During the recent uprising in Egypt against the 30-year old dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, what particularly captured global attention was the sight of Egyptian women protesting at Tahrir square. This shattered the stereotypic image that the western world and their media were busy projecting about the women from the conservative Arab world. Without fear, they took to the streets braving bullets, ready to sacrifice their lives for the nationalist cause. These women, who, with their male counterparts chose to fight against decades of oppression, truly represent the spirit of womanhood. The regime was thwarted, but only time will tell whether these women will be able to win over the orthodoxies of the Arab society as women are usually the oppressed among the oppressed. These events stresses on the universality of the problems faced by women all over the world cutting across the ethnic, cultural, geographical or linguistic differences that separates them.
Women’s movements gathered momentum globally at the turn of the 20th century. This was mainly attributed to the industrialization that preceded as it was the working women who first joined hands to protest demanding better working conditions, shorter hours and better pay as compared to their male co-workers. Years down the lane, the movement broadened its objectives and has now come to include emancipation of women and improvement in their living conditions to enhance their overall well being. The continuous activities of various groups have definitely resulted in significant improvements in the overall working conditions of women. Still, the problems facing them are numerous and there is a long way to go.
Even in 21st century, women face discrimination at home and workplace-unequal educational and employment opportunities, lack of dignified working conditions and unfair comparisons with men, especially when they work in previously established male domains are some of the problems. Apart from the discrimination, they are also the major victims of verbal, physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Women, particularly uneducated women from rural areas often find themselves at the receiving end of severe domestic violence. Poverty is also a major factor which aggravates the suffering of women as they are unable to have access to proper health facilities and this result in higher infant and maternal mortality rates. Lack of nutritious food cause deficiency diseases, anaemia and overall weakening resulting in decreased productivity. In the case of uprisings, wars and conflicts the conditions of women are the worst. In addition to the agony of being separated from their loved ones and families, they are left behind to nurture their surviving family members and may have to toil for food, water and fuel in inhuman conditions.
Societal support is primal in the upliftment and enhancement of the lives of women. Patriarchy is so complexly ingrained in our social fabric that women lacks say in decision making, not for the society and not even for herself. After marriage, more often than not, it is the girl who relocates with her husband and foregoes her career. The support systems in our society for working women, especially working mothers are also highly inadequate. Women find themselves torn between their responsibility towards the job and towards the family. Financial obligations and career aspirations may prompt them to continue in their job but they usually feel guilty about insufficient time that they spend with their kids.
Society is also not too kind to women courageous enough to raise voice against atrocities and injustice. The so called moral police in our society, ever ready to rise in arms against any perceived injustice are inflamed even more when the ‘perpetrators’ of such injustice are women. In recent history, we have seen several women like Aung Saan Suu Kyi and Taslima Nasreen, mainly from the not so powerful states, who the world conveniently choose to ignore, suffering torture from governments and dictatorships for raising their voices to question the establishments and institutions. Irrespective of the part of the world to which they belong to, right to free expression in the true sense is likely to remain an unrealized dream for women.
Today, the United Nations and various national governments realize that the active participation, equality and development of women is imperative to the development of the society, nation and the world. This is because when a woman is successful in her life, she usually carries her family and in general her community along. The first step should be to properly assess the status and condition of women before deciding on ways to help them. The right indicators should be chosen for the correct assessment and what need to be studied is how these markers actually translates to overall human development and well-being with gender sensitivity. Merely relying on economic indicators such as income per person may be misleading. Factors such as longevity and education should also be included just as in the calculation of Human Development Index.
Many programmes are undertaken by various governments and U.N for the emancipation of women. But, there is a wide chasm between policy and practice. Most often these programmes are impeded by lack of resources and budget crunches. To overcome this, the governments should invest in infrastructure beneficial to women. Ensuring primary and secondary education, equality in employment opportunities will definitely help in improving the quality of life of women. Economic independence is a major factor in enhancing the involvement of women in decision making. Laws ensuring equality in property ownership and inheritance rights should be the steps in this direction. Microfinancing has improved the lives of many rural women. Governments can introduce tax benefit systems, pension and savings schemes for the welfare of women, particularly women working in unorganized sectors such as housemaids.
Severe punishment should be meted out to criminals violating the sexual and emotional integrity of women. Legislation against domestic violence and granting of divorce on the premise of irretrievable breakdown of marriage is a welcome step. But how these laws could be properly utilized by women in need also depends on their awareness in legal matters. Basic training should be imparted in legal and health related matters. Inexpensive and fast legal help should be made available to women.
Steps should be taken to ensure increased participation of women in professional, administrative, business, managerial spheres and in the fields of science and technology. They should be encouraged to actively involve in the political processes. Reservation of women in parliament will definitely help in including more number of women in policy making. Institutions such as National Commission for Women are important in protecting and promoting the interests of women. Media should play a proactive role in educating the general public.
How its women are treated is the benchmark on which a society is judged. As the International Women’s day is round the corner, let us celebrate and recognize the life, spirit, contributions and aspirations of womanhood.