To pronounce on the empowerment and inclusiveness of Indian women, as was expected of me at a recent National Seminar on women’s issues is to ponder on the very complex as no uniform picture presents itself . For someone who’s not a specialist in Women’s studies but a general social commentator it resembles a pyramid, with greatest enjoyment for the few at or near the top, different degrees for those at various points in the middle and constraints for the vast majority at the broad base. Even within a particular socio-economic class, inclusion might come with marked generational and community differences. The encouraging thing is that those in the middle and below have shown or possess potential for upward mobility.
Though one may feel pessimistic about the Indian female’s woes, independent India has been benign, even partial to women in its policies. While voting rights came after long struggle in so called progressive democracies, Indian women have enjoyed the right to vote right from the very first general election. India has led the world in producing politically powerful women- a woman Prime Minister,President, an astute leader of coalition politics at the centre, and highly assertive Chief Ministers. Indeed the female electorate’s strong turnout usually determines electoral outcomes. We routinely see women as powerful bureaucrats, corporate heads and eminent professionals. Fundamental rights in the constitution enshrine equality before law and equal protection of law. The Indian state is committed to the protection and progress of the Indian female, child or adult, through laws such as those prohibiting dowry and pre-natal gender testing, combined with empowering measures like reservations, usually without equivalences for males.
Contrast that with the lot of women in certain fundamentalist societies where a woman who drives a car is regarded as a criminal or she is flogged rather than offered justice even if she happens to be a rape victim. Saudi Arabia is planning separate cities for women to work. Such women could be prosperous but lacking in personal freedom. Another picture emerges in South East Asian countries, where women are highly pro-active in the workforce- you would see them rowing boats filled with male passengers, sometimes with babies strapped to their backs. China’s growth story has largely been fuelled by a preponderance of female workers in its factories.
The last few years have probably witnessed greater change in the lives of Indian women than has been seen for millennia altogether. At certain socio-economic levels and age groups, inclusion has already taken place. Today, it is reported there are more girls than boys joining medical colleges. Big IT companies employ a higher percentage of women than the 18% in Indian engineering colleges, providing enabling environments such as work from home options and excellent child care facilities. In many aspects educated urban women have never had it so good, but their ascendance comes with attendant problems. For example it has been observed that when newly educated girls opt for urban employment leaving behind their rural communities, their independent choice of marital partners, bypassing community boys in traditional occupations like agriculture underlie such phenomena as honour killings.
The media reports unprecedented tales of gender violence, like the recent gangrape in Gauhati, and the murder of a bureaucrat’s daughter, living on her own in Mumbai by a watchman, or the older case of a woman techie murdered by a cab driver. There’s the moral policing incident in our own area. There are indications of social disequilibrium in these sexual crimes, suggesting unease in males threatened by independent women, a threat perception that could be greater if the socio-economic gap is wide, and gender issues get merged with those of class conflict. Women in the workforce also impact families and households. Couples could often be joint breadwinners in acts of co-operation, but changing lifestyle patterns and personal values that follow from globalization are capable of creating discord that sometimes leads to domestic violence. This suggests a woman may be externally independent but still rather vulnerable.
For the majority at the bottom of the pyramid, the growth story must happen with creating awareness that removes social prejudice about a girl child’s birth, because she suffers bias even before conception. The penalties on wrong-doers in gender selective abortions must be severe. Her education must be a point of focus, which shouldn’t be difficult because the taxpayer pays a special cess for the girl child’s education. Neighborhood schools would facilitate the process so that physical security is no issue; in some places bicycles have empowered the girl child with mobility for school travel Once educated, her employment opportunities must also be accessible in the vicinity, suggesting a widespread replication of some successful rural BPO’s. There are already more than 100 that have started up in the last 5 years, they employ between 60-100% women, and though proficiency in English can pose a constraint, they are said to be cost effective as well as efficient in data entry and non-voice services. I find even grater merit in the BarefootCollege model of Bunker Roy, where rural men and women of all ages, irrespective of literacy are trained for practical work as school teachers, , health workers, mechanics, phone operators, accountants , solar engineers, architects and designers of local buildings. They serve their local communities and apply local ingenuity for relevant solutions.
