Women Empowerment in India

“You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women”
– Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru

Why we talk about women empowerment only and not men empowerment? Why women need empowerment and not men? Women make almost 50% of the total population of the world. Then why this substantial section of the society needs empowerment? They are not in minority so as to require special treatment. Biologically speaking also, it is a proven fact that female race is superior to male. Then the question arises that why we are debating the topic ‘Women Empowerment’.

Why we Need women Empowerment?

Need for empowerment arose due to centuries of domination and discrimination done by men over women; women are the suppressed lot. They are the target of varied types of violence and discriminatory practices done by men all over the world. India is no different.

India is a complex country. We have, through centuries, developed various types of customs, traditions and practices. These customs and traditions, good as well as bad, have become a part of our society’s collective consciousness. We worship female goddesses; we also give great importance to our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and other female relatives or friends. But at the same time, Indians are also famous for treating their women badly both inside and outside their homes.

Indian society consists of people belonging to almost all kinds of religious beliefs. In every religion women are given a special place and every religion teaches us to treat women with respect and dignity. But somehow the society has so developed that various types of ill practices, both physical and mental, against women have become a norm since ages. For instance, sati pratha, practice of dowry, parda pratha, female infanticide, wife burning, sexual violence, sexual harassment at work place, domestic violence and other varied kinds of discriminatory practices; all such acts consists of physical as well as mental element.

The reasons for such behaviour against women are many but the most important one are the male superiority complex and patriarchal system of society. Though to eliminate these ill practices and discrimination against women various constitutional and legal rights are there but in reality there are a lot to be done. Several self-help groups and NGOs are working in this direction; also women themselves are breaking the societal barriers and achieving great heights in all dimensions: political, social and economic. But society as a whole has still not accepted women as being equal to men and crimes or abuses against women are still on the rise. For that to change, the society’s age-old deep-rooted mind set needs to be changed through social conditioning and sensitization programmes.

Therefore, the concept of women empowerment not only focuses on giving women strength and skills to rise above from their miserable situation but at the same time it also stresses on the need to educate men regarding women issues and inculcating a sense of respect and duty towards women as equals. In the present write-up we will try to describe and understand the concept of Women Empowerment in India in all its dimensions.

What is Women Empowerment

Women empowerment in simple words can be understood as giving power to women to decide for their own lives or inculcating such abilities in them so that they could be able to find their rightful place in the society.

According to the United Nations, women’s empowerment mainly has five components:

  • Generating women’s sense of self-worth;
  • Women’s right to have and to determine their choices;
  • Women’s right to have access to equal opportunities and all kinds of resources;
  • Women’s right to have the power to regulate and control their own lives, within and outside the home; and
  • Women’s ability to contribute in creating a more just social and economic order.

Thus, women empowerment is nothing but recognition of women’s basic human rights and creating an environment where they are treated as equals to men.

Women Empowerment in India

Historical Background:
From ancient to modern period, women’s condition-socially, politically and economically- has not remained same and it kept changing with times. In ancient India, women were having equal status with men; in early Vedic period they were very educated and there are references of women sages such as Maitrayi in our ancient texts. But with the coming of famous treatise of Manu i.e. Manusmriti, the status of women was relegated to a subordinate position to men.

All kinds of discriminatory practices started to take from such as child marriage, devadashi pratha, nagar vadhu system, sati pratha etc. Women’s socio-political rights were curtailed and they were made fully dependent upon the male members of family. Their right to education, right to work and right to decide for themselves were taken away.
During medieval period the condition of women got worsened with the advent of Muslim rulers in India; as also during the British period. But the British rule also brought western ideas into the country.

A few enlightened Indians such as Raja Ram Mohun Roy influenced by the modern concept of freedom, liberty, equality and justice started to question the prevailing discriminatory practices against women. Through his unrelenting efforts, the British were forced to abolish the ill-practice of Sati. Similarly several other social reformers such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekananda, Acharya Vinoba Bhave etc. worked for the upliftment of women in India. For instance, the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856 was the result of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s movement for improving the conditions of widows.

Indian National Congress supported the first women’s delegation which met the Secretary of State to demand women’s political rights in 1917. The Child Marriage Restraint Act in 1929 was passed due to the efforts of Mahhommad Ali Jinna, Mahatma Gandhi called upon the young men to marry the child widows and urged people to boycott child marriages.

During freedom movement, almost all the leaders of the struggle were of the view that women should be given equal status in the free India and all types of discriminatory practices must stop. And for that to happen, it was thought fit to include such provisions in the Constitution of India which would help eliminate age-old exploitative customs and traditions and also such provisions which would help in empowering women socially, economically and politically.

Constitution of India and Women Empowerment

India’s Constitution makers and our founding fathers were very determined to provide equal rights to both women and men. The Constitution of India is one of the finest equality documents in the world. It provides provisions to secure equality in general and gender equality in particular. Various articles in the Constitution safeguard women’s rights by putting them at par with men socially, politically and economically.

The Preamble, the Fundamental Rights, DPSPs and other constitutional provisions provide several general and special safeguards to secure women’s human rights.

Preamble:
The Preamble to the Constitution of India assures justice, social, economic and political; equality of status and opportunity and dignity to the individual. Thus it treats both men and women equal.

Fundamental Rights:
The policy of women empowerment is well entrenched in the Fundamental Rights enshrined in our Constitution. For instance:

  • Article 14 ensures to women the right to equality.
  • Article 15(1) specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
  • Article 15(3) empowers the State to take affirmative actions in favour of women.
  • Article 16 provides for equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office.

These rights being fundamental rights are justiciable in court and the Government is obliged to follow the same.

