EQUALITY FOR WOMEN IS THE HARSH SOCIAL REALITY IN INDIA
In India, the constitutionally guaranteed equality for women is often contradictory to the harsh social reality of the land and its cultural norms.
The struggle for women’s equality began in India in the 20th century, during the struggle for Independence. In the fight against the British, western-educated leaders like B.R.Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and Savitribai Phule encouraged women to step away from their homes and hearths and enter the public sphere in the fight for Independence.
Indian values, nationalism, and cultural heritage were glorified through the symbolism of ‘Mother India’.
The inclusion of the female citizen into the public sphere necessitated citizenship rights and changes in the law such as the right to education, inheritance rights, abolition of sati and polygamy as well as the allowance for the widow- remarriage.
FACTORS OF DECLINE IN WOMEN PARTICIPATION
The decline has occurred due to several factors:
- Absence of comprehensive and rational policy for women’s emancipation through education, training, and access to resources such as land, credit, and technology, etc.
- The perception of males as the breadwinner of the family despite the fact that in low-income households women’s income is crucial for sustenance. This perception adversely affects women’s education & training. Employers also visualize women workers as supplementary workers & also cash in on this perception to achieve their capitalistic motives by keeping the wage low for women.
- Structural changes in the economy e.g decline in traditional rural industries or industrialization.
- Lack of assets (land, house) in their own name in order to have access to credit and self-employment opportunities
- The huge demand of time and energy of women for various tasks at home like childbearing and rearing etc in addition to participation in the labor force leaves them with little time for education, training, and self-development.
- Division of labor based on the gender between men and women & technological advancements work against women. They are the last to be hired and the first to be sacked.
- Govt. programs to increase employment and productivity are focused more on men & women are seen as beneficiaries rather than active participants.
LANDMARK JUDGEMENTS ON WOMEN RIGHTS IN INDIA
- A landmark judgment in protecting women’s rights in the context of the family is the SC judgment in Vineeta Sharma v Rakesh Sharma (2020) where the court held that daughters would have equal rights in Hindu Undivided Family property (HUF) by virtue of their birth and could not be excluded from inheritance, irrespective of whether they were born before the 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956.
Before the 2005 amendment, there was marked discrimination in determining the rights of a son and daughter in claiming the inheritance. A son could claim a share in HUF property as a matter of right, while a daughter, ceased to have any such right upon her marriage as she was considered to be a part of her husband’s family.
- The court has also sought to provide for the safety of women at the workplace by protecting them from sexual harassment. The court framed detailed guidelines in the Vishakha v State of Rajasthan (1997) case for employers to follow to provide a mechanism for redressal of grievances of employees. These guidelines were eventually formalized as legislation with the passing of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, a vital law to protect millions of women who enter the country’s workforce every year.
- The Supreme Court also held in The Secretary, Ministry of Defence v Babita Puniya & Ors. (2020) the case that all women army officers are eligible for permanent commissions, allowing them to be in command roles. Women officers are now on par with their male counterparts when it comes to promotions, rank, benefits, and pensions, thereby fortifying their position in the defense sector, an institution with rigid gender norms.
- In Shayra Bano v Union of India (2017) case, the court declared that the practice of instant triple talaq (talaq-e-bidat) is against the basic tenets of the Quran. Talaq-e- bidat is a practice that gives a man the right to divorce his wife by uttering ‘talaq’ three times in one sitting, without his wife’s consent.
The court directed the Centre to pass legislation in this regard, which led to the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights of Marriage) Act, 2019.
As per the Act, any Muslim husband who pronounces triple talaq on his wife shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend up to three years and a fine.
- The court also departed from its traditional recalcitrance in issuing judgments in matters of faith while passing its verdict in the Sabrimala (2019) The court held that devotion cannot be subjected to gender discrimination and permitted the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala Temple despite a centuries-old custom banning the entry of menstruating women.
