Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed   with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood,” reads Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted and proclaimed by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. However, there is a huge gap between the ideal and the real. Ideally, women and men are equal in all respects. But in reality, there is discrimination against women in every walk of life—in family, education, employment and in the society at large. In a largely patriarchal society, most families prefer a son to a daughter.

As per 2011 Census, there are 943 women per thousand men in India. Among the states/ UTs, only Kerala and Puducherry have positive sex ratio—1084 and 1038 respectively. On the other hand, Haryana, Delhi and Chandigarh record low figures of 877, 866 and 818 respectively. In Daman and Diu, the ratio is as low as 618. The Census data exposes this grim reality when, biologically, a woman has a longer lifespan than a man. The appalling sex ratio portends an ominous trend—in the days to come there may not be as many young women for our young men to marry.

Odisha, however, records a better sex ratio than the national average. Of course, at 978, it still requires vast improvement. The ratio is better among the tribes than among others—it is 990 at the national level. In Odisha, the sex ratio among the Scheduled Tribes’ population is 1029 females per 1000 males.

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Unfortunately, women face discrimination almost everywhere, from womb to tomb. Sex determination is a crime; but it is carried on clandestinely in clinics and nursing homes. In a family, women usually eat the last and the least, after serving every other member. Naturally, in a poor and even low middle class family, there is not enough food left for them. National Family Health Survey-3 indicates that 55 per cent Indian women are anaemic. And so far as education is concerned, the family gives priority to boys. People erroneously think that boys are the sole bread earners of the family. 2011 Census data shows that the percentage of literacy of India stands at 74.04, male literacy at 82.14 and female literacy at 65.46.

Women face violence and intimidation. Such reports appear in the press almost every day. In December 2014, a lady was allegedly raped in a taxi in Delhi by its driver when she was returning home after attending a dinner. In Kolkata, a Japanese young lady complained that a man who introduced himself as a tourist guide used her ATM cards to drain her bank accounts and almost forced her to have sex with him. The rape and murder of a mentally-challenged Nepali lady in Haryana’s Rohtak in early February this year caused anger and indignation throughout the country. Only a few days ago, it was reported that the body of a seven-year-old girl, who was allegedly raped and murdered, was found in a hotel at Lonavala near Pune. And I do not know how many more such cases will come to public by the time this write up appears. In the wake of increasing gender-based violence, safety and security of girls and women assumes great importance.

Violence against women occurs at home, in public spaces such as roads, marketplaces and gatherings. In most of the rape cases, offenders are not strangers. Countrywide statistics reveal that during 2013, offenders were known to the victims in as many as in 94.3% of rape cases. In certain cases, offenders were relatives, colleagues, employers, neighbours and even family members. What else could be more shocking than this?

Society expects women to conduct themselves the way it prescribes. And in some parts of north India, khap panchayat orders honour killing for someone who refuses to follow its diktats! The mere perception—which may not always be right-- that a woman has brought ‘dishonor’ to her family or community is enough to violate her right to life.

Laws have been enacted to deal with acts of violence against women. But mere law is not enough; action is necessary. It is necessary to bring reforms in every sphere of administration, particularly in the police. It is also the duty of the community and the civil society to work towards eliminating gender-based violence and ensuring safety, equality and dignity of women.  True, good progress has been achieved in providing better opportunity to girls and women in education and other fields of life. The pace, however, must be very rapid to ensure equal status to women in every walk of life.

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International Women’s Day is observed on 8th March every year to raise public awareness on the rights of women. Although National Women’s Day was observed by different countries on different days since 1909, it was in 1975 that the United Nations started celebrating the day on the 8th of March. Since then the World Conference on Women has been held in different countries across the world, the first one in Mexico in 1975, the second in Copenhagen in 1980 and the third in Nairobi in 1985. The fourth conference was held in Beijing in 1995 and fifth one is going to be held this year. It was a matter of great joy for me that my wife late Justice Sunanda Bhandare was a member of the Indian delegation to the 1st World Conference on Women held in Mexico in 1975. All through her life she worked hard for the empowerment of women. But for her untimely death, she could have been the first woman Chief Justice of India.

Today we live in a world of human rights. After two bloodiest world wars in the last century, the urge for peace ushered in an era of human rights through the formation of  United Nations. The focus is increasingly on gender equality and empowerment of women. No longer do we live in a society governed by physical prowess, which has been substituted by a society governed by brain power.  In physical power, nature has made men stronger than women but, in a knowledge society, this imbalance is corrected and women have greater parity than men with regard to brain power. Physical strength has been rendered redundant. Things now happen with the push of the finger—be it a computer, a television remote or a telephone set.

In a world governed by brain power girls are equal or even superior to boys.  We notice that girls outshine boys in board, university and various competitive examinations. As the Chancellor of several universities in Odisha, I have noticed that women far outnumber men among gold medalists. We see women excelling in various fields such as teaching, nursing, medicine, administration, banking, engineering and information technology. In all these areas, we have seen how a knowledge society is creating opportunities for women to excel. However, the opportunities for progress available to women are far less than those available to men. The government as well as the community must work towards removing the inequality. Women are capable of higher achievements and they must reach the top.

Change of our mindset is of foremost importance. It should not be viewed as a mere slogan of a few activists only. "Women's Rights are Human Rights" as Hillary Clinton said in her address to the fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing on September 5, 1995

Patriarchal society must be replaced by an equal society. People must see women at an equal footing with men. As Mahatma Gandhi has said, “Woman is the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacities. She has the right to participate in the minutest details in the activities of man, ad she has an equal right of freedom and liberty with him.”  There should be equal opportunity in education, health, economic empowerment with gainful employment. Equality, dignity and safety of women are the three major issues that need to be addressed. Empowering women is empowering the humanity.