For the first time, silence has been broken with the #MeToo campaign around the world. What do you think this will culminate into?
It’s really important that this breaking of silence is happening around the world. As we saw in the Nirbhaya case, there was a people’s movement, an uprising and an outrage. That’s what is happening in the United States now against misogyny and discrimination. A people’s movement is building up very strongly and asserting itself and that is in turn giving courage to women across societies to come forward against something they have accepted as part of their lives.
Surveys have told us that men think it is their entitlement to be violent sexually. That culture of impunity is being challenged very openly and perpetrators are being named and shamed and punished. This is a positive thing. It is a cathartic expression. Hopefully, this will act as a deterrence to perpetrators. This also brings to the fore the whole issue of violence in the context of power; these people who have been exposed are those who wielded power over their victims. This movement also serves as a powerful reminder that people in power cannot get away and Hollywood is the one place which has brought into limelight many of these things; right from Bill Cosby to Kevin Spacey, there has been a kind of exorcising.
In what way has the social media acted as a force multiplier in calling out sexism in what is largely termed as the fourth wave of feminism?
Typically when we talk of different waves, we all look at certain milestones that have been crossed. I cannot say which is the third wave and which is the fourth and in which countries. But certainly, it is a very powerful breaking out of the mould, a challenge to the injustice that has been happening, and a very strong push for gender justice. Social media has been a powerful medium for not only this protest but also for movement building, change, and questioning of all that was quietly accepted by both sides. Enterprises and companies have been forced to take action- such as Netflix cancelling shows featuring the perpetrators – all of these were driven by the outrage that has been provoked and driven by social media.
The World Economic Forum recently released the Global Gender Gap report which ranks India at 108 among 144 countries, a decline of 21 positions in a year. What has set back India so severely?
The participation of women in the formal labour force is itself very low. Then within formal employment, there is a wage gap, the issue of sticky floors (women kept at lower ranks) and glass ceiling (barriers that prevent women from occupying the top positions). All of that would be reflected in the economic indicators which bring it down. In India, political participation at the local government level is fantastic, as high as 50 per cent in many states. But in the Parliament and state assemblies, the representation is very low with the Bill for even one-third reservation pending since decades.
It will take 100 years for the gender gap to close as per the WEF. In what ways can this process be accelerated?
You cannot do business as usual. It cannot be governance, economy, or family as usual, and expect that things will change. There has to be a political will to take really strong and special measures. Whether it is through mandating quotas, targeting, incentives, disincentives, whether it is companies, judiciary, or law enforcement that have to be made to conform to gender parity criteria. Affirmative action is absolutely needed till substantive equality is achieved. Secondly, there are still discriminatory laws in 155 countries. We need to do away with those. That’s why Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 5.1 is about ending discrimination against women in law and practice. A related issue is the existence of customary laws in several countries, including India. Sometimes these parallel legal and justice systems militate against rights that are provided to women in a federal context. These need to be set aside. These are the reasons we still have child marriages or female genital mutilation (FGM).
It’s not just the personal laws but the ‘sanctity of the family’ argument that is used to justify extreme forms of gender violence in India, be it in case of female genital mutilation (FGM) and marital rape.
Globally, our position on FGM has been very clear. It has been identified in SDG 5.3 as a harmful practice, which has to be banned and eliminated. We have always advocated a zero tolerance towards it. Those who deny marital rape argue that once there is the sanctity of marriage how can it be termed as rape. Our general position is that consent is important and that it is the human right of women to be free from violence in all its forms.
And yet there is a reluctance on part of the state to step in and right the wrongs perpetrated by religious practices, for instance, the ban against the entry of women in some of the temples and dargahs.
Such practices come from the patriarchal interpretations of various religion by men: be it the maulvis, pandits, clergy, or Buddhist monks. This is why we need women scholarship across faiths coming forward to disprove these alternative facts. You have to mobilise voices from within the community to criminalise the very things that were overlooked or sanctioned by default. While political leadership and the legislature play an important role, in India, the courts have been a good avenue for gender justice in this regard.
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