarly, women constitute only 14% members in Lok Sabha and 11.5% in Rajya Sabha. This falls well below the 30% ‘Critical Mass’ that the United Nations Equal Opportunity Commission has deemed as essential for women legislators to be influential in policymaking.

Gender inequality reveals the most complex layers of injustices hidden within families and societies. The four main institutions in which our social, economic and political life is embedded; the family, workplace, the community and the state, need transformation. The preference and interests of household members are often diverse, far from being equal, riven with gender inequality.

Indian families need to be transformed. As is said, “Can man be free if woman be a slave? What woman is, for none of woman born, can choose but drain the bitter drags of woe, whichever from the oppressed to the oppressors flow.” Despite strong laws, women generally don’t report harassment at the workplace.

The state, the most complex and powerful institution – has the power to transform, be it family, workplace and the community or undermine them. If the state fails to do so, then it would be an assertion to, “utre in ankhon ke aage jo haar chameli ne pahene, woh cheen raha dekho maali, sukumar lataon ne pahne” (I saw with my own eyes the Jasmine being stripped of her garland of flowers. Look the gardener himself is snatching the ornaments of these tender vines).

As it is said, “One can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of women.” In this sense, to achieve gender equality, India needs ‘disruptive change’ which will shatter patriarchal social norms and bring faster progress. It is also pertinent to have more representation of women in governance, sports and all other spaces for becoming a great economic power and overall development.

Tej Singh Kardam

(The author is a retired IFS officer)

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