By Vincy Abraham
After the Delhi gang-rape last December and subsequent setting up of the Justice J S Verma Commission, there has been a lot of discussion and deliberation on tougher laws for sexual violence. That aside, I found that there has been a renewed interest and emphasis placed on the issue of women’s empowerment too.
I stumbled upon a CNN African Voices video titled ‘Female King Fights “Male Chauvinism”’ recently. The video shared the story of Peggielene Bartels, King of the Ghanaian fishing village of Otuam. (You can watch the full video here: http://edition.cnn.com/video/?hpt=hp_c1#/video/international/2013/01/25/african-voices-king-peggy-ghana-c.cnn) While I must say King Peggy’s story was inspiring to say least, it got me thinking about the whole concept itself.
The more I thought of the concept and the terminology, the more alarming it appeared.
Before we begin, I must add here that I’m merely deconstructing this notion to question its foundation and the nuances of its related aspects…
Let’s start by dividing the term Women Empowerment:
Women: There is see a clear distinction between the words, sex and gender. Although a number of dictionaries define sex on the basis of physical characteristics and biological reproductive functions (which is essentially problematic itself), it’s necessary we understand that the difference between human males and females boils down to the sex chromosomes—XX (females) and XY (males).
Gender, on the other hand, moves beyond the physical attributes to social conditioning. Thus, the conditioning of people to behave in a particular way because it is the “feminine/masculine thing to do” comes under this argument. Feminists agree that this conditioning is the root cause of the oppression, suppression and marginalization of women. Thus, when we use the term Women’s Empowerment, we use the term in both sex and gender contexts.
Empowerment: This is a more tough word to define as there is no agreement of the term. It would be insightful trace the etymology of the term though. The word empower finds its first use by Milton in the late 1640s to mid 1650s but the term found popularity only in the 1980s. What we immediately gather is that the term entails power in some sense. The Dictionary.com defines empowerment as, “to power or authority to; authorize, especially by legal or official means”. Let’s use this definition of empowerment for now.
When we combine the two words, we arrive at a somewhat general understanding of the term. But this understanding is very problematic. Here are two important reasons why:
- It presumes that there are two types of people—the empowered and the un-empowered. In other words, this definition seems to say that there is a hierarchy in the society—period.
- It also assumes that it is the empowered who construct and “hand over” power to those un-empowered! Those higher in the power structure “hand down power” to those much lower in the power structure. So, it appears that those lower in the power structure would not otherwise get power, not even on the basis of being human and deserving equal dignity and rights.
I find it equally necessary to challenge four aspects of this phenomenon…
- 1. Political empowerment of women:
In the course of empowerment, political empowerment is the first resort in almost all cases. A reading of the three waves of feminism reveals that in the first wave the women’s movement focused on the de jure inequalities, or officially mandated inequalities and the remedy came in the form of reform legislations equating the status of men and women especially politically. Unlike a number of countries even the modern Western world, women in India received the right to politically participate (voting and standing for elections) at the time of enforcement of the Indian Constitution in 1950. Let’s take a minute and focus on the political representation of women here.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union website (as of December 31, 2012), Rwanda was placed at the number one position in their ‘Women in Parliament’ data. Sudan occupied the 46th position while the United States occupied 77th. Surprisingly, Somalia ranked higher than India at 95 and 107 respectively.
But what does all this mean? Do numbers tell the story of women actually moving ahead in the realm of politics? Unfortunately, they don’t!
My problem with these numbers stems from the fact that there is no mention of how the number of women in parliament translates to political empowerment in particular and women’s empowerment in general. The question to be asked: Do a large number of women in parliament really translate to creating a better political environment for the participation of women in the decision making process? The answer lies in the success stories of Scandinavian countries (who have performed well according to the data) which seem to have a different story to tell. The number of women in parliament in these countries has created a scenario for more women participating in the political process.
- 2. Social empowerment of women:
The second wave of feminism felt the need to address the de facto inequalities, or unofficial inequalities especially those that permeate the society and relegate the woman to the confines of the home. While the women’s movement was successful in bringing the woman from the private sphere to the public sphere, it wasn’t fully successful in involving the man in the private sphere simultaneously. When I use the term public sphere, my understanding is that it is the space outside home, i.e. work or related activities and the term private sphere has mainly to do with home related activities or chores which are assumed to be exclusively a woman’s domain.
Since subordination and marginalization of women is a social process, there was a need to include a social aspect to women’s empowerment. However a closer inspection of the term has led me to believe that all this talk is about social empowerment does not account for much.
My reason for stating this is that although the term attempts to take a holistic perspective of women’s empowerment, there is no agreement what it actually consists. In other words, though this aspect needs to be addressed, there is no understanding on what it consists of essentially. This led me to believe that it is time we (the government and citizens included) deliberate and re-examine carefully what it means.
- 3. Economic empowerment of women:
Economic dependence has been a cause of concern and for long this has been used as leverage to subordinate and oppress women across sections but especially those women from lower income households. It was necessary in this context to ensure that women would be encouraged to become economically independent. However, there is a flip side to this.
Let’s take the example of microfinance institutions like the Grameen Bank. One cannot deny that it has been successful to some extent in encouraging entrepreneurial activities among women, but it does play a role in perpetuating the cycle of poverty and oppression. Most of these women applying for loans come from low income households and who also have alcohol-drug addicted unemployed spouses. There have been stories/reports which highlight the plight of women in situations that should have resulted in economic independence but has resulted in further oppression and abuse.
The inheritance law in India too is another area that needs to be looked at closely. Under the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, women are given equal right to inherit property along with the male heirs and the life estate of female heirs too was abolished. However, the practice of handing over the entire property only to male heirs or even the inequality of share received by male and female heirs (larger and smaller share, respectively) is still common.
- 4. Women’s Empowerment through Information Communication Technology and Computer Literacy:
It is believed that technology is a powerful instrument of change as it paves way for economic and social development. This development manifests itself in new economic and employment opportunities, financial services and health care delivery. It provides a platform for participation, interaction and advocacy within the society.
This sounds great. Well, yes, if you’re taking into account the urban and semi-urban scenarios mainly. And therein is the biggest problem in this model of empowerment—accessibility. A digital divide is inevitably created as there is little or no access to technology in certain areas of the country.
I do agree that computer literacy is necessary in this time and age and that it does improve one’s access to information online. But the question here is how much women actually have access to the internet at any case. Internet access too is a distant dream for most in rural areas as unavailability (or uninterrupted supply) of electricity is a cause of concern. This defeats the purpose of computer literacy as a means of empowerment especially in the rural areas of India.
Let’s s sum up…
There is still an ongoing struggle for women’s rights even today but when we use terms like women’s empowerment, we need to take it with a pinch of salt. We need to really reflect what we mean by it and what we’re implying as well. In the process we can begin effectively tackling pressing issues like that of gender based discrimination at the workplace, violence against women, the feminization of poverty and the victimization of women in conflict and war, to name a few.