Women were traditionally at a disadvantage in most societies especially by the end of 17th century. The advent of Industrial revolution, ending of Slavery and the beginning of anti-imperialist movements dovetailed the phenomenon of Development and Women emancipation.
Understood as a positive change in the human condition, Development signified freedom from bonded labour, arbitrary government action, freedom of expression and natural and human rights. The Industrial revolution ensured that these rights were gradually extended to the Women as well by virtue of their participation in the public sphere as workers, writers and even politicians.
Taking the example of India - the 18th century India was society marked by deep religious and rigid social practices which were often at the expense of women’s rights and freedoms. The development discourse in pre and post Independence India has been shaped both by the State (British led and Indian respectively) and the Civil Society. The context in which the Development Ideologies, strategies and tactics interacted with the position of Women informed the choices made by the initiators and the policies followed by the State.
Pre-Independence India was characterised by rigid notions of purity and pollution, that manifested in practices like Purdah, Sati, little or no education. These notions were spread throughout India. Civil Society movements led by Reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chand Vidyasagar, Jyotirao Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Tarabai Shinde etc focused on educating women, increasing the age for marriages, promoting widow remarriage and wanted a cessation of regressive practices like Sati and Purdah. Notably these moves for emancipation of women were not restricted along religious or caste lines through the gains made and resistance faced certainly varied. The role of the State was limited in these times - mostly informed by the pressures of Civil Society balanced by the need to not provoke the conservative loyalist factions of Indian Society.
Post-Independence India saw the blueprint for Women’s upliftment enshrined partly in the Constitution, partly in Legislative actions and partly on the continued Civil Society movements (now with international outreach and exchange of ideas). Thus the Fundamental Right of Equality was balanced against the need to promote Women in jobs in the Constitution, the personal laws were sought to be made more equitable in the Hindu Code Bill,1954, representation in PRI via 73rd amendment and the various Women’s rights movements focused on more civil rights for women especially in rural areas.
Areas to Focus on
Women in India have traditionally been in charge of house-hold duties - gathering firewood, bringing up children, cooking, sewing etc. This leads to greater interaction among women of the locality themselves, with elders and younger ones of the family, with the environment and with the domestic animals of the house. The framework for their development has thus revolved around this context.
- Education and Health: Research has shown that educating the women of the household leads to better hygiene within the household, better vaccination adherence - leading to less disease burden on the Economy. Education of women also serves as the starting point for education of children, thus leading to better literacy rate and improvement in the budding workforce of the Country.The educated women who enter the workforce of the country play an equal part in the development of the Economy.
- Finance: The collective nature of women’s groups within localities like Anganwadis have been tapped for providing micro-loans leading to growth in entrepreneurship, self sustenance, better budget management for the family and also better loan recovery for these finance companies.
- Rights: The movement for women’s rights has gained renewed focus with the increasing globalisation - which puts every incidence of women’s right violation under the gaze of international media. Combined with the rise of multi-national Civil Society movements, this puts pressure of both the Government and the Private bodies to ensure due rights to the women.
- Climate Change: It is now known that Women tend to suffer more in case of catastrophic events due to Climate Change - Flooding, Forest Fires, intense heat or cold and residence displacement which effects their health - leading to an overall poor outcome for the concerned family. This has led to a unique combination of movements like Ecofeminism that seek to protect the rights of Women and Environment both.
The status of Women in India today is certainly better than it was in 19th and early 20th century. Still there is some way to go before we can conclusively say that India has become a gender equitable society. Large portions of India in East and central India suffer from great illiteracy among Women (overall figures for India stands at around 66%, less than 76% for men). It is no surprise that these are also the regions with the minimum development in the last half century.
Technology has led to the unfortunate development of Gender-Selection techniques that create grossly lopsided societies in the north western states of Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab. That this practice exists across classes is a cause for concern and reflection on the status of women in these regions. The legislative enactments of PRIs via 73rd amendment should have acted as a watershed for women’s representation in governance but shoddy implementation at various places has belied that promise. The 1/3 reservation for women in parliament is still awaiting to be enacted. The Judicial sphere has acted mostly in favour of Women’s development with progressive interventions like Vishakha Guidelines on Sexual Harassment, Shah Bano judgement etc.
The track record of India in social, legislative and judicial sphere on the issue of Development and Women has thus been blunted by the pushback from conservative sections on the plank of Religion and Customs. Going forward the biggest reform measures would have to come from within religion and conservative sections themselves so as not to invite criticism of asymmetrical state or civil society intervention.