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Mainstream, VOL LV No 14 New Delhi March 25, 2017

Women’s Rights in India: Miles to go

Saturday 25 March 2017


by Archna Katoch

While celebrating the International Women’s Day on March 8, 2017, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “The truth is that north and south, east and west [...] everywhere, we still have a male-dominated culture”, and emphasised the need to protect women’s rights as human rights and empower women and girls. (UN Daily News, 2017)

It has been 69 years since India won its independence from British rule but even today, it can be found that India’s progress towards establishing an equitable society has been slow and inadequate. While rejoicing independence, it is imperative to apprehend what freedom and gender justice mean to all. Freedom implies that everyone has the access to the same resources and options, and then has the same freedom to select from among them. (Singhal, 2015) Freedom is always the by-product of humanity and justice. Moreover, larger the quantum of justice and humanity in a social system, larger will be the freedom in that society. According to the Constitution of India, gender egalitarianism is necessary to guarantee such human dignity. When gender discrimination prevails in the society, there always exist conflicts. When there is gender fairness in the society, families develop, economies grow more rapidly, nation benefits, and there is less deceit. The inclusion of ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’, as one of the prime goals in the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), emphasises the significance of this fact. (UN, n.d.)

Women constitute half of the world’s population and therefore half of its potential; however, today gender disparity continues everywhere in the world and deteriorates social development. Women have every right to be treated equally with men in every sphere of life. The most sacred book of modern India, the Constitution of India, guarantees women a host of freedoms like freedom to move about, speak, live with poise anywhere, enter any place, work in whatever profession they want to, think what they want to, and freedom of choice and opportunities.

Keeping in view the above issue of various freedoms and rights imparted to women by the Constitution of India, the present study has been undertaken. Now, the question arises: how far is that true? Is there gender equality in the society or does there still exist gender disparity? Are females free today? Can women move around where and when they want to? Can a woman enter the religious places without any restriction? What about the discriminations and atrocities every woman is facing from her birth to her last breath? What about the freedom from sexisms and prejudices? Is it fair to give ‘Triple talaq’? Are women empowered socially, educationally, economically, and politically today?

Results and Discussion

The incident on November 29, 2015 at the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmadnagar district of Maharashtra, where a ‘purification puja’ was performed after a young woman entered force-fully and offered worship to the idol, shows that misogyny is accepted as a norm even in this new era. The Shani Shingnapur temple, which is dedicated to the Hindu god Shani, had a centuries-old ban on women entering the sanctum sanctorum. Startled by this breach, the temple committee suspended even seven security personnel, and observed a ‘bandh’ in the morning to protest the incident. (PTI, 2015a) However, following the Bombay High Court order on April 1, 2016, according to which it is the fundamental right of women to go inside places of worship and the government is duty-bound to protect it, temple trustees decided to facilitate unrestricted entry to women. All this shows that women are still suffering from preju-dice, social exclusion, hostility, patriarchy, male privilege, oppression etc.

In reality, the Constitution of India rejects discrimination based on age, gender, and caste. The aforementioned prohibition was in violation of Article 14 (equality before law), Article 15 (1) (prohibits discrimination on grounds of sex), and Articles 25 and 26 (freedom of religion) of the Constitution. (Basu, 2012) Women met with the similar undignified treatments, which amount to gender discrimination in different places of worship whether that is the Sabarimala temple in Kerala or the inner sanctum (mazaar) of the Haji Ali Dargah, Mumbai. These religious places banned women from entering, arguing that women are impure while menstruating. The taboo and disgrace attached to menstruation is not limited to the entry of women into temples and mosques; the old practice keeps half of the population susceptible to life-threatening infections. (Shukla, 2015)

For centuries, women were questioning the ridiculousness of treating menstruating women as impure but no one was willing to intervene due to the religious connotations attached to the issue. A study has revealed that in this modern world too, newsmagazines do not advertise sanitary napkins as they are thought to be read by intellectuals, who cannot be menstruating women.

The Constitution, through Article 21, guaranteed every citizen the right to life with dignity; but the customary practice of ‘Triple talaq’, pervasive among Muslims, dissolves a marriage when the husband utters the word ‘talaq’ thrice. Several Muslim women’s rights groups have spoken out against this practice saying it is against the principle of gender equality, and has challenged this in the Supreme Court. This tradition is unilateral and prejudiced against women, and 22 countries in the world have banned it completely. The Centre has also opposed the practice, but the Muslim Personal Law Board has constantly said that ‘Triple talaq’ is a ‘personal law’ and the Centre cannot alter it.

The issue has given rise to a heated debate on the need for a Uniform Civil Code in India. Now the question that arises is: how can a woman, divorced through an arbitrary and one-sided ‘Triple talaq’, be thrown out and lose her rights in a matrimonial home? All this is in confirmation with the fact that freedom is a relative concept ranging from anarchy at one extreme to democratic centralism at another. (Ghandy, 2015) In fact, women in Islam have been given equality in every aspects of life. (Badawi, n.d.)

