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Think of women empowerment and the names of Indra Nooyi, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Hillary Clinton, Smriti Irani, Sushma Swaraj, Nirmala Sitharam and Sunita Williams strike our minds instantly. In a ‘man’s world,’ these women have struggled, fought for their rights and established themselves in the world. Each of these women, in some senses, represent the immense potential of women in general. And yet, they constitute a minority. A majority of women still struggle under the burden of patriarchy and the gender bias that exists in the society. Empowerment for them still seems a far-fetched dream.
The fact that we talk about women empowerment is reflective of the disparity that exists in the status of men and women. On the contrary, a term like ‘men empowerment’ is impossible even to imagine because men have traditionally enjoyed a dominant position in society. They have occupied a privileged position, not just in India, but across the world. Even in the western countries where people are considered progressive, have had to fight for their rights over the years. A woman is not only empowered when she gets equal voting rights, property ownership, equality in marriage and others but also when she has the right to chose how she wants to live her life. Her choices should not be reflective of her character. A woman should be above the stereotypes she is associated with always. The most common being that she is for only household chores and raising children.
The gender bias is very much visible in workplaces. A lot of inequality is due to reluctance that men have in accepting women at par or a higher position than themselves. Not only regarding wages, but women also need better representation in the administration and policy-making committees at workplaces. It is disheartening to see that many organizations do not have a flexible maternity leave policy which can help women balance between their personal and professional life. Many women have to quit after having a child since they are not able to cope up with the demanding job profile or cannot afford daycare.
Violence against women is still prominent. Our society is still in the shackles of demons like dowry and killing of the girl child. The female feticide statistics in India are disheartening with almost 2.5 lakhs girls killed in India every year. The bias continues in the way a boy and a girl are brought up in a family. A boy is marked to be the breadwinner of the family and hence, looked after well, regarding the quantity and quality of food, educational opportunities are provided to him and so on. A girl, on the other hand, is devoid of such opportunities. They are thought to be non-productive members of a family, and their roles are limited to the household.
Furthermore, boys have easy access to higher education and are allowed to make a career for themselves, whereas women are pressurised into marrying at a certain age and look after their families. The practice of dowry is still prevalent in India. UNICEF estimates that around 5000 women are killed in dowry-related incidents each year in India. Empowerment, therefore, remains a mirage.
The Government of India has been taking a flurry of measures to correct the gender bias and support women. Beti Bachao Beti Padhao is a great step in this direction. ‘Priyadarshini’- a pilot programme for women empowerment, ‘Support to Training and Employment Programme’- to develop skills of women for self and employment, ‘Udaan’- to promote girl education and ‘Sukanya Samridhi Yojana’-under which girl child below 10 years will have bank accounts with more interest are a few others.
Undoubtedly, there has been a marked improvement in the condition of women. More and more women are making their presence felt in all walks of life, be it academics, sports, entrepreneurship or politics. There are more women role models such as Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, Kiran Bedi, Anoushka Shankar, Aruna Roy, and Arundhati Bhattacharya to inspire the young generation of women to break free from the shackles of patriarchy, assert themselves confidently and pursue their dreams. Though the Indian Parliament is yet to pass the bill which seeks to provide 33% reservation to women in the Parliament, the number of women representatives in the Parliament has been steadily increasing. This augurs well for the future.
Education and empowerment go hand in hand. If we are to empower girls, it is imperative to give them access to education. It is no coincidence that an improvement in the condition of women has coincided with an increase in the literacy rates of women to more than 50 percent today. It is also important, at the same time, to sensitize the men of the society on gender issues so that the existing gender bias can be wiped off.
Swami Vivekananda rightly said that “It is impossible to think about the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is impossible for a bird to fly on only one wing.” The world can no longer neglect half its population.
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