The century of the female

This year marks the Diamond Jubilee of India’s independence. It’s time we look at the progress made in this regard
The century of the female
GK Photo

HAYA QAZI

“The 21st Century will be the century of girls and women”, declared the former UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet in 2011. As this year marks the Diamond Jubilee of India’s independence, it’s time we look at the progress made in this regard.

Females constitute nearly half the population of India. However, their social standing is far below males, and their social mobility is even more constrained. The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently released the Global Gender Gap Index 2022, ranking India 135 out of 146 countries. India’s ranking in this report projects a dismal image and highlights that it is a long road to gender equality.

The WEF defines the “Gender Gap” as the difference between women and men in social, political, intellectual, cultural, or economic attainments or attitudes. Some common indicators that reflect an individual’s status in society are participating in work and politics, education, health, access to property, et cetera. However, it is well-known that women are not equally placed with men in these parameters.

There are uncountable issues that hinder a woman’s right to life, dignity, freedom and equality across time and space, class and race. Women, especially in India, face layered discrimination of sex, caste, class, religion, and geography.

Social

It is 2022, yet, in many parts of the country, the birth of a girl child is not welcome. The concepts such as girls being “paraya dhan”, the evil of dowry, the satanic practice of female foeticide, and males being considered the family’s breadwinners have deteriorated women’s status over centuries. As such, investment in their nutrition, education and well-being comes second to that of the male child.

The gender socialisation norms further amplify the prejudice against women. For instance, a girl is expected to be quiet and soft-spoken and to dress, sit, and walk in a particular manner. In contrast, men ought to be confident, loud, and display any desired behaviour. Such socially constructed norms reinforce the subservience of females to males.

There is no scarcity of examples that underline women’s restrictions on their bodily autonomy. Rapes, marital rapes, domestic violence, reproductive choice and forced prostitution are prime examples.

The abuses faced by women are multi-faceted. The derogatory “Sulli Deals” wherein Muslim women were auctioned online is a recent example of the double marginalisation of sex and religion. In the case of Dalit women, it has been sex and caste.

National Crime Records Bureau’s 2020 report stated that at least 77 rapes were committed daily. NCRB’s latest data for 2022 reveals that there has been a 40% increase in crimes against women in the national capital. The 1997 Vishaka Judgement of the Supreme Court established guidelines for protecting women from sexual harassment at work. However, women feel unsafe travelling far from home for work or education, especially in rural India.

The Supreme Court in the Navtej Singh Johar Case of 2015 and, more recently, the Allahabad High Court in the Salamat Ansari case of 2020 decreed that choosing one’s life partner is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Despite such directions by the judiciary, the country has witnessed honour killings, “Love Jihad”, child marriage, forced marriages and other demeaning practices where a woman is severed from exercising her right to choose.

Economic

Women contribute 18% of the GDP of India. A report by McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that just by offering equal opportunities to women, India could add US$ 770 billion to its GDP by 2025.

In urban India, it is common to see women working night shifts or handling positions of responsibility in organisations. However, even in the so-called progressive silos, women face the “glass ceiling” barrier, which is an unacknowledged barrier to advancement in a profession, despite their skill or merit, which is a global phenomenon. From another vantage point, females are forced to compromise their passions and dreams when they come of a certain age, due to pressures of matrimony.

Gender role stereotyping has also prevented women from progressing in the job market. For example, women may be considered less reliable because of their child-rearing functions. The gender-biased notions about the decision-making abilities of females, maternity leaves, menstruation, and domestic duties reduce the employability chances of women.

The International Labor Organisation’s (ILO) report titled Global Employment Trends for Youth shows that young women exhibited a much lower Employment-to-Population ratio (EPR), indicating that young men are almost 1.5 times more likely than young women to be employed.

Over the years, there has been a “feminisation of poverty”. According to United Nations, the majority of people living on 1$ or less per day are women, and the poverty gap between men and women has been widening in the past decade.

The increasing migration of rural men to urban areas in search of jobs has left women in charge of agriculture. This, in addition to care activities, has increased the work burden on women. This draws light on the “Care Economy”, which refers to the paid and unpaid labour and services that support caregiving in all its forms. A study by Oxfam reported that if Care Work were counted, the female labour force participation would rise from 20.5% to 81.7% and that women’s unpaid work is valued at 3.1% of the GDP of India.

Political

In the last 75 years of India’s Independence, women’s political participation has not even increased by 10%. As per data provided by the Election Commission of India, as of October 2021, women make up just 10.5% of the members of the Parliament and a pitiable 9% in State Legislative assemblies.

Even though there is a pool of women Sarpanches, they are primarily dummies governing on behalf of their husbands (Pati Panchayats). The Women’s Reservation Bill of 2008 proposes a reservation of 1/3rd seats in the Lok Sabha and in all state legislative assemblies for women, which has not been passed till now.

Gender stereotypes, work and family, lack of political education, and criminalisation of politics are some reasons that abate the entry of women into politics.

India hugely needs the feminisation of politics to increase women representatives. It would include the involvement of women in the decision-making process, power-sharing, running political parties, holding political offices, and policymaking at all governance levels.

The Silver Lining

However, not all is bleak. Women fought bravely in the freedom struggle; the names of Rani Laxmibai, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Aruna Asaf Ali, Sarojini Naidu and Madam Bhikaji Kama instil fervour in our hearts.

India was among the first countries in the world to grant voting rights to women, and it was the second to have a woman Prime Minister, Smt Indira Gandhi. Some tribes of the country, in the North East, Kerela and Karnataka, are matrilineal, which have been so since time immemorial and have strived through ages.

It is said, “educate a woman; you educate the nation” The woman has the power of procreation and, with the proper education and opportunities, can shape the nation. In the 21st century, with the vast reserve of options open for women, they are now charting the development and are achieving feats in entrepreneurship, sports and natural and social sciences. Personalities like Nirmala Sitaraman, Nikhat Zareen, Kiran Majumdar Shaw, and Vandana Shiva are hailed as beacons of empowerment.

In Kashmir, Dilafrose Qazi, a prominent social activist and educationist nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, is called the “Iron Lady” of Kashmir. She and her husband founded SSM College of Engineering in 1988, and today nearly 70% of its workforce comprises women.

The Supreme Court verdict of 2020 to grant a Permanent Commission to women in the Indian Army is an emboldening judicial intervention. Captain Abhilasha Barak created history by becoming the first woman officer to join the Army Aviation Corps as a Combat Aviator. The appointment of Dr N Kalaiselvi as the first woman director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research underlined a significant trend of participation of women in science. Gita Gopinath set a record by becoming the first woman Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund.

The women-centric schemes launched by the Government of India have done well to ameliorate the conditions of women. The Prime Minister’s Ujjwala Yojna, Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Ladli Scheme, and KIRAN scheme, among others, are a step toward gender justice and equality. Women have, in many spheres, proved to be equal or even better than men. During the Covid-19 pandemic, women constituted 70% of the healthcare workforce.

India is a signatory to the Istanbul Convention and the UN Beijing Convention, landmark conventions that protect women’s rights and promote gender equality. In his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister emphasised respecting women and extending support to Nari Shakti. What is lacking now is acknowledgement and encouragement from society.

However, the road to gender equality is tumultuous. Rapists walk free, the infantilisation of women exists even now, violence of all forms is still prevalent, cyber harassment is rising, and women constitute the bulk of climate refugees. Almost a decade ago, Hilary Clinton said, “the equality of women is the great unfinished business of the 21st Century”, and we truly have a long way to go.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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