By Tanima Banerjee:
“It is impossible to think about the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is impossible for a bird to fly on only one wing.” — Swami Vivekananda
Women are not born, but made. What better than India to exemplify this statement by Simone de Beauvoir. With the whole world celebrating International Women’s Day with great pomp and show, it would be only apt to analyse the position and space Indian women occupy today, and comparing it to the time 60 years ago when the country had just gained independence. With women participating in nationalist movements, to being pushed into the domestic household space, to their resurgence as super-women today, women in our country have seen it all.
There have been innumerable debates about gender in India over the years. Much of it includes women’s positing in society, their education, health, economic position, gender equality etc. What one can conclude from such discussions is that women have always held a certain paradoxical position in our developing country.
While on one hand, India has seen an increased percentage of literacy among women, and women are now entering professional fields, the practices of female infanticide, poor health conditions and lack of education still persisting still continue. Even the patriarchal ideology of the home being a woman’s ‘real domain’ and marriage being her ultimate destiny hasn’t changed much. The matrimonial advertisements, demanding girls of the same caste, with fair skin and slim figure, or the much criticised fair and lovely ads, are indicators of the slow changing social mores. If one looks at the status of women then and now, one has to look at two sides of the coin; one side which is promising, and one side which is bleak.
When our country got its independence, the participation of women nationalists was widely acknowledged. When the Indian Constitution was formulated, it granted equal rights to women, considering them legal citizens of the country and as an equal to men in terms of freedom and opportunity. The sex ratio of women at this time was slightly better than what it is today, standing at 945 females per 1000 males. Yet the condition of women screamed a different reality.
They were relegated to the household, and made to submit to the male-dominated patriarchal society, as has always been prevalent in our country. Indian women, who fought as equals with men in the nationalist struggle, were not given that free public space anymore. They became homemakers, and were mainly meant to build a strong home to support their men who were to build the newly independent country. Women were reduced to being second class citizens. The national female literacy rate was an alarmingly low 8.6%. The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for girls was 24.8% at primary level and 4.6% at the upper primary level (in the 11-14 years age group). There existed insoluble social and cultural barriers to education of women and access to organised schooling.
A very few were allowed into the public space, which she was expected to manage on her own, while maintaining her domestic role as a homemaker. In spite of the Sharda Act which was passed in the 1950s to raise the marital age limit for girls, child marriage particularly in North India was quite prevalent though the average age at marriage for females was increased to 18. Sprawling inequalities persisted in their access to education, health care, physical and financial resources and opportunities in political, social and cultural spheres. It was almost unthinkable for women to have a choice or a say in matters of marriage, career or life. Rather she had no voice at all. The practice of dowry was as common as ever.
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And since men were better educated than girls, the demands were even more. The Dowry Prohibition Act was finally passed in 1961, to protect women and promising severe punishment, but the conviction rate of crime against women was, and still is very low in India. Because of such inhuman practices which were normalised by our society, the birth of the girl child was considered inauspicious. In villages as well as cities, the girl child was killed either before birth or after it. Even till date, the practice continues. The United Nations Children’s Fund, estimated that up to 50 million girls and women are ‘missing’ from India’s population because of termination of the female foetus or high mortality of the girl child due to lack of proper care.
Though a number of constitutional amendments were made for women’s social, economic and political benefits, yet they were never effective to bring a radical change in the situation. Women had only the role of a ‘good wife’ to play, and if a woman ventured out to work, she was seen as a bad woman, going against societal norms. Women were expected to cook food and eat only after the men, with whatever meager amount of food is left. This led to rampant malnutrition among women, and an extremely poor health status. Around 500 women were reported to die every day due to pregnancy related problems due to malnutrition, and getting married before 18. It was only by the 1960s, that a few educated women began to see themselves increasingly change from a mere guardian of home to a legitimate participant in the discourse of life. The country saw the first undercurrent of female discontent with the system.
With time, a lot has changed since those dark ages of the 1950s for the women. Though at some levels like dowry, crimes like rape, sexual harassment at office or public places, and molestation, eve-teasing, even after over sixty years of independence women are still exploited, which is the shameful side of our country. Yet one can’t deny that the situation has improved since the earlier times. Women, who now represent 48.2% of the population, are getting access to education, and then employment. From 5.4 million girls enrolled at the primary level in 1950-51 to 61.1 million girls in 2004-05. At the upper primary level, the enrolment increased from 0.5 million girls to 22.7 million girls.
