The Day After the Celebrations

Posted in India , Tolerance | 23-Mar-09 | Author: Ambika Vishwanath

Ambika Vishwanath

In 1910 a German women's right activist, Clara Zetkin, proposed that every year there should be a world wide celebration on the same day to advocate the rights of women and place their demands on a public space. In 1911 International Women's Day was born, and today almost a hundred years later, every year on March 8th we celebrate our women. A century ago with only two countries allowing women to vote, such a day was necessary. It brought to the fore front the struggles and challenges that women were facing, and placed their voices on a global forum. Today, decades later the celebrations have taken a different turn where in China, Macedonia, Russia and other countries March 8th is a an official holiday. Large rallies and events are held to celebrate the achievements of great and inspiring women, and the world takes a moment to recognize half its population.

While this is an achievement that should be acknowledged, the question that needs to be asked is what happens on March 9th? Do we carry forward the promises and intentions of that important day, or do we carry on as before and forget about these grand intentions till the next year? India, a pluralist society at its very core, is one such country that is torn between these two questions. At every corner in its political and social spheres the country presents a dichotomy of situations, and anomalies that have been allowed to co-exist for decades. India celebrates Women's Day with a robustness that befits our democratic standards, and yet all these grand gestures and songs of empowerment fail in the light of statistics where a woman is raped ever half hour somewhere in the country.

India has over one million elected women representatives in the grassroots that play an integral role in the local governance. These numbers came about after the 73rd amendment to the constitution in 1992, which mandated 33% reservation for women in all three tiers of the panchayats (village councils). Today these women stand for elections on their own merit and in several states they comprise over 50% of the council. Yet a bill which has been introduced four times in sixteen years to mandate a similar reservation for women in parliament has failed every time, the last being in 2008. There is a degree of irony that such a bill should fail at a time when two of the most important players in politics are women - Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi and Bahujan Samaj Party leader and contender for Prime Minister, Mayawati.

This successive failure to pass such a bill is an admission that despite our long tradition of powerful women in politics from Sarojini Naidu, to Indira Gandhi and a plethora of women chief ministers, women's issues have never been a part of mainstream political discourse. Once elected or appointed very few of these women have beaten the system or attempted to change it, but merely perpetuate it in their silence. Delhi's Chief Minister Shiela Dixit was re-elected for her laudable ability to improve the transportation system, clean up pollution in the city and introduce innovative forms of clean technology, despite the increasing levels of crime against women during her two terms. The National Crime Records Bureau's last report in 2007, shows that Delhi had not only topped the crime charts for the fifth consecutive year, but it also accounted for 31% of the total assault cases against women in major cities across the country.

On the other hand one cannot ignore the excellent women India has produced - women the country can be proud of. Women such as Chanda Kochchar, India's leading female private sector banker and CEO of ICICI; or Mallika Srinivasan who heads the multi-million dollar tractor company TAFE; or Barkha Dutt who has repeatedly demonstrated that women are no longer just the face of the news, are daily reminders and inspiration that anything is possible. University exams, entrance tests, and the government's civil service exams have shown over the last few years that girls have performed increasingly well and are emerging as winners.

Yet for every girl that completes her education, for every woman that rises in the ranks of the government or corporate sector, 59% of girls are denied schooling, and laws against sexual harassment in the workplace are still pending. Studies show that female child mortality is higher than male child mortality by almost 50% in certain parts of the country. India has little to celebrate when young women are beaten senselessly for sitting in a social setting amongst friends, when a young wife is forced to strip naked for an FIR to be lodged against her husband or when a rape is determined to be the fault of the woman's and she is termed 'adventurous'.

India is a pluralist society, where we have gathered our religions and social morals along with our sense of responsibility and forged ahead. We have made strides that have left some of our western counterparts far behind. For example government employees are granted two years paid leave to take care of their children, in addition to the six months maternity leave they already had, as compared to the United States or Australia who do not have a national laws mandating paid maternity leave.

One cannot ignore the changes we have made since independence, from women who hold our highest office, to changes in a social mindset that accepts the new face of the Indian woman and allows her to dictate business and economics, to a society that allows an 'untouchable' to gain political prominence. It is time we took these achievements and changes to the next level and urge our leaders to make gender issues visible, so that there no longer remains a space and audience for people to use morals and religion as tools against women.

Thus the question comes back to that of March 9th and beyond. As a society and as a nation will we choose to further our good intentions in a concrete manner or will women's day be left behind simply as a jumble of shiny posters and catchy slogans?