Ready to be heard
By Himanshi Dhawan*
Election fever has hit the country, but away from the arc lights a silent revolution is unfolding in India. Over the past four years, women have been steadily gaining visibility in the country's political, social and economic landscape. Sample this: In these few years, 1.5 million women political leaders have emerged at the grassroots level; enrolment of girls in primary school has increased by almost 30%; 1.9 crore adults, 72% of them women, have achieved neo-literacy; and workforce participation of educated women has reached 25%.
India has always striven to empower its women right from the grassroots level. It announced universal adult suffrage before many other countries even considered the idea. In 1993, the 73rd and 74th amendment of the Constitution reserving 33% of seats in village panchayats for women strengthened their cause in rural areas. Thereafter, in 2009, recognising the potency of women political leaders, the reservation of seats was increased to 50%.
Describing the decision as one that has had a transformative impact on women’s empowerment, UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri says, "Many of them (the women panchayat leaders) are now talking, participating and shaping the socio-economic futures of their villages and districts.” In her work at the UN as well as earlier an Indian Foreign Service official, Puri has worked extensively to ensure gender equality in India. She observes that in areas with female-led local councils, the number of drinking water projects was 62% higher than in those with male-led councils. In Norway, too, evidence shows a direct relationship between the number of women in municipal councils and the childcare coverage they enacted. "Politically empowered women are themselves a force for wider socio-economic progress and development,” says Puri.
While there are powerful women leaders at the central and state level, the challenge of reaching critical mass, 33%, looms large. India's Parliament currently has 10% women representatives, the highest ever in its history.
The efforts towards gender equality are not restricted to political empowerment alone. Government data suggests that between 2002 and 2009, enrolment of girls in primary schools rose to 48%, a difference of 19%. As of January 2011, the number of women in the 7.9 lakh-strong central armed police force was 14,386 and plans are afoot to increase the number to 10% of the forces in the next seven years.
Gallup surveys between 2009 and 2012 show that one in six college-educated women have full-time jobs. While that is 25% of Indian women as compared to 75% of women working full time in China, there are reasons to believe that the participation of women in India's labour force will increase exponentially in the coming years. For one, India's fertility rate has declined dramatically and now stands at about 2.6 children born per woman. There is also evidence of increasing urbanization, with young people in particular moving from rural areas to the cities, where women have better access to education and employment.
Then, in recent years, the government has increased the maternity benefit scheme from Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,500 a month, introduced scholarships for girls, opened the first few branches of Bharatiya Mahila Bank, which is expected to encourage financial inclusion and independence in women, and introduced a series of pro-women legislations.
It has also put in place a legal framework strengthening women’s right to marital property, making it easier for them to get divorce on grounds of irreconcilable differences, and providing protection from domestic violence as well as sexual harassment at work. In many ways, the supportive legal framework has been created much ahead of the society’s attitudes and mindsets. It is up to women now to use this to their advantage.
These are encouraging signs, believes Aruna Roy, a bureaucrat turned social activist who spearheaded social welfare legislations like the rural job scheme which provided stable employment opportunities to woman. "The participation of women in these processes may impact a small part of the disempowerment of women," she says, "But let us not forget that the role of boardrooms and politics, that is the broader political and development paradigm and its impact on women and equality, will have to be the defining context."
Roy emphasises that the women who enter politics and boardrooms will have to remember that they represent not only a fraction of literate women, but that their decisions must benefit women as a whole. "We must not forget that these categories alone do not constitute the entire fabric of public life. There are professional women, women in social activism, legal and administrative governance and those in informal political action as well, to mention a few, who determine the future of India," she adds.
So has India effectively ended the debate on female empowerment? Not yet. Modern India continues to deal with violence against women; female foeticide, dowry deaths, honour killings, and sexual assaults still dominate headlines. The country contributes to about a quarter of all global maternal deaths and ranks 101st among 136 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index.
These sharp dichotomies came to the fore with the gang-rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapist in Delhi last December. The horrific incident may have brought undesired international attention towards India, but in the country, it broke the silence on the unabated sexual assault of women. In an unprecedented campaign, young protestors camped at India Gate through the bitter cold to demand strong action against the perpetrators. The result was a strong anti-rape legislation that recognised various forms of sexual assault against women for the first time.
There has never been a women Chief Justice of India nor have they held key positions in Ministries such as home affairs, defence or finance. But in the past decade, the country appointed its first woman President and first woman Speaker in Parliament, setting the trend for things to come. In fact, the country ranks 9th globally in political empowerment for its pantheon of women political leaders, including UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, leader of opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, former President Pratibha Patil, and regional satraps like J Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee.
Puri believes that the full potential of women’s representation can only be reaped if more investment is made in their education, as well as in the provision of essential services that reduce their care burden and empower them to be agents of development. "Structural barriers still limit women’s options, while gaps in capacity mean women are less likely than men to have the education, contacts and resources needed to become effective leaders,” she says.
In a speech to students of Barnard, a women's liberal arts college in New York, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg had said, "So today, we turn to you. You are the promise for a more equal world. You are our hope. I truly believe that only when we get real equality in our governments, in our businesses, in our companies and our universities, will we start to solve this generation’s central moral problem, which is gender equality. We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored."
The Indian woman, too, is ready to be heard.
(*Himanshi Dhawan is a senior journalist currently working as an Assistant Editor for Times of India - the largest circulating English daily in India. She can be reached at email@example.com).
Photo by Akshay Mahajan