Women’s Rights Are Human Rights A Comprehensive Approach For Gender Sensitisation
History has witnessed major revolutions and movements for freedom, equality, liberty and fraternity. The American Revolution of 1777 and the French Revolution 1789 are being hailed as two epoch making revolutions which unchained human beings and heralded a new era for freedom and independence. However, such epoch making revolutions never embraced in their scope the issue of rights of women and their dignity and freedom. The American Declaration of Independence of 1777 proclaimed that “All men are created equal.” Wife of John Adams, a key member of the Constituent Assembly of America, wrote a letter to her husband to remember the ladies and uphold their rights. In response to such a letter John Adams wrote that the American Revolution caused indiscipline among students, brought restlessness to the slaves and a more numerous tribe called women were demanding equal rights for themselves.
The French Revolution of 1777 which celebrated liberty, equality and fraternity did not take up the cause of women. One of the leading philosophers Jean Jacques Rosseau, whose ideas triggered the French Revolution declared that “Ignorance was entirely beneficial for women” and pleaded for exclusion of women from politics. The French Declaration which was adopted following the French Revolution of 1789 guaranteed rights only to men and non-slaves. It is, therefore, quite clear that such historic revolutions which became a source of inspiration to many freedom fighters did not encapsulate in its scope the freedom and rights of women.
Even when the UN Charter was being adopted in 1945 the draft neither contained the phrase “the equal rights for men and women” nor did it incorporate the paragraph prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex. Women delegates who participated in the drafting of the UN Charter fought very hard to include in the Charter the rights of women. And, therefore, the UN Charter contained that “We the people of the United Nations … reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights and equal rights of men and women.” It is said that the UN Charter became the first ever international document in the history of mankind to have underlined the rights of all human beings.
The only movement which championed the cause of women and gender equality is the movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi for India’s independence from British rule. Based on non-violence this movement for the first time in history attracted ordinary and illiterate women from far flung areas and made them participants for liberation of our country from foreign rule. Had Gandhi adopted violence such ordinary women would not have been able to get opportunities to come in large numbers and dedicate and sacrifice themselves for India’s freedom. Non-violence presupposes self-suffering and self-sacrifice to convert the opponent and shake his/her conscience to see reason for the cause of truth and justice. It is because of non-violent method that very ordinary people were drawn to our freedom
movement which was based on high morals and principles.
In 1917 Mahatma Gandhi eloquently proclaimed gender equality and gender sensitivity when he said “Woman is the companion of man gifted with equal mental capacities. She has the right to participate in the minutest details of the activities of man, and she has the same right to freedom and liberty as he has”.
In 1925 he again stated that there would not be salvation for India if women did not come forward in large numbers and participate in public life of our country. He further added that the purification of public life would be possible with such large scale participation of women.
Gandhiji went beyond the equal political rights for women and envisioned a larger role for them so that they could play a much more meaningful and broader role in the political and public life of our nation. He said, “Women must have votes and an equal legal status. But the problem does not end there. It only commences at the point where women begin to affect the political deliberations of the nation.”
It is well known that in 1920, 123 years after the American Declaration of Independence of 1777, that American women got the right to vote. In 1999 a survey was conducted in the USA to find out top hundred events of 20th century. It was revealing to note from the survey that American women getting right to vote in 1920 occupied higher position than path breaking discoveries and inventions in science and medicine. For instance, the discovery of penicillin and the Theory of Relativity of Albert Einstein occupied much lower positions as compared to the American women getting right to vote. So if a basic political right like right to vote is more important than the discoveries of penicillin and Theory of Relativity, then one can well imagine as to how far reaching it would be for our society and nation if women enjoy all political, social and economic rights. In fact, by ensuring the full spectrum of rights for women we can bring about a silent and total revolution for mankind which would be far more significant than any revolution witnessed in history.
