On the occasion of International Women’s Day I thought I would share the following excerpts from my Benjamin Bailey Lecture delivered in Kottayam, Kerala in early 2014:
“And here in India’s most female state, Kerala, let us turn to the daughters of Eve, that half of the world that is womankind. How have they fared in democracy? And, are they the beneficiaries of globalization? Does multiculturalism promote gender welfare and equality? The Women in Politics Map 2014 launched by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women has ranked India 73rd in participation of women in politics with just 9.9% of parliamentary or ministerial posts being occupied by women. Do our women enjoy full and equal citizenship? The hurdle of complete literacy is yet to be crossed. At 65% female literacy is 16% lower than the male literacy rate. Violence is a constant companion in most women’s lives with at least 34% of Indian women having experienced violence at least once in their lives. There is the haunting and shameful statistic of how nearly 600,000 girls are missing in India each year because of sex-selective abortions. Rape, molestation and sexual harassment are other manifestations of violence against women – literally examples of war against women in peacetime. Patriarchal structures perpetuate female inequality.
More active participation of women in governance can help bring the issues that affect their wellbeing onto the highest political agenda of government. The growing presence of women in the Panchayati Raj and local government after the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution has been a positive development. More women in India are also voluntarily exercising their constitutional right of adult suffrage which is a positive and encouraging trend in Indian politics. Scholars term this phenomenon as self-empowerment.
Despite all this, our women need more visibility. Aruna Roy says, “The other side of India is still invisible”. A few swallows do not make a summer. A small minority of us women who have succeeded in what they do, do not represent the vast majority of our sisters who live anonymous lives submerged by patriarchy, surfacing only as examples of victimhood as a Nirbhaya or an acid burn victim, or the object of vengeance unleashed by antediluvian custom and usage. Not one of our women, regardless of economic or social status, can walk our streets safely after sundown. They retreat silently into the shadows, the white flags of surrender over their heads, giving themselves up to the helplessness of not being able to win protection from a male-dominated environment, and the hands that grope and violate and destroy their physical and mental sanctity. This is not the democracy our founding fathers and mothers envisioned. Sexual violence against women is not of a genre different from a war crime. Is gender equality recognized in the lives of our women who turn out to vote in such large numbers in each general election?
In the wake of the gang rape of Nirbhaya in Delhi in December 2013, the Justice Verma Commission’s epic work generated a veritable Magna Carta for women, a Bill of Rights many of whose provisions have now become law with the amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code passed by Parliament. Society is beginning to recognize that women are not victims, they want agency, they have chosen survival, that gender justice , realized justice or nyaya as Amartya Sen defines it, is what the women of India want. The tide is slowly turning against the “cultures of silence and impunity” (Meenakshi Gopinath) surrounding women that has pervaded our patriarchal society for centuries at the family, community and national levels.
As Madeleine Albright once said, “For democracy to thrive without women is impossible. If women are undervalued or underdeveloped then that democracy is imperfect and incomplete.” The question we must ask ourselves is whether we can be founding fathers and mothers of a new tradition. Decision-making and the prioritization of issues that affect human security have to involve women and men, not just men alone. Key questions of human rights involving half of humanity are involved – whether it is a gang rape in Delhi, or the shooting of a young Malala, wherever there is a struggle by women to seek their human rights, to seek freedom from fear, and their security, physical and psychological. Women need access to information (after the passage of the Right to Information Act in India, Aruna Roy notes that the “new currency was information and it had even replaced the bribe), they need education and vocational skill development, reductions in maternal and child mortality, and access to health care – all of which are core issues for gender rights.
I have especially referred to access to information. What is called the “chaotic pluralism” of the Internet can be mined to generate some very interesting data that can help policy makers to take policy decisions that are more inclusive and a better reflection of the state of the country. How many women have smart phones in India, how many have access to the Internet? Technology is a platform that women can scale, that enables them to transcend the limitations that surround them in their daily lives and provides them with the opportunity for economic and political advancement.
