Her story, my story: Why I am hopeful about gender justice

The story of women’s emancipation in the country has proceeded painfully slowly, but on the positive side in only one direction and has never made a U-turn.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

On Constitution Day last year, I was delivering the valedictory address at the celebrations organised by the Supreme Court of India. Talking of justice, I thought of the undertrial prisoners and then could not resist speaking about their plight. I spoke from the heart, and it made an impact. On International Women’s Day today, I want to share some thoughts with you in the same spirit—straight from the heart.

Right from my childhood days, I have remained perplexed about the status of women in society. On the one hand, a girl child receives so much love from all around her and is even worshipped on auspicious days. On the other hand, she learns very soon that the possibilities open before her in life are fewer than those available to boys her age.

On the one hand, a woman is respected for her innate wisdom, even appreciated as the central figure of the family who takes care of everybody. On the other hand, she has a limited role, if at all, in nearly all significant decisions about the family or even herself.

Over the years, as I stepped out of home, first as a student, then as a teacher and later in social service, I could not help but wonder about such paradoxical attitudes. Sometimes I felt that as individuals, most of us recognise men and women as equal. However, collectively, the same people impose limits on half of us. During my lifetime, I have seen most individuals progressing towards the notion of equality. However, old customs and traditions, like old habits, linger on at the social level.

This is the story of all women around the world. Every other human being on earth begins life with a kind of hindrance. In the 21st century, when we have achieved unimaginable all-around progress, many nations are yet to have a woman as the head of the state or head of the government. At the other end of the spectrum, unfortunately, there are places in the world where even today, women are considered lesser human beings; even going to school can be a question of life and death for a girl!

This was not always so. In India, there were times when women were decision-makers. Our scriptures and history talk of women known for their valour, scholarship or administrative skills. Today, again, countless women are, of course, contributing to nation-building in their chosen fields. They are heading corporate firms and even serving in the armed forces. The only difference is that they have to prove their worth in two domains—they have to excel in their careers and homes. They do not complain, but all they expect from society is that it repose confidence in them.

This leads to a curious situation. We have a healthy representation of women at the grassroots level in various decision-making structures. But as we go up in the hierarchy, we see fewer and fewer women. This is as true for political bodies as for the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the corporate world. What is noticeable is that even the states with higher literacy rates display the same trend. It shows that education alone does not guarantee financial and political autonomy for women.

Therefore, I firmly believe that the social mindset needs to be changed. The deeply ingrained gender prejudices must be identified and purged to create a peaceful and prosperous society. Conscious efforts have been made to promote social justice and equality. But these steps have not proved adequate to ensure gender representation. In education and jobs, for example, women lag far behind men more because of social conditioning than in any design.

In several convocations that I attended in different parts of the country, I have noticed that women, if given a chance, often outperform men in academia. It is this indomitable spirit of Indian women and our society that gives me confidence about India emerging as the torchbearer of gender justice in the world.

It is certainly not the case that one-half of humanity has had any head start by keeping the other half behind. The fact is that this mismatch is hurting the whole of humanity because the two wheels of its cart are unequal. Economic progress and climate action would also increase if women were included in decision-making. I am sure that the world will be a much better place if women are made equal stakeholders in the progress of humanity.

I am, indeed, hopeful that the future is bright. I have seen in my life that people change and attitudes change. That is indeed the story of our race; otherwise, we would still be living in caves.

The story of women’s emancipation has proceeded slowly, often painfully slow, but it has proceeded only in one direction and has never made a U-turn. That gives me the confidence to believe, as I have often stated, that the coming Amrit Kaal up to the centenary of India’s Independence belongs to young women.

What makes me hopeful is that we as a nation began with a sound foundation of gender justice. About a century ago, Mahatma Gandhi’s campaigns during the freedom struggle encouraged women to cross the threshold and step out into the world. Since then, our society and women, in particular, have aspired to build a better future. Prejudices and customs not favourable to women are done away with either through legislation or awareness. This seemed to have a positive impact as Parliament today has the highest number of women’s representation.

Needless to say, my election as the President of the world’s largest democracy is a part of the saga of women’s empowerment. I believe the spirit of “innate leadership in motherhood” needs to be invoked to promote gender justice. A slew of government programmes to directly empower women, such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, are steps in the right direction.

We should also appreciate that societies take time to match steps with the best of progressive ideas. But societies are composed of human beings—half of them women—and it is up to us, each of us, to hasten the progress.

Thus, today, I wish to urge each of you to commit yourself to one change in your family, neighbourhood or workplace—any change that would bring a smile to a girl’s face, any change that would improve her chances of moving ahead in life. As I said before, that is one request straight from the heart.

Droupadi Murmu

President of India

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