In 1999 an American lady wanted to ascertain the woman of the second millennium. Nobody could come forward with a particular name. Whosoever was approached to name the woman of the millennium they all stated that there was no woman Newton, Einstein or Gandhi. Therefore, they concluded that there was no woman who could be hailed as the woman of the millennium. The concerned American lady expressed regret that even though women do more work than men both inside and outside home they remain invisible and, therefore, they could not be recognized for the hard work put by them. She decided, therefore, that she would give a name to the woman who remained anonymous and she named her as Anonyma. It is this invisibility of women in spite of her immense work needs to be addressed boldly by recognizing her manifold activities in all spheres of our collective life. It is in this context that gender sensitization is indispensable to focus attention on valuable work done by women in face of numerous hurdles and hindrances caused by society and psychology shaped by masculine values. Mahatma Gandhi in his Constructive Programme of 1943 gave important place to women and wrote:
“Woman has been suppressed under custom and law for which man was responsible and in the shaping of which she had no hand. In a plan of life based on non-violence, woman has as much right to shape her own destiny as man has to shape his. But as every right in a non-violent society proceeds from the previous performance of a duty, it follows that rules of social
conduct must be framed by mutual
co-operation and consultation. They can never be imposed from outside. Men have not realized this truth in its fulness in their behaviour towards women. They have considered
themselves to be lords and masters of women instead of considering them as their friends and co-workers. It is the
privilege … to give the women of India a lifting hand. Women are in the position somewhat of the slave of old who did not know that he could or ever had to be free. And when freedom came, for the moment he felt help- less. Women have been taught to regard themselves as slaves of men. It is up to us to see that … they realize their full status and play their part as equals of men. This revolution is easy, if the mind is made up. Let Congressmen begin with their own homes. Wives should not be dolls and objects of indulgence, but should be treated as honoured comrades in common service. To this end those who have not received a liberal education should receive such instruction as is possible from their husbands. The same observation applies, with the necessary changes, to mothers and daughters. It is hardly necessary to point out that I have given a one- sided picture of the helpless state of India’s women. I am quite conscious of the fact that in the villages generally’ they hold their
own with their men folk and in
some respects even rule them. But
to the impartial outsider the legal and customary status of woman is
bad enough throughout and demands radical alteration.”
Mahatma Gandhi’s emphasis on making up the mind for alteration of legal and customary status of women assumes significance for 21st century world which is witnessing unprecedented consciousness for gender equality and women’s empowerment.
There are many passages from the scriptures which are held to be responsible for lower status of women in society. Particular reference may be made to Tulsi Das’s Ramcharitmanas wherein it is written that women, drums and animal deserve beating. It is such passages which generate a mindset to subordinate women to low positions and harm their self-esteem and dignity. In fact it was Mahatma Gandhi while speaking in Gujarat in a meeting in 1917 referred to this stanza of Ramcharitmanas and stated that such scriptural descriptions of women consign them to inferior positions in family and society.
Even in Lakshmi Puran which is a sacred text for ladies in Odisha it is stated that the responsibility to cook food in family is the sacred duty of women. While Lakshmi Puran celebrates the power of women and their ability to challenge the practice of untouchability in society it also perpetuates the social conditioning that only women would cook food for men. It was evident from the narrative of that scripture where Lord Jagannatha and Balarama having been cursed by Goddess Lakshmi desperately move from place to place in search for food and eventually when they get a chance to cook some food the Goddess foils their attempt by extinguishing the fire. She did it on the ground that if both the brothers cooked food then what would women do. It is such scriptural sanctions that perpetuate the long held view that women would do the household work and men would work outside home and earn for family. Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das wrote an article on women’s education under the title “Nari Sikshya” in which he gave a sociological explanation as to why girls were not being sent to school by parents. He stated that the mental disposition of parents that the fate of the girl is to become a wife and do household work came on the way of our progress and advancement. It is primarily because of the burden of household work that they did not get enough opportunity to join schools and pursue education.
