Communication Policy for Women’s Empowerment: Media Strategies and Insights
Despite rapid economic growth in the post-reform period and all the flagship programs of the government, India ranks very low on narrowing the gender gap in education, health, and economic participation. India is among the few countries of the world where female labor force participation is shrinking with less than 15% in any form of paid work. In this context, the role of the National Mission for Empowerment of Women (NMEW) is crucial for interministerial convergence of gender mainstreaming of programs, policies, and institutional processes of participating ministries which have largely operated independently and in a stand-alone manner. Sustainable development in India can be a reality only when there is gender equality and justice-based development that accords top priority to the welfare of women.
KeywordsGender inequality in India Violence against women Media strategies Communication policy Women’s empowerment
The status of women is one of the most pressing contemporary development concerns at the international as well as the national levels. Historically though women enjoyed a respected position in the ancient cultures of India, Persia, and Greece, over time the situation has been drastically altered, and women were isolated from major developments that may have led to their modernization and autonomy especially in many developing countries. In India, women constitute a population of 586.5 million with 405.2 million (48.6%) in the rural areas and 181.2 million in the urban areas (RGI 2011). It is among the countries with the largest female population which makes it imperative to focus on communication policies that address their advancement and empowerment to foreground sustainable development.
There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly on one wing. - Swami Vivekananda
India recorded a high economic growth of 9% per annum during 2005–2006 to 2008–2009. In 2016, India climbed 16 places from 55th place to the 39th rank on the Global Competitiveness Index prepared by the World Economic Forum with the economy characterized by improved business sophistication and goods market efficiency (WEF 2016). This remarkable economic achievement has yet to be translated into human development for half of India’s population. While India slipped to 131 among 188 countries ranked in terms of human development, it ranks at 132 out of 146 countries in the Gender Inequality Index, which reflects the dismal status of women (UNDP 2017).
The 2016 Human Development Report (UNDP 2017) red flags the stark reality that the largest gender disparity in development was in South Asia where the female HDI value was 20% lower than for males; India accounts for the largest gender disparity in the region. In rural India, where teenage marriages are common, women face insecurity regarding a regular income, food, shelter, and access to health care. It is an understatement to say that violence against women is multidimensional; it is structural, brutal, and a part of everyday life (Ravi and Sajjanhar 2014). Indian women marry at a median age of just 17 years, and 16% of women aged 15–19 have already started bearing children, according to the 2005–2006 National Family Health Survey (IIPS 2007). With 212 per 100,000 live births, India ranks among the countries with the highest maternal mortality rates (MMR) accounting for one-third of maternal deaths in 2015 worldwide (RGI 2009). It was estimated that every year, 78,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth even though 75% of these deaths can be prevented by health care (Krishnan 2010). India is ranked 170 out of 185 countries in the prevalence of anemia among women (48% women are anemic) and has the highest rate of malnourished children in the world at 44% and stands at 114/132 in stunted growth of children with 38.7% incidence (UNFPA 2016).
A collaborative study by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and the Young Lives India (NCPCR and YLI 2017) revealed that India stood at 11th rank in the countries worldwide with the highest incidence of child marriages accounting for 47% of all children with 39,000 minor girls being married every day in India. The UNICEF further points out that India accounts for one-third of the global total of over 700 million women married as children leading to high levels of depression among them. The National Crime Records Bureau estimates that over 20,000 young mothers, mainly housewives, commit suicide every year, making them the largest demographic group in India to commit suicide followed by farmers (Bakshi 2016). The triggers for these deaths range from an unplanned pregnancy to an abusive or alcoholic husband, pressures to have a male child, and hormonal changes among others. The Programme for Improving Mental Health Care (PRIME) project in Madhya Pradesh is an intervention program for neonatal depression-related problems, where all expecting mothers are screened (Bakshi 2016). There is hardly any recognition of the pressure and depression of motherhood; many young women are automatically expected to care for their child and their personal health in India.
