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Women may be down but are not out

Anjali Mehta |

Rafia Zakaria’s article ‘Domestic violence: a man’s right’ (The Statesman, 19 May reproduced from Dawn) struck a deep chord with me. Her statement: “dismantling the cultural apparatus that would enable women to think like women, identify with other women and resist the domination of men is very difficult”, compelled me to take stock of the situation vis-à-vis this dismantling.

Women are gradually gaining ground in the quest for equality because international cooperation has ensured that women’s issues are at par with political issues thanks to steps taken by prominent men and women.

The UN secretary general Antonio Gutteres, has placed gender equality firmly at the top of the UN agenda.

The efforts of UN goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie are an inspiring example of what influential people can achieve when they set their mind towards women’s empowerment. It was in 2013 that Jolie strode up to the podium during the G8 Summit and spoke to the leaders there about rape in conflict zones.

In all likelihood, this was the first time such a topic took centre-stage during a political summit. Since 2014, due to her efforts along with those of William Hague, then British Foreign secretary, there are now summits on sexual violence in conflict zones and two-thirds of the member countries of the UN have signed the pledge to end this scourge and not treat rapes in conflict zones as a lesser crime.

Jolie has also highlighted the meagre presence of women in peacekeeping missions – a dismal five per cent. In 2014, members of the G20 Summit in Australia decided to introduce a W20 section to the Summit with the objective of reducing the employment gap between men and women by a further 25 per cent by 2025.

The focus of this women’s section was to develop women’s entrepreneurship and included women from the fields of business, politics and civil society.

Three such W20 Summits took place from 2015 to 2017 (Istanbul 2015, China 2016, Germany 2017). At these meetings, targets were set for empowering women at work.

To broaden this initiative, henceforth representatives to the UN from all countries should take a collective stand and get an already receptive UN to announce a minimum gender budget applicable to all countries.

Gender equality at the highest levels sets a fine example for all to see and emulate. Several countries are demonstrating their inclination towards gender justice, either by ensuring high levels of female representation in their cabinets such as France and Canada; or electing women to high office as England, Scotland, Germany, South Korea, Brazil and several others have done, or by having large numbers of women in their parliaments such as Rwanda and Tunisia.

In India activists are lobbying political leaders for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill (an unfortunate misnomer – it is actually a constitutional representation and women need to win an election to earn the seat). It guarantees that at least onethird of all seats in parliament will be reserved for women. It however, has the record of being one of the longest pending bills in the history of the Indian parliament.

Though a majority of politicians back it verbally, they have collectively not mustered up the interest or determination to see this important bill through. Several influential personalities are highlighting gender issues in their important public speeches.

Janet Yellen, chairperson of Federal Reserve bank of the US gave a speech at her alma mater, Brown University titled “So we all can succeed; 125 years of women’s participation in the economy”.

She quoted Malala Yousafzai’s thoughtful words “We cannot succeed when half of us are held back”. Justice Bhanumati, while delivering the judgment upholding the death penalty for the perpetrators in the Nirbhaya gang rape case in India, widened the ambit of her judgment to emphasize the need for gender justice.

To quote, “Every individual, irrespective of his or her gender must be willing to assume the responsibility in fight for gender justice and also awaken public opinion on gender justice.”

Corporates are being compelled to create more gender-equal environments as more women speak out against the prevalent injustices. Sexual harassment in the workplace is getting addressed better, thus helping women realise their career potential more fully. Silicon Valley has recently seen admissions of guilt and resignations by prominent men who were taking advantage of female colleagues. Recently a senior board member of Uber, Bonderman, had to resign after making sexist remarks about women on corporate boards at a staff meeting.

There is exciting new data highlighting the professionalism of women. Two studies in the February 2017 issue of the prestigious Journal of American Medical Association provide concrete data that women create better outcomes than men in the medical field. The study reports concluded that patients treated by female physicians were significantly more likely to have longer survival rates and less readmission rates than those treated by male physicians in the same hospital.

Women are playing a far greater role in interpreting the books that shape and regulate our lives i.e. religious and legal texts. One such respected expert on religion, British author Karen Armstrong is a delight to read and her vast knowledge is breath-taking. In her book titled Fields of Blood she makes a compelling argument that religion does not foster violence, it is man’s inherent aggression that surfaces, which can sometimes be tempered by religion.

Were we to focus more on the healing properties of religion rather than the differences between them, what a joyous world it would be! More of women’s voices, thoughts and interpretation of constitutional and religious texts would benefit society greatly. Issues pertaining to the private lives of people are being meaningfully discussed and people are not being left to simply ‘accept their fate ‘. Especially when those deciding the fate of others are extremely unjust.

For example, the one-sided practice of instantaneous or triple talaq, which caused grief to many women, is being legally examined by the Supreme Court of India. What is refreshing is that women citizens and groups themselves took the important step of publicly highlighting the inherent injustices in this practice.

At a more general level the very basis of marriage is being questioned in greater depth. More attention is being paid to the worldwide scourge of child marriage.

Marriage after the age of 18 enables them to enjoy childhood in full, gain self- confidence and be mature parents. Higher quality parenting leads to stable, calmer and more confident adults in the next generation. Also being questioned is the age difference in marriage for men and women. Indian law for example gives one sex an age advantage of three years (21 years for men and 18 for women) over the other. This is not conducive to equality.

It leads to greater domination by the male partner. Earlier disruption of women’s studies leads to lower qualifications at work and other imbalances follow, such as lesser pay. It may likely contribute to domestic violence.

Where women’s issues were once prised gently out from under the carpet, today they are placed boldly at the forefront. Due to the relentless efforts of all those who are working passionately for a more equal society, there is some reason to celebrate. However, the road ahead is long and arduous and far more ‘dismantling’ remains to be achieved.

The writer is a New Delhi-based medical practitioner.