The pursuit of gender parity seems boundless even in the 21st century. Despite all the challenges coming in the way of this long-drawn pursuit, a sense of optimism has always been there that however long the journey may be, some day it will terminate into the desired end of gender parity. This article aims to address the various factors that have built this optimism over a span of time and the hurdles which undermine the same.
Let us look at the factors that provide a ground to the optimism of achieving gender parity. In order to cope with the deep-rooted gender inequalities in society, a robust legal framework has been developed. Several women-centric laws have been enacted with a view to bring gender parity in all spheres of public and private life. However, a considerable misuse of some of these laws can also be witnessed, vitiating their whole objective. Nonetheless, one cannot deny that they do deter discrimination against women to a certain extent. Some of the key legislations are listed below:
The Constitution of India by virtue of Article 15(1) deters all sort of discrimination done on the basis of sex and guarantees equal protection of law to men and women under Article 14. It aims to overcome the existing gender inequalities, the indication of which can be found in the Preamble, the Fundamental Rights, the Fundamental Duties, and the Directive Principles of State Policy. It also empowers the State to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favour of women under Article 15(3). Article 16 guarantees equal opportunity to all in matters of public employment. Apart from these Fundamental Rights, the Directive Principles of State Policy under Article 39 guarantees equal right to adequate means of livelihood and equal pay for equal work to all men and women. It also protects the health of women workers from being abused. Article 42 provides that the State shall endeavour to provide just and humane conditions of work to all women and men, also it shall make provisions to provide maternity leave to women. Article 51-A(e) imposes the fundamental duty to denounce practices derogatory to women on every citizen.
Adhering to the Fundamental Rights and other constitutional provisions numerous other legislations have been enacted.
The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 and the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017ensure that women get their maternity leave duly and are not arbitrarily removed from work due to any motherhood responsibilities or pregnancy. It regulates the employment of women during childbirth and provides extended paid maternity leave to pregnant women.
Dowry Prohibition Act (1961) was enacted to bring an end to the age-old discriminatory social practice of dowry.
Hindu Succession Act (1956) the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005 has given equal inheritance rights in paternal as well as ancestral property to women as their male coparceners.
Minimum Wages Act (1948) guarantees equal wages to male and female workers for the same work or work of a similar nature.
Pre-conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act (1994) prohibits sex diagnosis and prevents the misuse of pre-natal diagnostic techniques for sex determination leading to female foeticide.
Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 is a comprehensive legislation to protect women in India from all forms of domestic violence (physical, sexual, mental, verbal or emotional) by the husband or any of his relatives.
Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 ("POSH Act") is the first- ever legislation enacted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to tackle workplace sexual harassment. This Act ensures that women do not get a hostile environment in their workplace. It was enacted in pursuance of the guidelines given by the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India in the case of Vishaka vs. State of Rajasthan, famously known as the Vishaka guidelines. It protects the fundamental rights guaranteed for women under the constitution of India.
Apart from these laws, judicial activism has significantly paved the way for gender parity. Some of the landmark judgements are as follows:
The Secretary, Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya & Ors. (2020): The Supreme Court asked the army and the naval forces to consider granting Permanent Commission to women regardless of their service.
Joseph Shine v. Union of India (2018): In this landmark judgement, the discriminatory Section 497 of the IPC was struck down. .
Danamma v. Amar (2018): The Supreme Court held that daughters who were before the enactment of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 are entitled to equal shares in ancestral property as the male coparceners.
Shayara Bano v. Union of India (2017): The 5-judge constitutional bench of the Supreme Court declared the practice of Triple Talaq as unconstitutional by 3:2 majority.
D. Velusamy v. D. Patchaimmal (2010): It was held that even live-in relationships will come under the Domestic Violence Act, 2005 if they fulfil the conditions laid down in the said judgement.
In light of the aforementioned laws and judgements, it cannot be denied that significant steps have been taken to bridge the gender gap. However, their effectiveness depends on diligent implementation. The implementation in turn gets affected by the lack of awareness amongst the masses and the flawed social norms which offer huge resistance to any change in the status quo.
Now, let us have a look at the factors that render the optimism of achieving gender parity baseless to a certain degree and see if it is actually going to take one or two generations to achieve the same.
The constant rise of the estimated time to abridge the prevailing gender gap over the years has weakened the optimism of attaining gender parity. The gender gap basically indicates the difference between the way men and women are treated in society on multiple fronts. This gap is the result of what Amartya Sen preferably calls “Missing Women”. The term coined by him denotes the declining ratio of women to men be it in the electorate or elsewhere. The gender gap continues to expand. Global Gender Gap Report 2021 released by the World Economic Forum substantiates the same. As per this report, it will now take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide. The time estimated in the year 2020 was 99.5 years.
