International Women’s Day: Accomplishing an equal future

Dr. Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*

Of course, women of the world want and deserve an equal future free from stigma, stereotypes, and gender-based violence; a future that’s sustainable, peaceful, with equal rights and opportunities for all. To get us there, the world needs women at every table where decisions are being made. Good governance and democracy require inclusive leadership and representation.

Women’s full and effective participation and leadership in all areas of life drive progress for everyone. A larger number of women in office can influence gender-responsive public policies and institutional practices. Women have a right to be equally represented and consulted in decision-making. Younger women, in particular, have been increasingly vocal on a range of issues of international significance, such as climate change, poverty, and racism.

Women and girls make up half of the world’s population; however, in most countries, women are underrepresented in the political process at the national level. According to UN Secretary-General’s recent report, despite women’s increased engagement in public life, equality is far off. Women remain significantly underrepresented in all aspects of decision-making, and violence against women in public life is widespread. Men with power often resist women’s leadership, even within political parties. Women’s higher levels of poverty, more limited access to finance, the greater share of care duties, and challenges faced in realizing their sexual and reproductive health and rights, combined with exclusionary institutional rules and procedures, limit their full participation.

The attitude that women should not have public roles, enduring norms about gender roles, and legal discrimination compound these challenges and devalue women’s contributions to decision-making, threatening sustainable development. Organized opposition to women in public life is sometimes strong and violent, with the situation worsened by democratic backsliding, increased social and political polarization, and deepening inequality.

The grim reality is that women are Heads of State or Government in 22 countries, and only 24.9 % of national parliamentarians are women. At the current rate of progress, gender equality among Heads of Government will take another 130 years. In the case of India, only 13.5% of women held seats in Parliament. Out of 194 countries, India is placed abysmally at 156.

Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation, and the immediate and long-term physical, sexual, and mental consequences for women and girls can be devastating, including death. According to World Bank (2020), at least 155 countries have passed laws on domestic violence, and 140 have legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace. But challenges remain in enforcing these laws, limiting women and girls’ access to safety and justice. Not enough is done to prevent violence, and when it does occur, it often goes unpunished. One in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner.

Similarly, in the Indian context, despite having provisions for stringent laws, stern punishment, a crime against women is increasing day by day and perpetrators commit crime on women with impunity. What is distressing is that perpetrators are none other than their own relation. According to the annual National Crime Record Bureau’s “Crime in India” 2019, “A total of 4,05,861 cases of crime against women were registered during 2019, showing an increase of 7.3% over 2018 (3,78,236 cases). India reported 3, 59, 849 cases of crime against women in 2017, up from 3.38 lakh cases in 2016 and 3.2 lakh cases recorded in 2015.

The majority of cases under crime against women under IPC were registered under ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives (30.9%), followed by ‘assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty (21.8%), ‘kidnapping and abduction of women’ (17.9%) and ‘rape’ (7.9%). The crime rate registered per lakh women population is 62.4 in 2019 in comparison with 58.8 in 2018,” up from 57.9 in 2017.

Rape is one of the fastest-growing crimes in India. The rape vulnerability for girls or women is more than twice today what it was 17 years ago. While 16,075 cases of rape were reported in 2001 across India, this number rose drastically to 32,559 in 2017 – an increase of nearly 103%.

Ten years ago, a Thomson Reuters Foundation experts’ survey found the five most dangerous countries for women were seen to be Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, India, and Somalia. But things deteriorated in India more. In 2018, the Thomson Reuters report had pointed out that India is the worst place for women. India is the world’s most dangerous country for women due to the high risk of sexual violence and being forced into slave labour. India has shown utter disregard and disrespect for women –rape, marital rapes, sexual assault and harassment, female infanticide has gone unabated. “The (world’s) fastest growing economy (at that time) and leader in space and technology is shamed for violence committed against women.”

Underreporting incidents of violence against women in politics makes addressing the issue particularly challenging. Information about the problem tends to be anecdotal rather than statistical, making it difficult to determine the extent and prevalence of the problem. In addition, many of the women are reluctant to report violence out of the belief that doing so may limit a woman’s political aspirations, and out of fear of reprisals, threats, and possible increased harassment.

