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Women’s welfare: We have a long way to go

As India celebrated Durga Pujo last fortnight, a stunning piece of news caught headlines across the world. Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has committed a whopping $1 billion to expand women’s “influence and power” in the US. This bit of news puts the scanner back on the huge ground that needs to be covered in the area of gender equity across the world, irrespective of how developed, developing, or underdeveloped a country might be.

Interestingly, this money doesn’t come from the Gates Foundation, but is committed to be given over 10 years by her company, Pivotal Ventures, to those entities that are taking “innovative and diverse approaches” to expand and advance women’s reach in the community. In a signed article in Time, Melinda explained why she had taken this decision. “In 2018, there were more men named James running Fortune 500 companies than there were women. This year, only one CEO on that list of 500 is a woman of colour.” She added that it was “frustrating — even heartbreaking — to confront evidence of the many ways our country continues to hold women back.”

Well, if a leading American citizen finds it “heartbreaking” that an advanced country like the US has continued to hold its women back, what about a developing country like India? How many women CEOs do we have, and if in the US there is a wide gap in the opportunities that white women get compared to their non-white counterparts, then in India we need to ask how many Dalit women make it to top slots in boardrooms.

Glass ceiling

Yes, Indian women have broken the glass ceiling in professions that were earlier considered male bastions — finance and banking, science and technology (at the highly televised launch of Chandrayaan we saw many women in the august assembly of scientists) — but they are outnumbered by men by a mile.

But the barriers that American women face at their workplaces and homes surely become magnified when you shift the debate to a country like India. Oh yes, we can easily top the charts when it comes to paying lip service to women’s “greatness, strength (shakti), patience, fortitude,” etc, the last two actually being negative factors. Because if you show patience and fortitude, you can bet that more will be demanded of you! Brings to mind what a former News Editor of BusinessLine said all the time: “Those who work hard, have more work piled on them!”

There is no dearth of barriers placed in the advancement of women at the workplace. Why the workplace; let’s begin at home. In many parts of India, female foeticide is still rampant, and a girl child’s life is snuffed in the womb itself. When it comes to education, in families with limited financial resources, no prizes for guessing whether the daughter or the son will get a shot.

Sole caregivers

Another reason that Melinda Gates mentions for her donation is that even those women who work full time in the US continue to bear the burden of being principal caregivers. Well, in most homes in India, even though things are changing, working women continue to be the sole caregivers. Over the decades, we’ve watched scores of women rushing back home after office hours, as a fresh, hot meal has to be put on the table, with little or no help from any other family member. No hanging around with buddies for a chai or beer for them.

Who would then blame their daughters, now well-educated and in good jobs, hesitating to get married at all? If that is all the institution of marriage has for the woman — cleaner, helper, cook all rolled into one — then why not “chill” with their carefree lives, instead of getting “trapped” into marriage.

$1 billion is a lot of money, but then, we too have our own share of philanthropists in India. But I am yet to see such large donations exclusively for women’s welfare. Slogans we have in plenty, beginning with Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao — a great initiative no doubt, but both our government and civil society needs to do much more for the girl child.

Meanwhile, proving that the “second gender” will not allow itself to be sidelined any longer, we have strong and strident voices, like that of Swedish teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg, who made such an impassioned plea on the environment at the UN recently. Her “how dare you” speech will continue to haunt many world leaders for a long time as they struggle to find answers to her tough questions on the hypocrisy of our generation.

Never mind those who mocked the angry, scowling girl as a happy young girl who looks forward to her future!

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