I work as part of an organization, that believes in empowerment. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what empowerment means for me, so I went to the dictionary for help. According to the Oxford dictionary, empowerment means ‘the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights’.
When I think about my own life, I ask myself if I have felt empowered at all points of time? I don’t think so. Coming from a relatively liberal Bengali family meant I was never discriminated against because of my gender. I believe my parents made it a point to treat my brother and me equally. “And sometimes went overboard” as my brother likes to say. Still, on joining the fellowship, when I was placed in Delhi, the first thing that struck my mother was how unsafe our capital is for a single woman. And being a mother, she started worrying right away.
Even before I came to Delhi, I already had a long list of things I should and shouldn’t do from her. Do I diligently follow the list? Definitely not. But, on days that I am really late and have to return from office at 9 or 10 o’ clock, do I feel safe and cozy in walking down the long lane alone to the bus stop to hail a bus? Definitely not.
I recently went on a trip to Vrindavan during Holi. There were thirteen of us and still, some of my friends got groped in broad daylight and there was nothing we could do among the masses and the colors. The knowledge of being powerless dawned upon the group collectively that day. We were al born entitled, or so I believe. I have had a good upbringing, a caring support system, opportunities to chase my dreams; all of these without a lot of effort from my side. I never had to battle my way through society and situations to forge my path. And yet, sitting in a crowded auto while people tried to touch me and my friends, questioned everything I believed that was entitled in my life.
Even while I am grasping onto the knowledge of a larger reality, the figures across the country are jarringly clear. According to the Population Census of 2011, the population ratio in India was 940 females per 1000 males. This includes states like Haryana and Punjab where the ratio is as low as 879 and 895 females per 1000 males respectively. What does this imply? That our daughters have to battle it out to even be born. Our battles begin before our life does.
Here’s some other data. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), of the 165 million children under 5 years of age who are stunted in the world, more than one-third of them (57.9 million) live in India, and of the 120 million children under 5 in India, approximately 48% are stunted. These undernourished children have an increased risk of mortality, illness and infections, delayed development, cognitive deficits, poorer school performance, and fewer years in school. Close to half of adolescent women in India (over a third of whom will begin childbearing by 19 years of age) are chronically malnourished, and more than a quarter of births are low birth weight. Twenty percent of children are stunted and 30% are wasted before 6 months of age, and 82% of children are anemic by 2 years of age. Adolescent girls are the most malnourished (48%) among women of childbearing age, and over time this has remained unchanged. Childbearing begins by the age of 19 for more than a third of women, contributing to poor maternal nutritional status and birth outcomes, including low birth weight.
Literacy rate of India as per the Population Census of 2011 was 74.04%. The Male literacy rate was 82.14% and Female literacy rate was 65.46%. While literacy rate is defined as ‘the total percentage of the population of an area at a particular time aged seven years or above who can read and write with understanding’, in practice, someone who can sign their name is considered as literate. We deprive around 35% of our daughters and 18% of our sons the mere chance of even learning to read and write. Without these basic skills, how do we expect them to cope with the demands of the world and lead an empowered life? Among the various causes that lead to such dismal literacy rates, are income disparities, low state expenditure on education, lack of infrastructure and dearth of teachers. India has 47 million youth of secondary and higher secondary school-going age dropping out of school, according to a report by the Montreal-based UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Global Education Monitoring. While the major reason for school drop-outs is considered to be the need to supplement family income, various other factors too contribute to this. One of the major reasons for female school drop-outs, alongside the above mentioned ones is lack of sanitation facilities. Post the start of menstruation, due to lack of sanitation facilities at schools, absenteeism among girls show a sharp spike. This often ultimately results in dropping out of schools. The other major reason for female drop-outs is early marriage. Disempowerment, it seems is all around us. It affects our babies, our mothers, our adolescents and our adults.
According to a UNICEF report, child marriage is still widespread across India, with nearly one-third of brides married as girls. While there has been a decline in the incidence of child marriage nationally (from 54 per cent in 1992-93 to 33 per cent today) and in nearly all states, the pace of change remains slow, especially for girls in the age group 15-18 years. What is worse is a whopping 78.5 lakh girls (2.3% of all women or girls who were ever married or were married in 2011) were married while they were not yet 10 years of age as per the Census of 2011. Child marriage is more prevalent in rural areas (48 per cent) than in urban areas (29 per cent). Girls married as children are more likely to drop out of school, have a low-paid job and limited decision-making power at home. They are also more likely to face violence, abuse and exposure to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases because they have fewer skills and less negotiating power. Nearly 13 per cent of married girls between 15-19 years of age experience sexual violence by their husbands. They are also likely to become pregnant as adolescents. One in six girls begins childbearing between the ages of 15 and 19 years. Early pregnancy increases the risk of delivery complications and maternal and child mortality. The Infant Mortality Rate is 76 per cent for women aged less than 20 years, compared with 50 per cent for women aged 20-29 years.
Findings of the National Sample Survey (68th Round) results indicated that in 2011-2012, 24.8 of every 100 women worked in rural areas. The corresponding number when it came to men was 54.3. Women’s participation was drastically less in urban areas. To every 54.6 employed men, there were just 14.7 working women. As a nation, where we proudly talk about our youth and our demographic dividend, how can we ever achieve our potential if half our workforce is cloistered.
According to a latest report prepared by India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a crime has been recorded against women in every three minutes in India. Every 60 minutes, two women are raped in this country. Every six hours, a young married woman is found beaten to death, burnt or driven to suicide. According to ‘United Nation Population Fund Report’, around two-third of married Indian women are victims of Domestic Violence attacks and as many as 70 per cent of married women in India between the age of 15 and 49 are victims of beating, rape or forced sex. In India, more than 55 percent of the women suffer from Domestic Violence, especially in the states of Bihar, U.P., M.P. and other northern states. Due to patriarchal norms, women who have internalized such social norms that justify ‘acceptance’ of traditional gender roles might be at greater risk of exploitation and violence.
These statistics do paint a dire picture, do they not? One where the chances of a woman leading an empowered live is far less than that of her succumbing to societal pressures and ultimately achieving a minute amount of her true potential. How then, do we as a society bring about empowerment? Can it really be brought about solely by policy changes? How do we change the lens of our society which still views girls as ‘paraya dhan’ and a burden to her family? And how long will these changes take?
Fighting for ones rights can only come if we feel we are entitled to it; if we consider ourselves worthy of our rights. In order to become empowered it is necessary that we consider ourselves worthy of leading a life where we are ready to define ourselves, takes our own decisions and accept the responsibilities that comes with it.
Picture courtesy: Flickr