Gender discrimination and violence against women have had a profound effect on the sex ratio in India. The sex ratio has been dropping steadily for the past 50 years. In 2011 the sex ratio of females stood at 940 females per 1000 males, the lowest ratio after independence (RGI 2011). The Pink Economic Survey (2018) which is the first national data of its kind gives estimates based on the sex ratio of the last child (SRLC) which is heavily male skewed to show that 21 million girls were unwanted by parents in India. These human development indices show that India has failed to convert its economic growth to transform the lives of women and children who are among the most vulnerable population.
In the light of persistent inequality of women, the gender equality survey of the World Economic Forum (WEF 2014) places India at 114 out of 142 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index. While India ranks 126 on educational attainment, it is ranked 134 on economic participation and opportunity and the lowest at 142 on the health and survival of women. Contrary to the popular notion that men are the main breadwinners of the family, according to the 2011 Census, about 27 million households, constituting 11% of total households in the country, are headed by women, often among the poorest. Though many of these women lack formal education and employment skills, their courage to face adversities and steer their families out of poverty goes unrecognized by policy makers and development planners in the country.
There is an avowed strategy of women’s empowerment that focuses on women’s education and employment. But what is shocking is that studies indicate a link between women’s employment and domestic violence. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) data report that there is much higher prevalence of violence against women who were employed at any time in the past 12 months (40%) than women who were not employed (29%) (IIPS 2007). Studies give evidence that women who have more education than their husbands, who earn more, or who are the sole earners in their families have a higher likelihood of experiencing intimate partner violence than women who are not employed or who are less educated than their spouse (Sabarwal et al. 2013). This reality in India contradicts the widely held global perception that better economic status of women lowers their risk to marital violence.
It is astonishing that women are achievers when their very survival is under threat on a daily basis. The enormous physical and psychological pressure of competing in an “equal world” with men who do not experience even a fraction of the constraints is a lived experience for many capable women in leadership positions. The feminist genius lies in the striving for creativity and capability by women who are projected as emblems of modernization and emancipation on one hand but muted by the patriarchal oppression that reinforces male domination that overrides these “progressive” images (Prasad 2009).
The feminist movement grew out of a sense of outrage at such treatment of women, for ending several forms of harassment of women, violence, sexual exploitation, job discrimination, exclusion from public life, and unequal educational opportunities. Society is reluctant to concede that women’s rights are an inalienable dimension of human rights. The deliberate eclipsing of women from public affairs led to the struggle for equality, social participation, and legitimate share of autonomy and status enjoyed by their male counterparts. President Barack Obama points out during the US 2016 presidential election campaign that the United States is uncomfortable with powerful women, and that is why the United States has yet to elect a woman President (The Hindu 2016) which further gives insights into the world’s deep-seated bias against women. There is a need for restructuring development paradigms to include the perspectives of women.
The feminist development strategy often lies in crossing these hurdles at a cost seldom known to the outside world and in many cases unknown to even their own families.
Feminism, however, is not only about achieving social justice, it is also about creating a space which allows women to become something other than how they have been traditionally defined by men. Women, against the odds, are attempting to balance autonomy and dependence; self-fulfilment and a desire and obligation to care for others. In the present climate, as hurdle after hurdle remains in their way, they are encouraged to blame themselves – instead of examining how and why the hurdles were constructed in the first place. (Roberts 2004)
Friedan (1963) adopted a sociological approach and met housewives isolated in their urban apartments and homes striving to live up to the stereotyped and traditional roles and attempting to transform their houses into shining models portrayed by soap and floor wax commercials. Women in the developing countries of Asia and Africa find themselves in a “dichotomizing trap” (Williamson 2006) in which researchers and policy analysts envision women as either “traditional” or “modern” meaning liberated, educated, and independent. These images of women have reinforced simplistic ideas about the nature of society, the interpretation of the status of women, and prescriptions for their future (Williamson 2006: 186). The mass media also actively promote the image of a modern “new woman” as revealed by studies of women in advertising on satellite television in India (Prasad 2005), in China (Birch et al. 2001) and in Thailand (Biggins 2006). Though the mass media under the influence of Western culture represent women as modern, traditional perceptions and expectations of women’s roles in society or family remain deep-rooted, which have continued to influence the way society treats women in several developing countries including India.
