The countdown to Women's Day has begun and very soon we will be swarmed with a narrative celebrating women achievers. There will be rank holders, pilots, civil servants, athletes, CEOs of companies, actors, artists, activists, authors and entrepreneurs making us believe “all is well”. The reports will often mention the economic strata of the girl or woman’s family, even father and mother’s occupation (“autorickshaw driver’s daughter cracks UPSC exams”) but seldom will we see any mention of the different layers of barriers and social evils, not just poverty, that impact girls in India from the time they are conceived. This trend appears to be a subtle form of denial that our society lives with when it comes to women’s status, human rights and welfare or an attempt to misguide us from the real issues.
In many parts of India, pregnancies carrying a girl child are being terminated, either medically or using unsafe traditional practices exposing the mother to grave risk because son preference is the unsaid secret of our families, sons the perfect insurance and social security for old age and daughters, a burden. Many girl babies are exposed to deliberate attempt to withdraw care with a motive to eliminate them after birth. Any investment in their nutrition, clothing, education, care and marriage are seen as waste of resources because women’s income and unpaid care work goes to their -in laws and husband after marriage. Skewed sex ratio, importing brides, trafficking and rising crime rates against girls and women are not isolate issues. Did you know one of the public health crises in India is rampant anaemia among girls and women, one of the underlying factors being lack of nutrition?
In agriculture- based communities, girls are burdened with domestic chores, caring for younger siblings and other economic activities and never go to school or drop out early due to which education and skills acquisition among girls are severely compromised and ensure the cycle of poverty and vulnerability continues. Those who do receive education experience control over choice of subjects they can pursue or the kind of professions they can get into. Control on mobility, social interactions, dress code, length of hair, interests and hobbies, work timings, and relationships are part and parcel of girl’s lives. Menstruating girls and women are deemed as polluting, kept at arm’s length and in many communities, made to live in isolated huts outside the house or at the village periphery or in cattle sheds in the worst living conditions. Millions of girls and women are forced to defecate in the open and manage their menstruation in the open due to lack of toilets or banishing menstruators from using them. The largest number of child brides live in India. The way dowry is demanded and given may have changed over time after stricter legislations but these social evils are still thriving. It takes only practice of autonomy by a girl in terms of marriage and relationship to turn love for a daughter to hate and gives her family, mostly the male members, a sense of duty and ability to kill daughter(s) in the name of keeping “family honour”.
Domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment and acid attack have instilled a sense of fear among girls and women and their families. Women’s diminished access to sexual and reproductive health related information and facilities is one of the reasons for high maternal mortality rates in India. Working women carry “double burden” of working both in office and at home. Laws and policies designed for the welfare of working women like maternity leave and anti- sexual harassment at workplace instead of serving as benefits are becoming reasons for employers to shy away from employing women. This when pay parity and glass ceiling already exist and women contribute just 24% to the labour force in India, one of the lowest in the world. Women are lagging behind in terms of financial and digital literacy and access to services.
The fact is people cannot fathom there are so many issues that alter women’s lives in India adversely. It’s not ignorance always, rather its unwillingness to know because if they learn the entirety of it, they will be forced to take a stance, help and do something about it. Feigning ignorance is also a decision and comes from the same psychology of mute spectators and passive companions when crimes against women take place. That’s why it becomes all the more important to ask ourselves which is more important- celebrating few women achievers or stock taking of women’s status on development indicators? Which will be more beneficial in improving the status of girls and women- drawing the spotlight on few success stories or on the problems that affect the mass?
(The author is a journalist and social entrepreneur in the field of women empowerment, women’s health, menstrual hygiene management and digital literacy.)
Ps: The article was originally published on Deccan Herald, a leading English newspaper in Karnataka, India. The link to the article as given below.