Women on the Verge of Future
Dr. Rama Sharma
It is rightly said that a nation’s progress is tied inadvertently with the amount of freedom its women enjoy in the society. The statement by Jawaharlal Nehru “You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of women” encapsulates the vision for women in the Indian nation that the architects of our nation had for the women of a free land soon after independence. It speaks of the vision Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar enshrined in the Indian Constitution which demands equal rights for women as men. Even the Vedic literature accords a high place for women and says that gods send prosperity the household that treats women well. However, over time, distortions and falsehood made their way in human minds and, perhaps, some of these impairments led to the lowly status that women were shunted into in previous ages. It does us no good to dwell in the past and bemoan the injustices done to women. What is important to recognize is that with the rise of the nation since independence, the Indian woman gained the rights and chance to become an equal partner in the nation’s progress and growth.
It will not be an exaggeration to say that women have never lacked the courage to show the world that they too are capable of great feats. From icons like Savitribai Phule, Kasturba Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi to Indra Nooyi, Saina Nehwal, Tina Dabi today, women have proved their mettle in all spheres of public and private life. In the new century, women in India have emerged from the shadows and the submissive roles assigned to them by society as free and independent individuals with their own distinct identity. The change in their political, social and economic roles aided by state policies has led to a greater participation of women in the public sphere. She is no longer tied irrevocably to the hearth and kitchen as in the past. They have been marching to new heights with confidence to a new world for themselves and all mankind.
Women in Modern India
Much as one wishes otherwise, the status of women in modern India is a paradox. On the one hand, they have equipped themselves with skills and jumped straight into a battlefield of everyday life swishing their swords against social restrictions, religious boundaries and cultural clutches, They are working shoulder to shoulder with men in every field. At the same time, there is a large section of women in the country whose lives are mired in poverty and illiteracy. There are still many roadblocks in their path. It is imperative that we recognize that empowerment is a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional idea. Empowerment of women means moving from position of enforced powerlessness to one of power. For this women need to be encouraged to participate in all arenas of social, political and economic life of a nation. It imbibes them with an improved sense of self-worth as well as makes them economic partners in the real sense. However, the task is never as easy. India is a hugely complex nation which requires a multi-pronged approach to social welfare. A geographically huge landmass too becomes a hurdle in the way of various amenities and relief provided by the government to reach people located in remote area. A large segment of our people is still subsisting as tribal and Adivasi. Getting them to accept the welfare measures of the government itself is a huge task. The women in such areas lack even the basic hygiene and are alien to the concepts of the modern world. This does not mean that they have stopped striving. A look at the lives of the women in the past is enough to convince us that the solution definitely does not lie in falling back and accepting defeat but in marching forward.
As late as the nineteenth century, due to the shackles placed on her feet in the name of tradition and virtue, women had no place outside the four walls of the house. Even inside the house, she was bound in the name of duty to her family and her husband. She could not read and acquire knowledge as it was perceived to be detrimental for their moral sense. The efforts of the social reformers of the time led to a change in the minds of the people and opened the doors for women’s education. Early efforts at reform promoting women’s education and overall upliftment of the status of women by people like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Ramabai Ranade, Dhondo Keshav Karve, Jyotiba Phule and his wife Savitribai Phule and others led to a sea change in the attitude of men towards the women. In India, women were at the forefront of the national independence movement. Their passion for the freedom from the British colonial rule for all the citizens of the Indian nation was no less in any degree from the men. Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Sarojini Naidu, Annie Besant, Arun Asaf Ali and Vijaya Lakshmi Pundit are just a few names which were at the forefront of Indian independence struggle. The idea of women empowerment, especially in India, owes a lot to these heroic women who not only shaped the discourse about the role of women in the Indian society but also gave impetus to make Women Empowerment a central theme for government’s policies to uplift the women and provide them with equal opportunity for growth and progress. At its core, women empowerment entails making women realize their social, economic and political powers. It also refers to the goal of the nation to end gender-based violence in the society. All this gave women the opportunity to expand their horizons beyond the hearth and march forward. Women have never looked back. In the new era, they play a significant role in the development of the nation. From the time that women faced severe social problems like sati, child marriages, dowry, female foeticide, etc to the present day, has surely been a long and arduous journey. Besides eradicating these well-known ills against the women, indian lawmakers have been at the forefront of rallying for women’s rights to free and fullfilling lives.
The last two decades have been like no other time in history. The year 1995 was called the International Year for Women all over the world which led to a greater awareness of women’s status and their role in society. The woman of the twenty-first century India is second to none in the world. From the sports arena, to business enterpreneurship, politics and economy, they have made their mark in all fields. The statistics show that girl students often outperform the boys in academics and many of them go on to become great educators themselves. However, it is also true that a great number of our girls in the remote areas are still deprived of education and the opportunity to attend schools. This is due to various reasons including social, economic and the non-availability of institutional facilities in the rural pockets. This is where the efforts by the government need to focus. The government already has multiple schemes in place to promote education for the girl child like the Balika Samariddhi Yojna, Ujjwala, Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls, and Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Yojna to ensure overall welfare of the girl children from childhood to adolescence. These include policies for healthcare, hygiene, education and bringing about an overarching change in the social outlook towards women.