No doubt, with time the status of women has changed a lot in India in the post-independence period, but the change has not been in accordance with the rights enshrined for them in the Constitution. However, from the time a girl is born, she starts facing discrimination and violence cutting across religious, caste, rich, poor, urban, rural divides. It is a great pity that in our nation where women are venerated as shakti, they are still facing all the atrocities like gang-rape, torture, acid attacks, molestation, oppressions, domestic violence, dowry deaths, kidnapping, sexual harassment etc.

If she is free in her household, then she is not free when she goes out of it. She cannot wear clothes of her choice and cannot go where she wants to, as she is not secure in her own society. Despite the newly enacted law called The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, that came into force from February 3, 2013 after the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case, violence against women is increasing day by day. This new Act has recognised acid attack, sexual harassment, voyeurism, stalking etc. as offences, and these offences have been incorporated into the Indian Penal Code. However, in the year 2013 itself, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, a staggering 309,546 crimes against women were reported and these included 33,707 rapes and 5188 cases of kidnapping and abduction. (Deccan Herald, 2015)

Actually, no girl in India is born free, and in numerous cases, she is not even free to be born in this patriarchal Indian society, which prefers a son than a daughter. By the late eighties, the practice of sex detection by prenatal diagnostic techniques and selectively aborting female foetuses became easily available and the 1991 Census started showing demographic changes in the sex ratio, especially for the 0-6 years age-group, which became dangerous in the 2011 Census report (1981—962, 1991—945, 2001—927, 2011—914). Just 914 girls were there for a thousand males in 2011, which is unusual and an international scandal. Actually, adverse child sex ratio in India is a mind-set issue. (John, 2016)

Despite the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Technique (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994, which puts a complete ban on sex detection, this technology became a weapon of choice for this barbaric practice, and was present even in rich and highly educated people and that is a sociological shocker. (Varma, 2010)

India has a skewed sex ratio because of the increasing practice of sex detection and abortion of female foetuses, higher mortality experienced by women due to deficiency diseases, neglect, malnutrition, more masculine sex ratio at birth, undue burden of domestic responsibilities and premature cohabitation and unskilled midwifery.

She is not free to marry the boy of her own choice, as her marriage is not about her happiness but for family honour and image in the society. In north India, the khap panchayat is the amalga-mation of some villages unified by caste and geography although it exists in similar forms in other parts of the nation as well. These khap panchayats behave as quasi-judicial bodies that pronounce severe punishments based on age-old customs and traditions, often bordering on regressive measures to modern problems. These khap panchayats oppose inter-caste marriages, inter-village marriages (within a radius of 42 villages) along with same-gotra marriages. (Saini, 2014) These institutions have no sanction under the law but vote-bank politics and the sheer indi-fference of politicians allow the khap panchayats to behave uncontrollably and disruptively. (India Today, 2012) So many young people have been murdered and lost their lives due to the diktats and fatwas issued by the so-called gotra khaps. Times have changed and so have sexual mores but there still exists one regressive institution called khap panchayat that refuses to embrace modernity. (Mullick and Raaj, 2007)

Sexism is the belief that one sex is naturally superior to the other. It triggers patriarchy and damages men, women, and the society as a whole. A woman is never free to speak her own mind as society sits in judgement over her opinions and decides what is right or wrong. Society considers a woman less intelligent as compared to her husband, but the responsibility of teaching and bringing up the children is her sole responsibility. She has to sacrifice even her own career for the sake of her children and family. If women work outside the home, they have dual responsibilities as compared to men. There is hardly any equality or sharing of household work among all members of the family. Patriarchy is a system of social organisations and practices, in which men control, oppress and exploit women. (Walby, 1990)

An important reason for women’s inferior status is their lack of control over property and other productive resources, which make them feel insecure all the time. (Bhasin, 2016) In patriarchy, men and women diverge in their access to privilege, prestige, property, and power. Traditionally, men have been the first in line when it comes to having control over resources, decision-making, and ideology.

Despite the fact that there is the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005), family violence is frequently directed against women, an inherent part of patriarchy. It is quite painful that even today women are controlled through violence or threat of violence in the patriarchal system. The cause of violence against women in a male dominated society is actually due to their lower status educationally, economically, politically and socially. They have poor health conditions with low life expectancy, working in low skilled and low paid jobs, low participation in decision-making in family matters and outside. That is why even today women lag behind men in all indicators of human and social development. According to the report released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), India has been placed at the low 130th position in the 2015 Human Development Index (HDI) among 188 countries. India’s rank was 135 in the 2014 report. India’s upgrading in the 2015 HDI from the previous year has been attributed to the rise in life expectancy and per capita income. Human Development Index is a measure of the basic human development in a country, and it comprises three basic dimensions—a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living. (PTI, 2015b)

Handle to Human Development

Gender discrimination and denying the women their human rights is a big hurdle to human development. The Gender Inequality Index (GII) is based upon three dimensions—reproductive health, empowerment, and economic status of the female in 155 countries. Higher GII value means more gender disparity in the society, and less overall human development. (UNDP, n.d.) No country in the world is without gender disparity, so every country due to gender injustice faces loss of human development. On the Gender Inequality Index (GII), India fares poorly in 2014, ranks 130th out of 155 countries, well behind its neighbouring nations such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, those rank lower than India on the overall Human Development Index (HDI), but have performed much better in achieving gender egalitarianism. In reality, only war-ravaged Afghanistan has a poorer ranking than India in entire South Asia. (Nair, 2015)