Even, political women may also be concerned that they will be considered “difficult” and “not toeing the party line.” In October 2016, the Inter-Parliamentary Union published a survey of 55 women legislators from 39 countries on their experiences of harassment, intimidation, or violence based on their gender. Broadly, almost 82% of the women surveyed reported they had personally experienced psychological violence, almost 22% reported incidents of sexual violence, 25.5% reported experiencing physical violence, and almost 33% had been subjected to economic violence.

Violence against women and girls is a global human rights challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed this issue as a global emergency requiring urgent action at all levels, in all spaces, and by all people. The social and economic fallout from the pandemic is disproportionately pushing women and girls into poverty, and the risk of violence against them is rising.

In addition to persistent pre-existing social and systemic barriers to women’s participation and leadership, new barriers have emerged with the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the world, women are facing increased domestic violence, unpaid care duties, unemployment, and poverty. Despite women making up a majority of front-line workers, there is a disproportionate and inadequate representation of women in national and global COVID-19 policy spaces.

Even before COVID-19 hit, violence against women and girls had reached pandemic proportions. Globally, 243 million women and girls were abused by an intimate partner in the past year. Meanwhile, less than 40% of women who experience violence report it or seek help.

As countries implemented lockdown measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, violence against women, especially domestic violence, intensified – in some countries, calls to helplines have increased five-fold. In others, formal reports of domestic violence have decreased as survivors find it harder to seek help and access support through the regular channels. School closures and economic strains left women and girls poorer, out of school and out of jobs, and more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, forced marriage, and harassment.

In times of crisis, when resources are strained and institutional capacity is limited, women and girls face disproportionate impacts with far-reaching consequences that are only further amplified in contexts of fragility, conflict, and emergencies.

In April 2020, as the pandemic spread across the world, the UN Secretary-General called for “peace at home”, and 146 Member States responded with their strong statement of commitment. In recent months 135 countries have strengthened actions and resources to address violence against women as part of the response to COVID-19. Yet, much more is needed.

Today, although the voices of activists and survivors have reached a crescendo that cannot be silenced or ignored, ending violence against women will require more investment, leadership, and action. It cannot be sidelined; it must be part of every country’s national response, especially during the unfolding COVID-19 crisis.

While men and women are equally responsible for achieving gender equality, last year’s International Women’s Day’s rallying cry was Generation Equality, i.e., to act for an equal future for all. In each year, striving for gender equality is given importance. In India, Article 14, Article 15 (3), Article 39A, and Article 42 make special provisions for the rights of women to ensure gender equality. But, in reality, gender equality is far off.

According to The UN’s human development index 2020, India ranks low on gender equality. India was placed at 123 positions in the gender inequality index. The report noted that the labour force participation rate of women in the country was 20.5%, while it was 76.1% for men.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index measured across four key pillars—economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and survival portrays how gender inequality or gap is deep worldwide even subterranean in India. It measures women’s disadvantage compared to men.

According to the Global Gender Gap Index report 2020, in the world, the time it will take to close the gender gap narrowed to 99.5 years in 2019. While an improvement in 2018 — when the gap was calculated to take 108 years to close — it still means parity between men and women across health, education, work, and politics will take more than a lifetime to achieve.

Though, India has closed two-thirds of its overall gender gap (score of 66.8%,) the condition of women in large fringes of India’s society is precarious. In India, it will take nearly 100 years to close the gender gap across politics, economic, health, and education. India has slipped to the 112th spot from its 108th position in 2018 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020, which covered 153 economies.

India ranked lower than many of its international peers, and some of its neighbours like China (106th), Sri Lanka (102nd), Nepal (101st), Brazil (92nd), Indonesia (85th), and Bangladesh (50th). Moreover, India is now ranked in the bottom-five in terms of women’s health and survival, and economic participation. India’s latest position is 14 notches lower than its reading in 2006 when the WEF started measuring the gender gap.

