The government of India had floated zealously its grand ideas for the country by declaring the year 2001 as Women's Empowerment Year, with a focus on achieving the "vision in the new century of a nation where women are equal partners with men". What followed was a spate of programmes and schemes with fine names: Swashakti and Stree Shakti for women's empowerment; Swayam Siddha to benefit nearly a lakh women through micro-credit programmes, Balika Samrudhi Yojana for the girl child and a horde of various other projects, doubtlessly with intentions of going about a greater common good.
Since independence, India has developed several initiatives for guaranteeing education to its people. Although some progress has been achieved, the ever growing population has always come in the way. What is worrisome is the inconsistency that marks the efforts. Every once in a while, when a programme is to be launched or a report released, the activism comes to the fore. For rest of the time the problem exists but is too commonplace and ubiquitous to rouse strong motivation for efforts.
In contrast to the tragedies of the communities affected by drought, flood or civil conflict, the poverty, powerlessness and ill-health, which accompany illiteracy are not easily captured on the camera and brought to the attention of the international public opinion. Today, 125 million primary school age children are not in school; most of them are girls.
The current literacy rate for women in India stands at 54.16 per cent, vis-a-vis that of 75 per cent for males. Efforts are, however, on for raising the standard of the girl child. There are several programmes being undertaken.
It is true that after years of inflicting damage results cannot be achieved in a day. Nonetheless, consistency in efforts will be better than complacency. It will take some time, but the end result will be rewarding. After all, it is not for nothing that it is said that when you educate a boy you educate an individual, but when you educate a girl you educate an entire family.
Women are the major contributors in terms of economic output, but their contribution still remains to be made visible. Men and women are not equally distributed across the types of work. Women are concentrated in the primary sector and in unskilled and marginal work. 95 per cent of women, as against 89 per cent men, are engaged in un-organised sector, and most of them are found in the rural areas. According to the 2001 census, 90 million women constitute the workforce.
Industries that employ more women than men include, processing of edible nuts, domestic services, bidi manufacturing, spinning, weaving, finishing of coir textiles etc. Women also constitute majority of the workforce employed as nurses, ayahs, paramedics and technical workers. Their contribution goes unnoticed as most of the times they are involved as unpaid or home-based workers, who often get counted as non-working housewives.
In her paper on land laws and gender equity, Prof Bina Aggarwal points out the fact that women are much more dependent on land-based livelihoods. Over the years, while the male workers have been moving to non-agricultural arenas, women have remained where they were, owing to their lower mobility, less education and few assets. She notes, "firstly there is systematic bias against the women and female children's sharing of benefits from the male controlled resources—women without independent resources are highly vulnerable to poverty and destitution in case of divorce or widowhood. They often need titles to avail credit facilities."
In last one decade the Union and State governments have envisaged the eradication of poverty through women-oriented programmes, as a major chunk of the population below the poverty line remains the hapless women. The women can also be benefited in a large measure through generating adequate amount of legal awareness and helping them in making efforts to farm collectively, as is being done by the Deccan Development Society (DDS) in Andhra Pradesh.
Marriage and reproductive health
Although the practice of child marriage is history for most, it still continues to be a reality of life in the rural India, especially in the North and West pockets of the country. Every once in a while, there are shocking incidents (which make it to the covers of popular magazines and hit the front pages of newspapers because of the element of horrific unusualness). The news stirs up people, only to fade away in a couple of days when the oddity has turned boring.
Child marriages, banned by law, continue to take place and yet there is no action against this practice. No amount of legislation will be effective as long as the political will to promote gender equity is absent.
The Dowry Prohibition Act has been in force for five decades, and yet, countless atrocities are perpetrated as a result of this despicable practice that finds favour with scores of the households. Marrying off a boy not only marks an easy road to prosperity, but also is seen as redemption of money spent on the daughter's wedding.
Girls in early teens are "traded off" in the name of marriage to men who are older by nothing less than twenty to twenty five years, for a certain amount of money. This saves them the hassle of dowry as well as the search for a groom! The common practice in rural India is to marry the girls around the age of fourteen or fifteen, triggering off an early motherhood for most. Quite the reason for the reproductive health scenario not being so encouraging.
Another complexity that leaves the women at cross roads is fear of the apparent persecution if she bears a daughter. The startling fact is that, on the whole, women themselves prefer a male child despite the negative impact of this mindset on their lives. This seems to be a culturally conditioned choice. This is also the reason why technologies like ultrasound and amniocentesis are being used to determine sex of the child in the womb.
The apathy towards the gender inequities is evident in the classes that are expected to deliver better.
After all these years, it is sad to see the blatant use of woman as a mere "tool" that can be used at will to achieve various ends, and to see it as a much exploited subject for speeches, seminars, schemes and slogans. The crux is that till socio-cultural attitudes are addressed, there can be little meaningful done for achieving gender parity. Women in India are not lacking in self-confidence, but it is important for them to be realising this individually, as well as collectively. Individual self-confidence can be bolstered by the parental confidence, and through approval and appreciation of the community they are a part of.
The phenomenon of domestic violence is widely prevalent, but has remained largely unseen. Millions of Indian women have, by and large, grown to accept spousal violence and, worse still, being subjected to humiliation and indignity which cripple them mentally. Afraid of the law, men may not commit acts of violence, but, in turn, resort to psychologically pressurising the woman, which has results still worse in nature.
