The Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s so-called Right-wing opposition to the left-liberal UPA Government, has claimed a media brownie point by announcing that one-thirds of all their positions will be reserved for women. This is a major leap in the struggle for empowering India’s long-suffering and oppressed women, it is claimed.
India’s Governments have long believed in taking responsibility for implementing social programs aimed specifically at women, particularly in terms of law enforcement, health, and women’s rights.
But first, let us see how Indian women are faring, socially:
*More than 120 million women are very poor.
*India’s maternal mortality rates in rural areas are among the world’s highest. From a global perspective, India accounts for 19 percent of all lives births and 27 percent of all maternal deaths.
* Around 88% of pregnant Indian women suffer from anemia.
*There seems to be a consensus that higher female mortality between ages one and five and high maternal mortality rates result in a deficit of females in the population. Chatterjee (1990) estimates that deaths of young girls in India exceed those of young boys by over 300,000 each year, and every sixth infant death is specifically due to gender discrimination. Of the 15 million baby girls born in India each year, nearly 25 percent will not live to see their 15th birthday.
(for a blog debate on this, try this post.)
*The most striking aspect of contraceptive use in India is the predominance of sterilization, which accounts for more than 85 percent of total modern contraception use, with female sterilization accounting for 90 percent of all sterilizations.
*The Indian constitution grants women equal rights with men, but in most Indian families, a daughter is viewed as a liability, and she is conditioned to believe that she is inferior and subordinate to men.
According to the Hunger Project, the following are key issues with Indian women:
* Malnutrition: India has exceptionally high rates of child malnutrition, because tradition in India requires that women eat last and least throughout their lives, even when pregnant and lactating. Malnourished women give birth to malnourished children, perpetuating the cycle.
* Poor Health: Females receive less health care than males. Many women die in childbirth of easily prevented complications. Working conditions and environmental pollution further impairs women’s health.
* Lack of education: Families are far less likely to educate girls than boys, and far more likely to pull them out of school, either to help out at home or from fear of violence.
* Overwork: Women work longer hours and their work is more arduous than men’s, yet their work is unrecognized
* Unskilled: In women’s primary employment sector – agriculture – extension services overlook women.
* Mistreatment: In recent years, there has been an alarming rise in atrocities against women in India, in terms of rapes, assaults and dowry-related murders. Fear of violence suppresses the aspirations of all women. Female infanticide and sex-selective abortions are additional forms of violence that reflect the devaluing of females in Indian society.
* Powerlessness: While women are guaranteed equality under the constitution, legal protection has little effect in the face of prevailing patriarchal traditions. Women lack power to decide whom they will marry, and are often married off as children. Legal loopholes are used to deny women inheritance rights.
So, to come back to the beginning of this post, how will having more women in political parties empower those others who don’t belong to political parties?
Yes, I hear you: because they would be more focused on gender rights, and bring in legislation to strengthen women, or implement existing legislation.
But isn’t there enough law already? You name a woman’s ‘right’, and there is a law to protect that. Examples: sati, dowry, child marriage, widow remarriage, sexual harassment, etc.
Implementing existing laws is impossible, because it would mean outlawing most of the Indian society.
The gender discrimination occurs because the society is primitive, feudal, patriarchal, and bonded irrationally to age-old, medieval prejudices that could easily dissolve in the light of modern reason. Will legislation change this? Has it, indeed? I think not.
One important cause of the state of the society being what it is for women is mostly unnoticed: the very instrument for social change, the Government, the last repository of the feminist.
Since the time of Nehru, the Government of India has made women empowerment a top priority. Nehru has memorably said, “You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the condition of its women”.
I quote from an old paper:
The welfare state of India has taken up the responsibility of providing education, and maternity and child welfare to these women. It has gone further in incorporating the media in educating people regarding these various programs. This approach will help integrate women more fully into the economic, political, and social mainstream of independent India.
The welfare state has taken upon itself the responsibility to educate, feed, rear, protect, and empower our women.
In my mind, excepting the job of protection, it should have tried none of the others. With socialism came corruption, and the law enforcers became corrupt, and could not resist the temptation to take bribes from bride burners, dowry extortionists, rapists and plain old murderers. Women, being poor and oppressed as a whole, could do precious little to save themselves.
If law enforcement were honest and strict, there would be no need for any special rights. Freedom from State intervention in the economy itself could free up opportunities for the coming generations. In fact, the state of the urban woman has clearly improved, with the freeing up of the economy, with more women CEOs, doctors, lawyers, social workers, and indeed, feminists.
In its present state, more women in a corrupt control-mode polity would only make for more corrupt women. Because they would not be any different from men when it comes to the intoxication of power.
For knowing about other aspects of India’s women, I recommend Nita’s articles.
For other posts of mine that deal with rights, click here.