Twenty-five years ago, I used to volunteer with Vimochana, a women’s group that focuses on violence against women. At that time in Bangalore, dowry deaths were particularly disturbing, and much work was being done to raise awareness about the issue.
On a day when papers reported five cases of unnatural deaths of women in the city, I had occasion to catch up with Vimochana’s indefatigable Donna and Madhu again.
As we sat down to a tasty, healthy lunch in their community kitchen, I asked them what had changed in their work. With so much progressive legislation—the Dowry Prohibition Act, the right of women to their share of family property, laws against sex determination and selection, laws against child labour and with all our progressive policies such as free education for girls in many states, financial inclusion through self-help groups, pension for widows, and so on—surely things have improved tremendously in this quarter century?
No. That was the short answer. Not only is violence continuing in the old brutality, it is taking bewildering new forms. With the right to their inheritance enshrined by law, married women find that in spite of the hefty dowry they brought in, their in-laws are demanding they ask for a share of their family property as well. This creates tremendous tension in the maternal home, especially with the bride’s brothers, and jeopardizes the idea of the mother’s home as a safe haven in a crisis.
In another ironical twist, with easy access to credit made possible through the self-help group movement across the country, prospective grooms are now demanding higher dowry which must be paid for through ever more loans from the friendly neighbourhood bank!
Too often, families seem quite unable to reject and resist the coercion. Dangerously, they prefer the easy way out. Just don’t have daughters. Donna described the uphill struggle against the one-stop female foeticide shops in the newly prosperous farming community of Mandya district, not far from Bangalore. Just wait till the next census, she tells me. The sex ratios will tell a horrible story. Already, in some parts of the country, they are falling to as low as 820 women to 1,000 men.
The more things change, the more they can remain the same for women. Clearly, the values behind the progressive laws and policies have simply not permeated through our societies. Women’s activists are now going through a drastic rethink, turning the theories of women’s empowerment on their head.
World over, studies have shown a positive correlation between women’s development and economic progress. In India, we seem to have had a burst of economic growth riding on global trends, but not enough to show on women’s development. The World Economic Forum releases an annual global gender gap index. The report examines four areas of inequality between men and women—economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival. In 2008, India ranked an abysmal 113 out of 130 countries listed.
This remains the biggest unfinished agenda for the nation, the critically important task in front of a new government. Almost one half of the population remains vulnerable to all manner of abuse and injustice. Just making more laws is just not going to work. Vimochana even urges, quite counter-intuitively, that we could abolish the Dowry Prohibition Act which narrows the scope of inquiry into violence against women. There are enough other laws to bring perpetrators to book. But the issue is less about retributive justice and more about prevention. There has to be, they say, an urgent review of current laws to legitimize a different language of justice, a justice without revenge, a restorative justice.
Most activists say that to make a real difference, we need to go beyond economic indicators and establish broader guidelines by which we determine a successful society. Economic progress alone does not ensure that women are treated better at home and at work. If anything, the evidence they come up against every day is that a more materially oriented society creates crushing newer forms of dominance.
In the corporate world, too, there can be a creative rethink on this issue. Far too often, the argument for women’s participation is made through the business case alone. A recent Ernst and Young report suggests that the world can use the strengths of women to rebuild the world economy. Through many examples and studies, it shows how gender diversity in the workplace and on the boards of corporations leads to a much healthier bottom line for the company. That is fine and wonderful. But if you look through the lens of women’s empowerment, it is not enough. The single bottom line cannot give you the true picture, not even about the women inside an organization and their well-being.
So where is the hope? Political representation at all levels can help us reimagine the role of the state, for one. The new Parliament has more women members than ever before. There is a fresh opportunity to do much more, and differently, provided our women MPs do not themselves get co-opted by the system.
Rohini Nilekani works with and supports many non-profit endeavours, especially in water, through Arghyam Foundation. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org