What Women Want

Memories of the five-phased elections of April and May 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 in the ever-present hope that the people they vote for would help make their lives a little less stressful, a little more hopeful. 

Women constitute around 340 million of the 710 million Indian voters, a largely silent category whose core concerns have generally been ignored, underplayed or denied by successive governments. Independence gave India's women formal equality, post-independence India has done little to make that formal equality a substantive one. Recent history is littered with lost chances to address the structural barriers that deny or inhibit women's progress. One such squandered opportunity was the apathetic response to a remarkable report brought out by The Status of Women Committee in 1974, which had noted for the first time that "large masses of women in this country have remained unaffected by the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution..." 

So the question at this hour is: Will the newly-sworn-in Manmohan Singh government do more than continue with ritualistic posturing and ineffectual policy-making for this faceless, voiceless and largely unrepresented section of India's electorate? 

Social philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum has listed ten capabilities that she sees as central for "truly human functioning". Let's highlight five of these to help evolve a roadmap for change. 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 other central requirements she lists. The first of these requires adequate nourishment and shelter, the second, the capacity to move freely while being secure against bodily assault. 'Senses, Imagination and Thought', is yet another requirement that figures high on Nussbaum's list, and which hinges on adequate access to good education. Finally, there is 'Control over One's Environment' - a factor that Nussbaum maintains is crucially dependent on aspects like political participation, equal property rights and the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others.

From these central capabilities that Nussbaum has listed, we can flag eight concerns requiring the government's urgent attention and action. Take the first capability, 'Life'. It leads us immediately to Concern One: India's skewed sex ratio driven by the ubiquitous social preference for sons. The government approach to what is arguably one of the greatest challenges facing Indian society has so far been to enact a law and draw up some regulations. 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 feticide can only work if it actively partners social movements working to change women's realities on the ground.

'Bodily Health' in Nussbaum's list takes us to Concern Two: India's unacceptably high level of maternal mortality rate (MMR), with recent estimations putting it at 450 per 100,000 live births. Since the foundational cause for the high levels of women dying in childbirth is anemia, India's MMR points to nothing less than the breakdown of healthcare delivery and the lack of proper nutrition in the most crucial phases of a woman's life. Linked to this is Concern Three: Early marriage. Despite a slew of laws prohibiting early marriage, India accounts for over 40 per cent of underage marriages globally. Earlier this year, 'The Lancet' reported that nearly half (48.4 per cent) of Indian women are married before touching 18, with one in five becoming wives before they turn 16. This has implications for the maternal mortality levels because it is now well established that teenagers who give birth are more likely to die in childbirth than those in their 20s. 

The lack of women's agency in questions of marriage and childbirth is a pivotal factor for women being in the social trough they find themselves in today. Data shows that women who had studied for 12 years or more, were employed and earned an independent income could exercise greater autonomy, both within the home and outside it. What is needed, then, is interlinked action rather than separate and discrete interventions. 

This brings us to a set of three concerns, which, if addressed together, could buttress women's position within the family and in society generally. Concern Four - the Denial of Eight Years of Schooling Plus. According to National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) data, school has never been a part of life for over 15 per cent of girls between the ages of 5-14, while one in five of those who do go to school drop out by the time they are 14. Concern Five is the lack of an enabling environment for women's employment. Not only is women's representation in public employment extremely poor, their wages are roughly half that of their male counterparts and the conditions of work do not cater to their specific needs, such as childcare. Concern Six deals with the sluggish pace of legal reform. Our new law makers could, for instance, consider a slew of new laws, including the enactment of legislation which specifically recognizes women's economic contribution within the family, even if they are not formally employed. 

Nussbaum's capability of 'Bodily Integrity' brings us to Concern Seven. Today, rape is one of the fastest growing crimes in India and to this day the required state machinery to assist rape survivors is almost non-existent. Where is the non-intrusive due process, where are the psychiatrists, where are the remedies in the system? The government needs to go back to the drawing board on this one.

Finally, we come to Concern Eight, lack of meaningful political participation, which recalls the capability to have 'Control over One's Environment', according to Nussbaum. 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 Indian democracy, which will strengthen Indian democracy in turn. 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 mere act of exercising their vote should mark the beginning, not the end of the process of change. 


More by :  Pamela Philipose

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