Friday, March 8 is International Women’s Day. It should give us pause for thought.
Just look at recent progress in India. In one of the largest movements for women’s rights in the country, on January 1, 5 million women lined up across the length of the southern state of Kerala, forming a human wall in protest against their inability to enter the local Sabarimala Temple, home to the world’s largest annual pilgrimage site.
Standing shoulder to shoulder women demanded reform. The demonstration in support of women’s rights, which stretched almost 400 miles, prompted a judicial review. Local government intervention led to a supreme court ruling that women could pray, stating: “Where a man can enter, a woman can also go. What applies to a man, applies to a woman.”
Then, on January 4, Kanaka Durga and Bindu Ammini made history as the first two women to enter Sabarimala. The fight was won. It was a triumph not only for the state but for the country.
A few hours later, protestors took to the streets of Kerala, throwing crude bombs at the police. Over 3,000 demonstrators were arrested, dozens were injured, and one person killed, with the authorities relocating family members of both women to safehouses.
Life for women and girls in India is no easy feat. They continue to be underrepresented in both the professional and public spheres. Countless young girls are denied access to a basic education, while cases of violence against women dominate the news.
It therefore comes as no surprise that the world’s largest democracy was in fact recently labelled the most dangerous country for women.
This victory for women in Kerala, however, highlights that women and girls are pushing back against India’s firmly grounded pillars of patriarchy. The demonstration brought women together, as families, groups and organisations mobilised and prepared to challenge outdated notions concerning a woman’s role.
The #MeToo movement, which last year, rocked establishments around the world, has spread to the South Asian nation, shaking the country and its gendered barriers. Dozens of women across the country have taken to social media to expose their experiences of sexual assault and those culpable.
Social media has provided women with a platform that legal systems have failed to offer. This activism illustrates the movement underway in favour of women’s empowerment and illuminates the continued struggles women face daily. As it continues to spread like wildfire, we have been made to question the normalisation of gendered inequalities and harassment.
Across the political landscape, too, women are fighting back. For the US, 2019 marks ‘the year of women’, with a record number of women – 127 – having entered Congress. Starting with Women’s Marches in over 650 communities across the country, female activists worked together, forming a pragmatic network which witnessed 4 million people take to the streets.
There have been more protests over the past two years than during any comparable period in US history. Women are empowering women and this grassroots resistance against a regressive and sexist political system broke into the highest level of politics, allowing women to revitalise the political landscape.
This spring, India heads to the polls as well. Research carried out on women’s voting patterns highlights a crucial point for Indian politics. More women are heading to the polls than ever before, with voter turnout among women having been higher in two-thirds of India’s state elections.
This upsurge shows that the determination of women across India to have a voice and exercise their rights is on the rise. But what India now needs is the support and accountability from the country’s highest echelon of male power: its government.
Studies have proven that women must reach a threshold of at least 30% in order to make a meaningful impact in parliament. However, the challenges that women face across the country stand as a testament to the lack of political support and will coming from its judicial system.
Women in India’s parliament is no anomaly: Indira Gandhi became the country’s first female Prime Minister in 1966 – less than two decades into the life of the new democracy – and served for a total of 15 years. However, the political legacies of female politicians have often been since disregarded and unappreciated.
Political parties remain reluctant to present women as key party members. Women constitute just 11.8% of both houses of Parliament. Placing 151st in the world rankings, female political representation in India falls behind Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.
Since 2008, existing political structuring and male-dominated parties have blocked the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill, which would compel the Indian Constitution to reserve 33% of all seats in the Lower House of Parliament, the Lok Sabha and all state legislative assemblies for women.
More female voters are additionally likely to lead to more gender-inclusive laws and policies. Gender awareness not only transforms how candidates campaign, but also opens doors for more female candidates in the running, and greater opportunities for female leverage within national decision-making bodies.
Representation matters. It is not only a means of erasing gender disparities, but also a tool for empowering women. The role model effect serves to inspire young girls to enter similar professions, propelling young female empowerment.
Even as women suffer all their trials and tribulations to get to high, powerful positions, they are inspiring for the rest of us still on the journey. It is one of the great causes of optimism in the world today that women are now truly beginning to define their roles – rather than having their roles define them, or defined for them, as has happened all too often throughout history.
This trend could soon extend to India. We are seeing collective action. India’s first all-women’s political party, the National Women’s Party, was launched recently and will contest 283 Lower House seats. In a male-dominated political system, the ideology and motive behind the NWP is to remove the gender disparity that exists at the political level. For context, outside of the NWP, this year just one female out of the five candidates is likely to stand in the race for Prime Minister.
Endorsing women’s empowerment is crucial to India’s prosperity and success as an economic powerhouse – particularly if it is to hit its development targets. Fair representation is fundamental to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal number 5 for Gender Equality. We need to recognise that investing in women is not only morally critical but also a considerable business opportunity. Women contribute approximately one-sixth of India’s overall economic output, one of the lowest shares in the world.
But as women and girls across the country become more literate, educated and empowered, they are also becoming more politically aware. India’s recent collective action was indicative of a revolutionary tide surging across the country. The #MeToo movement and the US Mid-Term election results prove that there is power in insurrection and coming together to demand change. The women’s resistance movement has organised, mobilised, and empowered on a vast scale and at an unprecedented rate.
The NWP now has a platform to break down the deeply entrenched traditional cultural values and beliefs that dictate women’s role in society and act as a barrier to achieving and sustaining gender equality. As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, perhaps 2019 will be India’s year of women too.