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What women want

india Updated: May 25, 2009 22:41 IST

Memories of the elections have already been swept away in the hurly-burly of government formation. But rewind for a moment to those who queued up under the punishing sun to cast their votes with the hope of change. Women constitute around 340 million of the 710 million voters, a largely silent category whose concerns have been ignored, underplayed or denied by successive governments.

Will the newly-sworn-in government do more than continue with ritualistic posturing and ineffectual policy-making for this faceless, voiceless and largely unrepresented section?

Social philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum has listed several capabilities she sees as central for “truly human functioning”. Let’s highlight some of these to help evolve a roadmap for the future. On top of Nussbaum’s list is ‘Life’: the ability to live to the end of a human life of normal length. ‘Bodily Health’ and ‘Bodily Integrity’ are the other central capabilities she sets down. The first of these requires nourishment and shelter; the second, the capacity to move freely while being secure against bodily assault. ‘Senses, Imagination and Thought’ are other requirements that figure on the
list, and which hinge on education. Finally, there is ‘Control over One’s Environment’.

Many concerns emerge from Nussbaum’s central capabilities. Take the first, ‘Life’. India’s skewed sex ratio and son preference. The government’s approach to what is arguably one of the greatest challenges facing Indian society has been to enact a law. But not only have advances in medical technology outpaced the law; laws in themselves are only as effective as society’s ownership of them. That is why the legal process that seeks to outlaw female foeticide can only work if it partners social movements working to change women’s realities.

Bodily Health’ in Nussbaum’s list takes us to India’s high maternal mortality rate (MMR), with recent estimations putting it at 450 per 100,000 live births. Since the foundational physical cause for women dying in childbirth is anaemia, the high MMR points to the breakdown of healthcare delivery and the lack of proper nutrition. Linked to this is early marriage. Despite a slew of laws prohibiting early marriage, India accounts for over 40 per cent of underage marriages globally. This has implications for maternal mortality levels.

The lack of women’s agency in marriage and childbirth is a pivotal factor for women being in a social trough. Data shows that women who had studied for 12 years or more, were employed and earned an independent income could exercise greater autonomy over such issues. What is needed, then, is interlinked action rather than separate and discrete interventions.

This brings us to the denial of eight years of schooling. According to National Sample Survey Organisation data, school has never been a part of life for over 15 per cent of girls between the ages of 5-14, and one in five drop out by 14. We then come to the lack of an enabling environment for women’s employment. Not only is women’s representation in public employment dismal, their wages are roughly half that of men and the conditions of work do not cater to their specific needs, such as childcare. The sluggish pace of legal reform is another concern. Our new law-makers could, for instance, consider important legal reform, including legislation that recognises women’s economic contribution within the family.

Nussbaum’s highlighting of ‘Bodily Integrity’ brings us to yet another concern. Today, rape is one of the fastest growing crimes in India and the required State machinery to assist rape survivors is almost non-existent.

Finally, the lack of meaningful political participation, which, according to Nussbaum, falls in the category ‘Control Over One’s Environment’. A measure like the Women’s Reservation Bill, now hanging in limbo in the Rajya Sabha, can only be one among several initiatives to deepen women’s participation in democracy. A moment that has seen the highest ever number of women being elected to Parliament in India’s history is the right time to start. For those hundreds of thousands of women, who queued up outside polling stations this summer, the act of exercising their vote should mark the beginning, not the end, of the process of change.

(Pamela Philipose is director of Women’s Feature Service)