Dropout rates for girls have fallen by 16.5% between the year 2000 and 2005. Programs like ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’ and ‘Saakshar Bharat Mission for Female Literacy’ has helped increase the literacy rates from less than 10 percent to more than 50% today. The result of this is that India has world’s largest number of professionally qualified women. In fact India has the largest population of working women in the world, and has more number of doctors, surgeons, scientists, professors than the United States.
Women in India slowly started recognising her true potential. She has started questioning the rules laid down for her by the society. As a result, she has started breaking barriers and earned a respectable position in the world. Today Indian women have excelled in each and every field from social work to visiting space station. There is no arena, which remains unconquered by Indian women. Whether it is politics, sports, entertainment, literature, technology everywhere, its women power all along.
Today names like Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Shobhaa De, Jhumpa Lahiri can put any other writer to shame. In the field of cinema, women like Rekha, Smita Patil, Shabana Aazmi and Vidya Balan and Konkona Sen are such names who don’t play feminised roles, but have asserted themselves over this male-dominated realm. In the field of Politics, from Indira Gandhi to Shiela Dixit, Uma Bharti, Jayalalithaa, Vasundhra Raje and Mamata Banerjee today, women are making their presence felt.
Today, the modern woman is so deft and self-sufficient that she can be easily called a superwoman, juggling many fronts single-handedly. Women are now fiercely ambitious and are proving their metal not only on the home front, but also in their respective professions. Women in Indian are coming up in all spheres of life. They are joining the universities and colleges in large numbers. They are entering into all kinds of professions like engineering, medicine, politics, teaching, etc. A nation’s progress and prosperity can be judged by the way it treats its women folk. There is a slow and steady awareness regarding giving the women their dues, and not mistreating them, seeing them as objects of possession. Despite progress, the very fact that women, along with being achievers, also are expected to fulfil their roles as wives or mothers, prioritising home against anything else.
This point of view hasn’t changed much. There is still a large section of women who are uneducated, and married off before the age of 18. Families are required to supply a chaste daughter to the family of her future husband. Also very few women are actually employed in good-paying jobs, and hence parents don’t see the point of spending money on girls’ education. Statistics say that close to 245 million Indian women lack the basic capability to read and write, which is a large number. Only 13.9% women are employed in the urban sector, and 29% in the domestic and agriculture sector, where too a majority of women are exploited by the men. The sex ratio of India shows that the Indian society is still prejudiced against female, and a lot is yet to be achieved in this context.
Also read: How To Get More Women In India’s Workforce? First, Let Them Leave The House
The path towards total gender empowerment is full of potholes. Over the years, women have made great strides in many areas with notable progress in reducing some gender gaps. Yet realities such as 11,332 women and girls getting trafficked every year, and increased practice of dowry, rape and sexual harassment hit hard against all the development that has taken place. Thus, if on one hand women are climbing the ladder of success, on the other hand she is mutely suffering the violence afflicted on her by her own family members. As compared to the past, women in modern times have achieved a lot but in reality they have to still travel a long way. Women may have left the secured domains of their home, but a harsh, cruel, exploitative world awaits them, where women have to prove their talent against the world who see women as merely vassals of producing children. The Indian woman has to make her way through all the socialised prejudices against her, and the men yet have to allow and accept the women to be equal participants in the country’s way forward.
Status of Indian Women began to change radically during the modern period. Historically the period after 1750 A.D is known as the modern period.
The status of Indian women during this period can be divided into two stages:
(a) Status of women during the British rule in India,
(b) The status of women in post independent India.
(a) Status of women During the British Rule:
After the fall of the Mughal Empire at the decisive Battle of Plassey (1775 A.D) the British people established their complete political supremacy over the Indian people. During the British rule, a number of changes were made in the economic and social structures of our society.
Though the quality of life of women during this period remained more or less the same, some substantial progress was achieved in eliminating inequalities between men and women in education, employment, social right and so on. Some social evils such as child marriage, sati system, devadasi system, purdah system, prohibition of widow remarriage etc., which were a great hurdle in the path of women’s progress were either controlled or removed by suitable legislations.
