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Women Equality Still a Notion in India 16 Feb 1997


FEBRUARY 16-28, 1997


What has India done for its women?  Tough question.

BY Ashali Varma

NEW DELHI – Chitra is 21 years old and she has been working as a domestic since she was 7 years old. “My parents also worked as domestics,” she said, “They sent my brother to school and he studied till the eighth grade but they didn’t think it was necessary to educate me.”

Her brother works for the cable television industry but Chitra’s earning prospects are limited. She earns about 600 rupees ($17) a month, washing clothes and sweeping for three families. Chitra is married with two children her son Sheva is 3 years old and her daughter Priya is 18 months. “My husband works as a clerk and earns 1,500 rupees (the equivalent of $42) a month and we pay 250 rupees ($7) to rent a garage where we live,” said Chitra.

Chitra’s life mirrors the lives of millions of women and young girls living in the cities of India. They live day to day and any unforeseen calamities like sickness or accidents could eat up their meager savings and plunge the family into even greater depths of  poverty.

While India has made considerable progress in the last 50 years in the area of food  security and health, it has a long way to go in eradicating poverty, providing education for all and improving the status of women. According to current statistics, while male literacy is 64.1 percent, female literacy is just 39.3 percent. Although most women work, their work tends to be invisible and unrewarded.

For example, although 52 percent of all males were reported, in the 1991 census, to be working, only 22 percent of all women had visible jobs. Only 19 percent of all working women are engaged in non-agricultural activities. Female agricultural workers earn two thirds of what males earn.

Reported crimes against women in the years 1987 and 1991 show that violence against women is on the rise. There has been a 26.1 percent increase in the number of rape cases and 169.7 percent increase in dowry deaths, (women who do not bring enough of a dowry are murdered by their husbands and in-laws).

Speaking of some positive actions the government has taken for women’s rights, Dr. Najma Heptulla, a parliamentarian and Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha (Upper House), said that the Panchayati Raj Act, reserving 33 percent of local council seats are reserved for women, will help them to get things done at the grassroots level. This is likely to enable political participation of one million women and open up opportunities that never existed before.

Heptulla is planning to hold 7 training programs and workshops for parliamentarians. “We want parity between men and women. I don’t want women to be vulnerable,” she said.

Kunti Paul is President of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), which was set up in 1926.  “We have 500 branches all over India and we focus on issues concerning women and the needs of the time,” said Paul. Over the years, the AIWC has taken up legislation for women’s rights in India and though numerous laws have been passed to protect women, Paul said there has been a lack of implementation. For example, the Equal Remuneration Act (1976) provides for equal pay for men and women doing equal work; the Child Marriage Restraint Act (1976) raised the age for marriage of girls to 18 years; the Immoral Traffic prevention Act (1956) makes sexual exploitation an offense and the Dowry Prohibition Act (1961) aims at abolishing the dowry system.

For women to fight for these rights, Paul feels that education is necessary. “Unless we educate women, we cannot empower them.” But the task is enormous: “Almost 400 million women have to be given better opportunities. It is not easy.”

The AIWC has education centers and vocational training courses for women in different parts of the country. They have working women hostels, day care creches, old age homes for  women, schools for tribal children, and homes for women in distress where they are trained to earn a living.

Paul feels that in the next generation more children will be educated as even illiterate women arc sending their girls to school. “After all when we gained independence few women worked.  Today there are women in all walks of life, lawyers, doctors, pilots and in the civil service,” Paul said.

Dr. Madan Mohan Akhouri, a consultant with Udyogini, a nongovernmental organization

working for women at the grassroots level, is involved in developing economic activities for women through micro enterprise.  “In the Eighties it was recognized that although women were contributing to the GDP and the labor force they were not identified as such,” Akhouri said.

“For us the challenge is to make things happen,” said Gurinder Kaur, Executive Director of Udyogini, “We have to have a multi-pronged effort, provide credit, education and inform women about their rights.”  Kaur feels that there is a definite trend at the grassroots level of women working together to change their communities.  The media, especially television, have played a vital role in bringing about awareness of women’s issues.

According to Kaur, the Indian government has also increased its focus on gender issues and all the ministries concerned with the social sector have budgets for women’s issues.  “Women are now center stage in the government’s action plans and NGOs are asked to give their opinions and are consulted on issues of rural development.”

But Kaur admits that the efforts are not enough compared to the volume of work.  “We have reached 1,800 women, but we need hundreds of Udyoginis to reach out to the millions of women in India.”