India’s record is very much upsetting and discriminating when it comes to representation of women in Parliament. In the Rajya Sabha, there are 31 women Members out of a total 244 Members, which is just 12.7 per cent of the Upper House. Further, in the Lok Sabha, there are only 66 women MPs out of 543, which comprise a sheer 12.2 per cent of the House strength. This condition of women’s representation in Parliament shows us the mirror on how far India has dropped back in providing its females the level playing field to be part of the political decision-making process. (Rao, 2016)

The 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts of the Constitution of India, passed in 1993, reserve one-third of the seats for women in local bodies. These Bills have taken women to the govern-ment’s decision-making process by giving them political space in the Panchayati Raj Institutions. No doubt, this has opened a new chapter in the empowerment of women but still today women are not empowered in the way it is actually required. These elected women are still influenced by men while taking decisions in local bodies. Furthermore, the Women Reser-vation Bill which is called ‘The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill’, that reserves 33 per cent seats in the Lok Sabha and in all State Legislative Assemblies for women, is still pending deliberately. Even after 20 years of its launch in 1996, this Bill has not been passed primarily due to the lack of political consent. Reservation is required to cross social barriers, which have disallowed females from partici-pating in politics and decision-making at their home and in society. ”The absence of propor-tionate and qualitative representation of Indian women in top legislative and decision-making bodies is leading to a lopsided working of democracy in the country.” (Rai, 2011)

Education, as a game-changer, works to defeat the barricades of stereotypes and prejudices. It is a potent tool to attain women’s rights, freedom, and ultimately gender equality. However, according to the Census of India (2011), the women’s literacy rate is merely 65.46 per cent as compared to the male literacy of 82.14, with a gender gap of 16.7 per cent, which leaves about 200 million women illiterate, the biggest such digit in any nation. As compared to boys, the dropout rate of girls is greater, and their participation is still under fifty per cent at all stages of education.

Today, women’s work and their economic conditions have improved tremendously. Currently, they are doing various paid jobs outside their homes, and they are financially independent. However, more than half of the working women are in low ranking positions and in the service sector working as cooks, baby-sitters and house-cleaners, and not in high-ranking jobs. Besides, women’s employment is less protected, and women’s wages are less than men’s wages for doing the same work. Even today, there is a gender pay gap of 27 per cent in India. (Singh, 2016) Indeed education, employment, and political participation of women are essential factors to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment. (Kabeer, 2010)

The level of development of a society can be observed by a simple factor—how it behaves with its women. (Sharma, 2016) In Indian society, the girl child is always deprived of her rights and privileges since her birth. In this context, the government scheme ‘Beti Bachao—Beti Padhao’ is quite significant and may prove to be life-changing. It targets to address the issue of declining child sex ratio through a mass campaign that will change the mind-set of people by creating awareness among them about this issue. Further, campaigns like ‘Selfie with the Daughter’ along with monetary incentive schemes such as ‘Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana’ will surely help in improving the conditions of girls in India. It is a great pity that we are still living in an unequal and unfair society which needs such types of schemes to save and educate their unsafe and vulnerable girls.

Research has shown that women’s health problems are taken less seriously by medical professionals than men’s health problems. It is found that doctors regard women’s physical pain as just emotional and pay less attention to it as compared to men, and this leads to a gender pain gap. (The Independent, 2016)

All sections of people, including the media, social reformers and development workers, should create awareness and try to change the mentality of orthodox, patriarchal, tradition-bound society in imparting the women their rights and freedoms. There is a need to create a social environment which gives women self-esteem and pride. Women’s empowerment is a continuous combat and cannot progress without cooperation from the entire society. (Luthra, 2016)


Currently, if nearly half of the population, despite so many laws in their support, is living under such oppression and fear, how can we call ourselves free? It is found that males are freer than females in this prevailing patriarchal, orthodox and tradition-bound Indian social system. While women have come a long way, freed to some extent from the discriminatory traditions of the past, are better educated, healthier and getting more paying jobs outside their homes, however, even today, they are fighting for freedom, safety, respect, and equality with men at home, and their workplace.

Even after 69 years of independence, we desire a free society for women. The discrimination with women cannot be ended by just promulgating laws without any public support and awareness about women rights. There is a need to create an environment free from fear, prejudice, oppression, discrimination, and violence. Moreover, every woman must be well educated, healthy, aware of her rights, safe, and financially independent, because that is the only way to achieve freedom from sexism and gender disparity. Nevertheless, while the changes may be small and cumulative, society is surely moving bit by bit towards a position where women and men relish equal rights and freedom as emphasised by the Fifth Sustainable Develop-ment Goal (SDG) on gender equality and women’s empowerment. 


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Dr Archna Katoch is presently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Writing at the Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. Her research and teaching interest areas include Development Communication, Women Empowerment, Mass Media Research, Information and Communication Technologies, Science and Environment Journalism, and Creative Writing. She has published about twentyfive research papers in national and international journals.

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