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Throughout history and in many societies including India, gender inequality was part and parcel of the accepted male-dominated culture. Atrocities and discrimination are the two major problems, which the Indian women face in the present day society. The traditional mentalities of India assume that the place of women is mainly concentrated on household activities like kitchen work and upbringing of the children. They have been considered as the sex object and inferior to the men in different spheres of knowledge. The ‘Sail Prabhat, Pardah System’, ‘Child Marriage’, ‘Dowry System’, etc. have been some form of atrocities and discriminatory attitudes against the women. Even after sixty-two years of Indian independence, women are still one of the most powerless and marginalized sections of Indian society. The 2001 Census shows that the sex ratio for India is 933, which is lowest hi the world. Percentage of female literacy is 54.16 (2001 Census) against male literacy of 75.85 per cent. In India, women’s representation in Parliament and in the State Assemblies was never beyond 8 and 10 per cent respectively. Most of the working women remain outside the organized sector. Mere 2.3 per cent women are administrators and managers, 20.5 per cent professional and the technical workers all of whom collectively earn 25 per cent of the shared income. Violence against women is on the rise.
There are perhaps two sources to which the contemporary understanding and practices of empowerment may be traced. The first i.e., the governance and development discourse, has largely been associated with the managerial and regulatory regime of governance articulated in the context of liberalization as the exercise of political authority in a way which makes for ‘sound development management’ and success for the ‘market economy’. The second i.e., the grassroots and social movement discourse, may be seen as manifesting a continuation of a strand of participatory democracy, which places faith in people’s presence and active involvement in decision making, especially in matters which pertain to their immediate life worlds. Empowerment also holds out a promise for social change, through means.
Empowerment, therefore, is a process aimed at changing the nature and reaction of systemic forces which marginalize women and other disadvantaged sections in a given context’. Issues of equality and rights for women were always claimed as crucial components in state policy. Much of the justification for rights; justice and equality for women came from the need for `emancipation’ or `liberation’ of women. When the language of empowerment gained currency in the nineteen eighties. The claims changed and to some extent the means by which empowerment was to be brought about. The institutional reform envisaged in the governance agenda involved the incorporation of an ’empowerment’ component, more in terms of capacity building prescribed by the World Bank, rather than the conscientisation process envisaged by the liberation framework.
While empowerment has become significant for creating enabling conditions for disadvantaged groups. At the same time, it has also become a rallying cry for grass-roots movements. The conception of disadvantaged groups as passive recipients or target groups of specific state policies has to some extent been overcome. Yet, if one examines the manner in which specific policies have unfolded, we may find that they do not conform to the idea of empowerment as a liberating condition generated by the active collective activity.
The democratic process in India created awareness among the women about their plightful condition. The principle of gender equality is enshrined in the Indian Constitution in its Preamble, Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties and Directive Principles. The Constitution not only grants equality to women but also empowers the state to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favour of women. The 73rd and 74th Amendments (1993) to the Constitution of India provided for reservation of seats (at least one-third) in the local bodies of Panchayats and Municipalities for women. Another Constitutional Amendment (84th Constitutional Amendment Act 1998) reserving 33 per cent seats in Parliament and State Legislatures is in the pipeline.
The Indian Government has passed various legislations to safeguard Constitutional rights to women. These legislative measures include, the Hindu Marriage Act (1955), The Hindu Succession Act (1956), Dowry Prohibition Act (1961), Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (1971), Equal Remuneration Act (1976), Child Marriage Restraint Act ( I 976), Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act Orissa Review * December – 2004 (1986) and finally Pre-natal Diagnostic Technique (Regulation and Prevention of Measure) Act (1994) etc.
Apart from these, various welfare measures have been taken up by the Government from time to time to empower the women. They are the support to Training for – Employment Programme (1987), Mahila Samriddhi Yojana (1993), the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh (1992-93), Indira Mahila Yojana (1995), DWACRA Plan (1997) and Balika Samriddhi Yojana (1997). On 12th July 2001, the Willa Samriddhi Yojana and Indira Mahila Yojana have been merged into the integrated self-help group programme i.e. Swayam Siddha. The Government of India in 1953 established a Central Social Welfare Board with a nation-wide programme for grants-in-aid for women, children and underprivileged group. A separate department of women and child development was set up at the Centre in 1985 to give a distinct identity and provide a nodal point on matters relating to women’s development. National Commission on women was created by an Act of Parliament in 1992. Besides these, India has also ratified various international conventions and human rights instruments committing to secure equal rights of women. Key among them is the ratification of the Convention of Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1993.
