A striking feature of this year’s Republic Day parade and US president Barack Obama’s three-day visit was the display of woman power. The Guard of Honour that Obama inspected was led by a woman officer. A woman officer was by the side of the Indian president when he unfurled the national flag and women contingents from all the three services for the first time marched down Rajpath. While each of these was a landmark in showcasing women’s empowerment in India it does not change the fact that the average Indian woman today is still considered a lesser being. The discrimination starts even before birth, when a strong societal preference for the male child often leads to the abortion of female foetuses. If the female foetus survives and the girl child is not killed at birth, a lifetime of discrimination lies ahead of the survivor. Girls continue to be far behind boys in school enrolment.
Women form a shockingly small part of India’s labour force—lowest among the BRICS nations—and those who remain in the workforce get paid 29 per cent less than their male counterparts and are expected to quit their jobs sooner and more often than men. The government has to play a more active role to change this by implementing laws against female foeticide and dowry, encouraging women’s education and employment through innovative programmes. Punishment for crimes against women has to be swift and exemplary so that there is effective deterrent against maltreatment of women.
While governments can play a more active role, it is society that has to change its mindset. The Constitution guarantees to all Indian women equality (Article 14), no discrimination by the state (Article 15(1)), equality of opportunity (Article 16) and equal pay for equal work. It is as much for the government to ensure these are followed in letter and spirit as for women to pick up cudgels against their abuse and exploitation. Men, too, must break out of stereotypes to respect women and give them their due.