Globally, men have a much easier time accessing the Internet than women, according to a new report issued by the United Nations’ Broadband Commission Working Group. The report estimates that more than 200 million more men have access to the Internet than women, particularly in countries where Internet access is relatively new and still difficult to come by. Citing statistics from the ITU World Telecommunications/ICT Indicators database, the report says 41% of men worldwide are connected to the Internet, compared to 37% of women. In the developing world, the report claims that 16% fewer women use the Internet than men, whereas just 2% fewer women are online in the developed world. Several factors contribute to the online gender gap. Specifically, the report mentions the online harassment and threats frequently aimed towards women.
In July, Caroline Criado-Perez, the journalist heading up the campaign to make British author Jane Austen the face of England’s £10 note, was bombarded with abusive comments and rape threats via Twitter. On Facebook, sexism had become such a pervasive issue that earlier this year the company announced new efforts to crack down specifically on content that “targets women with images and content that threatens or incites gender-based violence or hate.” By working through these issues and facilitating Internet access, the UN predicts that a larger presence of women online could have a drastic global economic impact. “The World Bank (2009) estimates that every 10% increase in access to broadband results in 1.38% growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for developing countries,” the report says. “Bringing women online can boost GDP – Intel (2013) estimates that bringing 600 million additional women and girls online could boost global GDP by up to US$13-18 billion.” Bringing women online also enhances their scope of political participation.
For all women, influencing the political agenda at higher levels is key. According to the World Economic Forum, countries where men and women are closer to enjoying equal rights are far more economically competitive than those where the gender gap has left women and girls with limited or no access to medical care, education, elected office and the marketplace. Similarly the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if women farmers had the same access to seeds, fertilizer and technology as men do, they could reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by 100 million to 150 million. And here, I recall Norman Borlaug, whose pioneering work in the sixties was responsible for the Green Revolution in India, and who said: there is no more essential commodity than food. In his words, “without food, people perish, social and political organizations disintegrate, and civilizations collapse”. Women understand this because they spend their daily lives ensuring that their children and families are fed and nourished so that their future is secure and stable.
The mechanisms of decision making in the world, and democracies are no exception are essentially male dominated. Decision making is a preserve of men the world over. Democracy, human rights, development and good governance are of concern to women as much as men. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Too often the great decisions are originated and given form in bodies made up wholly of men, or so completely dominated by them that whatever of special value women have to offer is shunted aside without expression”. Simone de Beauvoir added, “Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth”. This is especially so when questions of human security are involved. Security has to be considered multi-dimensional, it is not military security alone that defines it. Military security does not take cognizance of the ambit of female experience, it has no gendered perspective. It does not address issues of subordination and domination, of gender and sexual violence, issues of access to food, water, sustainability and health. International politics has often valorized masculine values like toughness and physical strength, violence and the use of force in the defence of one’s country and has paid scant attention to issues concerning women in wartime or the peacetime violence against women that is an everyday occurrence in our lives.
Transparency and accountability in governance are critical requirements for a well-functioning democracy. It has been rightly observed that the arbitrary use of power by public officials not only gives public service a bad name, but it should be subsumed within the definition of corruption – remember the dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely. A feudal social structure cannot exist within a political democracy as it does in some parts of India today. It is absolutely legitimate for people to question such arbitrary uses of power and also to seek accountability from public servants. We hear the people say: hamara paisa, hamara hisab. The government must answer them in this era of unique identity for every Indian living in this land. …
(And some words on the need for more women in the Foreign Service):
…As a woman who is also a foreign policy practitioner, I would urge more and more young women of our country to consider careers in the foreign service. We are underrepresented in the foreign service, as in the rest of the bureaucracy. Women need to be more involved in determining the future trajectory of many issues of foreign policy concern for India, whether they are border and territorial questions, neighbourhood policy, trade and inter-connectivity, regional economic cooperation and security, energy security, politico-military issues, and public diplomacy, to name a few. This will help better mainstreaming of gender-related issues also into the working of our foreign policy and bring new perspectives to bear on policy concerning our neighbours, in particular. Women can bring courage and resilience of the feminine sort into the public sphere, a concept of sisterhood that is focused on long-term solutions to problems, the building of common ground, and the creation of cross-border synergies for peace and reconciliation. Preparing our women and skilling them in the art of negotiation and empowering them to build peace is key. I believe, like many of my sisters, that history can and must be pushed in a positive direction. ”
by Nirupama Rao . * data may be little outdated, but context is very useful.