100 Years Of Women’s Day (…But The Struggle Still Continues!)

Every day, we hear of the horrors women endure, we shake our heads, forward e-mails, light candles and send solidarity messages. We feel that these are aberrations because most of us feel that “women never had it so good”. And why not – it’s a feel-good illusion.

We cry and laugh; we work and take care of our children; we watch President Pratibha Patil, Speaker of Lok Sabha Meira Kumar, UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi and now Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament Sushma Swaraj proudly and sigh with relief, believing we’ve come so far. (The imminent passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill will further strengthens this illusion.)

Not only just in politics, even look at the world of finance. In New York and London, women remain scarce among top bankers despite decades of struggle to climb the corporate ladder. But in India’s relatively young financial industry, women not only are some of the top deal makers, they are often running the show.

HSBC, JP Morgan Chase, Royal Bank of Scotland, UBS and Fidelity International in India are run by women. So is the country’s second-biggest bank, ICICI Bank, and its third-largest, Axis Bank. Women head investment banking operations at Kotak Mahindra and JP Morgan Chase and the equities division of ICICI. Half of the deputy governors at the Reserve Bank of India are women.

So women in India are ‘shining’!

But is it a reality? Or are we basking in a ‘women power’ moment that doesn’t exist – a mirage of equality that we’ve been duped into believing is the real thing by the media and the ruling classes in the society.
Because despite the indisputable gains over the years, women are still being discriminated against, harassed, raped, trafficked and violated. And though women’s movement continues to fight gender injustices, most people seem to think that outside of a few lingering battles, the work of the women’s movement is done.

It’s time to stop fooling ourselves. For all our ’empowered’ rhetoric, women in this country aren’t doing nearly as well as we’d like to think.

India is ranked 113 out of the 130 countries on the Gender Gap Index 2008. Although women represent half or more of the work force in many countries, in the European Union, 9.7 per cent of the board members at the top 300 companies were women in 2008. In the United States, roughly 15 per cent of the board members of the Fortune 500 companies are women, while at the top of Asian companies, women remain scarce: In India, they hold roughly 5 per cent of board seats.

In 2007, the year for which latest data is available from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), seven of the 10 fastest rising crimes in India were those against women. While the incidence of all cognizable crimes under the IPC rose by under 5 per cent over the previous year, dowry deaths registered an increase of 15 per cent, cruelty by husband and relatives by 14 per cent, kidnapping and abduction of females by 13 per cent, importation of girls by 12 per cent and sexual harassment by 11 per cent. Rape and molestation cases grew by a more modest 6-7 per cent, as still many go unreported due to the social stigma, but even that was higher than the average rate.

Despite the increasing cases of crime against women, they would appear to be not in the priority list of the investigating agencies. The NCRB data shows that investigation starts within the same year in only one out of 10 sexual harassment cases and only two out of 10 cases of molestation or cruelty by husbands and relatives.

Similarly, only 3 out of 10 rapes and dowry deaths are investigated within the same year. With one in every two brought to trial getting convicted, sexual harassment might have the highest conviction rate among the 22 major crime heads tabulated in NCRBs Crime in India 2007, but this may have something to do with the fact that sexual harassment is the least severe of all crimes committed against women with the maximum punishment being simple imprisonment for one year, or a fine, or both.

For the other crimes against women, the conviction rates are lower than the 35.8 per cent average conviction rate for all cognizable crimes under IPC.

Everywhere, women still earn less, are more likely to work part time and less likely to hold top jobs.

For several women, still their grandmothers’ maxim — children, kitchen, religion — holds true. Those whom we find at the top echelons in the country today are almost all from wealthy backgrounds, went to excellent schools in India and abroad. They constitute the minuscule minority in the country and it is for them that life is beautiful.

For the majority still it is discrimination, naked and often violent. The work participation rate for females in our country is still 25.7 per cent in the country (Census 2001). The number of women in central government employees in just 7.53 per cent.

A rural female casual labourer earns Rs 20.38 less than their male counterpart and in urban areas the difference is Rs 31.23 (2004-05). This has in fact increased from the earlier calculations done in 1999-2000.

India is ranked 99 among 140 countries in the number of women in parliament, we have only 10.8 per cent women in Lok Sabha and 9 per cent in Rajya Sabha. This is the real ‘presence’ of women in our country. And even these minuscule are known for their gender than for their capabilities, irrespective of how best to their abilities they perform. Even the ‘strong lady’ in our Indian history, Indira Gandhi was always forced to state “I am not a woman prime minister, I am a prime minister”.

Remember that even some of the predominantly Islamic countries in our continent, Bangladesh,Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan, too had women as heads of the government and that had not changed their status much.

This is a far cry from progress; it’s an epidemic of gender discrimination. So where’s the outrage? The common refrain is that women here have it too good to complain, which is termed by some as ‘enlightened sexism’. Between politics and pop culture, women are being taught that everything is fine and dandy – and a lot of us are buying it. We act as if the hatred directed at women is something of an aberration or as that can be dealt with by a stern talking to – as if the misogyny embedded in our culture is an unruly child rather than systematic oppression.

Yes, women today fare better than our foremothers. But the benchmarks so often cited, the right to vote, working outside the home, laws that make domestic violence illegal, laws that guarantee gender justice, don’t change the reality of women’s lives.

There are 4 laws relating to protect property rights for women and similarly 15 to protect the rights of working women, 8 to protect from abuse in marriage and prevent dowry related harassment; 14 laws to prevent crimes and assaults on women. Alas, if enacting laws is enough, India would have been long a ‘socialist’ country as stated in the preamble of our constitution. They don’t prevent women from being assaulted, abused and raped.

We do not allow women to take part in large numbers in politics and public life, in spite of many studies pointing that doing so is actually beneficial to the society. The annual Global Corruption Barometer produced by Transparency International, the non-governmental group based in Berlin that monitors international corruption, has shown for the past several years that women are less prone to taking bribes than men.

A 1999 study published by the World Bank claimed that women were more trustworthy and public-spirited than men and concluded that greater representation of women in parliament in a sample of 150 countries in Europe, Africa and Asia led to lower levels of corruption.

Like wise bringing more women into work force, into decision making bodies, both inside homes and outside, are also a no-no for us. (Oh, I just forgot, yes we do bring women to work, to pay them less and fleece them more).

There is so much more work to be done. The truth is, most women don’t have the privilege of being able to look at gender justice from a distance; they have no choice but to live it every day. Those of us who are lucky enough not to have to think about gender discrimination, racism, poverty and homophobia on a daily basis, those of us who have the privilege of ‘living life’, have a responsibility to open our eyes to the misogyny right in front of us. And then to stop it.

Women’s Day is not a day on the calendar, or even a special day to exchange pleasantries, greetings and gifts or make wishes. It is a day to strengthen our resolve. A resolve to struggle for equality. 100 years have gone, but the struggle continues. 

G Mamatha/People’s Democracy