After the lapse of several centuries for the first time some attempts were made all India basis to tackle the problems that confronted women. Social reformers with patriotic spirit on the one hand and the British Government on the other together took several measures to improve the status of women and to remove some of their disabilities.
(b) The status of women in post independent India:
The status of Indian women has radically changed since independence. Bothe the structural and cultural changes provided equality of opportunities to women in education, employment and political participation. With the help of these changes, exploitation of women, to a great extent was reduced. More freedom and better orientation were provided to the women’s organisation to pursue their interest.
The centuries of slavery were over. Today women want equality, education and recognition. The advancement of women is the most significant fact of modern India. Gandhiji once said “woman is the noblest of God’s creation, supreme in her own sphere of activity.” These words are blossoming now.
From its very inception in the 19th century, the Indian National congress included women and elected Mrs. Annie Besant as its president. One of the proudest moments of Indian womanhood was when Mrs. Vijay Lakshmi Pandit was elected as the president of the U.N. General Assembly in 1953.
In the National movement, hundreds and thousands of women shed their veils and left their sheltered homes to work side by side with the man. In free India, the status of women has under gone profound changes. Remarkable progress has been achieved in the field of administration, science and technology, sports, education, literature, music, painting and other fine arts.
It is highly significant that women in independent India have achieved great progress in all walks of life. We can confidently assert that India is the only nation among the developing countries of the modern world where so many women occupy high administrative positions quite successfully. The improvement in the status of Indian women especially after independence can be analysed in the light of the major changes that have taken place in areas such as legislation, education and employment, political participation and awareness of their rights on the part of women.
1. Constitutional provision and legislation in support of women’s cause:
The constitution of India has greatly enhanced the status of Indian women by throwing upon to them all its series on equal terms with men. All the men and women of India are equity entitled for individual freedom, fundamental rights including the right to participate in social, cultural, religious, educational, economic and political activities. The constitution provides for equality of sex and offers protection to women against exploitation. It has given the voting right to women and in no way treats women as second grade citizens.
Social legislation safeguarding women’s interest:
The Government of Independent India undertook a number of legislative measures to safeguard the interests of women.
Some of them are discussed here:
(i) The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955:
It prohibits polygyny, polyandry and child marriage and concedes equal rights to women to divorce and to remarry.
(ii) The Hindu succession Act, 1956:
It provides the right to parental property for women.
(iii) The Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956:
The act gives a childless woman the right to adopt a child and to claim maintenance from the husband if she is divorced by him.
(iv) The special Marriage Act, 1954:
It provides rights to women on par with men for inter-caste marriage, love marriage and’ registered marriage. The Act has also fixed the minimum age of marriage at 21 for males and 18 for females.
(v) The dowry prohibition Act, 1961:
It declares the taking of dowry an unlawful activity and thereby prevents the exploitation of women.
(vi) Other legislations:
(a) The suppression of immoral Traffic of women and Girls Act 1956:
It provides protection to women from being kidnapped or compelled to become prostitute.
(b) The Medical Termination of Pregnancy: Act 1971:
It legalizes abortion conceding the right of a woman to go for abortion on ground of physical and mental health.
(c) The criminal Law Amendment Act 1983:
It seeks to stop various types of crimes against women.
(d) The Family Court Act 1984:
It seeks to provide justice to women who get involved in family disputes.
2. Women in the field of Education:
After Independence, women of India took to education in a relatively large number. For example in 1901, the literary level of the females in India was just 0.6%, it increased to 39.42% in 1991 and to 64.1 in 2001. Various benefits such as free-ship, scholarship, loan facility, hostel facility etc are being given to women who go for higher education in many towns and cities, educational institutions meant only for female children have been established.
The educational performance of girl students particularly at high school and college level is proving to be betters than that of boys especially after 1980. We have today some universities exclusively meant for women. Example- SNDT university for women (poona) (ii) Padmavathi University for women (Terupati), Mother Teresa University for women (Kodai Kenal, Tamilnadu) Sri Avinashi lingam Homes Science college for Women (Deemed University, Coimbatore.) Girls’ students are getting admitted on merit basis to the prestigious engineering and medical colleges in a relatively bigger number during the recent years.
The contribution of women for developing various languages cannot be ignored. Mahadvi Verma and Subhadra Kumari chauhan are well known for Hindi writings, Amreta pritam has enriched Punjabi language with her works. Kuntala Kumari Sabat has enriched oriya literature, many women writers have been awarded prize by the Sahitya Academy and other organisations. There are hundreds of women editors, journalists and columnists in the land who are performing meritorious services.