The economic gender gap runs particularly deep in India. India is the only country where the economic gender gap is larger than the political gender gap. Only one-third of the gap has been bridged (score of 35.4 % 149th, down 7 places). Since 2006, the gap has gotten significantly wider. India ranked 18th in political empowerment and 4th in the number of years a female or a male ruled a state. It ranks 149th in economic participation and opportunity and 117th in wage equality for similar work. The country ranked 112th in educational attainment and 150th in health and survival.

According to the report, Nordic countries continue to lead the way to gender parity. Iceland (87.7%) remains the world’s most gender-equal country, followed by Norway (2nd, 84.2%), Finland (3rd, 83.2%), and Sweden (4th, 82.0%).

With many reports confirming women and other socially-disadvantaged sections have suffered the most during the pandemic, the latest report by economists at Bank of America (BofA) Securities has portrayed a cataclysmic impact of gender inequality exacerbated by pandemic

The report also notes that full gender equality globally can increase the world GDP by up to $28 trillion by 2025 and the loss of human capital wealth due to gender inequality alone is estimated at $160.2 trillion.

“Not closing the gender inequality gap and a lack of diversity and inclusion has an economic price tag. Not doing the right thing on this count has cost us $70 trillion since 1990. It will take us 257 years to close the gender economic gap at today’s rate,” the pandemic alone, when women suffered the most, has cost women $ 1 trillion in income.

Noting that gender and racial biases lead to persistent labour market disparities and limit the economy, it says closing the gender and race gaps in education and employment would have generated $2.6 trillion more in economic output in 2019 and the cumulative gains from 1990 would have been $70 trillion at the 2019-dollar rate.

What is disconcerting is that there is a need for an increase in women-related expenditure. But in India, it is not increasing. In the wake of the pandemic and its unequal impact on women, an analysis of the gender budget (GB) reveals certain underwhelming trends. The allocation stands at Rs 1,53,326 crore for 2021-22. Last year’s allocation was Rs 1,43,461 crore. As a proportion of total expenditure, the current allocation has fallen to 4.4 % from 4.7% last year.

In the same vein, the allocations to women specific-programs, reported in part A of the GB statement fell from Rs 28,568 crore last year to Rs 25,261 crore – a decline of almost 12 %. Allocations to the Ministry of Women and Child Development also show a decline of 18.5% since last year.

Women’s equal participation and leadership, as well as the elimination of violence, is essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The central importance of women’s leadership to gender equality and women’s empowerment is underscored in many of the agreed conclusions of the Commission on the Status of Women.

When women lead, we see positive results. Some of the most efficient and exemplary responses to the COVID-19 pandemic were led by women. And women, especially young women, are at the forefront of diverse and inclusive movements online and on the streets for social justice, climate change, and equality in all parts of the world. Women’s organizations are at the forefront of community responses in many countries but struggle because of diminishing funding, increased demands for services, restricted movement, and shrinking civic space.

The pandemic is rolling back the limited progress made in the past 25 years with regard to women’s empowerment and gender equality, and measures to increase women’s leadership in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts are urgently needed.

The importance of women’s participation in executive, legislative, judicial, and public administrative decision-making, as well as in civil society through women’s groups, networks, and community-based organizations, is important for ensuring gender equality.

Women’s leadership in public life can help support their empowerment in other sectors, including in the arts, culture, sports, media, the private sector, and finance, as well as in multilateral institutions.

To uphold women’s rights and fully leverage the potential of women’s leadership in pandemic preparedness and response, the perspectives of women and girls in all of their diversity must be integrated into the formulation and implementation of policies and programmes in all spheres and at all stages of pandemic response and recovery.

Hard-fought gains for women’s rights are also under threat. Responding to the pandemic is not just about rectifying long-standing inequalities, but also about building a resilient world in the interest of everyone with women at the Centre of recovery. It is imperative to celebrate tech women and innovation, applaud equality for women in all spheres, educate women on health choice decisions, build inclusive workplaces so that women thrive, increase the visibility of women creatives, forge women’s empowerment worldwide.

 

 

 

The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.

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