Empowerment, enabling atmosphere, a level playing field, greater representation across all spheres, these are some of the terms we hear every year come International Women’s Day.
And yesterday was no different. Will all the meetings, television debates and articles make a jot of difference to the lives of the millions of women across India who routinely face hardship and oppression? Not at all, in fact this day means nothing to them, they probably have not even heard of it.
The average Indian woman has the odds stacked against her from birth, if she is allowed to be born in a son-centric society. She is denied food, education, healthcare and, above all, the right to choose her own life partner. After marriage, she is denied the right to choose the sex of her children, the number of children she will have, the right to gainful employment, the right to her fair share of property and in old age the right to a life of dignity.
Come election time, be sure that all political parties will come up with that hoary old chestnut — the women’s reservation Bill. In fact, Rahul Gandhi has already spoken about his commitment to pass the Bill. But, let’s not kid ourselves, even if he has his heart in the right place, his party is not going to pass the Bill. The male politicians in the party are not about to give up their seats so that 33% can be reserved for women. And most certainly, the other parties are not going to do so either.
In fact, luminaries like Sharad Yadav and Lalu Prasad have been vocal in their opposition going as far as to say that only short haired daughters, wives and daughters-in-law will get the seats. One worthy even exhorted women to go home and make rotis instead of demanding reservation, but that is old history now.
But then, why should women expect male politicians to give up anything for them? The real question here is if political parties are all that serious about greater representation for women, why don’t they give them more tickets. After all, surveys have shown that a greater percentage of women who contest elections win than men. But the problem is that so few women actually get to contest elections.
And in any event, in a society that should be driven by merit, the idea of a gender-based quota seems a bit inappropriate, at least to me. It should be the best person for the job. Let us be honest, it is not just male politicians who should be blamed for keeping women down. The Congress, the Trinamool, the AIADMK and the BSP are all parties headed by women. But we don’t see a preponderance of women contesting seats from any of these parties.
So, we should just shelve this idea and hope that with a younger demographic, the most effective, least corrupt person wins, irrespective of gender. And, of course, all political parties should try and get more women on board but through the legitimate electoral route, not through reservations.
The tokenism towards women extends, I feel, in having set up a National Commission for Women (NCW). I am sure it was set up with noble intentions, as a watchdog for women’s rights. But I cannot think of a single instance when it has successfully taken up an issue relevant to women and seen it through to its logical conclusion.
It has actually become a parking slot for political hangers-on who seem to know little, and want to know even less, about women’s rights. Every time there is an atrocity on a woman, we see the chairperson on television mouthing, yes, some platitude. On occasion, the chairperson, at least the current one, has made statements detrimental to the dignity of women. But, the government pays big bucks for the upkeep of the commission, for the comfort of its members and for the privilege of ignoring all its recommendations.
I feel it should be scrapped because its very existence seems to give successive governments an excuse for not doing anything concrete for women. It would, in my opinion, be much better if the government were to constitute a legal body, not necessarily comprising women, to look at how the laws for women can be given more teeth. This should particularly apply to the laws of property rights, the only surefire economic insurance for a woman should she choose not to live in her marital home or her parental home.
Another would be to not buttonhole women into the predictable professional skills like sewing and crafts-making when it comes to vocational training. It is here that women should be encouraged to go in for courses in which they are really interested and which ensure greater employability. It is a long haul, but these are workable ideas, rather than wait for the NCW to come up with a blueprint for equality or for reservations to create a level playing field.
The greatest gift that can be given to women is to stop pretending that either reservations or the NCW is going to empower them. Women’s Day is just a day when many public personalities and politicians feel they have to say a few ennobling things about women’s rights. But let us understand them for what they are, just nice, heartwarming words signifying very little.