‘More opportunities for Indian women but cultural barriers a hindrance’ (IANS interview)

Thiruvananthapuram, Nov 14 (IANS) India has a framework to allow women to opt for any choice they want to but cultural barriers stop them from doing so, a senior UN diplomat said here on Friday.

Aparna Mehrotra, senior advisor, coordination, United Nations Women in an interview with IANS said, “Indian women have more opportunities to be empowered but the cultural barriers stop them.”

Q: What does empowerment of women mean in United Nations terminology? How far is India to attain empowerment of women?

A: The empowerment of women means allowing people access to their choices. A man and a woman must be able to entertain this and there must be no restriction on their choice. India is a very free society, and because it is such a big democracy, choices are there for any part of the population. Cultural norms, however, may often prevent you from making those choices. Women (in India) are not always able to access opportunities because they are not educated and other factors.

Q: Where does India stand globally in terms of the violence women are subjected to?

A: There is no country in the world where violence against women is not an issue. It is very difficult to say where India stands, but no country stands well placed because even one case of violence against women is too many.

Under-reporting is a problem in India as it is elsewhere. It is a problem which is rooted in culture. There are different procedures that victimises a victim and it is also rooted in human nature. Once you are traumatised, it is very difficult to carry on a procedure of being victimised. You will want to leave the issue behind in many cases.

Q: What are the factors that lead a country to be more vulnerable in terms

of violence against women? Is it economy, politics or war?

A: The interesting thing about violence against women is that there is no direct co-relation between economic status and incidents of violence. Violence takes place among the extremely wealthy and the poor as well.

It seems to be about mindset and the de-valuing of women. When women occupy a majority of a profession or when profession becomes feminised, it drives down the wages.

There is something that is going on in the culture, objectification of women traditionally, traditional mind-sets, whether they are accurately portrayed, interpreted using religion, or any other cultural practice, but it is debatable, I don’t think religions per se are violent or perpetuating violence. It is how you interpret your religion or social norms.

Q: What about the condition of women in war zones?

A: In conflict, rape is used as a weapon of war. And it was only recently that rape has been declared a war crime. So in conflict zones the plight of women is infinitely worse, because the women have to carry the burden of being victimised by the violence and they have to carry the burden of being the caretaker and being the rejuvenator of the economy because the men are otherwise occupied with the violence, so the care economy of women in the zones of conflict increases multiple fold. They have to take care of all dimensions.

Q: What is the role of United Nations Women to enforce safety of women in a country?

A: No external institution can assist countries to provide internal security. It is a matter of keeping the home safe, keeping a lawful society and setting standards and norms. So what the international community has done is it has raised the profile of issue of violence against women.

It has asked and created standards where it urges governments to alter their procedures whereby violence is reported.

One very egregious fact is that violence against women statistics are never collected for violence for women over the age of 49. Because in traditional terms women was valued for her reproductive duties.

Q: How do we tackle practices like witch-hunting in India?

A: At the most you have to legislate against these basic customary practices. You cannot inflict violence and you cannot exclude and deny anyone of their dignity and human rights irrespective of who they are.

You have to make sure that any foundation for discrimination is certainly addressed in the law. Thereafter you have to look for different discriminations and different practices. But one single element that society has to come together to address is the mindset. Traditionally, all societies are patriarchal. So, one has to engage with the institutions, so that they alter there structure and women are better accepted in the formal sectors and the labour force.

Q. Do we need more non-governmental organisations to work at the ground level?

A: In a country like India, the government is certainly a huge employer but when it comes to changing mindsets in private home, the government cannot change every aspect of your life at home.

About violence, if there is a law, the government has to implement. To shift the mindset you need the facilitative environment, you need to enforce the legislation in the framework, you need a police force that is sensitive to the problem and is not victimising people multiple times. You also need civil society to do the job that often the government cannot do and in a country which is as complex as India.

(This correspondent is in Thiruvananthapuram on the invitation of Gender Park- Government of Kerala and can be contacted at ruwa.s@ians.in)

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