The emancipation of women is not a simple matter. It requires the attitudinal change of the husband, other family members and society as a whole to the women. The community consciousness and bureaucratic efforts are integral parts of the implementation of the programmes. The first and foremost priority should be given to the education of women, which is the grassroots problem. The struggle for gender justice will be slow, strenuous and protracted, as the change cannot be brought about easily. It has to be fought at emotional, cognitive and action levels. The struggle has to be carried on within caste, class, race, religion, everywhere in which man-woman relationships figure and matter.
Within the framework of a democratic polity, our laws, development policies, Plans and programmes have aimed at women’s advancement in different spheres. From the Fifth Five Year Plan (1974-78) onwards has been a marked shift in the approach to women’s issues from welfare to development. In recent years, the empowerment of women has been recognized as the central issue in determining the status of women. The National Commission for Women was ‘set up by an Act of Parliament in 1990 to safeguard the rights and legal entitlements of women. The 73rd and 74th Amendments (1993) to the Constitution of India have provided for reservation of seats in the local bodies of Panchayats and Municipalities for women, laying a strong foundation for their participation in decision making at the local levels.
India has also ratified various international conventions and human rights instruments committing to secure equal rights of women. Key among them is the ratification of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1993.
The Mexico Plan of Action (1975), the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies (1985), the Beijing Declaration as well as the Platform for Action (1995) and the Outcome Document adopted by the UNGA Session on Gender Equality and Development & Peace for the 21st century, titled “Further actions and initiatives to implement the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action” have been unreservedly endorsed by India for appropriate follow up.
The women’s movement and a wide-spread network of non-Government Organizations which have a strong grass-roots presence and deep insight into women’s concerns have contributed to inspiring initiatives for the empowerment of women.
However, there still exists a wide gap between the goals enunciated in the Constitution, legislation, policies, plans, programmes, and related mechanisms on the one hand and the situational reality of the status of women in India, on the other. This has been analyzed extensively in the Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, “Towards Equality”, 1974 and highlighted in the National Perspective Plan for Women. 1988-2000. the Shramshakti Report. 1988 and the Platform for Action, Five Years After- An assessment”
Gender disparity manifests itself in various forms, the most obvious being the trend of continuously declining female ratio in the population in the last few decades. Social stereotyping and violence at the domestic and societal levels are some of the other manifestations. Discrimination against girl children, adolescent girls and women persist in parts of the country.
The underlying causes of gender inequality are related to social and economic structure, which is based on informal and formal norms, and practices.
Consequently, the access of women particularly those belonging to weaker sections including Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/ Other Backwards Classes and minorities, a majority of whom are in the rural areas and in the informal, unorganized sector – to education, health and productive resources, among others, is inadequate. Therefore, they remain largely marginalized, poor and socially excluded.
Judicial Legal Systems: Legal-judicial system should be made more responsive and gender-sensitive to women’s needs, especially in cases of domestic violence and personal assault. New laws need to be enacted and existing laws reviewed to ensure that justice is quick and the punishment meted out to the culprits is commensurate with the severity of the offence.
The evolution of property rights in a patriarchal system has contributed to the subordinate status of women. The aim should be to encourage changes in laws relating to ownership of property and inheritance by evolving consensus in order to make them gender just.
Decision Making: Women’s equality in power-sharing and active participation in decision making, including decision making in the political process at all levels should be ensured for the achievement of the goals of empowerment. All measures should be taken to guarantee women equal access to and full participation in decision making bodies at every level, including the legislative, executive, judicial, corporate, statutory bodies, as also the advisory Commissions, Committees, Boards, and Trusts etc. Affirmative action such as reservations/quotas, including in higher legislative bodies, should be considered whenever necessary on a time-bound basis. Women-friendly personnel policies will encourage women to participate effectively in the developmental process.