As the old saying goes, if you educate one woman you educate an entire family. Unfortunately, despite the desire the sea changes in the social structures of society and family, the traditional mindsets are not easily altered. Things have changed from earlier times and they are still changing for the better, however, it is a long journey.
Women in economy and politics
Women are not to be left behind in the economic life of the nation either. These days they are a considerable number in terms of their contribution to the GDP. A country that aims to lead the world in the coming times, it cannot afford to ignore the vital role played by the women in the country’s economy. It is heatening to see how women like Indra Nooyi have redefined the role of women in the arena of large business conglomerates. In the era of global economic boom since the early nineties, many women have made their mark as entrepreneurs.
In politics, women have been active for long. Even then, they were not allowed to the leadership positions. India, however, was the first country to have a woman Prime Minister. Even America has not managed to elect a woman to the highest position in their country. In the present scenario, our women politicians are second to none. According to surveys and reports, women make better legislators and bureaucrats due to their ability to empathise with the people in distress. They work hard and don’t give up easily.
Women and violence
As the events of last few years have shown, gender-based violence is one of the key issues plaguing our country. From child abuse, trafficking and domestic violence to sexual harrassment at workplace, women face both mental and physical violence. The matters came to fore in December 2012 after the brutal gang-rape and murder of a young woman on the verge of culminating her medical studies and become a full-fledged member of a thriving nation. Even though the Constitution is clear in its commitment to ensure safety to women, there have been a hindrances in the swift resolution to gender-based cases. In recent years, new legal and constitutional provisions have meant that women no longer need to fear approaching the police or the court to seek redressal or lack of empathy on the part of the officials as used to be the case only some time ago. This was due to the deep rooted bias among the Indian men with regard to the role and dignity of women despite the modernizing ethos of the twenty-first century. The large-scale outcry after December 2012 event has led the government to formulate progressive policies and institute legal reforms which provide greater relief to the women.
Women are aware that this is something that needs righting. Globally, the definitions of women’s rights have changed considerably for the better. It is gladdening to see that the Indian courts have put mechanisms in place over the last few years to ensure speedy justice in cases of violence against women.
Fallouts and challenges
A survey by Nielsen shows that Indian women are the most stressed out in the world at 87 per cent which is much higher than the number 53 per cent for the American women. The reasons for this, as discussed above could be the complex nature of women’s position in the Indian society. The stress indicators are perhaps higher for the working women who face gender-based discrimination at the workplace where men still claim to have the upper hand. The way out of this lies in women recognising their worth and refusing to bow down to the dictates of men. Secondly, they shoulder many responsibilities of house, children, work all at once. Women must also recognise that they don’t have to be superhuman beings to be able to fulfill all their responsibilities. Although, men too are undergoing a change in their approach to women and beginning to share responsibilities of housework and childcare in a changed and changing world, the road is still long. Women still need support to overthrow the veil of darkness that had kept them captive for centuries.
“History looks different when the contributions of women are included.” - National Women’s History Project
Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi, was the first woman physician in India. She left the shores of her home, her country and her husband to study medicine in America. This was the time when Hindus in India believed that one must not travel across the seas and married women were expected to only take care of their home and children. She braved great social censure and personal trepidation to earn a doctors’ degree in the nineteenth century. Although Anandi Joshi’s life was cut short due to medical complications and her sojourn abroad to study medicine, she showed to the world what women can achieve if they set their hearts to it. She and many women of the time brought about a change in society by their choice to break the shackles on women placed by tradition and prejudice and set new goals for women of the emerging new world.
Women’s equality is an idea whose time has come. India has been setting examples for the entire world in terms of breaking glass ceilings for women and giving new directions to the society from their old orthodox way of perceiving women as someone who had to be confined inside the four-walls of the house to playing leading role in building democratic systems and sustainable economies. Woman, in the Indian imagination, is also the epitome of procreation. She is the progeny of the ancient spirit of the life-giving Mother Earth. We worship her as Goddess Durga, Kali, Lakshami, Saraswati, etc. Women in our country shoulder the twin responsibility of upholding the cultural heritage of the nation and also become an active participant in the public and political life of the nation.
Virginia Woolf, the famous English author, believed that for most of history, anonymous was a woman. They too are part of the past, present and future of humankind. The biggest achievement of the women’s struggle for dignity and equality is that they can proclaim their genius to the world without fear. One can truly say that there is no sphere that has not been conquered by Indian women. Of course, the path to development cannot be travelled on one wheel alone. Both men and women need to learn to value each others work and move like the two wheels required for the cart to move.
It is said that women hold up half the sky. They are the repository of culture and change in all society. As we get ready to celebrate yet another International Women’s Day, we must not forget the history of women’s struggle which belonged to the countless women who worked tirelessly to eradicate the ills of our society along with men and earn the rights and self-respect that is their due. It was never easy. However, this is just the beginning of the recognition of women’s work and vital contribution in the society. Yes, there are many more milestones to cross yet.
(The author is Officiating Principal, Hansraj College, Delhi University, Delhi - 110007.) E-mail : email@example.com
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