According to the Crime Records Bureau of the Union Home Ministry, of all cases of crime committed against women every year, almost 37 per cent are cases of domestic violence. Then, there are women—especially those belonging to the middle and upper middle classes—who keep quiet for the sake of the family's image.
Most social workers and counsellors agree that the number of domestic violence cases has increased, but attribute the increased reporting to the growing realisation among women that they have to fight back. Domestic violence among the lower class is accepted, and among the upper class it is swept under the carpet. What we get to see is only the emerging middle class, because here the value systems have changed tremendously, whereas the societal systems have not. Sociologist Mohua Bandyopadhyaya also corroborates the facts: "with more and more women in the work place, the modern male feels under siege, and the frustration is taken out on the woman on whom he feels he can assert his will."
There's more to domestic violence than physical abuse. Emotional trauma can be far more crippling.
Women in India have made major inroads in various male-dominated professions, including the governmental bureaucracy. In the fields of business, medicine, engineering, law, art and culture, women who were given opportunities to acquire the necessary skills and education have proven themselves capable of holding their own, without availing of any special measures to facilitate their entry. But they have failed to gain ground in the field of politics. Moreover, the agenda of women's empowerment seems to have lost the kind of moral and political legitimacy it enjoyed during the freedom movement, as was evident from the ugly scenes in the aftermath of tabling of the Women's Reservation Bill in the Parliament.
Infact, women are moving in the direction of near equal political participation in only a handful of countries, such as Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. In these societies, women have begun to seriously alter the very nature of politics, making enduring, and substantial gains in every field.
All trends indicate that women's representation in politics requires special consideration, and cannot be left to the forces that presently dominate our parties and government. Today, even the best of female parliamentarians feel sidelined and powerless within their respective parties. Most women in electoral and party politics are an ineffective minority within their own respective political groupings.
The very same male party leaders who compete with each other in announcing their support of special reservations for women, have shown little willingness to include women in party decision-making, or even to help create a conducive atmosphere for women's participation in their own organisations.
In fact, women's marginalisation is even more pronounced in the day-to-day functioning of almost all political parties, than in the Parliament. Therefore, it is urgently required that we take special measures to enhance women's political participation. Our democracy will remain seriously flawed if it fails to yield adequate space to women.
The Supreme Court judgement on Sexual Harassment of working women in the case of Vishakha vs. the State of Rajasthan (August 1997) initiated debate on the issue not just among women’s groups, lawyers and activists, but also among women in the workplace. For the first time, behaviour that can be considered sexual harassment has been explicitly legally defined.
“… sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as:
—Physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favours;
—sexually coloured remarks;
—any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.”
The guidelines are significant in that, for the first time sexual harassment is identified as a separate category of legally prohibitive behaviour. Sexual harassment should be considered a separate legal offence not because it is less serious (as some have argued), but because it is taken less seriously.
Particularly in the absence of witnesses or other concrete proof, it often becomes the complainant’s word against the harasser’s. Further, in addition to sexual harassment being a violation of the right to safe working conditions, the guidelines also proclaim it to be a violation of women’s right to equal opportunity in the workplace.
It is the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in work places or other institutions to prevent sexual harassment and to provide procedures for resolution of complaints. Women who either draw a regular salary, receive an honorarium, or work in a voluntary capacity—in the government; private sector or un-organized sectors—come under the purview of these guidelines.
Main guidelines are:
- Express prohibition of sexual harassment should be notified and circulated.
- Prohibition of sexual harassment should be included in the rules and regulations of government and public sector bodies.
- Private employers should include prohibition of sexual harassment in the standing orders under the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946.
- Appropriate work conditions should be provided for work, leisure, health, and hygiene to further ensure that there is no hostile environment towards women at workplaces and no woman employee should have reasonable grounds to believe that she is disadvantaged in connection with her employment.
- Sexual harassment should be affirmatively discussed at worker’s meetings, employer-employees meetings and other appropriate forums.
- Guidelines should be prominently notified to create awareness of the rights of female employers.
- The employer should assist persons affected in cases of sexual harassment by outsiders or third parties.
- Central and State governments are required to adopt measures including legislation to ensure that private employers also observe guidelines.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 was brought into force from October 26, 2006. The Act was passed by the Parliament in August 2005 and assented to by the President in September 2005.
For the purposes of this Act, any conduct of the respondent shall constitute domestic violence if he (a) habitually assaults or makes the life of the aggrieved person miserable by cruelty of conduct even if such conduct does not amount to physical ill-treatment; or (b) forces the aggrieved person to lead an immoral life; or (c) otherwise injures or harms the aggrieved person.
Nothing contained in clause (c) of sub-section (1) shall amount to domestic violence if the pursuit of course of conduct by the respondent was reasonable for his own protection or for the protection of his or another’s property.
Primarily meant to provide protection to the wife or female live-in partner from domestic violence at the hands of the husband or male live-in partner or his relatives, the law also extends its protection to women who are sisters, widows or mothers. Domestic violence under the act includes actual abuse or the threat of abuse whether physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or economic. Harassment by way of unlawful dowry demands to the woman or her relatives would also be covered under this definition.