The United Nations General Assembly has created UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, in July 2010 -- a new agency solely focused on women's rights with a view to invest in women's equality. In the words of Michelle Bachelet, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, "This is a time of great promise. We have a historic opportunity to accelerate the achievement of what champions of gender equality have worked towards for years."
These encouraging words assume a lot of significance for us women in India where women are still ill treated and discriminated against. Three recent happenings reveal the Dark Age environment in which most of the modern Indian women are living.
The first one relates to the Kerala Police charge sheeting Kannada actress Jayamala, alleging that she had made a fake claim that she was pushed into the sanctum sanctorum of the Sabarimala temple and accidentally touched the deity of Lord Ayyappa in 1987. The charge sheet alleges that the fake claim hurt the religious sentiments of devotees, as this was deemed to be contrary to Sabarimala custom, which currently restricts entry for women over 10 and less than 50 years of age in the shrine. While some say this has to do with the celibate status of the deity Ayyappa , other say it is just a practice which evolved into a custom, as the gruelling trek to this jungle shrine in the past was life-threatening. Even if one were to believe the latter, it still means that the lives of under 10 and over 50 women are not worth saving. This apart, in India there are religious sanctions against women entering a temple/performing any religious ceremony during their monthly menstrual cycle. They are deemed unclean for those 5 days of the month. And here I thought that normal menstrual flow was indicative of a healthy female.
The second is a news item which reiterates the Indian couples' preference for male heirs. As Gender selection tests are illegal in India, many are flocking to Thailand where there are no laws against it. Doctors use pre implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a method that involves producing embryos through IVF and implanting only those of the desired gender into the womb. "I don't remember an Indian couple ever asking for a girl. Also, with Indian couples, around 80% of enquiries are from the husband and not the wife," acknowledges Richard Burtan-Sanchez, a consultant at Gender Selection Bangkok.
Others who can't afford the cost of treatment in Thailand are still resorting to traditional, but banned methods of gender selection in India, like having an ultrasound, amniocentesis or fetal blood test. Women then have (or are rather forced to have) abortions if they discover that it is a female foetus. These sex selective abortions/female infanticides have resulted in a highly skewed up masculine sex ratio in India (932 women against 1000 men).
The third derogatory incident relates to Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra, the only woman judge in the Supreme Court, who recently listed her "two daughters to be married" in the liabilities column on the court’s website. The other entries in the judge's liabilities column include "guarantor for education loan of my daughter" and residential house to be built post- retirement. While the last two do qualify as liabilities in the legal context, it is indeed regressive to brand daughters (or the expenditure in their marriage, as this is perhaps what the Honourable Lady meant) as liability, by a SC judge, who is expected to give an impartial opinion on women's rights and other social issues.
0f course, despite these and other occurrences one cannot deny that women indeed have come a long way from the days when they were not allowed to step out of the house unchaperoned. In India lot many things have changed socially and legally in her favour in the last decade. A 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act 1956 has ensured that daughters also receive their share in agricultural land/property—thus removing one gender bias, and giving her right to her own money. Similarly The Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act 2005 protects her from physical abuse from her family members and gives her the right to live without fear. The Women’s Reservation Bill (ensuring 33% reservation to women in Parliament and legislative assemblies), and a landmark Supreme Court judgement legalising live-in relationships are two other bonanzas which she managed to wrench last year.
But the benefits have yet to percolate from the court room files to the woman on the street. Crimes again women are on the rise, and economic empowerment has yet to translate into sexual empowerment. It may sound unbelievable (but is true) that even economically independent women rarely have a control over their own reproductivity. In many so called rich and modern homes, a woman’s clothes, food preferences and recreational avenues are decided by the man of the house. As a society we put more pressure on our boys to succeed than on our girls. This has to change. Parents will have to take a proactive role in teaching their son that the daughter is as good as him. It is not enough to let the daughter opt for professional courses. It is equally important to teach the son the dignity of household chores. Laws can only restore constitutional rights. They have to be backed by a change in the mindset at the societal level to battle the gender biases ingrained in our psyche.
Perhaps, women are not taken seriously enough even in the developed countries, especially in the workforce. Face book COO Sheryl Sandberg , in her very inspiring recent TED talk laments: "We are not making to the top in any profession anywhere in the world. Out of 190 heads of state, only nine are women; only 13% parliamentarians are women in the world. In the corporate sector only 15-16% occupy high positions. These numbers have not moved up since 2002 and are going in the wrong direction. They have to make a hard choice between professional success and personal fulfilment. A recent US study shows that of all senior managers two thirds of married men had children, while only one third of married women had children."
Sandberg has three pieces of advice for women if they want to become the next generation’s leaders: (i) Women need to be more assertive. Too many women systematically underestimate their own abilities. They need to be more confident and aggressive. Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. Aggressive women are more likely to be disliked, while aggressive men are liked. The challenge is to believe in ourselves despite these clichéd notions. (ii)If women have husbands, make sure they're helping equally at home. Too often women are working twice or thrice as hard at home as the male counterpart. This makes it harder to work at your job. Both genders need to work inside the home, if both are working outside the home. (iii)Always keep your foot on the gas pedal. Do not leave before you leave. Don't start thinking about leaving your job months or years ahead of when you feel the need of it, because it will hold you back. Just charge full steams ahead from the word go.
According to Ann M. Veneman Executive Director, UNICEF “Empowering women and eliminating gender discrimination produces a double dividend – fulfilling the rights of women and also helping to save and improve the lives of children. Evidence shows that when women are educated and empowered to participate in decision-making in the household, workplace and political sphere – secure from violence, exploitation and discrimination – children and families benefit."
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also serves as the Director of CNS Gender Initiative. She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)