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Women empowerment

Women empowerment

The greatness of women has been acknowledged in the Vedas. Long ago, our ancient law-giver, Manu, who is often attacked for his anti-feminist disposition, descending from the high level of the law, accorded a high position to women: "where women are worshipped, there the gods live, and where they are dishonoured, everything fails".

He even advised as to what the names of women should be. He said: "Let the names of women be good to pronounce-simple, pleasant and appropriate. Let them terminate in long vowels and resemble words of benediction. Today when society has reached a stage where we have women priests, isn't it paradoxical to prevent them from chanting hymns?

The concept of women empowerment is deeply embedded in our cultural heritage. In fact, I write this during the Navratras, the nine days which occur twice a year, in which the Goddess is widely worshipped by Hindus around the world, not as a spouse but in her own right. It is also interesting to recall that all the Hindu deities are invariably bracketed with a feminine figure whose name precedes them—Gauri-Shankar, Sita-Ram, Radha-Krishna and so on. Therefore, as far as the cultural aspect is concerned, the bulk of people in India should not have any difficulty with the concept of women empowerment.

However, the social reality is entirely different. With a few exceptions, the woman has been relegated to a secondary and inferior position within most of the religions of India. Records of ill-treatment of women, the growing incidents of rape, and the general attitude of male domination continue to prevail. It is in this context that the contemporary movement of women empowerment has to be viewed.

There are several dimensions of women empowerment. There is a much-needed change in social attitudes which should respect women and the girl child, and which is dramatically illustrated by the growing gender imbalance even in the more affluent states. Then there is economic women empowerment, and for this many of the new schemes that the government has launched in the last few years have been especially aimed at the women of India. They are encouraged to open their own bank accounts into which government grants can flow. Thirdly, there is educational women empowerment. Although the percentage of girl students has considerably increased over the last decade, there is still a substantial imbalance, and the dropout rate of girl students is much higher than that of boys. One of the factors which is now being tackled is the absence of separate toilets for girls in village schools, which are essential in order to retain girl students beyond the primary standard. Fourthly, medical facilities for safe delivery, widespread availability of contraceptive technology and nutritional inputs for pregnant and nursing mothers have also to be substantially increased.

Politically, women played a major role in the freedom movement under Gandhiji and have also adorned the highest positions in the land from time to time. This fact has to be appreciated because it proves that our Constitution and electoral system give ample scope for women to rise to the top at the Centre and in the states.

This website presents an impressive array of intellectual insights into the various aspects of women empowerment. Taken together, they bring clearly before us the whole array of challenges that confront India today. I need to stress that women empowerment cannot be achieved without the full cooperation of men and, therefore, we must all work in unison to achieve the desired goals. It is interesting to note that on the issue of one-third reservation of women in Parliament, both the ruling party and the opposition party are, for once, in agreement.

A few years ago, a major controversy arose when the Shankaracharya of Puri prevented a lady from reciting Vedic verses at a public function. The Shankaracharya's stand that religious scriptures barred women from reading the Vedas was vehemently opposed by many women who perceived this discrimination as an affront on women's rights and on women empowerment. Interestingly, the occasion where this controversy erupted was the centenary celebrations of Saradeshwari Ashram in Kolkata. This ashram was founded by a disciple of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, a saint who had accorded women an elevated status.

Twenty five years after the observation of the International Women's Year in 1975, another thrust on women's development came in the form of declaring the year 2001 as Women's Empowerment Year. In between, there was the United Nations Decade for Women and the Year of the Girl Child. This may lead us to wonder if we have to wait for a quarter century before we see a perceptible change in the status of women.

Moreover, during the last 30 years, we have witnessed the emergence of hundreds of women's organisations across the country with one common goal - women empowerment. The ways and methods may be different, such as enabling women to be financially independent, developing a consciousness among them to fight for their rights, to demand better health care, be educated and demolish the walls of inequality that segregates them as weak and inferior. The outcome of such collective endeavour has been amazing. Working in groups they have not only managed to secure a number of rights, but have also improved the quality of life for themselves as well as their families.

Over the years, there has been a shift in India in the perspective on women empowerment, from treating them as welfare targets to recognising them as a critical group in the national development process. Recognising that women need to be empowered if they are to play their expected role in national advancement, a number of policies and programmes have been initiated to equip them to reach the desired goal.

The two major events of the past two decades concerning women empowerment have been the setting up of the National Commission for Women in India (NCWI) and the constitutional amendments reserving 30 per cent of seats for women in all elected local bodies. With this reservation thousands of women have been put into positions of leadership and decision-making arid many of them are chairpersons at village, block and district levels taking vital decisions affecting millions of people.

We believe in a bright future by means of a progressively increasing women empowerment replacing the traditional role of an ungrudging victim of exploitation by a new dynamic role of fully liberated partners in the reconstruction of society and the development of culture.