Greer (1971) alerted women to the reality that in spite of having legal, educational, and political rights, it would fail to raise their status unless women consciously overcome their childhood conditioning and acculturation as these were the forces that kept them quiescent and denied them justice in societies. Feminist scholarship has evolved over time with a focus on sex differences (the traditional approach) to a focus on improving society and making women more like men (the reformist or liberal approach), to the current focus of giving voice to women (the radical feminist approach) (Dervin 1987).
Women’s capability as generators of knowledge in all formal education has been vastly eclipsed, what is taught is men’s knowledge; the silencing of active theorizing women takes place in almost all education systems (Kramarae 1989). In a digital age, “if tech is widely seen as a male bastion, it is because women’s stories have been deliberately erased” (Sampath 2015). The fact that the world’s first programmer and inventor of scientific computing is Ada Lovelace, the Spanning Tree Protocol for network computing was invented by Radia Perlman, and the key designer of Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol was Judith Estrin tells “the untold stories” about women (Shevinsky 2015).
The Chief Operating Officer of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg (2013) believes that women themselves are largely responsible for not accepting leadership roles as they are socially conditioned to be less ambitious, settle for less, and prioritize their homes and families at the cost of their career. Sandberg (2013) calls women to “lean in” to their careers without being guilty about the need to be liked and sacrifice on behalf of the family. Here lies the catch for many creative, capable women geniuses of India. According to the Gender Diversity Benchmark Survey for 2011 and 2014, Indian companies lose 11% of their female workforce every year as women are haunted by “daughterly guilt” and maternal guilt that leads them to prioritize caring for parents, children, and extended family by leaving their careers (Kumar 2016). Such women are also under pressure to support their husbands to fulfil their family aspirations for a better lifestyle by working from home or getting creative by plunging into entrepreneurship which has its own set of challenges.
The creativity of women to develop lay in circumventing the barriers erected in their social environment to continue performing their duties and lead their families and communities daily by silencing their voices and muting their capabilities putting them under enormous strain. Empowerment of women can be achieved only by enabling women to voice their experiences and for society to understand them as human beings and respond to them with sensitivity. With nations (including India) boasting themselves as nuclear powers, “space-age countries,” and “information societies,” it is unthinkable that any country would burn women alive (for dowry) except in India. But the large-scale brutal violence against girls and women from acid attacks to gang rapes does not seem to touch the hearts of representatives of the people (nearly half of their electorate being women) who remain oblivious to the plight of women. It is estimated that around 30% of the sex workers in India are below 18 years and many women have been pushed into sex work (Saggurti et al. 2011). It is even more shocking that of late several panchayats (local administrative bodies especially in North India) have begun to award punishments to women such as approving their sale to criminals, gang rape, excommunication from the village (along with their families), and social boycott by the community. Such local bodies are not instruments of political empowerment, as presently they seem to be emerging as instruments of oppression against women.
Spender (1985) documents the silencing or threatening of women by the application of deviancy labels. Women who are particularly knowledgeable and witty or those who question or rebel against patriarchy are called aberrations, unnatural, unattractive, unisexual, unnaturally sexed, and man-haters. All forms of violence used to silence women – implicit or explicit – restrict women’s capability in all spheres and diminish human development.
Muting Women’s Capability
Women are under great social control and scrutiny which has restricted what they can say and where and to whom. They are forced to express their subordination through “feminine” words, voice, and syntax. In this context, Ardener (1975) conceives of women as a “muted” and men as a “dominant” group in relation to language, meaning, and communication. In patriarchal cultures, men determine the general system of meanings for society and validate these meanings through the support received from other men. These meanings, regarded as correct by men, have evolved out of male experiences. The concepts and vocabulary arising out of it are quite different for women to contend with and express themselves in (Prasad 2000). There are several words in almost every language to describe women who are in disrepute for whatever reason. For instance, to be a “prostitute” is to be stigmatized for life, but the men who are the “clients” do not suffer in the least from social mores or sanctions that continue to bestow status on them. They enjoy immunity from stigma and abuse which is strengthened by the fact that there are no words to describe such immoral men. There can be “other women” in extramarital relations but no “other men.”