When we speak of inclusiveness, it might be relevant to ask what constitutes a growth story. The UN has urged the US not to divert 40% of its corn crop for bio-fuel because of anticipated food shortfall, and likely sharp escalation in world food prices. China which invested hugely in infrastructure is now facing the problem of ghost towns as apartment complexes and malls lie vacant. In this coastal region, from time to time, we hear of protests of people who must give up their fertile lands to oil refineries or whose fields are destroyed by ash from thermal plants Last month I was a speaker at an art exhibition called “ Rendezvous with the Feminine” where a painting called ‘ Migrations” stood out for me with its prominent figure of a woman suggesting that women are hardest hit by displacements from the countryside to cities as urban migrants. All this points to trends in global to local decision making that obsesses about oil, power and luxury housing neglecting the fundamental need of food security that troubles many many more people. A woman is probably most frustrated by food shortage and price rise because she is tasked with actually feeding the family. There must be rearranged priorities in growth agendas, where the farm regains its place vis a vis the factory and skyscraper for holistic security that also touches on food and livelihood for all. Fertile fields must perform their natural function, complemented by agro industries in adjacent areas. Women would form a major component in productivity, especially if they can also be involved and integrated with a kitchen garden movement.
There have been successful micro finance initiatives for marginalized women, the experience being that microloans have allowed women to build household assets, set up income earning businesses like petty shops, as well as enabled reinvestment in healthcare and children’s education. This practical poverty alleviation measure has a multiplier effect beyond the household to the community by naturally driving women into decision making and participation in public life.
I was interested to learn that rural women in Tamil Nadu trained to use video cameras are successfully capturing harsh realities and injustices. With more educated urban women joining the workforce, other women could upgrade themselves in traditional talents by providing professional housekeeping, childcare, expert culinary services so that overall complementarity and feminine synergy exists. I myself could progress in my professional, creative and intellectual life because my support system included very capable feminine household assistance.
The middle class urban woman today might enjoy work opportunities right from her home imparting independence and personal worth. For women lower down, work is a grim necessity for survival. They require facilitation to reduce the strain of their lives. My domestic workers tell me there isn’t enough PDS kerosene and they have to either search for firewood or purchase expensively- a common problem depleting our forests, while contributing to an environmental problem called the Asian Brown Cloud. Today as parties in power give away mobile phones and free talk time, it would be a more empowering handout for BPL families to receive solar cookers doing away with fuel woes and to set up local bio-gas facilities that effectively use local wastes. Again at the art exhibition I mentioned, there was a painting of women bathing in the river reminding one that privacy for personal hygiene is surely an issue for many women and girls. Indeed it could be an issue even for school enrollment of adolescent girls if there are no hygiene and sanitation facilities to address their special physical needs. Again it’s usually a tiring trek for water by females, which should be addressed with a determined push for local water harvesting measures. All these measures to better the lot of women equally serve environmental imperatives.
It seems to me that refined society is embarrassed to acknowledge women workers in certain occupations. The bar dancers of Mumbai were rendered unemployed with a single diktat that goes against right to livelihood. Recently a central ministry went on record in affidavit saying sex workers lack dignity. The lot of these women is hard enough without the state’s unkind moral judgements, rather the focus should be on regulating conditions and effecting rehabilitation. Generally speaking, women enjoy atleast the benefit of policy concern and legislative interest. There is however a gender beyond genders, who are presently outside the awareness of society and suffer its harshest prejudice for an accident of birth. I’m talking of transgenders who as of now lack even a place in identity forms to be in the slightest way part of inclusive society. This unjust and cruel anomaly must be removed if development and progress must benefit all people, especially those with difficult problems.
I’m personally not in favour of reservations in employment or legislative bodies for women, We have sufficiently strong women leaders who have come up on their own, often from the grassroots, to be assured woman power is already a fact that requires no further tokenism. It will merely create notional power shifts within the ruling class with a cynical appeasement of women’s votebanks, while diverting attention from actual issues. I myself made it to the civil service with all my women colleagues, a substantial number of women who got in on merit without the crutches and concessions of gender. Educational empowerment is generally sufficient for that kind of inclusion to happen. An educated, able bodied woman is less in need of additional sops than a transgender or physically challenged person of either sex.
To sum up, where opportunities exist, the spotlight has to be on laws that ensure safety and conducive working conditions to take the growth story forward. Where opportunities fall short, the challenge is to bring them about in various ways, along with basic facilitations to ease life for the marginalized Indian woman and also other neglected sections. The growth story for women cannot be disconnected from overall indices of development for everyone, or else unwarranted divisions, social cleavages and conflicts will intensify, manifesting in ugly and violent ways.
I hope a day will soon come when such occasions of pondering on inclusiveness will not be necessary because a sensitive and responsive society would have done whatever is required to accomplish the just and equitable for all.