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DAY OF RECKONING

When the UN earmarked a day for women to celebrate, it also offered an opportunity for the gender to make an assessment of where it stands in terms of greater equality

This International Women’s Day, over 30 women’s groups from across Delhi marched as one unit insisting on “socio-economic and political justice” for all and to express their determination to “persist in fighting for equal status and opportunities, and resist the dilution of laws and regressive ideologies”.

Our country is still plagued by the idea that a woman’s place is at home, says Maimoona Mollah, President, Janwadi Mahila Samiti Delhi. Films glorify regressive ideas like sati – an outlawed custom where a widow immolates herself on her husband’s pyre – and jauhar – again, an outlawed custom of mass self-immolation by women to avoid enslavement and rape.

This year a film titled “Padmavati”, was embroiled in tension, with Rajputs decrying the sanctity of their queen being tarnished by a Muslim invader. It was a case of communal divide, and casteism but also, most importantly the false sense of pride men feel in protecting the body of a woman. Later when the courts intervened, the name was changed to “Padmaavat”.

The country, home to a far-reaching patriarchal system, has a long way to go before it can bring in equality, and end persistent discrimination. Be it women being discouraged from joining the workforce, or not given education, which means they don’t know their rights; raped, murdered, assaulted, harassed, kidnapped, the list goes on. Here we look at the issues and what the current picture in our country looks like.

Women at the workplace

Shrinking of job opportunities, equal pay for equal work, safety and security of women at the workplace, and a committee to deal with cases of sexual harassment are some of the things that need to be addressed.

According to a study by the World Bank, “Reassessing Patterns of Female Labor Force Participation in India”, the female labour participation rate (FLFP) reduced in 2011-12 to 127,220,248 a drop of 19.6 million women workers from 2004-05 numbers. In this, the worst hit were rural women, whose participation dropped approximately 53 per cent in the age group of 15-24 years.

The study had found that while more women were studying till a higher grade, work opportunities remained low.

Women are also pushed into marriage early on in life which may prevent them from joining the workforce. Furthermore, many women are denied the permission to go and work in close quarters with men, with India largely persisting in its patriarchal mindset. They also fear for their safety.

In a note by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) titled “Mahilaon ko kaam do Kaam ka pura daam do says that the share of women in the country’s employment dropped from 33% in 1993-94 to just 27% in 2011-12. It added furthermore that unpaid workers constitute around 40% of the female workforce in comparison to around 15% among male workers.

Sunita Dhar, former head of non-profit Jagori, points to the lack of a law for domestic workers. With many women working in homes where no law applies, their exploitation is easy. “In the unorganised sector, they don’t have a defined workplace and there’s so much to be done and we need to support it,” said Dhar. Adding that the fight was not between a woman and a man, she says that while the onus of taking things forward lay with the government, “We also need reform in families and societies. That’s where education takes a role.”

 Education

In 2001, India’s male literacy rate was at 75.26% which grew to 82.14% while for females it was at 53.67 and 65.46 respectively. However, it’s clearly not enough. Many don’t stay in the education system for long.

Ranjana Ray, founder and member secretary of Baliga Trust, says the most important factor to achieve equality is education. Her trust has various projects to empower and uplift women, children and their homes. Their work in Mongolpuri and Narela has focused in empowering women through education. She says, “We soon realised that you can’t completely eradicate illiteracy without working with children simultaneously”.

One of the most important aspects in education that that boys too need to be educated. “We carry out sessions on safer city for girls where boys attend as well. They must learn about equality”. “Once they understand gender parity they become a supporter,” adding that it was important to talk about equality for all.

She emphasises that when boys are given something to do, be it reading, writing, art or theatre, then their values change, and they would prefer doing this rather than taking smack and other nefarious activities.