The information and communication media concentrate on fashion, glamor, weight reduction, cookery, and how to sharpen “feminine instincts” to keep men and their in-laws happy rather than on career opportunities, health awareness, entrepreneurship, legal aid, counselling services, childcare services, and financial management that build women’s capacity and leadership. Despite the fact that there is no dearth of women leadership in India, it is rarely recalled that the right to information campaign led by Aruna Roy, the struggle for natural resources led by Medha Patkar, the sustainable agriculture movement led by Vandana Shiva, and a host of local agitations led by women like C. K. Janu and Mayilamma have played a stellar role in grounding sustainable development in India (Prasad 2013).
Women in India labor under the brunt of oppressive traditions and exploitation, suffer from lack of self-worth or identity, and are routinely subjected to violence even at home. It is absurd that in a country where even women’s dress is dictated by tradition, women must take responsibility for family planning, AIDS, and a host of other maladies affecting society. Patriarchal structures dictate the degrees to which women must be robed or disrobed; women do not even have complete liberty to decide on their dress. The burkini versus bikini debate has ramifications in India where violence against women is attributed to their dress! Women and society in general are in great need of self-introspection and self-conscientization to overcome the downslide in human values and women’s rights as an inalienable part of human rights (Prasad 2004).
Gender and Development Paradigms
There has been a coexistence of feminist development approaches worldwide and in India – women in development (WID), women and development (WAD), and gender and development (GAD). WID approach was adopted internationally to achieve women’s integration in all aspects of the development process. It is based on liberal feminism which generally treats women as a homogeneous group and assumes that gender roles will change as women gain an equal role to men in the development of education, employment, and health services. The WID approach does not question the existing social structures or explore the nature and sources of women’s oppression. It fails to consider the implications of race, class, and gender on women’s oppression.
WAD is primarily a neo-Marxist, feminist approach with a strong emphasis on the importance of social class and the exploitation of the “Third World.” Affirmative action by the state and proactive approach by the civil society through NGOs and women’s groups are advocated by these models for empowerment of women against the forces of patriarchal class society. The major criticism of the WAD approach is that it fails to undertake a full-scale analysis of the relationship between patriarchy and women’s subordination. Although work which women do inside and outside homes is central to development, WAD preoccupies itself with the productive aspect at the expense of the reproductive side of women’s work and lives.
The GAD approach recognizes that improvements in women’s status require analysis of the relations between men and women, as well as the concurrence and cooperation of men. There is recognition that the participation and commitment of men are required to fundamentally alter the social and economic position of women. A gender-focused approach seeks to redress gender inequity from a shift with an exclusive focus on women to an approach that must involve men in the family and the broader sociocultural environment through facilitating strategic, broad-based, and multifaceted solutions to gender inequality. The focus of GAD is also to strengthen women’s legal rights.
WID tends to focus on practical needs, whereas GAD focuses on both practical needs and strategic interests. In addition to focusing on everyday problems, GAD is concerned with addressing the root inequalities (of both gender and class) that create many of the practical problems women experience in their daily lives. Practical needs refer to what women perceive as immediate necessities such as water, shelter, and food. Strategic gender interests are long-term, usually not material, and are often related to structural changes in society regarding women’s status and equity. They include legislation for equal rights, reproductive choice, and increased participation in decision-making. The strategic interests of women’s development and empowerment tend to be long-term which include consciousness-raising, increasing self-confidence, providing education, strengthening women’s organizations, and fostering political mobilization. There remains a whole range of women’s problems from female feticide, female infanticide, child marriage, sexual abuse, sex trade and trafficking, rising son preference and devaluing daughters, marital rape, unfair burden of population policy and AIDS campaign on women, problems of single women, branding rural women as witches in several parts of the country, to the legal rights of women regarding property, divorce, and succession, which have yet to see concerted action by policy makers and planners. There is a strange silence on heinous crimes of fathers raping daughters especially in Kerala, where women’s health, education, and basic socioeconomic indicators match those of the advanced countries in the world (Institute of Applied Manpower Research 2011). Women’s activism for gender equality is quite weak even where women enjoy situational advantage. Highly educated and financially independent women are seen succumbing to dowry demands, son-preference, domestic violence, and sexual harassment at the workplace.