The escalation in the gender gap is quite evident. India after slipping 28 ranks has reached the 140th spot this year among 156 nations. The parameters taken into consideration while preparing this report include economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. For some of the above-listed parameters like educational attainment, health and survival, the gender gap has substantially been reduced over the years. However, it continues to widen in the case of political empowerment and the rest of the parameters. An increase in women voter participation over the years can be seen as a silver lining. This increases the accountability of the contesting leaders towards the female voters and their causes. The more their participation, the greater will be the heed paid to their demands.
Political empowerment is seen as one of the most powerful means of attaining gender parity but the entire world lags behind on this issue barring few exceptions that have emerged in the recent past. The number of countries with women Heads of State or Government is as less as 22 out of 193 countries at present. The number of female Parliamentarians and ministers is also highly inadequate, especially in India. To enhance the political empowerment of women, the Women Reservation Bill that proposes the reservation of 33 percent seats for women in the Parliament and State Assemblies can be decisive. It was first introduced in the year 1996 but due to lack of political will, it has not been passed till date. The lack of political will is a major constraint in bridging the gender gap in politics in India. We have seen how women lawmakers have diligently worked for the causes of women in different parts of the world. The best example is of countries like Scotland where distinct legislations have been enacted with the endeavours of female leaders to tackle period poverty. Period Poverty, that is to say, the lack of access to period products and inadequate infrastructure happens to be a major factor for the increasing gender gap in India for it is the main reason behind high dropout rates of teenage girls. Many underprivileged women workers are forced to leave their work due to period poverty which in turn deprives them of their financial independence. The aim of tackling this grave issue of period poverty having such a detrimental effect on women’s health and career needs to be prioritised. It will be easier with greater participation of women as lawmakers and ministers.
Some other factors increasing the gender gap are women being engaged in unpaid household chores, increased payments to the male workers which discourage their female partners to step out and work independently, shortage of flexible work opportunities for women be it because of safety concerns, health conditions or household responsibilities, etc.
Where does the Judiciary stand with respect to gender gap?
There have been many landmark decisions that have shortened the gender gap. However, gender insensitivity continues to exist in many of the decisions. The participation of women in the higher judiciary particularly is highly inadequate. The number of women Supreme Court judges in the last 70 years is as low as 8. This shows the vast gender gap that exists in the judiciary itself. As of now, there is only one sitting woman judge in the Supreme Court, Justice Indira Banerjee, while Justice Hima Kohli is the only woman judge amongst the 25 chief justices who head high courts. Such a dismal representation gives way to gender insensitivity in the decisions as the setup gets highly patriarchal. The representation of women in the lower judiciary is comparatively assuring. But as we reach closer to the tip of the judicial pyramid, the number goes on decreasing. This is why reservation for women in the higher judiciary is sought so that more and more women get involved in taking decisions for uplifting the womankind particularly.
Another factor that takes a toll on gender parity is the problematic social conditioning passed on from one generation to the other. This can be termed as the greatest resistance as it gets reflected in the actions of many people irrespective of how well-educated they are. The social conditioning that does not treat women as equals needs to be challenged and uprooted. These regressive and discriminatory practices need to be denounced.
The way ahead:
Education and financial independence are undoubtedly the two prime ways of empowering women to continue their journey towards gender parity. With the increased number of girls getting a higher education and working as well, the gender gap has substantially reduced with respect to the parameters of education and work opportunities. The government schemes like Beti Bachao Beti Padhao have had decisive impacts in maintaining the Child Sex Ratio in the gender-critical states. The state governments provide several financial incentives to deter child marriages of girls and to promote their education guaranteeing their financial security, thereby reducing the gender gap. But the inherent social biases and obstacles against women do make women less optimistic for any change. The political empowerment of women is indispensable and can restore the diminishing optimism. The safety of women and the increasing rates of crimes against them are another cause of serious concern. This hinders women from making career choices they want or for that matter working freely like their male counterparts. So, stringent laws with stricter implementation can really save the day. The government can also create skill training opportunities for women especially in the service sector so that they undertake unconventional jobs pre-occupied by men at present. The women working in the unorganised sector suffer the most due to the existing gender inequalities and they need to be given requisite legal protection so that they are not exploited. Transparency in recruitment and promotion can prevent discrimination against women employees. These changes nurture the optimism that gender parity though not so not easily attainable is even not impossible to attain. They make it well-grounded in the face of the all the hurdles.
Banaras Hindu University.