Hirawati, a community worker with Jagori, highlighted the need for education so that they would take a stand against any sort of abuse. Born in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, she studied till only grade five. Then when her mother passed away, she started looking after her siblings. “After my grandmother passed away, my father married me off at 17 to a man who was married before.” The husband had left his wife, whom he had been married off to at the age of 15, as she didn’t bear him any children. “Less than a year later I was taunted by my mother-in-law for not producing children. I had a child after two years and thankfully it was a boy. Else I don’t know what they would have done.”

She says what made her get through it all was her education, “even though I studied only till Class V, I could bring up my kids because of it”.

Now she works with women, teaching them about their rights, “Women are so scared about what people will think and what will people say. But I keep telling them: Don’t be scared, just take a step forward and then you’ll see”.

Protection of women

“It’s to do with patriarchy and gender imbalance and the power imbalance that society creates and the inequalities that patriarchal families create putting men and boys in positions of power which is why incest happens or sexual abuse happens,” says Anuja Gupta, founder and executive director of Rahi Foundation. Rahi focuses on cases of incest and sexual abuse

“In the last five years, we’ve had more women come forward and report abuse. Women are feeling more courageous about asking for help,” says Gupta, adding that there has been a shift in the social climate since they started the foundation in 1996, when they were reprimanded for “breaking up families”.

Many families find talking about abuse a taboo subject. Even cases of marital rape have not been recognised by them. “Marriage is not a guise or a go-ahead for men to have sex with their wives without consent,” Gupta says, adding that the “reluctance to call it by what it is was itself a sign of where the women’s rights are in our society.”

The Human Rights Watch in its 2018 report said that India’s “Multiple high-profile cases of rape across the country during the year once again exposed the failures of the criminal justice system.”

In regard with the Nirbhaya case which shook the world, the report spoke of the amendment to laws which took place consequently. “Even after nearly five years after the government amended laws (The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013) and put in place new guidelines and policies aimed at justice for survivors of rape and sexual violence,” women and girls continued to face hurdles in speaking up about an assault. Which could include “humiliation at police stations and hospitals; lack of protection; and degrading ‘two-finger’ tests by medical professionals to make characterizations about whether the victim was ‘habituated to sex’.”

With the government talking a lot in terms of development, it needs to more so focus on the safety of its women. On Wednesday, crime figures tabled in the Haryana Assembly point to a sharp rise in cases of kidnapping of women and girls in the past three years. As against 1,698 such cases registered during 2015-16, as many as 2,495 such cases have been registered in the first 10 months alone of the current financial year.

Dowry deaths

In a setback for women’s rights, in July of last year, the Supreme Court passed several directives on Section 498A of the penal code—the anti-dowry law—to curb what it said was “abuse” of the law, directing police not to make arrests until complaints are verified by family welfare committees, according to HRW.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) states that in 2015, as many as 7,634 women died in the country due to dowry harassment. Either they were burnt alive or forced to commit suicide over dowry demand.

Data further reveals that after registration of dowry deaths, police have chargesheeted around 93.7 per cent of the accused, of which only 34.7 per cent have been convicted. The remaining cases are still pending in various courts.

According to Delhi Police, till March 15, 2017, 31 women died due to dowry harassment.

Female foeticide

The Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme for saving the girl child and promoting their right to education has reportedly had positive effects. The government claims that since the launch of the programme, there has been an improvement in sex ratio in the districts under the scheme. “An increasing trend in Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) is visible in 104 districts, 119 districts have reported progress in registration of pregnancies in the first trimester and 146 districts have shown improvement in institutional deliveries,” Secretary, Women and Child Development (WCD) Ministry, RK Shrivastava announced to reporters.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had acknowledged in 2016, however, that illegal abortions still outnumber legal abortions and thousands of women die every year due to complications resulting from unsafe abortions.

There isn’t a solution in place, but a change of mindset is key in changing the inequality that pertains. And to implement laws to punish those that go against the law. International Women’s Day gives us an occasion to assess how far we have come and where we want to go.