A reminder for equality

International Women's Day

What do Joan d’Arc, Anne Frank, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto and more recently our very own Nirbhaya all have in common? Apart from their gender, they paid a heavy price with their lives for daring to be different.

Though every woman desires to break free from the chains of restrictive customs and oppressive traditions that she has found herself in, only a negligible few dare to be different and act on the conviction resting deep within their hearts — that they are in no way inferior to their male counterparts.

From time immemorial, women have been put through unspeakable discrimination and exploitation. They were second class citizens. They could not obtain education on par with men; they never received equal employment opportunities as the men folk and earned less for the same work. After marriage, women moved away from their maternal homes with their husbands, not as equal partners, but with fewer rights.

A married woman could not own property, initiate a divorce or be granted custody of her children and those who worked had their wages paid directly to their husbands. Worst of all, women did not have any suffrage rights. The underlining message was that men were simply far superior to women, and of far greater value and importance.
This kind of absurd dichotomy drove a few brave women of the 19th century to stand up and demand justice.

“Are not all men and women created equal in the eyes of God?” asked Rosa Parks, the woman who helped stir the civil rights movement and contributed much to the changes in American civil rights for all its citizens. Susan B Anthony, the kingpin in women’s suffrage movement of the 19th century said with rhetoric, “The women of this nation in 1876 have greater cause for discontent, rebellion and revolution than the men of 1776.” She rightly observed that in a hundred years, while the world had progressed, women continued to be looked at and treated with scorn and prejudice.

The moot question today, as we approach yet another ‘International Women’s Day’ since it was started in 1911, is — “Are we intrinsically any better than we were in 1876 when Ms Anthony articulated these poignant feelings burning within a woman?” Sadly, reality confirms that whatever change we see is only extrinsic and superficial.

In India, a whopping 8,233 cases of dowry deaths were reported in 2012. While this is the official estimate, the unofficial figure is certainly much higher. Every two minutes, somewhere in America, a woman or a girl child is sexually assaulted. In South Africa, a woman is killed every six hours by her partner or friend.

In Guatemala, Central America, two women are murdered on an average each day. Worldwide, women and girls comprise 80 per cent of the estimated 8,00,000 people trafficked annually with 79 per cent being trafficked for sexual exploitation. All these figures are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Women are then back to where we began — exploited, neglected, abused and tormented. Despite the relentless efforts of several women of steel such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Florence Nightingale, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Rukmani Arundale, Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton for the equal rights of women, the world has failed miserably in giving women that basic equality with men, which is in essence a human right.

So, where do we begin? We begin in the simplest way, within our homes and every family. Women’s rights should not be separated from human rights. As Hillary Clinton observed in her speech to the United Nations Fourth World Conference in Beijing, China, “We must heed the call to action so that we can create a world in which every woman is treated with respect and dignity, every boy and girl is loved and every family has the hope of a stable future.”

In keeping with this year’s United Nations theme for International Women’s Day of ‘Equality for women is progress for all’, we honour the truth that ‘the human race is a two-winged bird, one wing is female and the other is male. Unless both the wings are equally developed the human race will not be able to fly’.

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