Women Rights in the 21st century: From the lens of a social activist

Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta

“Concept of gender equality has been modernized in last 50 years. It focuses on equalizing men and women in arena of employment, education, and respect. However, this progressive definition of equality does not exist in any religion is not taken well with many opposing schools of thoughts.”, said Ms Shabnam Hashmi In a webinar organized by Gender Impact Studies Center, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), Delhi Post News and Gendev Centre for Research and Innovation, Gurugram on Women Rights in the 21st century: From the lens of a social activist.

#GenderGaps_Shabnam Hashmi_Women Rights in 21st Century India: From the lens of a Social Activist

Historically, the challenge of women has been in forefront. Starting from Savitribai Phule’s efforts to educate girls by opening a school to women fighting against the British regime during the freedom struggle and stronger women movements in 1970s, they have fought a long battle of equality and rights.

However, society is regressing due to conservative patriarchal forces than progressing.  In 1947, when India got independent, the literacy rate for women was 12%. According to census 2011, it increased to 74%, which is insufficient. There is also an increased representation of women in public forums, politics, workforce and army. Ms Hashmi feels that gender equality has become more difficult since current government came to power.

The problems faced by women are countless. The patriarchal mindset of desiring sons and thus committing female foeticide, still persists in rural areas and tier 2 and 3 cities. Women are objectifies and subject to child marriages and dowry killings. Conservative attitudes in India prevent girls from being educated.

Further, New Education Policy has aggravated this situation since education will be privatized leading to shutting down of schools in the rural areas and those at district level. This tend to increase the drop-out rate for girls. Execution of schemes such as “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” is questionable since 65% of the budget was used on marketing the campaign and the remaining 35% was not used entirely. Moreover, white collars jobs are disappearing for women as evident by reduction in the workforce participation rate of women from 2004 to 2018 which is pre pandemic situation.

Pandemic has brought unprecedented miseries on women in the face of domestic violence with little support from the police, who clearly lack gender sensitization. Women are first to fire and last to hire, this has been proved during lockdown. 65.1% of the labour in the agricultural sector are women.

The misunderstanding that majority agricultural for men when coming to farmer suicides is vague since out of the 3.2 lakh farmer suicides, at least 20,000 were women. Additionally, when a farmer commits suicide, his land is encroached upon by other relatives, leaving the wife and children landless.

Even powerful women are treated as unequal as evident from the political representation of women in parliament who lag behind due to patriarchal mindsets of men. Geeta Mukherjee, an eminent Indian politician brought up political reservation for women in the parliament but this bill was not supported because men do not want to lose their seats.

Even female actors in bollywood are paid less than their counterparts. Despite films having females as protagonist, this industry objectify women and still have huge pay gap. This goes how inherent and deep-rooted is the struggle for women to get the opportunity to thrive and protect their rights. The fascist forces are adamant to drag women back to the dark Ages.

Ms Hashmi went on to discuss a few examples of the lack of political will for women rights. She highlighted, to propagate communalist and bigoted agenda, some political leaders insisted that hindu women should reproduce six to ten children to have majority. Complete control over a woman’s sexuality and body so that the right wing’s false narrative and propaganda to ensure Muslims are always a minority, stays intact.

Additionally, there are camps to indoctrinate young girls rearing them to be good homemakers, wives and mothers with no individualism. Women are supposed to bow their heads down and are threatened if they speak against domestic violence in these camps. Women, from a religious minority have to deal with their minority status in both aspects based on religion and gender. 

All these factors reiterate that the fight for dignity and equality for women is a long and hard one that will perhaps last for centuries to come. Thus, there is a need for the voices against patriarchy and for gender equality, to become louder and larger in number.

No social issue can be looked at in isolation. Communalism, economy, gender equality, education for all – all issues are intertwined. All these issues need to be closely observed and in relation to one another to tackle gender gap in our country.

Dr. Govind Kelkar, Executive Director, Gendev Centre for Research and Innovation, Gurugram, emphasized that in last few years, things for women have deteriorated. She highlighted gruesome attacks on women, right from Nirbhaya to the Hathras rape case, which shows the monstrosities suffered by women within the four walls of their home as well as outside. It is sad to see that what India has excelled in is hate and toxic masculinity.

A docile, dependent woman is the definition of the ideal woman in India. There is an urgency to fight against forces attempting to squash women and their rights. Right from wage disparity to no right to own agricultural land and no rights to housing, women are deprived of even their basic rights.

However, as Ms. Shabnam Hashmi rightly put, there is no “formula” to make change. Social changes are a very long process. It begins with one generation and you begin to see the change in the next generation.

Despite that, many creative ways are coming into being to tackle the issue of gender gap and women rights. There’s an increasing number of women organizations and movements coming to the forefront. Women can still start by making changes in their own lives. They can start standing up for themselves at home to fight for what they believe they deserve.

To ensure the voices of women are heard, Ms. Hashmi had initiated the “If we do not rise” campaign in July 2020. The 2-month long campaign saw participation from 28 states, hosted about 3000 programs and social media campaigns which saw engagement from over 15 lakh people. This shows that people are more than ready to fight.

More than anything, there’s hope in the youth of this country, especially in urban India. Young people have come to the forefront during the Anti-CAA and JNU protests as well. The fascist government is doing what it can to curb this dissent. Even so, the fact that these challenges are taking center stage is a huge achievement in itself.

While the issue of gender inequality seems like a dire problem that will take a long time to solve, steps can be taken and are being taken to bring us closer to bridging the gap. The major steps that need to be taken are by women and men both, starting from their own homes. There is also a need to fight against the regressive agenda of the government.

Other steps include more collaboration between the citizens, police and empowering organizations like Dwarka Women’s Elective to help women to fight this very long and tedious battle. Structural changes are imperative to make the change we need and for that, pressure on those in power, is necessary.

Acknowledgements: Sajili Oberoi, Research Intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and Marketing and Communications Lead at BrainGain Global, New Delhi

YouTube Video for Women Rights in the 21st century: From the lens of a social activist

Picture Courtesy: Council on Foreign Relations


  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.