Still a raw deal

In a patriarchal world, it was only in the 1960s that the spotlight was turned on gender thanks to the radical feminists, who used the term in the context of discriminatory power relations between men and women, and the U.S. universities that initiated courses on women's studies. Since then the subject has been discussed by sensitised people, academicians and activists, seeking to bridge the gender divide. Leading women's conventions such as CEDAW (Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1979) and declarations such as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, (1995) spelt out the areas of concern.

Drawing a distinction between sex and gender, Dr. Regina Papa, founder director and former head, Department of Women's Studies Division, Alagappa University, Karaikudi, says, "Sex is a biological determinant whereas gender is a social construct. Which means that everything being equal you are discriminated against just because you are a woman.

We are born into a society, which is already scripted and divisive in terms of values, attitudes, practices, customs and beliefs. And these scripts are internalised with those who defy them being labelled as deviant."

Ranjani Murthy, gender and development researcher and author, when asked if the gender divide is closing in, says, "I would like to differentiate between gender gap in access to basic needs and indicators indicative of women's position. In the case of the former, the divide is narrowing. If we take positional variables like domestic violence and gender-based violence in public, women's position has taken a beating. There is a decline in the sex ratio — the ratio of girls to boys is getting lower. Which means that female infanticide and foeticide are prevalent.

Women's political participation is not happening in a big way. While there is 33 per cent reservation in the panchayats (with the husbands sometimes using their wives as stooges), 33 per cent reservation in Parliament is not a reality yet.

Women are still not in positions of power in the economic sphere too. They may be found in call centres drawing four figure salaries but it is largely an exploitative situation. As for sexual and reproductive rights, there has not been an improvement as there is a rise in HIV and AIDS cases since women have not been able to negotiate condom use in the context of the Government promoting sterilisation.

Ossie Fernandes, Director, Human Rights Foundation, notes

"Essentially, the public conscience seeks to mainstream women. I consider this inconsequential, because the basic issue is about powerlessness of women in a patriarchal world. Hence mainstreaming women in such a scenario is not going to achieve anything significant for them. In fact the state and economic establishment makes a fetish out of this, while, on the other hand, basic indicators for enabling women to be able to even try and compete, such as education, good health care, nutrition, food security and housing, are out of the reach of millions of women. The power to exercise control over their own bodies, property rights, halting the increased loss of control over natural resources and commodification of women are some of the core issues of the women's struggle."

Legal measures seem to be the first step. Says Ranjani Murthy, "Introducing 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament, passing the Domestic Violence Bill, 50 per cent reservation of women in co-operatives, strict enforcement of the inheritance laws and making property of the husband joint at the time of marriage, recognising women's unpaid work (that they do in the family), etc. Secondly, institutional mechanisms (family courts, Mahila courts, women police stations and Government departments) must be accountable to women. If women's rights groups are compulsorily part of the forums it would help. Besides lakes, ponds, wastelands and trees should be auctioned to the numerous self-help groups so that they have some common resources at their command. Priority should be given to Dalit, single and disabled women and to those coming from landless homes and informal sectors."

Dr Regina Papa observes, "If the gender divide is not bridged there is defective self actualisation and a valuable human resource in the form of women is not utilised fully."

Ossie Fernandes points out, "A segment of the women's movement is often caught up in enforcing laws and opinion making. Women are working within the realm of legal issues the contours of which are again drawn to legitimise patriarchy. It's not the job of women to fight patriarchy but they do because they are the victims. One way to fight patriarchy is democratisation of the family as the family is the spring board of religious and cultural values and values of patriarchy. The struggle against patriarchy must be part of a struggle for a new human world and should also be carried on by men who believe in the increasing power of women."


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