“As long as I have life, as long as blood flows through this arm of mine, I shall not leave the cause of freedom.” Sarojini Naidu
The 77th year of our independence is another occasion to remember and celebrate the vital contributions of women in our freedom struggle. Women played an instrumental role in the freedom struggle, fighting with spirit and courage while facing severe torture, exploitation and hardships. Women took to the streets, led processions and held demonstrations in their pursuit of the common cause – an independent India free from colonisation. Many well-known names come to mind in the resistance to British colonial rule, including Bhima Bai Holkar, Rani Lakshmibhai of Jhansi, Rani Channama of Kittur, Rani Begam Hazrat Mahal of Avadh, Anasuyaben Sarabahi, Aruna Asaf Ali, Avantikabai Gokhale, Begum Hasrat Mohani, Durgabai Deshmukh, Faizi sisters, Kamla Nehru, Kasturba Gandhi and many others. Along with these names, let us also not forget the millions of courageous unsung ‘sheroes’ that are not as well-known or remain unknown, whose brave and dauntless stories of contribution to the Indian liberation movement remain largely untold.
The principles of gender equality and justice enshrined in the Indian Constitution reflect the aspirations of these women, and all democratic women and men. While we celebrate our freedom fighters, it is also important to note the signification role of civil society in advancing gender justice. Over the years, much has been achieved for securing and advancing women’s rights through the initiatives of civil society, non-profit organisations and government bodies. We must recognize that assertions of women’s organisations and of democratic movements have led to the establishment of a robust legal framework protecting women against discrimination and violence. Several non-profits and community-based organisations have addressed ongoing violence against women, women’s property rights, women’s livelihood concerns and recognition of women in the world of work. However, a lot more needs to be done to make this structure responsive to the needs of women, especially those from vulnerable and marginalised communities. Despite the numerous strides that women have made in all walks of life, and despite universal promises made at the highest levels of government and civil society, we must recognize that the promise of gender equality in India remains largely unfulfilled.
The greatest indicator of this is the adverse sex ratio in India, which emerges from the prevalence of son-preference or daughter-aversion. The 2011 census had revealed that the sex-ratio had declined to 918 girls, against the 2001 census figure of 927 girls for every 1,000 boys. While we await the latest census data for more accurate information, there is mixed signals from data being generated. In July 2023, the Minister of Women and Child Development shared in Parliament that sex ratio at birth has improved by 15 points between 2014-15 to 2022-23, which is encouraging news but there still is a long way for us to go to normalize sex ratios in our country.
Other indices corroborate the vulnerabilities faced by women and girls. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) shows that more than 30% of married Indian women have suffered spousal violence, while nearly 4% have experienced violence during pregnancy. Furthermore, according to the UNICEF, India is home to the largest number of child brides, with 223 million girls below 18 years of age getting married, negatively impacting their mental, physical and reproductive health.
As an organisation working with vulnerable communities in India for more than 50 years now, ActionAid Association realises that we need a nation-wide movement to celebrate girls and women, and ensure they have access to education, livelihood, property and access to gender responsive public services. We realise that this calls for a social campaign to recognize women’s work in the continuum of care work at home, unpaid and poorly-paid work and work and public spaces that are not safe or conducive to their physical and mental well-being. The social campaign should call on boys and men to share care work at home, for governments and local administrations to provide care services that fall disproportionately on women – which could include community kitchens, longer day care services, and palliative and geriatric care at the community level. These services could be linked with rural and urban employment guarantee schemes serving multiple purposes.
In all this we need to ensure the agency of girls and women, especially those from vulnerable and marginalised communities. ActionAid Association’s work with girls and women across various sectors makes us confident, that once enabled and empowered, these women can lead us into a new heaven of freedom for all marked by gender justice. Happy Independence Day!
Disclaimer: The article was originally published on The Pioneer. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of ActionAid Association.
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