By: Shobha Shukla

With much of the world observing International Women’s Day today (March 8) there is little room for celebration in India, which ranks as the world’s most dangerous for women, according to a 2018 Thompson Reuters Foundation survey, depressingly having slid from the fourth-most dangerous seven years ago.

The Global Gender Gap Index 2017 by the World Economic Forum placed India at 108th of 144 countries by gender parity in economic participation, education, health and political empowerment. India ranked 131th of 153 countries in the global Women, Peace, and Security Index 2017-18, based upon 11 indicators incorporating inclusion, justice, and security. Despite women accounting for 49 percent of India’s population, they hold only 12 percent of the seats in the national legislature.

Female labor force participation  fell from 37 percent in 2006 to 27 percent in 2017, as per World Bank report, ranking India at 163 out of 181 countries. One in two girls are married before attaining 18 years of age according to a report by UNICEF. Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage at 52 percent, followed by India at 47 percent, Nepal at 37 percent and Afghanistan at 33 percent.

Some Sparks

However, more women are getting educated and coming out of their cocooned existence. They are entering professions that were till recently considered to be exclusive male domains. They are flying planes, driving e-rickshaws and trains, wielding surgeons’ knives and winning Olympic medals. Among the top 79 global airlines, Indigo Airlines employs the maximum percentage of women pilots (14 percent) followed closely by Air India (nearly 10 percent).

Even rural women are becoming more independent, working outside of their homes and exhibiting active leadership in local government. The Economic Survey 2018 shows that women head 43 percent of all gram panchayats (village councils).

Two young female staffers at a five-star hotel told me that though they come from humble backgrounds, their education and jobs have given them the courage to take their own decisions and to raise their voices against gender injustice. Some domestic helpers say there are more job opportunities for them today. And though gender equality is a distant dream, they feel more confident than before.

Problems at Ground Level

Renu Mishra, a lawyer and executive director of the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives, said the number of women in the work force is dismally low and wages are far from equal with those of their male counterparts. Women don’t have the right to take personal decisions, nor often the right to enter into matrimony or walk out of a relationship.

“As a female surgeon,” said Pooja Ramakant, a breast cancer oncologist and endocrinologist, “I have to struggle more than my male counterparts. Why is a woman expected to fit in the framework designed by a patriarchal society and conform to the social norms laid down by others, even if they are detrimental for her own well-being? I have come across many financially independent women also who suffer in silence and stay in abusive marriages. Perhaps, due to emotional weakness, they are scared of what others will say.”

Even though more and more girls are going to school, their education is still beset with problems, said educator Chitra Singh. “This is more so in rural areas where girls’ schools are still not plentiful and parents don’t feel safe for their daughters to travel long distances. Most rural schools have poor toilet facilities, another deterrent for girls. Patriarchal mindsets coupled with poor economic status make matters worse. They think it is a waste of their meager resources to spend on the daughter’s education, as she will have to be married off. They would rather educate the sons who they think would support them financially later on.”

The Way Forward

“All of us will have to, and can, contribute to bringing about gender equality in our own life,” said Renu Mishra. “Let us not do anything that helps propagate patriarchy. We must also contribute to have an enabling environment at home, in schools and outside where girls/women can speak openly and fearlessly,” she said.

“I do not remain silent if I see any injustice being done to a woman,” said Pooja Ramakant. “Rather I make it a point to speak and make my voice heard and I face such situations very often in my professional life. I encourage my young girl students (interns) to not get de-motivated by society but make their own informed choices regarding professional and family life. Also, women should insist on an equitable distribution of work. Men will have to contribute equally to household work and responsibilities. Let us not forget that all women are working women, employed or not.”

Mishra said she is happy that India has women-friendly laws on girls’ education, prohibition of child marriage, equal inheritance of property, curbing of sexual and domestic violence, etc. However, she said, lack of political will and a deeply entrenched patriarchal society hamper their implementation. Moreover, most women, even educated and working women, have little knowledge of them or even their existence, she said.

She wants these laws to be part of the education curriculum, to make women as well as men informed about them. Also, the government’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry needs to play a more proactive role in spreading awareness around these laws and government welfare schemes for women/girls, through channels like radio, television, newspapers, and billboards.

It is the government’s duty to disseminate all this information, and then act on speedy delivery of redress. One reason for the rise in sexual offences is that there is no quick redressal—cases drag on interminably and the accused go free.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan, deputy director-general for programs at the World Health Organization (WHO), urges women to take care of their own health, both physical and mental.

“Women play a very big role in health care delivery,” she said in an interview. “Not only do women constitute the majority workforce in nursing and community healthcare work, they are also the main caregivers within households and communities. But their efforts are often taken for granted. I would like to put the spotlight on these women. We should appreciate this unrecognized army of women healthcare providers and ensure that they are able to provide these services in a labor- and time-saving manner.”

India is a vast country, which, despite the skewed sex ratio (945 females per 1000 males), is home to 650 million women. That is huge woman power who should neither bow down in fear nor remain silent, but be brave and snatch their rights to exercise their choices- be it their education, marriage, profession, or health (including sexual and reproductive health). The International Women’s Day 2019 campaign theme #BalanceforBetter calls for driving gender balance across the world — gender-balanced boardrooms, governments, media coverage, employees and gender-balance in wealth.

Shobha Shukla is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service. Follow her on Twitter @Shobha1Shukla or visit www.citizen-news.org