- The court also affirmed the right of a woman in exercising her sexual freedom in a personal sphere with the Joseph Shine v Union of India (2018) judgment wherein the court placed its reliance on the right to privacy flowing from Article 21 and, declared as unconstitutional, Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, which gives a husband the exclusive right to prosecute his wife’s lover even as similar rights were not conferred on a wife to prosecute the woman with whom her husband has committed adultery.
- The then Chief Justice Deepak Misra rightly observed that Section 497 treated a married woman as nothing more than her husband’s property as adultery is only an offense when it happened without the consent of the married man and the woman has no say in the matter.
While the judgments as illustrated above point to material headways made to safeguard the rights of women, the surging cases of violence against women and their continuing diminution in various arenas, cannot but lead to the conclusion there is still dissonance between the framing of laws and their implementation on the ground.
IMPROVE REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN INDIA – JUDICIARY
Since its inception 70 years ago, only eight woman judges have been appointed to the Supreme Court. Justice Fathima Beevi was the first woman SC judge and she was appointed in 1989, 40 years after its establishment.
Since 1989, only seven other women were appointed as judges of the Supreme Court — Justice Sujatha Manohar, Justice Ruma Pal, Justice Gyan Sudha Misra, Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai, Justice Banumathi, Justice Indu Malhotra, and Justice Indira Banerjee.
Furthermore, only two woman judges — Justice Ruma Pal and Justice R. Banumathi — have been part of the top court’s collegium, a high-powered body responsible for appointing judges to high courts.
Supreme Court of India only has 2 women judges, as against a sanctioned strength of 34 judges. There has never been a female Chief Justice of India. These figures are consistently low across the Higher Judiciary.
There are only 80 women judges out of the total sanctioned strength of 1,113 judges in the High Courts and the Supreme Court across India.
Out of these 80 women judges, there are only two in the Supreme Court, and the other 78 are in various High Courts, comprising only 7.2 percent of the total number of judges.
Of the 26 courts whose data was accessed, including the Supreme Court, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has the maximum strength of women judges (11 out of 85 judges) in the country, followed by the Madras High Court (9 out of 75 judges).
The Delhi High Court has 229 men and 8 women designates. Similarly, in the Bombay High Court, there are 6 women and 157 men designate.
There are six High Courts, which consist of Manipur, Meghalaya, Patna, Tripura, Telangana, and Uttarakhand, where no sitting judges include any woman judge.
At the same time, there is only one woman judge in six other High Courts of the country.
Currently, no data is centrally maintained on the number of women in tribunals or lower courts. There are only 17 women senior counsel designates in the Supreme Court, as opposed to 403 men.
The Indian judiciary needed more woman judges to eliminate the “insensitive approach” of courts towards cases of sexual violence.
To remedy the situation, the Supreme Court said, there must direct collection of data to determine the number of women judges in the lower judiciary and tribunals and also to determine the year-wise number of senior designates by all High Courts.
POLITICAL STATUS OF WOMEN IN INDIA
Though India had a women Prime Minister Late Ms. Indira Gandhi, women are not fairly represented in the Parliament & other State & Local bodies.
However, 73rd & 74th amendments to the constitution have ensured the participation of women in PRIs with a reservation of 1/3rd for women. Today more than 30 million women are actively participating in the political decision-making process at the grass root.
Women are the single largest group excluded from constitution-making processes. In countries affected by conflict or unrest, just 19 percent of members of constitution-reform bodies between 1990 and 2015 were women.
Although women are nearly half the population, they make up a mere 11.6% of the 542-member Lok Sabha and 11% of the 245-member Rajya Sabha. India ranks 99th in the world in terms of female representation among MPs.
Despite increasing attention to women’s roles in peace processes in recent years and mounting evidence of positive outcomes when women exert influence women’s roles in constitutional reform remain poorly understood.
Research demonstrates that a country is less likely to relapse into conflict when women’s representation in parliament is high. In fact, scholars have shown that gender equality is a greater predictor of peace than a country’s wealth, levels of democracy, or religion.