Studies on violence against women (VAW) reveal that nearly 1 out of 4 men of 10,000 men in Asia agreed that they had committed rape and sexual entitlement or a belief that men were entitled to sex regardless of consent was the major reason that men gave for committing a rape (Cheng 2013). Crimes against women attract suspicion of women’s character (case of love gone sour) and sexual assault and rape in the news media framed in relation to women’s freedoms. Basic rights and safety remain out of reach for a vast majority of women in India. The discourse on women’s resistance is focused on “get your own safety pin” or teaching self-defense rather than educating boys and men to be humane. Women are under constant surveillance in private and public life. There is the tremendous power of collective punishing mechanism by shaming women and warning against behavior perceived as undesirable by sections of society (khaps, caste councils). There are multiple agencies from family members to criminals regulating or negating women’s degrees of freedom. Rarely understood is the trauma of women who become “objects of social ostracism” (due to acid attack, rape, or other violence).
In 2014, the Indian Ordnance Factory, Kanpur, launched a light revolver Nirbheek (meaning fearless) for women. This raises the question: if women’s safety is all about owning a gun, what about the rapist who lurks at home (Sharma 2014)? There is an even strange justification that if a woman does not reciprocate a man’s “love,” he can kill or maim her. Instead of strengthening the criminal justice system, improving law and order and policing skills, arranging safety measures like streetlights and transport facilities for women, and creating enabling work environments, the government advocates the use of pepper sprays (widely available in grocery shops), and business is focused on developing apps and various other products that can trigger alarms to emergency contacts if a woman is attacked.
The development of women is not to be perceived as by women, of women, and for women; men as fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, and friends must unite to strengthen the lives of girls and women and for achieving the vision of India as a developed country. Education and the mass media must play a critical role in widening the discourse on gender equality and challenging the social and political order that systematically devalues women.
Creating an environment through positive economic and social policies for full development of women to enable them to realize their full potential.
The de jure and de facto enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedom by women on equal basis with men in all spheres – political, economic, social, cultural, and civil.
Equal access to participation and decision-making of women in social, political, and economic life of the nation.
Equal access to women to health care, quality education at all levels, career and vocational guidance, employment, remuneration, occupational health and safety, social security and public office, etc.
Strengthening legal systems aimed at elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.
Changing societal attitudes and community practices by active participation and involvement of both men and women.
Mainstreaming a gender perspective in the development process.
Elimination of discrimination and all forms of violence against women and the girl child.
Building and strengthening partnerships with civil society, particularly women’s organizations.
Most of these objectives have largely remained on paper with little action. Nearly after a decade, the National Mission for Empowerment of Women (NMEW) was announced on March 8, 2010, and operationalized during 2011–2012. It works with all the states and union territory governments and has 14 ministries and departments of Government of India as it partners with the Ministry of Women and Child Development as the Nodal Ministry. The mission aims to bring in convergence and facilitate the processes of ensuring economic and social empowerment of women with emphasis on health and education, reduction in violence against women, generating awareness about various schemes and programs meant for women, and empowerment of vulnerable women and women in difficult circumstances (www.nmew.gov.in).
The NMEW has undertaken initiatives to check the declining sex ratio in 12 districts of 7 states to address the sex selective elimination of girls. It is collaborating with various community organizations to further the flagship program of the government Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme (save the girl child, educate the girl child) and address issues of domestic violence, partnering with Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative (LCWRI) and attempting to bring diverse stakeholders in raising the collective community consciousness on women’s issues. The mission must engage in strategic communication for interministerial convergence of gender mainstreaming of programs, policies, institutional arrangements, and processes of participating ministries which have largely hitherto operated independently and in a stand-alone manner. The NMEW is in the process working on a fresh National Empowerment Policy for Women. It is too early to predict the substantial gains in women’s empowerment through the NMEW.
For every woman who is tired of acting weak when she knows she is strong, there is a man who is tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable.
For every woman who is tired of being called “an emotional female”, there is a man who is denied the right to weep and to be gentle.
For every woman who is tired of being a sex object, there is a man who must worry about his potency.
For every woman who is called unfeminine when she competes, there is a man for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity.
For every woman who takes a step toward her own liberation, there is a man who finds the way to freedom has been made a little easier.
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