By Kulsum Mustafa
Ms. Suneeta Dhar, Independent Gender Advisor, former CEO Jagori, used her vast experience in the development sector to illustrate measures that can help upscale gender equality initiatives in India. She was speaking on the topic of Gender Equality and Justice on the second day of the one week long (Aug 1 to Aug 8) of the India Rural Colloquy, organized by Transforming Rural India Foundation (TRIF) on Zoom. TRIF supports NGOs working at the grassroots; with governments, develops and delivers solutions for rural India.
She chose the landmark conference on gender equality in Beijing to illustrate her viewpoint on gender equality.
The twenty-third special session of the General Assembly on “Women 2000: Gender equality, development, and peace for the twenty-first century” took place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from 5 June to 9 June 2000 and adopted a Political Declaration and outcome document entitled “further actions and initiatives to implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action”.
Ms Dhar said women who represent the Indian women at such conferences may be just a few in number but they carry the power and voices of all women in the country.
While appreciating the outcome of this conference she spoke of some critical issues which were not addressed by the international forum. She listed women with disabilities, transgender, issues of climate change, violence against women as some of the concerns which were left out of the conference. Ms. Dhar was highly critical of the fact that there were not enough resources to take gender issues forward.
“There is a commitment but there are no resources available to fulfill these commitments. Even our national budget for women is very low,” bemoaned this women activist.
She said that this was a shout out to all those who support gender equality to ensure that the government and other donor agencies walk the talk as far as resources are concerned.
Ms. Dhar said that lots have to be done and so it is important that those in synch with these thoughts form alliances, collect gender data, trace out and support the right leaders.
She also spoke of the increase in domestic violence and crime against women during COVID- 19.
“Home is no longer safe, we must address ‘fear of violence’ that restricts choices for women and forces them to introduce self-censorship to escape being blamed and shamed,” she said, adding that changes in public spaces and making them safe for women is very important
Another vital point that Ms. Dhar impressed upon was ‘Investment in Prevention,” as this will be a confidence booster for women. She emphasized that it is important to have a re-look at the laws pertaining to women and must ensure we “track access to justice” continuously, She also asked for stringent laws to protect witnesses as this will help in securing justice for the victim.
In order to do all this she stressed that it is very important that resources are procured and it is equally important to ensure that they are properly utilized in the interest of gender equality.
Panelist Ms. Sarojni Ganju Thakur, independent gender advisor, former additional chief secretary, the government of Himachal Pradesh was in total agreement with the thoughts expressed by Ms Dhar. She said that In order that India’s gender equality graph grows, it is important that women are “Counted IN”. She said it must be ensured that gender issues are viewed through the right lens and that there is a strong and committed political will which is critical to carry out reforms and provide solutions. If all these are there one can be sure that right and effective pro-women policies will be framed on gender equality.
“It is true that unaccounted, invisible women can never be part of any government policies,” said Ms. Thakur, bureaucrat turned women activist.
She said that though a lot has changed in India in the last 70 years after Independence, but it is very unfortunate that very little has been done on gender equality and the most glaring example of this is our declining sex ratio.. She asserted that gender equality is needed everywhere right from public transport, parks, malls.
“We should not be gender blind and keep working on our safe cities program,” said Ms. Thakur.
Gender budgeting is vital for empowering women at all levels, she said She suggested that for better results it would be wise to start with a few sectors first. Putting in place Accountability for gender equality policies will help in ensuring their implementation.
Ms. Thakur was critical of perpetuated images of what is ‘normal for women. Like for instance, she said that the government’s “Ujwala’ scheme where a free gas cylinder and the cooking gas stove was provided by the government to the woman of poor families it was presumed that the cooking is being done only by women. She also spoke her mind on “Unpaid care’ provided by women as wives, mothers and daughters. She said that it folds women and stops them from doing productive work, which would make them economically independent.
Prof Sanjay Srivastava, Professor of Sociology, Institute of Economic growth, the lone male speaker in the group, hit the nail on the head when he said that gender must be looked like a relationship and not in isolation He said that the “invisible women” must first be given a face and then through data, we must identify their needs and accordingly design policies for them.
“Women must assert themselves, reclaim their spaces from men keeping in mind that those enjoying power for so long will not give in easily,” he said.
Asserting that Gender is a very complex term he said that a total gender shift is required in order that we raise the bar for gender equality.\
He said that plans for smart cities must be designed in a way that they include all genders.
Prof Srivastava said Infrastructure must be women-friendly CCTV cameras must not be used for surveillance but for protection.
All the three Panelists discussed challenges, solutions and visualized Rural India ten years hence in the context of gender equality. It was a brilliant and meaningful interaction. They all agreed that in order to bring about changes it is first of all important that “women must be counted in”, they should not remain just invisible identities..
The session was aptly moderated by Ms. Madhu Krishna, deputy director, Gates Foundation.
“Absolutely nothing is possible without first setting gender equality in place and the sooner it is realized and work on it begins the better for humanity at large,” said Ms. Krishna.
Ms. Krishna used stats to illustrate her point and to justify the urgency to start work in this sector. Listing the gender disparity she said sadly India figures are very low on the gender equality parameter list.
She said gender equality is the ground on which we must rest our foot for a way forward but here we have to cut through not one but multiple barriers which stand in way of gender equality.
Ms Krishna said the pandemic has brought more sharply all into focus all the inequalities. She said there are not one but multi barriers in way of women.
These ‘conversations’ matter not just to rural India but pertain to the entire country and if these suggestions are implemented through government policies they will certainly herald in commendable changes in India’s Rural Landscape.