Directive Principles of State Policy:

Directive principles of State Policy also contains important provisions regarding women empowerment and it is the duty of the government to apply these principles while making laws or formulating any policy. Though these are not justiciable in the Court but these are essential for governance nonetheless. Some of them are:

  • Article 39 (a) provides that the State to direct its policy towards securing for men and women equally the right to an adequate means of livelihood.
  • Article 39 (d) mandates equal pay for equal work for both men and women.
  • Article 42 provides that the State to make provision for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief.

Fundamental Duties:
Fundamental duties are enshrined in Part IV-A of the Constitution and are positive duties for the people of India to follow. It also contains a duty related to women’s rights:

Article 51 (A) (e) expects from the citizen of the country to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India and to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women.

Other Constitutional Provisions:
Through 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment of 1993, a very important political right has been given to women which is a landmark in the direction of women empowerment in India. With this amendment women were given 33.33 percent reservation in seats at different levels of elections in local governance i.e. at Panchayat, Block and Municipality elections.

Thus it can be seen that these Constitutional provisions are very empowering for women and the State is duty bound to apply these principles in taking policy decisions as well as in enacting laws.

Specific Laws for Women Empowerment in India

Here is the list of some specific laws which were enacted by the Parliament in order to fulfil Constitutional obligation of women empowerment:

  • The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976.
  • The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961.
  • The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956.
  • The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961.
  • The Medical termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971.
  • The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987.
  • The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.
  • The Pre-Conception & Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994.
  • The Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place (Prevention, Protection and) Act, 2013.

Above mentioned and several other laws are there which not only provide specific legal rights to women but also gives them a sense of security and empowerment.

International Commitments of India as to Women Empowerment

India is a part to various International conventions and treaties which are committed to secure equal rights of women.

One of the most important among them is the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified by India in 1993.

Other important International instruments for women empowerment are: The Mexico Plan of Action (1975), the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies (1985), the Beijing Declaration as well as the Platform for Action (1995) and the Outcome Document adopted by the UNGA Session on Gender Equality and Development & Peace for the 21st century, titled “Further actions and initiatives to implement the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action”. All these have been whole-heartedly endorsed by India for appropriate follow up.

These various national and International commitments, laws and policies notwithstanding women’s situation on the ground have still not improved satisfactorily. Varied problems related to women are still subsisting; female infanticide is growing, dowry is still prevalent, domestic violence against women is practised; sexual harassment at workplace and other heinous sex crimes against women are on the rise.

Though, economic and social condition of women has improved in a significant way but the change is especially visible only in metro cities or in urban areas; the situation is not much improved in semi-urban areas and villages. This disparity is due to lack of education and job opportunities and negative mind set of the society which does not approve girls’ education even in 21st century.

Government Policies and Schemes for Women Empowerment

Whatever improvement and empowerment women have received is especially due to their own efforts and struggle, though governmental schemes are also there to help them in their endeavour.

In the year 2001, the Government of India launched a National Policy for Empowerment of Women. The specific objectives of the policy are as follows:

  • Creation of an environment through positive economic and social policies for full development of women to enable them to realize their full potential.
  • Creation of an environment for enjoyments of all human rights and fundamental freedom by women on equal basis with men in all political, economic, social, cultural and civil spheres.
  • Providing equal access to participation and decision making of women in social political and economic life of the nation.
  • Providing equal access to women to health care, quality education at all levels, career and vocational guidance, employment, equal remuneration, occupational health and safety, social security and public life etc.
  • Strengthening legal systems aimed at elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.
  • Changing societal attitudes and community practices by active participation and involvement of both men and women.
  • Mainstreaming a gender perspective in the development process.
  • Elimination of discrimination and all forms of violence against women and the girl child.
  • Building and strengthening partnerships with civil society, particularly women’s organizations.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development is the nodal agency for all matters pertaining to welfare, development and empowerment of women. It has evolved schemes and programmes for their benefit. These schemes are spread across a very wide spectrum such as women’s need for shelter, security, safety, legal aid, justice, information, maternal health, food, nutrition etc., as well as their need for economic sustenance through skill development, education and access to credit and marketing.

Various schemes of the Ministry are like Swashakti, Swayamsidha, STEP and Swawlamban enable economic empowerment. Working Women Hostels and Creches provide support services. Swadhar and Short Stay Homes provide protection and rehabilitation to women in difficult circumstances. The Ministry also supports autonomous bodies like National Commission, Central Social Welfare Board and Rashtriya Mahila Kosh which work for the welfare and development of women. Economic sustenance of women through skill development, education and access to credit and marketing is also one of the areas where the Ministry has special focus.

Conclusion and Suggestions:

In conclusion, it can be said that women in India, through their own unrelenting efforts and with the help of Constitutional and other legal provisions and also with the aid of Government’s various welfare schemes, are trying to find their own place under the sun. And it is a heartening sign that their participation in employment- government as well as private, in socio-political activities of the nation and also their presence at the highest decision making bodies is improving day by day.

However, we are still far behind in achieving the equality and justice which the Preamble of our Constitution talks about. The real problem lies in the patriarchal and male-dominated system of our society which considers women as subordinate to men and creates different types of methods to subjugate them.

The need of us is to educate and sensitize male members of the society regarding women issues and try to inculcate a feeling of togetherness and equality among them so that they would stop their discriminatory practices towards the fairer sex.

For this to happen apart from Government, the efforts are needed from various NGOs and from enlightened citizens of the country. And first of all efforts should begin from our homes where we must empower female members of our family by providing them equal opportunities of education, health, nutrition and decision making without any discrimination.

Because India can become a powerful nation only if it truly empowers its women.

 

——— Namit K Srivastava (LLB, LLM, University of Delhi)

 

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