The first concrete moment that I can recall becoming aware of both women’s issues and of India simultaneously came in the form of Amnesty International infomercials. Growing up our television only had three channels and one of those channels subscribed to an uninterrupted reel of Amnesty International infomercials and so I passed my time learning about female genital mutilation, honour killings and political prisoners. It was during one of these days that I first learned about India. I can still remember one in particular: the eyes of a woman dying from her burn wounds, inflicted by her husband’s family, continue to haunt me. At that moment I became intently aware that in much of the world women and men not only are not afforded equal opportunities, but women are valued little more than livestock. While accurate statistics regarding the numbers of women murdered annually by their husbands, brothers and fathers are difficult to attain given the sensitivity of the topic, bureaucracy and stigma the Human Rights Commission has 700 officially recorded deaths in 2009 – the actual figure is estimated to be more than double.
As with any phenomena there of course exists a spectrum; honour killings are at one extreme and although most women will not die at the hands of men in their lives that doesn’t denote that women are not routinely and systematically discriminated against. I asked my students whether they felt that women and men have equal opportunities and I wondered whether, lacking Western education and ideals, they would recognize the extent of discrimination that women continue to face. Even in this remote north Indian area women were distinctly aware of the pervasive patriarchy.
In India and Nepal there is a continued expectation that women belong in the home, and while this is less omnipresent in urban areas like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore it is still a predominant perception in rural areas. The students expressed that in urban areas there is more access to modern resources that support and encourage women’s empowerment, but in much of rural India these organizations are non-existent which keep women oppressed and uneducated. Traditional beliefs in India remain ubiquitous and paint women’s lives with a dark silhouette; in Varanasi the widow of a man is expected to throw herself into the flames consuming her dead husband’s body as she is perceived as worthless devoid of a man. On a less intense but equally oppressive level the idea of men beating their wives is widely accepted as it denotes a man’s “capability”.
Furthermore in rural areas women have no access to sex education, contraception or sometimes, even healthcare. During my time volunteering at the children’s hospital in Faridabad it was austerely evident that the majority of patients were male. The disparity was stark and obvious. And wrong. And although the hospital denounced selective abortion the practice of selective abortions persists and is vastly under-documented.
Being aware of such palpable discrimination it is difficult for anyone to attest to the equal rights and opportunities between men and women; instead of ignoring or accepting the existing inequalities we must fight for women’s empowerment and only then will we be able to proclaim that men and women have equal rights.