Rethinking Women Empowerment Through The Lens Of Positive Psychology

By Maitryee Talukder Ralte and Upasana Lepcha:

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day reads “I am Generation Equality: Realising Women’s Rights” with the express aim of advancing gender equality worldwide. With women’s increased visibility as role models in varied aspects of life one would think that women have garnered a semblance of equality.

This, however, is far from reality characterised by discriminatory attitudes and practices at the workplace, in the family, in the sphere of education and representation in political institutions, all having negative implications on women’s well-being; their mental health in particular.

This fact has been underscored in the WHO report (2001) dealing with gender disparities and mental health. According to the report, depression has been predicted as the second leading cause of global disability burden by 2020, and this being twice as prevalent in women.

Women sit at an SHG meeting in rural Madhya Pradesh. (Photo: McKay Savage/Wikimedia Commons)

In the Indian context, studies have shown that common mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, psychological distress, sexual violence, domestic violence, and escalating rates of substance abuse affect more women than those attributable to pressures created by gender discrimination. (Malhotra, 2015)

In the light of this evidence, it is necessary to understand the importance of mental health in determining women’s quality of life. Women’s mental health is often undervalued due to ‘stigma consciousness’ – the degree to which women are aware that they may face rejection because they are most often not perceived for who they are but viewed as stereotypes (e.g. “women lack in mathematical skills” or “women are prone to hysteria”) and excluded from social roles (e.g. jobs or relationships) or as sources of help and empathetic understanding.

If we are to advocate for women’s equality, rights and empowerment we must create consciousness around the mechanisms that promote and protect women’s mental health. We must talk about the phenomenon, enough, to break the cycle of the prevailing inter-generational trauma that has been propagated through a shame-based culture.

Furthermore, the high incidence of mental health issues suffered by women engenders curiosity as to what causes women to be at greater risk than their male counterparts? The answer to this is multifaceted, ranging from biology to social, economic, cultural and political variables, all of which are interconnected and circuitously influence mental health.

For instance, unlike men, most women have to cope with gender-specific biological vulnerabilities such as menstrual-cycle-related hormonal fluctuations that cause mood changes. These hormonal fluctuations are often heightened by various environmental or socio-cultural stressors which include the gender based role of women being the predominant care-giver in the family. This role and expectations centered on it is perpetuated by the patriarchal system that oppressively resists women’s autonomy in decision-making, especially in the Indian context.

Women labourers at a brick kiln. (Photo: Well-Bred Kannan/Flickr)

Other oppressive mechanisms include dowry, childbirth practices and maternal roles, reduced opportunities for education and respectable employment.

Furthermore, socially disadvantaged sections of women such as women with disability, single mothers, widows and the financially under privileged, are subjected to social exclusion that is untenable. Hence, women tend to be at greater risk to experiencing mental health issues caused by a combination of underlying biological predisposition and a gender biased systemic structure.

Another challenge to a woman’s mental health is the judgments the collective takes with respect to the choices women make. Stereotyping of women by women and society at large is also a building block of patriarchy. What makes it worse is that most women are ill-equipped to cope with these stressors due to an internalised powerlessness through social conditioning.

Take for example, the higher rates of suicide among Indian housewives. The National Crime Records Bureau reported that 20,000 housewives took their lives in India in 2014, which was more than the farmer suicides that year. The reasons for such national crisis remains entrenched in Indian patriarchy which upholds impossible standards for women.

Advertising propaganda specifically target and portray women in commercials for detergents, kitchen appliances, health food, children’s clothing and so on. Why is this so? Corporate and media houses rely on hard data through market analysis which indicate that women in India, especially mothers, are juggling many roles and responsibilities fairly well.

The truth is that this juggling act is physically and mentally exhausting. Motherhood is often undervalued as a full-time job. When this is coupled with a job, whether by choice or by necessity, motherhood becomes an overwhelming experience for anyone.

The socialisation of a woman requires her to adhere to impossible standards of perfection, prompting her to put other people’s feelings and needs before her own. This forces women to bury their felt emotions deep down, as, expressing anger, sadness and even happiness too freely would be unbecoming of a perfect woman and may even have her labeled as being ‘crazy’ or melodramatic.

However, striving to live up to the idea of a perfect human being detaches one from her own humanity. Men too have been encouraged to not show any emotions with tears being tabooed. How exactly are they expected to support the woman in their lives if they themselves cannot be true to themselves in the first place? As Audre Lorde had cautioned, “Imposed silence about any area of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness.

It is in this context that emotional vulnerability and healthy expression of our emotions gains in significance. However, both men and women are vulnerable emotionally due to anxiety, stemming from their fear of  being rejected, shamed or their being judged as inadequate. Asking for help seems like a vulnerable move and any vulnerability is usually seen as weakness. But can vulnerability be construed as strength?

The field of psychology is increasingly recognising the value of being vulnerable, that is, taking the risk to courageously open up about our lived experiences with trusted people rather than putting up a façade of “keeping it all together.”

According to Dr Brene Brown, author and social researcher, although being vulnerable indicates the possibility of being hurt, it also opens up possibilities of empathy, creativity and transformations through connection with others who honour and value what we share.

It is in this sense that one’s vulnerability signifies courage and strength rather than weakness. Beginning this Women’s Day, may we resolve to practice vulnerability and empower ourselves to speak out. When we as women, speak up for ourselves, we gain in strength, that which brings us closer to the goal of equality.

Having said this, it is important to realise that the task of protecting a woman’s mental well-being is not for her to bear in isolation. A woman needs supportive people around her coupled with ongoing systemic changes at the policy and civil society levels.

As is the case, individuals and society have to work in tandem for true change to persevere. The point of stressing on a woman’s individual role in remedying her plight is to encourage her to look within with compassion and awaken the wisdom she already has.

We, as women need to rise up to this challenge of owning our stories and re-author our lives from a position of victimhood to courage, to compassion, to power and rise bravely, one day at a time. To quote Dr Brene Brown, “There is no greater threat to the critics, cynics and fear mongers than a woman who is willing to fall because she has learned how to rise.” 

Note: this article was first published here.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Sumita Roy Dutta/Wikimedia Commons.
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