Monday, April 22, 2024

International Women’s Day: A ritual that’s lost its moorings?


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By Patricia Mukhim

International Women’s Day (IWD) this year is just like it was last year and before that. There’s nothing significant to celebrate other than a few homilies thrown out to women across the world that we are still struggling and will continue to struggle to bridge the gender gap in our workplaces; in livelihoods, in our capacity to spend; our ability to access our rights, particularly our legal rights. Women’s empowerment which is the alter ego of IWD above all means women’s empowerment. And what does women’s empowerment really mean beyond the phrase? It means to overcome the poverty of voice, poverty of quality healthcare, poverty of rest and of time for oneself amongst other things. Gloria Steinem, world renowned feminist and activist who had visited Meghalaya some years ago and who we were fortunate to meet had said, “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.” Yes women’s rights are human rights! This indeed is an awakening for all who tend to look up to a few role models to help turn our world around. That model has failed. The government would not like to see empowered women for they are a dangerous species. They question policies, schemes, budgets and ask, “Why is there no gender budgeting in Meghalaya?
For the uninitiated gender budgeting means creating or assessing budgets from a gender viewpoint. This is also known as gender-sensitive budgeting which aims at bringing equality and equity both through fiscal policies by critically analysing the impact of the budget and its effects on mean and women. Let’s also not forget that gender today has moved beyond the binary of male and female and includes transgenders as well who are trying their best to cope in a very unequal world. Gender budgeting requires deep insights and the government needs to train its officials especially those closest to the people – the Block Development Officers and Gram Sevaks and Sevikas. Not every woman understands the gender disparities that creep in through faulty and gender-blind government policies. Such policies bring no tangible outcomes. A gender sensitive government needs to set goals and targets for achieving equality and allocate funds to achieve those aspirations.
Gender equitable policies need sensitive implementation. An official who does not understand the nuances of gender will not be able to effectively implement such policies. This is the reason we see no outcomes despite years of talking about women’s empowerment. What we don’t have in the government system are effective yardsticks to measure outcomes. If Rs X is spent on a programme what are the outcomes? They have to be visible and tangible. Sometimes the outcomes are intangible because they involve mindsets, which are not measurable. There are still huge gender disparities in public life, especially in politics, the workplace, entrepreneurship and education. Hence the government should use the budgeting process to bring about gender equality by implementing gender budgeting from the next budget session in Meghalaya and we expect the MLAs also to demand this but to also educate themselves on what gender budgeting implies.
Women in politics: One of the areas where women are way behind in Meghalaya is politics. Sure women are coaxed and cajoled to join political parties because those at the top of the political ladder know that women can convince other women who to vote for, especially if those women leaders lead by example. Hence political parties encourage their women’s wings to branch out especially before elections. Sadly, once the elections are done and dusted those women are forgotten. Meghalaya’s ordeal is the resistance by the Dorbar Shnong to allow women to take active part and contest for various posts including for that of the post of Rangbah Shnong. There are alibis galore that men cite as to why women cannot be the Rangbah Shnong, such as the need to be out at unscheduled timings in case of problems in the shnong etc. These same men are silent on women ministers who do more than their share of duties in the day or night or at dawn. Without political empowerment women’s specific needs will not be addressed because the male mind is wired to not understand the inherent problems of women. Does a man understand what it is to be a single parent bringing up two or three kids? How many men are in that position?
Poverty drives women to sex trade: Social media is generally targeted at the predilections of women. A social media post talks of women in Police Bazar who are involved in the sex trade after darkness sets in and makes fun of them. The person making the videos hardly knows or cares what drives women to prostitution. In a caring society the right thing to do would be to address this scourge rather than condemn the act and those involved in it. This trade thrives because men are willing to pay for sex so it’s a two-way traffic. If you blame the woman then the man too who is the client must be equally held guilty. When young girls find no avenues for work are poverty stricken and engulfed by hopelessness they enter the sex trade. It’s not an easy thing to have one’s body subjected to forced sex several times a day. It’s a cruelty that no girl or woman should go through. Such women/girls deserve empathy rather than condemnation.
Paying Anganwadi workers peanuts: In an enlightened state Angandwadi workers carrying such a huge responsibility should have been paid the best salaries. In Meghalaya the state is paying them Rs less than Rs 5000 per month. In a state with a high inflation rate how does a woman manage to run her home on this amount? That after doing several jobs in a day. The Anganwadi worker is a frontline grassroots community health worker with the primary objective of addressing maternal and child health. They are to ensure proper nutrition for pregnant women, nursing mothers and children below 6 years of age. They distribute supplementary nutrition and hot cooked meals essentially to combat nutrition and ensure the healthy growth of children in particular. Anganwadi workers are to organise regular health check- ups, monitor growth, detect malnutrition and refer cases to the primary health centres or sub centres whenever necessary.
Anganwadi workers also visit homes to mobilise families to bring their children to the PHCs and CHCs for timely immunisation/vaccination. They also conduct awareness on health and nutrition related topics so that mothers understand what to feed their children for better nutrition.
To add to the existing burden Anganwadi centres are also expected to provide pre-school education and thereby prepare kids for formal schooling. The question is whether these Anganwadi workers are even trained to teach kids. Most times one hears them teaching kids to sing and then they put the kids to sleep or organise play time for them. It is too heavy on the Anganwadi worker to be piled with so much work for so little pay. Government should be told that paying so little for so much work is injustice and a violation of women’s rights.
Over and above all the responsibilities stated above the Anganwadi worker is expected to provide care for pregnant and expectant women and also after they have given birth. This is to ensure safe delivery. Being the primary contacts with the community, Anganwadi workers also actively engage with the community to partner with them so that they participate in health and nutrition programmes apart from assisting families to access government schemes and services.
To be just and fair to the Anganwadi worker we must admit that they carry a load of responsibilities and we need to be fighting for their right to better pay. It’s only when we pay attention to these different levels of the women workforce that we can speak of women’s empowerment. Else we are only chanting eulogies in the air.
Last but not least, Meghalaya has been without a Chairperson to head the State Women’s Commission for over a year now. Should it take so long to find a capable person to head the Commission or is political loyalty a more important criterion? We want answers to these ticklish questions.
Incidentally, this year’s theme for IWD is “Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress.” Will the Meghalaya Government pay heed to this call?


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