Mainstreaming a Gender Perspective in the Development Process: Policies, programmes and systems should be established to ensure mainstreaming of women’s perspectives in all developmental processes, as catalysts, participants and recipients. Wherever there are gaps in policies and programmes, women-specific interventions would be undertaken to bridge these. Coordinating and monitoring mechanisms will help to assess from time to time the progress of such mainstreaming mechanisms. Women’s issues and concerns, as a result, will especially be addressed and reflected in all concerned laws, sectoral policies, plans and programmes of action.
Economic Empowerment of Women: Since women comprise the majority of the population below the poverty line and are very often in situations of extreme poverty, given the harsh realities of intra-household and social discrimination, macroeconomic policies and poverty eradication programmes will specifically address the needs and problems of such women. Steps should be taken for mobilization of poor women and convergence of services, by offering them a range of economic and social options, along with necessary support measures to enhance their capabilities.
Micro Credit: In order to enhance women’s access to credit for consumption and production, the establishment of new and strengthening of existing micro-credit mechanisms and micro-finance institution should be undertaken so that the outreach of credit is enhanced. Other supportive measures will ensure adequate flow of credit through extant financial institutions and banks so that all women below the poverty line have easy access to credit.
Globalization has presented new challenges for the realization of the goal of women’s equality, the gender impact of which has not been systematically evaluated fully. However, from the micro-level studies that were commissioned by the Department of Women & Child Development, it is evident that there is a need for re-framing policies for access to employment and quality of employment. Benefits of the growing global economy have been unevenly distributed leading to wider economic disparities, the feminization of poverty, increased gender inequality through often deteriorating working conditions and unsafe working environment especially in the informal economy and rural areas. Strategies will be designed to enhance the capacity of women and empower them to meet the negative social and economic impacts, which may flow from the globalization process.
In view of the critical role of women in the agriculture and allied sectors, as producers, concentrated efforts will ensure that benefits of training, extension and various programmes will reach them in proportion to their numbers. The programmes for training women in soil conservation, social forestry, dairy development and other occupations allied to agriculture like horticulture, livestock including small animal husbandry, poultry, fisheries etc. will benefit women workers in the agriculture sector.
The important role played by women in electronics, information technology and food processing and agro-industry and textiles has been crucial to the develop-meant of these sectors. They should be given comprehensive support in terms of labour legislation, social security and other support services to participate in various industrial sectors.
Social Empowerment of Women : Equal access to education for women and girls and steps to eliminate discrimination, universalize education, eradicate illiteracy, create a gender-sensitive educational system, increase enrolment and retention rates of girls and improve the quality of education to facilitate life-long learning, as well as development of occupation/vocation/technical skills by women, are needed. Reducing the gender gap in secondary and higher education should be a focus area. Gender-sensitive curricula should be developed at all levels of the educational system in order to address sex stereotyping as one of the causes of gender discrimination.
Health: A holistic approach to women’s health which includes both nutrition and health services is required and special attention should be given to the needs of women and the girl at all stages of the life cycle. The reduction of infant mortality and maternal mortality, which are sensitive indicators of human development, is a priority concern. Women should have access to comprehensive, affordable and quality health care. To effectively meet problems of infant and maternal mortality, and early marriage the availability of good and accurate data at the micro level on deaths, birth and marriages is required. Strict implementation of the registration of births and deaths would be ensured and registration of marriages should be made compulsory.
Women in Difficult Circumstances
In recognition of the diversity of women’s situations and in acknowledgement of the needs of especially disadvantaged groups, measures and programmes should be undertaken to provide them with special assistance. These groups include women in extreme poverty. destitute women, women in conflict situations, women affected by natural calamities, women in less developed regions, the disabled widows, elderly women, single women in difficult circumstances, women heading households, those displaced from employment, migrants; women who are victims of marital violence, deserted women and prostitutes etc.
All forms of violence against women, physical and mental, whether at domestic or societal levels, including those arising from customs, traditions or accepted practices should be dealt with effectively with a view to eliminating its incidence.
All forms of discrimination against the girl child and violation of her rights should be eliminated by undertaking strong measures both preventive and punitive within and outside the family. These would relate specifically to strict enforcement of laws against prenatal sex selection and the practices of female foeticide female infanticide, child marriage, child abuse and child prostitution etc. Removal of discrimination in the treatment of the girl child within the family and outside and projection of a positive image of the girl child should be actively fostered.