According to the ‘Statistical Account of Eastern India in early 1800s’, by Dr Francis Buchanan and edited by Montgomery Martin, one-half of the entire women population was officially engaged in spinning and weaving, and was financially independent. Today, as per estimates, there are only about 3.5 crore working women in our country.
Even when women are working, they are confined to some traditional turfs. Most girls in villages feel the limit of aspiration is in becoming a teacher. Now, the medical profession is becoming the next most attractive career option. But we still have too few a women pilots, engineers, architects, camerapersons, photographers.
And while Sonia Gandhi is the symbol of power in India politics, most women in Parliament are there because they have been aided by their family backgrounds. Even when elected, many women continue to be just proxies for their husbands and sons.
Rabri Devi as Chief Minister of Bihar was only the face of power which actually rested with Lalu. She publicly admitted that she had joined politics in obedience with the wishes of her pati parmeshwar and would run the state as per his directive!
The Women’s Bill aiming to reserve 33% of Parliamentary seats for women has been facing stiff opposition and is still far from becoming a reality.
Not only is male domination prevalent, in most cases women accept, with full earnestness, their subservient position. In an all-India survey conducted on marital violence most Indian women felt their husbands had a right to beat them! With such a mentality, how can one even aspire to push forth the case of empowerment?
The girl child needs to be given a good education from the very beginning and encouraged to become financially independent, as this will help her have a say in her own affairs as well as in family matters.
While children in India have a right to free education till the age of 14, many parents are reluctant to enroll their daughters as they would rather have them help in household chores. They also feel that girls in their adulthood would need to work in farm, handicraft or domestic arenas, which require no formal education.
The Constitution of India guarantees to all Indian women equality (Article 14), no discrimination by the State (Article 15(1)), equality of opportunity (Article 16), equal pay for equal work (Article 39(d)).
Obviously, these guarantees are more on paper than practice. Real equality will set in when the society accepts that women have the same standing as men. Women should see themselves as no less than their male counterparts and fight for greater security on the streets, in offices and homes.
Dowry needs to be made passé and instead girls should be considered as equal claimants when parents make their will.
Legally, there have been path breaking judgements like the reform in Hindu Undivided Family law. Now daughters of the family can stake claim to equal share in ancestral property to which only sons were entitled to earlier.
But popular culture is that most families like to pay out for their girls during marriages, than leave anything to them after their death. Moreover, boys are still seen as sources of income and security in old age. Whether or not boys actually live up to their commitment to support their parents is an altogether different issue.
Policies providing old age financial and social security and pension schemes should be seen as alternatives for the aged. This will reduce people’s preference for the boy child.
About the horrific (dis)honour killings, the kangaroo courts or khap panchayats, need to be struck down with vengeance and a law should be brought in to invalidate all such ruling and make them punishable.
One would ask about how we could rid ourselves of these social evils, considering that traditions like dowry run deep in our culture. It requires stringent laws and political will.
After all widow remarriage is no longer a taboo. But it was once. Sati is unheard of, but it was a prevalent practice in the medieval period. The reason that these could be wiped out was that the British government gave cent percent political support to outlaw such social evils. We cannot bring change with people like Haryana CM Bhupinder Hooda speaking out in favour of khaps, just because they vote for him.
(This piece on Women Empowerment is part of the Looking Ahead series.)