Why do we still need an International Women’s Day?

  • May 12, 2017

You know it is not an ordinary day when successful women from different walks of life – politics, journalism, social work, literature and banking – come under one roof to talk about gender parity. Even today, for many people the issue of “gender equality” is a hoax. What these people fail to realise is that gender-based discrimination is real and is unfortunately faced by most women, every single day of their lives. To bring the issue back on the table and to celebrate the achievements of women across different nations, the 10th edition of the Indian Council of United Nations Relations (ICUNR) International Women’s Day, supported by the Delhi Government, was held on March 3rd, 2017 at the Hotel Le Meridien in New Delhi, India. In the introductory address, Mr. Kapil Mishra, Minister of National Capital Territory of Delhi, said, “I dream of a day when we no longer need a women’s day.”

Questioning the way the Indian society functions, he said, “India is a country, where to be able to take birth is an achievement for a girl. And this is not the problem of the uneducated or the so-called ‘backward people’. It is the problem prevalent among the educated middle and upper class, who deliberately opt for sex-determination tests for “choosing” whether or not they want their child. This is not the problem of the poor, illiterate India. People of the ‘rich and the educated’ are responsible for making it difficult for a girl to take birth. And even if she manages to take birth, her life becomes an endless exhausting struggle.” Asserting that “change will begin at our own homes first”, he said, “I have a five-year-old daughter and every single day I make a call to ask whether she has returned home. This concern is not merely out of love and affection of a parent but also out of fear. This fear resides in everyone’s hearts. And we have to overcome this fear.” The Minister further added, “It is very easy to highlight the achievements of the society and the culture we live in, where we worship women as goddesses and deities. Don’t worship them; treat them as equal individuals. Because once we put a woman on that pedestal, we don’t let her live like a human being.”

Concluding his address on a positive note he said, “The awardees that are present here, are not being awarded just because of their individual achievements. They are being awarded because they have fought the patriarchal society to reach where they are today. In every organisation, we have women who are changing the society and are leaving their footprints behind. I salute these women.”

Role of women in nation building

The panel discussion began on “The Idea of India – Brand India and the Role of Women in Nation Building” with the notion that ‘Charity begins at home and so does equality.’ According to McKinsey’s Global Institute’s ‘The Power of Parity Report,’ India could add about $700 billion of additional Gross Domestic Product in 2025 by enabling women to participate in the economic development at par with men. The question was, how can we reach the desired destination when even today the leadership positions held by women in India are at a sad figure of 10-14%? “There is definitely a lot more work that needs to be done,” said Shereen Bhan, Managing Editor of CNBC-TV 18. “Enabling women to take on leadership roles and encouraging them to continue to remain there is a different story altogether.”

How do you encourage women to stay on? She said, “Each organisation must map the choices that it needs to make to ensure that women who enter the workforce don’t drop out because of the commitments required at home. Therefore, we need to inculcate a culture where women are told that it is okay to make choices and choose a career, if that’s what they want to do. I also think that you need to have more gender neutral policies in the organisation so that people don’t then use it as an excuse not to hire women. We need to encourage a culture of meritocracy.” When TOA quizzed Shereen Bhan on whether she was discriminated because of her gender, she said, “I don’t think that I felt discriminated but I didn’t feel included as well, much later on in my career. It was in the decision-making process at a senior level. Hence, it wasn’t so much about being discriminated against, as much as it was about being included. That was the first instance when I felt I should speak up and say that I should be part of the decision-making process. That was a turning point for me in the way I negotiate in my personal space as well.”

On being asked whether she takes a stand for herself and the other women during the decision-making process that concerns her family, she said, “My parents have never treated my sister or me any differently and we were given to do whatever we wanted to do – be it career choices or life choices. You can’t be made to feel guilty about living your life the way you want to. Because at the end of the day, you are responsible for yourself. Choose your battles wisely and wherever it is non-negotiable, put your foot down and say no to what is not acceptable.”

The ‘toilet factor’

Naina Lal Kidwai, the Group General Manager and Country Head of HSBC India pointed towards an interesting observation. She said, “The things that were a dream at the time I started working, which I used to call the ‘toilet factor’, i.e. ‘where is the bathroom for the women in the organisation they work’ is a given today. These changes, though appear minor, are very critical as we go forward. The idea of a crèche is something that you could only dream of when I began my journey. Whereas today, many organisations, especially the forward thinking ones are providing with baby care and maternity leave with six months becoming the norm.” She added, “It is not just about us, as women and who we are, it is about the way the men around treat us; the security we get as individuals, and the way we are supported by our parents and the society at large. All we want is a place to be treated with respect, to be treated as equals and to be able to contribute to our full potential.”

Swati Maliwal, the Chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women, expressed concern at the limited representation of women in political-leadership. She said, “If you look at the Parliament of India, only 10% of it is women.” Sharing a personal experience she said, “Ever since my posting in the Delhi Commission for Women, I see a lot of “male ego” in the voice of the system, whenever we question the authorities. We talk a lot about women empowerment, but when it comes to accepting a woman as an equal, when it comes to a woman calling the shots, it is still very difficult for people to accept that.”

The solution?

“Reservation,” Maliwal added, “at least initially, because I am sure after some time it will not be needed. We are half of the population and I would want to see a Parliament which consists 50% of women.” Giving a comparative overview between Germany and India, Evelyn Collin, the Chief Executive and Country Officer in India of leading European financial services group Societe Generale, said, “Coming to India, I have seen a number of women in leadership roles. I can tell you twenty years ago in Germany, it was impossible for a woman to work- you had to choose between family and work.”

Recognising the uphill battle

When the award-distribution ceremony began, the acceptance speeches overwhelmed the ambience. Among the list of awardees were: Asha Devi for Women Empowerment, Axelle Nicaise for India-European Union Relations, Evelyn Collin for Banking, Girija Krishan Varma for Law, Renu Hussain for Poetry, Dr. Surbhi Singh for Social Work, Rekha Mehra for Dance, Priya Sachdev for Fashion, Swati Maliwal for Social Activism, Li Hong Ying for Social Diplomacy, Payal S Kanwar for Indo-French Relations, among others. When the Ambassador of Burundi, H.E. Ms. Katabarumwe Ragine received the award for Political Diplomacy, she accepted the award with a heartfelt gratitude. She said, “I thank you for organising this event today to remember the special occasion of Women’s Day. Women are powerful beings. We bring life, and bringing in a new life is a privilege; it is a matter of pride for us. I want to make this comment here, and say that we need reservation in some posts, at least in the initial phase, to become a part of the decision-making process. In India, I have noticed that there are so many women in leadership roles – the former President of India Mrs. Pratibha Patil, the External Affairs Minister Mrs. Sushma Swaraj, to name a few. Here we are around ambassadors who are women, representing their respective countries. You can understand how much women can achieve in politics, economics and many other sectors. But there are some employers who are always asking “Are you married?” or “Are you pregnant?” for the fear of providing women with a maternity leave. But they forget that that leave is for bringing a new life, for carrying on with the natural cycle. I hope in the future our male counterparts will understand why we need gender parity.”

Equality is the word!

As all good things come to an end, so did the event with a vote of thanks by the ICUNR and a strong message that would linger in every one’s thoughts for a long time- no one needs to make women strong; they are already strong. The idea is to have equality for all. The idea is to co-exist together…. peacefully!

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