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Today is International Women’s Day. This is an occasion for us to celebrate the many achievements of women in their struggle for personal fulfilment, gender equality and justice. It is also an opportunity for us to reflect on the many challenges that are yet to be overcome. Girls are outperforming boys in schools.
Women have stormed male bastions at work. They are making their mark in corporate boardrooms and in defending the country’s borders. They are excelling on the sports field and in outer space. But their achievements must be attributed to individual effort and personal grit, not to social support. It is unfortunate that society in general and Indian society in particular remains hostile to women. From the womb to the tomb women are discriminated against and subjected to horrific levels of violence and prejudice. The high rate of female foeticide in India, which has resulted in a deeply skewed 0:6 gender ratio, is one example of the depth of hostility that women in this country encounter. The girl child is poorly fed and denied basic healthcare. She is often pulled out of school as parents and families wrongly believe that education of girls is a waste of resources. Malnutrition and illiteracy are far more serious among women than men in this country. We claim to respect women, yet have no qualms about denying them survival and security.

This year’s Women’s Day could prove to be a turning point in the struggle of Indian women for gender justice. The Women’s Reservation Bill, which aims at ensuring 33 per cent representation for women in parliament, is to be tabled in parliament today. The Bill’s passage has been repeatedly stalled for over a decade by parties and politicians who see their control being undermined by improving women’s representation.

Reservation of seats for women in parliament is not just about increasing the number of women sitting there. It is about bringing about a change in the legislative agenda. A critical mass of women in parliament is expected to see more progressive legislation on issues of importance to gender equality in this country. In a country, where patriarchal attitudes and medieval mindsets stand in the way of gender equality, tough legislation on issues like gender violence will go a long way in making the world safer for and less hostile to women. Will India’s parliamentarians muster the political will today to ensure the Bill’s passage?

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