I was introduced to the word Gender and Gender Empowerment in CARE. CARE worked with another international NGO (ICRW) to ensure that all its staff, read it as male staff, are sensitised to gender. The workshop was about empowerment of women. After some years, I joined a British Charity for a short assignment. So in my orientation meeting, I was told that the charity believes that gender empowerment was one of the main pillar to achieve development. Within Gender Empowerment, it believed that including women in political process was key to gender empowerment. Inclusion in political process not only meant that women participate in elections as voters but also women becoming political leaders and assuming key positions in the political setup. The assumption was that women in power, will influence policies and processes and make them more women friendly or add women’s perspective to legislations.
The evidence on the ground was contrary to assumptions of the team. Indian Sub-continent was one of the first to include women in political process and had women leaders in position of power. Sri Lanka was the first country to have a woman President. India had women Governor, Chief Ministers and in Indira Gandhi had one of the longest serving Prime Ministers. There are only two players in musical chair for the post of President in Bangladesh, that is Begum Khalida Zia and Begum Hasian Wajed since 1991. Pakistan also has had a woman Prime Minister in Benazir Bhutto. All the ladies were head of political parties and won elections to achieve their positions. That is they had popular support. So it is still surprising that status of women is lowest in these countries. India even know has a law that bans testing of sex of foetus and has very poor sex ratio. Honor killing of women is still a norm in most of these countries. In Kabul, one of my colleague told me story of one of his cousin who was married off to a distant relative in Pakistan even though the boy was illegal immigrant in England and there was no chance of two living together as husband and wife for the simple reason, boy’s family used to supply old cars for sale in Kabul and the girl’s family wanted to ensure that they sell all their cars to (girl’s family) them only. The practice using marriage to seal strategic relationships is not confined to Afghanistan only but is prevalent in whole of sub-continent.
The only explanation, I could think of the contradiction (in theory and practical) was that women who rose to power in Indian sub-continent did not promote or champion women rights for they did not see it as constituency. They did not fight for women issues or tried to tilt balance of power in favour of women as it would not have won them elections. These women in power had become Sanskritised or had acquired masculine traits such as courage, toughness etc. These women were tough with their opponent and would not pity or go easy on their opponents like men. Worst is that some of these women were or even more corrupt than men. Some of the current or ex women chief ministers are notoriously corrupt and have cases of disproportionate assets just like their male colleagues.
If we really want to ensure that our policies and laws become more women friendly, we need more than women in powerful positions. We need parliamentarians, legislators, and bureaucrats who are sensitive to and push gender and women related issues. Most importantly we need to make “women issues” a constituency. We need discussions in society on rights of women. And this includes mothers who , That includes raising them in discussions in society, discuss rights of women and giving confidence to women. More importantly it means that the mother realises that it her daughter is important as her son and she has right to get educated, choose a husband and live her own life. Males understand a woman has right to say NO, just like they have right to say no. Daughters have right to inheritance just as sons have.
But more importantly we have to bring back feminine characteristics that is patience, tolerance, empathy, love and care and forgiveness back into the society to make it a better place. We need to bring back honesty and good governance. We need leaders who are caring and not corrupt. Leaders who can forgo personal comfort for people. Leaders who will work selflessly for the people of this country and do what is good for the people, not what gives them more money or power. This is more important and difficult than women empowerment.