Why is gender equality still elusive?

 Equality, more specifically, gender equality as a concept has largely remained evasive in India’s history as a republic nation. As per the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2019-20, India has slipped to the 112th position among the 153 economies that were sampled. The Index takes into account and measures gender gaps in health and survival, economic participation and opportunity, education and political empowerment. India ranks an abysmal 150th out of 153 countries in the health and survival parameter.

Despite the projected rapid economic growth, the explosion of initiatives to increase women’s political participation, increased microcredit programmes and self-help groups, gender disparities have continued to grow unabated and persistently in India. Women suffer disproportionately from intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, and discriminatory labour practices.  A McKinsey Global Institute report titled, The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth, published in the year 2015 for the first time established the link between how gender inequality affects GDP and gender equality in work with gender equality in society. The report revealed that India could achieve $700 billion of additional GDP in 2025 by raising women’s participation in India’s labour force by ten percentage points between now and 2025. However, in order to achieve it bridging both economic and social gender gaps becomes imperative.

Gender sensitization typically means a process where all genders are taught to respect everyone irrespective of gender differences. However, the stereotype and bias around gender roles and rights have existed in our society and have been deep-rooted within our cultural institutions and the way we behave as a collective. A pervasive phenomenon, discrimination against women and girls characterizes almost all sections of Indian society and at all levels. Ideas about gender-appropriate behavior and gender inequality are primarily driven by the cultural institutions in India, especially those of patrilineality and patrilocality.

The regressive social construct that men are superior to women has resulted in repulsive social practices aimed at subjugating girls and women, and has also resulted in increased violence against them. It may sound odd but foundations of gender-appropriate behaviour and gender inequality begin at home. In a society like ours which is dominantly patriarchal in nature and inherently practices misogyny, sexism and propagates gender stereotypes, the majority of the domestic and care work which is both underpaid and unpaid falls on women. Most parents knowingly or unknowingly discriminate between their children and the children believe and imbibe what they see and hear. The unequal distribution of work, opportunities and resources that they witness is carried forward into adulthood and multiplies into significant indiscriminate sexism in daily affairs. Patriarchy is entrenched so deep in our culture, laws and mindsets that we have always considered this cultural social construct as the default one.

The voices against gender inequality and violence against women have been gaining momentum in India especially post the December-2012 gang-rape in New Delhi. The Nirbhaya case is considered a critical point in the fight for women’s rights in India, for the widespread protests and demands post the incident led to reformative changes in the criminal justice system of India. However, in a vast landscape like India where women empowerment and gender equality as issues are shrouded with multitude of complexities, only legislative changes cannot reverse the epidemic. The Hathras case brings forth the role of caste and its associated vulnerabilities. The case has torn the social fabric of the country by exposing the direct relation between a women’s caste and her vulnerability of getting tortured or raped and various other associated gender constructs.

Therefore, the focus of the conversation cannot be limited to just law and order; it must encompass the woman’s right to dignity, equality in terms of opportunities, access to resources and parity in all spheres of life both personal and public.

Various forms of affirmative actions can play an instrumental role in addressing the representation of women in the public spheres. However, the actions will generate minimal or zero results if an attitudinal shift for women to be considered equals in their homes and the society is not cascaded. Given the quantum and extent of the issue, the administration, the legislature and the civil society cannot work on the redressal alone. In order to achieve parity within our society, all stakeholder groups with the power to influence and the ability to act as catalysts of transformational change must come together and act as a consortium. Corporations equipped with their resources can partner with the aforesaid stakeholders and design social interventions focused at women empowerment and shunning gender stereotypes and establishing gender equality. The battles need to be fought in our homes and our schools with the parents and teachers assuming an instrumental role.

In order to achieve the change, more than the big steps it is the small steps that matter. We can contribute significantly to a gender-just society by maintaining a gender-sensitive environment at our homes and every other walks of life. The conversation around gender roles, bias and stereotypes will evolve as society progresses. Facilitating a behavioural shift at grassroots, raising our sons and daughters without discrimination coupled with affirmative actions leading to increased economic and political representation of women, is the way forward and a giant leap towards the right direction.

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