India: No country for women?
“When I started, they say boxing is not for girls. After I get married, they say I cannot win after marriage. After I have baby, they say I cannot win after baby. So I want to prove, I want to show that I can make history for India.”
And, with her words and deeds, history she made. Mary Kom, below, is the first Indian female boxer to win an Olympic medal. Indians are proud of this taut, mother of two, who is a little over five feet tall.
In a country where a woman is often made to feel less, Mary Kom proved everyone wrong.
Despite being a woman who people dismissed yesterday, Mary Kom is a hero today. And it wasn’t easy for her, in spite of support from her family, which is almost unheard of in a country like India. She fought tradition, sometimes crushing societal pressure and poverty to win, giving new meaning to her achievement.
Mary is finally getting her due. Cash awards from the government, sponsorships and making it to the headlines of all Indian newspapers is just the beginning. The highpoint: an upcoming mainstream Hindi movie on her life. While, Mary has finally been recognised for who she is and what she has done for the country, millions of Indian women are not.
Women in India suffer from conception
Many women in India are fighting for survival. It starts from even before they are born. Strong preference for boys drives parents to abort their female babies.
If baby girls survive infancy and they live in a poor family, they stare at malnutrition. They are fed less than their brothers. Some girls go to school and most are pulled out early, brought home to take their traditional place. They are taught to work in the kitchen and do family chores. What they learn is how to be good daughters now and obedient wives later.
Half of girls are married before the legal age of 18 years. Adolescent marriage brings with it new challenges: no more than children themselves, many underage wives die during childbirth.
Those who live to see their children have a life-long expectation to be mothers and housekeepers. Period. Indian society believes a woman’s place is in her house, under the close watch of her husband and in-laws, dedicated to serving the needs of her husband and children. Her shoulders are where the honour of the family rests. And honour is more valuable than lives.
Home has four walls
What is life like in her home? A ‘good wife’ is not encouraged to think for herself. Her perspective and opinions do not matter. Men ultimately take all decisions. She most often doesn’t control her own earnings, if she is paid at all. While she struggles to keep everyone happy, if she ‘fails’, she is punished. In India, husbands believe it is their right to hit their wives. What’s shocking is that a large part of Indian women think this is okay too.
Workplaces are no different, traditions are slow to change. Salaries depend on gender. Women employees rarely make it to the top, a club nearly exclusive for men in India. A woman will always have to juggle between home and career. Men make little contribution at home, almost never cook or clean, or, for that matter, even tend to the kids. That’s always the wife’s share of work. So, a woman makes her choice and puts family first, and in the process giving up her dreams and aspirations.
It’s tough being a woman in India. Danger lurks everywhere for her. Rape, dowry murders, trafficking, honour killings, feoticide. Our newspapers are filled with this tragedies every day.
Change is afloat, it seems to be holding water
Things are changing. Conversations have started.
A new talk show, hosted by one of India’s leading actors shook the nation. Called ‘Satyamev Jayate’, which means ‘Truth Only Prevails’, busted India’s discriminator ‘secrets’ out in to the open.
The show had three full episodes on issues of women’s rights in India. The focus was on sex selective abortion, domestic violence and dowry killings. With horrifying statistics, heart-wrenching stories and expert opinion, it was an eye opener for Indians. Watching the videos will be certainly be an eye opener for people outside of India, too.
Everyone within miles of a TV in this country watched the programmes. It was a national moment.
Thousands responded by the way of text messages, emails, letters and through Facebook. It not only moved people, it has moved the government too. Policy makers are now under pressure to act. The police will now be forced to take action. And perpetrators will have reasons to worry.
While talk is cheap, this programme – and other hopeful signs across the country – speak of the tectonic shifts that are underway in the Indian society.
Some Indians have decided to rise above archaic norms to bring in change themselves.
For example, people from a nondescript little village in Bihar, one of India’s most “backward” states, celebrate the birth of their daughters. How? By planting 10 fruit trees to welcome a baby girl. A great way to tackle declining sex ratio in the state and feed their people.
There is movement at the policy level too. The historic Women’s Reservation Bill, that proposes 33 percent reservation for women in Parliament and state legislative bodies, will soon be a reality. So will the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at Work Place Bill. This legislation will, for the first time, establish enforceable law to protect women where they work. This includes domestic workers, who comprise 30 percent of the female workforce in the unorganised sector. There are 4.75 million registered domestic workers in the country but the real numbers are massive.
There is more good news.
Female literacy rate has climbed from 54 percent in 2001 to 65 percent in 10 years, according to the provisional census data. The Supreme Court of India ruled that a Hindu woman or girl has equal property rights, the same to the letter as male members of the family. Will it be enforced? We’ll see.
Also via the Courts, a divorced woman is now entitled to 50 percent of her husband’s property. This is a crucial change: most women are uneducated and unable to support themselves and their children. This law is aimed at a husband who refuses to support his family or when a woman is divorced or a widow.
India is awakening. But painfully slow. While, some women are experiencing increased liberty, hundreds of millions are still waiting to see changes that matter in their lives.
Junxion’s Nikita Aggarwal works on projects from our India office. She is involved in environmental and social sustainability projects and is spearheading Junxion’s efforts to raise awareness around women’s issues in India.