In 1922 Mahatma Gandhi wrote a text book called ‘Bal Pothi’ where there was a small chapter on household work. Gandhiji through that book wanted to generate a mindset among students that house belonged to both men and women and therefore, household work was a joint responsibility to be undertaken by them. That sharing of household work would herald a new era of gender equality was stressed by Gandhi in the second decade of 20th century. When that book was circulated among his associates they all protested stating that it would bring about a rebellion in the family. When that book was referred to by the then first lady of India Smt. Usha Narayanan while addressing a meeting of women on the occasion of International Women’s Day in 1999 the Hindustan Times, a leading newspaper of Delhi, put a box item under the caption ‘Bal Pothi’ and gave adequate coverage to the idea that household work should be done by men and women. The news item attracted the attention of late Prof. Madhu Dandavate who wrote a letter to the then HRD Minister of India Shri Murli Manohar Joshi and requested him to translate Bal Pothi to all languages and introduce it in school curriculum in all States of our country for character building and education of our children. It is ironic that Prof. Dandavate did not get a reply from the concerned Minister. That particular event speaks volumes for the gender sensitivity of the Minister concerned who was holding the portfolio of Human Resource Development at the national level. In 2002 while participating in the discussion on International Women’s Day in the Rajya Sabha a nominated Member of the House Smt. Shabana Azmi stated that school textbooks contained gender bias. To prove that point she referred to the textbooks for standard I children where there was a question “Where is mother?” And the answer was that mother was in kitchen. And answer to the question where is father was that father was in office. She stated as to why such gender bias was there in the school textbooks. She then suggested that answer to the question where is mother and father should be that both of them are in kitchen or both of them are in office. It is heartening that a nominated lady member of the Rajya Sabha talked about removing gender bias from school textbooks.
In Japan in every prefecture (equivalent to states of India) there is a gender equality centre. In such centres the concerned authorities have developed literature centering around the idea that household work must be shared among men and women in the family. In an interesting book it is shown through a cartoon that in a family both husband and wife work outside and one day the husband came home ahead of wife and was found watching TV in the drawing room. After some time when wife entered the house the husband ordered her to rush to kitchen and cook food. Below that cartoon a question is put as to how the husband who came home earlier than wife did not go to kitchen to cook food even though he was hungry. In answering that question it was stated that the husband’s mind has been trained in a manner which teaches him that cooking is a responsibility of the wife even as she works like husband and earns for the family. So in a developed country like Japan such mindsets are prevailing. It is slowly changing by such literature which teaches the new generation that household work is not the exclusive domain of women. This message is conveyed to the students by suitably incorporating this idea in the course curricula and transmitting it to larger society through print and electronic media. As a result there is a change that has taken place in Japan and now men are joining hands with women in the family to do household work.
The mindset of man that a wife is a property has to be changed. It is because of such mindset that violence against women is perpetuated. Even in a country like the USA when few congressmen were asked if wife beating was justified, some of them replied that wife beating once in a while was acceptable. Such shocking affirmation concerning wife beating in a developed country like USA indicates the state of mind and psychology vis-à-vis women. If such is the attitude of law makers in USA towards women, then one can well imagine the state of affairs in a country like ours which witnesses tragic dowry deaths.
The fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing proclaimed that Women’s Rights are Human Rights. This means violation of rights of women would necessarily lead to violation of human rights. To commemorate the fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing the United Nations Development Programme brought out its Human Development Report of 1995 on the theme Women and Human Development. It is a very insightful report which threw light on gender dimension of development and underlined the point that development goals could not be achieved by excluding women from it. It very thoughtfully observed that “If development is not engendered it would be endangered.” Such articulations bring out the point that participation of women in the development process is a fundamental prerequisite for ensuring success and advancement of a nation.
It was Mahatma Gandhi who had stated that the progress of India had always been halfhearted because women never participated in it. What was written by Gandhiji during freedom struggle has been articulated in the Human Development Report of 1995 where it is stated that if development is not engendered it would be endangered.
In our scripture Lord Shiva has been depicted as Ardhanarishvara—the God who is half woman. This is the concept of a complete human being which contains in itself the attributes of a man and woman. This spiritual ideal is now significant for the purpose of achieving gender sensitization in a comprehensive manner in all spheres of society for realizing the profound idea that women’s rights are human rights. The passage of Constitution (108) Amendment Bill om 9th March 2010in Rajya Sabha , a day after celebrations International Women’s Day, marked a major step for affirmative action for reserving 33 per cent of seats in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. It was a big move for political empowerment of women and its passage in the Lok Sabha will herald a new era for greater representation for women in legislative bodies. It would fulfill the vision of Mahatma Gandhi who while replying to a question on the need for sufficient presence of women in representative bodies stated that in such matters he would not go by merit and would prefer women to men even if such preference would lead to total displacement of men.
By SN Sahu
(The writer is Joint Secretary, Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed are personal)