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No place of their own

The latest UNDP Human Development Report 2010 is a bit of downer on the gender front even as images of Michelle Obama tripping the light fantastic fade away, says Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 16:49 IST
Lalita Panicker

Air Force One is about to become a gleam in our eye as the three-day-long Obamarama comes to an end. From the magnificent surroundings of Raisina Hill, he cannot have failed to see what a long journey, if the Shiv Sena will pardon us, it has been for India from the isolation of the old days to, as Strobe Talbott put it, a seat (almost) on the board of directors of the world. But even more splendid was the sight of the powerful Indian women who formed the backdrop of the visit. The foreign secretary, the Indian ambassador to the US, the speaker, the president, the UPA chairperson and women custodians of industry. But now, that glorious picture is fading and we have a few unpleasant realities to face.

The latest UNDP Human Development Report 2010 is a bit of downer on the gender front even as images of Michelle Obama tripping the light fantastic fade away. Of course, we have every reason to be proud of our silver sensex and the northbound economic growth rate figures. And certainly, this knocked the socks off Obama who could not praise India’s dream run enough. We may have left Pakistan in the dust on many counts. But to be told that the fate of half our population, namely women, is far behind Pakistan is a hyphenation we could do without. This is clear indication that economic progress and human development do not go hand in hand, though by all logic it should.

India is among the top 10 economic growth nations but way below the mark on development indicators. This is not exactly news that will shake you awake, rather it may induce a yawn. But what should make you sit up is that fact that things are not looking up, instead they seem to be on a downward slope even in the so-called enlightened states like Kerala. On the issue of maternal mortality, a sure indicator of the status of women in any setting, 450 women per 100,000 die in childbirth in India. Odious though the comparison is, it is considerably less for Pakistan. Though there are many laws to prevent early marriages, the maximum number of underage marriages take place in India. A dubious distinction if there ever was one.

Our minister for human resource development has set a scorching pace on the education front. But so moribund has this sector been that even the sterling efforts of the poor man have not been able to pull up education at the secondary and higher level from 27% for women compared to 50% for men.

We have always believed that the problem of inequity would ease with education. But, education without other sorts of empowerment like that of housing and property ownership still leaves women vulnerable to all sorts of outrages from honour killings, domestic violence, sexual harassment and female infanticide and foeticide to mention but a few of the horrors.

The few women, and they are few indeed given the number of women who live oppressed all their lives, who fight back are often further victimised. We mentioned the case of Bhanwari Devi in these columns some time ago. She took up the case of child marriage in her village in Rajasthan. After being feted for a while, today she lives on the margins, ostracised even by her own family. She spoke up against an iniquitous system and it struck back at her with a vengeance.

The issue of housing and property ownership has been taken up by no less than the Supreme Court as a means of guaranteeing the well-being and safety of women. But it is telling that in the last agricultural census, of 120 million landowners, only 12 million were women. And mere ownership does not mean that a woman has the right to do as she will with her land, or even use it as a negotiating instrument to secure her rights. In many cases, ownership actually makes her more vulnerable to threat from other, usually male members of her family.

To actualise women’s rights, we have to get away from merely piling up legislation. For many policy-makers, the passing of a legislation almost amounts to it becoming the answer to social problems which afflict women. The same inequities continue, perhaps in a sneakier, subterranean form, as we have seen in the case of foeticide and dowry. Far from decreasing in incidence, dowry has increased affecting communities where it was not a tradition. Newer forms of violence against women disguised as tradition like the khap panchayat verdicts have sprung up, often with the sanction of those who are duty-bound to protect women.

Now this may sound Cassandra-like, but even in states that are held up as a model of enlightenment and development like Kerala, women have nowhere near equal status to men. While indomitable personalities like the late Kamala Das seemed to epitomise the so-called spirit of the Kerala woman, it was more a myth created by her dazzling personality than the truth on the ground.

Kerala registered a sharp 50% increase in wife-beating from 1998 to 2008, double the average figure. The National Family Health Survey-II data showed that 61% of women in the age group 15-49 justified wife-beating, in a state with 88% female literacy. By the time the NFHS-III came out, the figure had gone up to 65.7%. So, it is not just that men feel it is their right to slap women around. Women themselves have become so inured to violence that they, in a bizarre twist of the Stockholm syndrome, feel that it is their lot to be brutalised.

The UNDP figures may be trashed or contested as some have done. But even if they were partially true, it takes the gloss off the India that put its best foot forward for the US prez. It is not a question of altruism, it is simply enlightened self-interest to invest in women. They hold up a substantial portion of the economy. It is only when they can live in safety, dignity and good health that they can contribute to their full potential. The bottom of the heap on gender equity and the top of the heap on the economy makes for a strange schizophrenia that we may find difficult to live with in the absence of the right medication somewhere down the line.