By Nazeef Mollah:
The new year has begun with some positive news about steps taken to empower women at their workplace, as well as within the household. It may not be a bonanza, but it sure is a treat.
According to a recent report, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police is to introduce 500 new women constables to its force. The duties of the over one thousand women constables in the ITBP, first inducted in 2008, had previously included only maintenance of law and order, and frisking women at border posts. This batch of women, however, having undergone 44 weeks of arduous training, are to be deployed along the border. In October last year, the Ministry of Defence had promised the first woman fighter pilot in the IAF by July 2017. It seems our armed and para-military forces are finally shedding the outmoded conception of women as the ‘weaker’ sex.
Meanwhile in Bihar, the Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance government has delivered on one its poll promises. 35% reservation has been given to women in all categories of government jobs, whereas earlier it was only there in the police. It is yet another addition to Nitish Kumar’s discernible popularity with women, what with the 50% reservation for them in the Bihar Panchayati Raj Act, 2006, distribution of bicycles, awarding of scholarships to encourage education among girls and other welfare measures.
And these have clearly paid off as the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) data for literacy has shown, with literacy among women (age 15-49) jumping from 37 to 49.6%. Female voter turnout, which has seen an upturn in both absolute and relative terms in the past decade, was noticeably higher in the first four phases of the 2015 Bihar elections. The Chief Minister clearly knows what his primary constituency is!
Maharashtra is now the first state to allow female employees in government jobs having a child through surrogacy 180 days of maternity leave. A similar rule was already in place for pregnant women and mothers who have adopted children. Although commercial surrogacy in India had legally been an option since 2002, this new rule shows a sensitivity towards mothers who take the surrogate route, something that was lacking earlier. However, they would be granted only one such leave in their lifetime.
The state government of Maharashtra had expressed a desire, late last year, for a 5% quota for women in the lottery for granting auto-rickshaw licences. The reason was that few women selected in 2014 had taken up their jobs by then. The official announcement was made recently by the State Transport Minister. It is hoped that this would ensure that a stipulated number of licences go to women, thus increasing their participation in a predominantly male preserve. Several applications had been received by the government, the last date for which was January 12. While criteria for applying have been eased, knowing the local language would be a pre-requisite.
A similar initiative had been launched in February last year in Mumbai to encourage more female taxi drivers. More women in public transportation is likely to induce a sense of security in those working late hours. No offence to the hard-working men in the profession! Some stereotypes are going to be maintained, though, as the rickshaws would possibly have a pink or orange based colour scheme.
It has been decided by the Ministry of Women and Child Development that all establishments with 30 female workers or a total of 50 workers are to have crèche facilities. It will be included in the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961. These crèches are to be located not more than 500 metres from the place of work. This measure would ease the burden on women balancing child rearing and employment.
Apart from the above, the findings of the first phase of the NFHS-4 report, released on the 19th of January by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, has given the ministry a chance to pat itself on the back. It covers 13 states and two Union territories. In it, there are some alarming figures, such as a rise in the number of anaemic women, especially in states like Meghalaya and Haryana which show the steepest rise. But the trends for most social indicators are positive.
There was a marked increase in the number of women, between the age group of 15-49, who manage their own finances. The biggest surprise was Tamil Nadu which saw the percentage of such women rise from 15.9% in 2005-6, when the NFHS-3 was conducted, to a delightfully high 77%. Bihar and Tripura led the list with the highest percentage of women who own property.
Another important category has also shown signs of improvement. That of the percentage of women who have a say in household decisions, which looks reassuring across the country. This, coupled with a decrease in the number of ‘ever-married’ women who have been subjected to spousal abuse, significantly in Madhya Pradesh for example, presents an encouraging picture of their empowerment.
A new category added in the survey was that of women (age 15-24 years) who use hygienic methods of protection during their menstrual period. Tamil Nadu had the highest percentage of 91.4 while Bihar and Madhya Pradesh recorded the lowest percentage. It may be hard to recognise any trends here, but the use of such new measures for gauging women’s well-being may represent a broader normative change in our country.
An interesting observation has been the increase in the proportion of mobile phones used only by women. Now, that could be a consequence of their increased level of literacy or the mobile boom reaching the corners it has always wanted to. But what’s not so great is the marginal fall in total women in these states with comprehensive knowledge of HIV/AIDS. Education needs to be incentivized further for women if we agree that they “hold up half the sky.” And in the fight for gender equality, men need to be sensitised even more on issues that create an imbalance in our world.
Clearly, many issues still exist but what matters is the right step forward and in that spirit, 2016 is already on the right track!