While US Vice-President was applauded for his speech on sexual assault at the Oscars, one had to strain hard to hear the word 'woman' in Jaitley's budget speech
In another country, in another time zone, the world’s most glamorous film award ceremony is making an unequivocal political statement: it’s about the women.
Back in India, finance minister Arun Jaitley unpacks his briefcase and there seems to be something for everyone—farmers, start-ups, even black moneywalas. Missing is nearly half this country’s population: women.
At the Oscars in Los Angeles, American Vice-President Joe Biden gets a standing ovation that precedes his impassioned speech on sexual assault. This is followed by Lady Gaga’s performance on a pristine white piano of Til it Happens to You, her song co-written with Diane Warren in the documentary The Hunting Ground about campus sexual assault. According to a US government survey, one in five American women enrolled in college is the victim of sexual assault.
As Lady Gaga begins to wrap up, 50-odd people enter the stage and gather around her. Emblazoned on their arms are the messages: ‘We believe you’, ‘It’s on Us’ and ‘Survivor’. As the song ends, they lock hands and raise their arms.
It’s an incredibly powerful moment, bang on the money in terms of its visual symbolism, that brings the crowd of Hollywood’s reigning stars to their feet, many with visible tears.
Back in India, after three consecutive years of giving women star rating, it’s as if someone just rewrote the script. From top billing for three years in a row, you had to strain hard to hear the word, ‘woman’ emerge from the finance minister’s lips.
The two solo appearances were the announcement of ₹ 2,000 crore for liquified petroleum gas (LPG) connections in the name of women in rural households. And the second, the allocation of ₹ 500 crore for scheduled caste/scheduled tribe (SC/ST) and women entrepreneurs under the Stand Up India scheme.
“It’s as if women simply don’t exist. Even the linking of LPG with women falls back on the gender stereotype that it is the woman’s job to cook," says Ritu Dewan, an economist and president, Indian Association for Women’s Studies.
“These are tiny steps, more in the nature of a very nice gesture," says Sairee Chahal, the founder of Sheroes.in, a career portal for women, of the announcement of ₹ 500 crore for SC/ST and women entrepreneurs. “It’s not going to change anything on the ground."
In Los Angeles, the US vice-president makes a plea: “We must and we can change the culture so that no abused woman or man—like the survivors you will see tonight—ever feel they have to ask themselves, ‘What did I do’?" said Biden whose involvement with ending violence against women goes back to 1990 when he introduced the Violence Against Women Act.
In India, massive public protests to change the culture of violence erupted in December 2012 following the gang-rape and murder of a physiotherapy student. So powerful was the impact of that fury that in February 2013, then finance minister P. Chidambaram announced the ₹ 1,000 crore Nirbhaya fund in light of the “recent incidents (that) have cast a long, dark shadow".
One year later, a Right To Information query revealed that not a single rupee had been spent from the fund as the relevant schemes had not yet been finalized.
In fact, the fund remained virtually un-utilised even two years later when Jaitley announced in July 2014—in his first budget as finance minister—that it would be used to set up crisis management centres in all government and private hospitals in all Delhi districts.
Jaitley also set aside ₹ 200 crore for women’s safety measures in addition to ₹ 100 crore for the prime minister’s flagship Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme. More significant was the announcement of a national programme to fight malnutrition, total sanitation for every household by 2019, ₹ 3,600 crore for drinking water schemes, and toilets and drinking water in all girls’ schools.
The first big blow came in the 2015 budget that saw a 19% cut in the overall allocation for women from ₹ 98,030 crore to ₹ 79,258 crore. The total budget for the ministry of women and child development was slashed by 44% and even rape crises centres were reduced from 660 to 36.
It’s not as if India can afford to rest on its laurels. India’s ranking in the Global Gender Gap Index, compiled every year by the World Economic Forum, might have climbed six places this year to 108 out of 145 countries, primarily due to the increase in the number of women representatives in Narendra Modi’s cabinet, but it fell five places in terms of women in the workforce to hit nearly the bottom of the rankings at 139, its worst rank since 2006.
In terms of health and survival, India figures at 143, ahead only of China and Albania.
Back in Los Angeles, Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy took home an Oscar for her film on honour killings A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. This is Chinoy’s second Oscar. In 2012 she got one for Saving Face, her film about acid attacks in Pakistan.
“This is what happened when determined women get together," Chinoy said in her acceptance speech. “This week the Pakistani prime minister has said that he will change the law on honour killing after watching this film."
Some scripts, it seems, do have happy endings.
Namita Bhandare is gender editor, Mint.
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