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Women's Empowerment Begins At Home

Literacy is a good starting point.

21/03/2017 12:35 PM IST | Updated 24/03/2017 9:17 AM IST
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On 21 January 2017, women in 21 major cities across India marched in the streets to protest against the normalisation of rape, sexual harassment, victim blaming, and misogyny. The nationwide march, branded #IWillGoOut, was triggered by several stories of molestation and harassment on New Year's Eve in Bengaluru and provided a platform for women to reclaim the streets and exercise their agency. The demonstrations also called out men for being inactive when attacks against women occur, contributing to the normalisation of misogyny. The march was targeted at curbing untoward incidents across metros. If this is the reality in a city which has been globally recognised as an IT hub, then the situation in other, semi urban and rural parts of the country could be far worse. The relentless increase in crimes against women simply corroborate the point.

Even after digitisation, what is the probability that households that have smart phones would allow women to access them?

The PM has time and again expressed the government's belief in "sabka saath sabka vikas." The number of bank accounts opened for women under Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana is staggering. Digital India also aims to train at least one woman in each household in digital literacy so that she can use that capacity for various purposes, starting with engaging in knowledge-based activities. All this is good news.

However, this has to be seen in parallel with almost no discourse happening in any ministry on adult literacy, leave alone the need to understand the status of women in specific. This is despite the fact that as per the census figures of 2011, women's literacy was 65.46% as against 82.14% for men.

In his first speech during Independence Day, PM himself stated that it's the social issues in the country that have the capacity to derail any well- intentioned scheme. And one of the biggest determinants of who gets the share of what in a family is the patriarchal structure. The benefits from these schemes are unlikely to reach women unless there is an effort to influence the conditions which have been preventing women from getting their due for so long.

The number of women out of those holding bank accounts who actually would be able to decide whether to put money there and to successfully engage in bank transactions is uncertain. Even after digitisation, what is the probability that households that have smart phones would allow women to access them? Thus, sabka vikas is unlikely to get realised by wishful thinking.

In the celebration of the increase in enrollment of children post Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan and the campaigns of "Beti Bachao Beti Padhao." women who happened to be born in a phase when there weren't adequate schools or enlightened parents have been given a short shrift. None of the major schemes under skill building or MHRD are lending any voice to the problem of the gendered nature of adult illiteracy. In fact, this silence is testimony to the fact that it's hardly being considered an issue.

A family may make progress along the developmental goal of income enhancement, but the decision to spend that money may still rest with the men.

It has been experienced through field work that a family may make progress along the developmental goal of income enhancement, but the decision to spend that money may still rest with the men. Initiatives to improve the learning levels of the students may have been introduced in schools, but parents may still continue to give preference to boys for continuing education beyond the mandatory 6-14 years. Patriarchy becomes the most significant arbiter of benefits, first at the family level and then at the larger social plane.

A comparative study across Eastern UP, Bundelkhand and Jharkhand by Tata Trusts in 2016 indicates that literacy has certainly enhanced the confidence level of women as they are now more mobile and travel outside of the home, use their literacy skills in accessing payments towards MGNREGA and other government schemes. The women now actively take part in financial decisions in the home along with their husbands.

Several Dalit women don't hesitate to go to police stations to file a complaint and use their skills to negotiate the power structures. Some women have held demonstrations and rallies to address domestic violence occurring in their local villages, which is an indicator of democracy at work at the local level.

The need is to see literacy as an instrument to enable women to read the world as they learn to read the word...

The need is to see literacy as an instrument to enable women to read the world as they learn to read the word, as the Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire famously remarked. It's the overall journey of struggle to dedicate a few hours every day to engage with the written word, increasing mobility outside the private sphere of the home, and dealing with comments such as, "Is this the age to learn?" or "She is going to become a masterni" that gives the confidence that one is actually wresting space that was not available earlier.

Empowerment is both context and population specific. The change in the status of women who are under the burden of other disadvantages has to emerge through a framework of negotiation and struggle and the government can certainly contribute towards that journey by providing the necessary structures to enable this process. The struggle would still be hers...

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