India is a vast sub-continent in South Asia, with a population of over a billion people. It has a democratic system of government, and one of the fastest growing economies in the world today. India is known for its scenic beauty, vast natural reserves and rich cultural heritage.
Indian society has always been patriarchal, with male dominance conspicuous in every aspect of social life; a society where even today the majority of women find their identity linked to that of their father or husband, undermining their ability to exist in their own right. For centuries, the birth of a daughter brought distress and dismay, as everyone suffered from a ‘son-fixation’, wanting a son to carry on the family name. Women were deprived of the right to be educated, were confined within the four walls of the house, to take care of the home and the children, subjected hence, to a life of silent endurance and subservience to the men in the family. Till the beginning of the twentieth century, a woman who lost her husband also lost the right to lead a decent, normal life, and was condemned to a life of deprivation, solitude and misery, as an outcast of society with no right to remarry. Violence was common and a number of women were targets of abuse after bouts of drunkenness, but women could not dare to retaliate, instead were supposed to silently endure this cruelty, attributing their plight to the Hindu concept of “kismet”, that is, destiny or fate. Religion, always a strong guiding force, also did little to improve the plight of women.
The advent of the twentieth century brought a gradual change in the status of women, as comparatively more women began to receive formal education, some even seeking employment outside. A large number of women came to the forefront of the freedom struggle that led India towards independence from British colonial rule in august 1947. The Constitution of India, framed thereafter, provided equality to women in every respect and though the percentage of educated and gainfully employed women kept increasing steadily especially in the urban areas, the basic status of women remained below that of men. Education did help create an awareness to fight against discrimination in every field, be it health care,, nutrition or employment; to report against violence and abuse, to assert their rights and demand respect and decency, so that they are no longer victims of the male display of power, authority and control. But a vast majority of women, especially in rural India, remain unaware of their rights and need to be guided and organized, to fight the inequality they have been forced to accept and live with throughout their lives.
All humans are born equal, but their socialization largely determines their ideas and beliefs. In Indian society, the concept of male superiority is so deeply entrenched that it is passed on unconsciously, and lays the foundation for inequality. It is unfortunate that women themselves perpetuate this inequality in the generation that succeeds them. It is therefore, essential to shed age-old customs, traditions, religious beliefs and cultural mores; and instead, highlight women’s contribution to society and focus on the importance of role sharing by men.
Poverty, a curse, haunts our society, and its eradication is crucial for the elevation of the status of women, particularly those with special disabilities. Strategies evolved for its eradication must empower women more than ever before. This can be accomplished by giving women better access to, and control over small business ideas, better training and skill developing facilities so that they can develop these ideas into successful businesses.
History bears witness to the fact that whenever women have been empowered; they have changed the course of events for the better. Developmental programs have been far more successful when women have been given the responsibility of their implementation. Economic empowerment of women, wherever it has been initiated has changed the structure of society and reduced the ills that haunt it, besides improving the quality of life of the whole family. On the other hand, programs to introduce family planning failed in the initial years simply because women were not empowered.
The contrast between then and now, has heightened and today’s woman is no longer merely man’s shadow. While pockets of Indian society still treat women unfairly as much as they did in the past, today, these women can walk out or reach out for help and scores of non-governmental organizations would come to their rescue. Atrocities against women have not stopped, nor have women in general achieved equal status. We can only console ourselves with having a woman president of our country, and see women in places of power command respect. The common woman huddled in a corner, or slogging in homes and offices may just marginally be better off than before.