3. Women in Economic and Employment Fields:
In both villages and cities there has been a remarkable increase in the number of women going out of the four walls of the household and becoming workers. In the “employment market” they are successfully competition with the men folk, In every field, the number of women employees is steadily increasing since 1991, though in a smaller number, women are getting recruited into the Army force, Air force and Naval force also.
Employment has given women economic independence and the feeling of importance. They now feel that they can stand on their own and look after the entire family by themselves. This has boosted their self-pride and self confidence. Employment provision has made them to feel that they need not live as parasites on their men folk. In order to give protection to the economic interests and rights of the women folk the government has undertaken various socio economic legislations, which cover areas such as rights to property or inheritance, equal wages, working conditions, maternity benefit and job security.
(i) The Maternity Benefit Act 1961:
It gives maternity benefits such as 3 months leaves with salary to the married women workers during pregnancy stage.
(ii) The Equal Remuneration Act 1976:
It removes wage discrimination between male and female workers.
(iii) The Factories Amendment Act 1976:
It deals with working laws, weekly rest, standards of cleanliness, ventilation, first aid facilities rest rooms etc. The legislation also provides for establishing of crèches for children of working women, separate toilets for females and lays down a maximum of 9 hours of work a day for women.
(iv) The Hindu succession Act. 1956:
According to this act not only a daughter is given a right in her father’s property equal to her brothers, but a widow also gets a share from her deceased husbands’ property equal to her sons and daughters.
Women in the Political Field:
The Indian constitution has provided women two important political rights female enfranchisement and eligibility for the legislature. After the independence, the number of women voters and women representatives in Assemblies and parliament has increased sufficiently. In central cabinet and at the level of state cabinet we find some ministerial portfolios being headed by women.
The Late Raj Kumari Amit Kaur was a minister in the first central cabinet of free India. Sucheta Kripalini had successfully fulfilled her responsibilities of Uttar Pradesh so as Padmaja Naidu as the Governor of West Bengal. Smt Nadini Satpathy of Orissa state was also one of the able chief Ministers. The nation witnessed in Smt. Indira Gandhi, one of the powerful prime ministers who gave her leadership to the country for more than a decade.
Honourable president Mrs Prativa Patil, is holding the most important and dignified post of our country at present. In 1992, an amendment (73rd) was brought to the constitution according to which one-third of the seats were reserved for women at the panchayat level. There are many women Members and chairmen of local bodies and legislatures.
By their sheer ability and capacity for hard work, Indian women can now exert their influence in every sphere of human activity. They have already demonstrated that-they can successfully discharge their duties as an administrator, ministers, ambassadors and so on. However it may be noted that political awareness is present more among the upper and middle class women than the lower class women.
Women in the sports Field:
In the world of sports, Arati Saha won the swimming champion by swimming the English channels. In other items of sports also such as high jump, long-jump, running race etc. women of India take sufficient drive and initiative. P.T. Usha has achieved remarkable success in the field of sports and games.
Besides, in the sphere of science, pure and applied, women are also not lagging behind men. No one can ignore the services rendered by women in the realm of music, painting and other fine arts. So India can be reasonably proud of the success achieved by her women in every sphere of human activity.
However, it is a matter of sorry state that though the status of women has been raised under the law, in practice they continue to suffer from discrimination, harassment and humiliation. They are not taken seriously in obtaining opinions neither they treated as equals to men and nor given the same respect either at home or in the work field.
The experience shows that men’s tyrannical hegemony is over whelming strong deep-rooted to alloy for any change in the status of women. In most of the homes, male children are still being preferred to female children. It appears that the societal approach towards women, their role and status has not radically changed. Hence, bringing about more and more legislations to ensure better opportunities to grant more rights and concessions, do not carry any meaning unless there is a basic change in the peoples attitude towards women and women’s role in society.
If we really want to see India in future as a country which is economically enriched, politically equipped, socially developed and culturally distinguished, then definitely we have to give women a leg up in all their respective spheres of activity. Dr Radhakrishnan the Late President of India, once said” The progress of our land towards our goal of democratic socialism cannot be achieved without the active participation of our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters”.