Can we speak of “Mother India”?

The message is clear. No words that I provide can add to this message.

The message is clear. No words that I provide can add to its meaning.

 

In a speech to the United Nations made in September 2015 United States President Barak Obama stated that:-

“One of the best indicators of whether a country will succeed is how it treats its women. And I have to say I do not have patience for the excuse of, ‘Well, we have our own ways of doing things.’”

It should be regarded as appalling that in the twenty first century it is still necessary to be emphasising that in many parts of the world, and in many aspects of life, women still face challenges in terms of being treated with respect and having their basic human rights recognised. Far from having achieved equality, it is true to say that in many instances women and girls remain oppressed and discriminated against.

Yesterday morning, less than a mile from where I am staying in Jayanagar, Bangalore, I came across a wall displaying the paintings shown on this blog page. I was unable to distinguish the function of the building behind this wall as the only indication provided was in Kannada, a language with which I am totally unfamiliar. However, if a picture can tell a thousand words, I think these are more than eloquent in expressing some of the challenges that many women feel exist within Indian society today. Furthermore, I feel certain that these images would resonate with women, and those who empathise with their plight in many other parts of the world.

The treatment of women in India has come under the spotlight and been scrutinised by the media and through the courts on many occasions recently. The death of Jyoti Singh following a savage attack and rape by a gang on a Delhi bus in 2012 is one of the most brutal examples of the dangers that many women and girls face today. But whilst this extreme violence makes the news, inequalities in education and employment opportunities are less frequently debated, despite being an obvious feature of the local landscape. School dropout rate amongst adolescent girls in India remains unacceptably high, despite improvements in recent years, a recent health survey indicated that 56% adolescent girls (15-19 years) in India are anaemic, as against 30% adolescent boys, and the same report shows that girls in India have 61% higher mortality than boys at age 1-4 years. These figures will undoubtedly be disputed and debated, but appear to be a clear indictment of the inequality that exists in twenty first century India.

Fortunately, there are many people here in India as elsewhere who have not only recognised the inequalities perpetuated by a patriarchal society, but are taking action to draw attention to injustice and stand up for those who are subjected to humiliation and discrimination. In 2014 the second Men Engage Global Symposium was held in New Delhi, resulting in the publication of a document that has become known as the Delhi Declaration and Call to Action. The Delhi meeting proposed a number of activities to enable men and boys to debate and understand the impact of discrimination, and to demand a more equitable approach to ensuring women’s rights in all aspects of life. Amongst its most powerful assertions is the following:-

“Patriarchy affects everyone, but in different ways. Women and girls continue to face significant, disproportionately high levels of gender injustice and human rights violation. Men and boys are both privileged and damaged by patriarchy, but are rarely aware of that fact. Men and boys are also gendered beings. Gender equality brings benefits to women, men and other genders.”

The images from the streets of Jayanagar require no interpretation from myself. They are powerful enough to stand without commentary, my only concern being that they are in a back street of a Bangalore suburb and not more prominently displayed. I have a research student here in India whose work is  focused upon the low expectations which still impede the educational opportunities afforded to girls in some Indian communities. She speaks passionately of the benefits that she has gained through education and the support of a family that values the learning that she has gained. She is also conscious of the fact that many others continue to be denied the education that she has received, and she is determined to work as hard as she can to redress the balance.

Life for many women, both here in India and elsewhere, including my own country, has improved significantly. That does not excuse any of us from turning our backs on the many millions of others who still face danger, hardship and deprivation on a daily basis.

How much longer will women feel the need to depict their lives in this way?

How much longer will women feel the need to depict their lives in this way?

 

Newsworthy? Yes, but for how much longer?

Nordstrom have pioneered the way for models with disabilities, but why should this seem remarkable today?

Nordstrom have pioneered the way for models with disabilities, but why should this seem remarkable today?

Sometimes items that are deemed newsworthy by the media raise questions in my mind. This week the UK government underwent a cabinet reshuffle, through which the Prime Minister, David Cameron, appointed a number of new ministers whilst releasing others from their duties. This is an event which happens during the life of all governments and is inevitably followed by days of speculation about why some politicians have been raised in status, whilst others have been demoted. We are also subjected to debates around whether movement from one position, such as Secretary of State for Education to Chief Whip, is actually a demotion or simply a new opportunity for the outgoing minister.

This week’s reshuffle was particularly notable for the discussion surrounding the promotion of a number of female politicians to key posts. This we are told, enables the creation of a cabinet that more fairly represents the population of the country. We should, of course, congratulate all of those who have been elevated to positions of responsibility in government, and we certainly hope that they will do a good job in governing the country. However, I do not think that I am alone in being concerned that in the twenty first century it is still considered newsworthy when women are appointed to positions of power and responsibility. There was I feel, a certain irony in the announcement that women are being appointed to government positions on the date that would have been the 156th birthday of Emmeline Pankhurst, that most doughty fighter for the right of women to vote for their elected representatives. Is it not remarkable that so long after the sacrifices made by Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragettes the appointment of women to the cabinet is still seen as newsworthy?  What does this tell us about the state of equality issues in today’s society.

On the same day as this parliamentary shuffling of the pack took place my attention was drawn to another news item commending the leadership of a fashion and design company called Nordstrom who since 1991 have been employing disabled models to sell their various items of clothing and accessories. Those of you who know me will not be surprised to know that the world of fashion and designer clothes has not featured highly in my purview of the world. Indeed one of my colleagues once described my general appearance as “comfortably dishevelled” (I’m not entirely convinced that this was intended as a compliment!).

For the first time in my life I went on-line to hunt down a fashion catalogue in order to verify what I had read. There indeed on the pages of a glossy publication, were photographs aimed at selling various items of clothing, modelled by women and men with disabilities. (I resisted the temptation to buy – after all I wouldn’t wish to put the economy of local market stall holders at risk!)

Just as with the appointment of women to position of political influence, the newsworthiness of an item about disabled models caused me to reflect on why newspapers are reporting in this way. I certainly applaud any organisation that has a policy of equal opportunities in employment and believe that we should welcome the fact that sectors of our society, who have previously been excluded and marginalised, are now achieving positions of influence. However, I am sure I cannot be alone in thinking that it is sad that we still feel the need to draw attention to what is obviously seen by the media as remarkable progress, even today.

I suspect that what these news items tell us is that we still have some distance to travel, until it ceases to be remarkable that women, people with disabilities or those from ethnic minority groups achieve positions of prominence in our communities. It is certainly good that children in schools have role models in positions to which they may aspire. However, it is only when this situation ceases to attract the attention of the media, that we will recognise that genuine progress has been made in ensuring that individuals from all sections of society have been included as full citizens in our countries.