“Women are no cars!”

New Delhi (India) – With investments for strong workers organising, gender equality laws and policies to address issues of violence or care work are possible.

Photo: FES / FES India - Damyanty Sridharan

“A feminist view in policy making, can prevent for economic and social policies to be formed and implemented in isolation,” says Damyanty Sridharan. A senior adviser at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung India Office, Damyanty continues to contribute to the decade-long work on women empowerment and gender equality that FES is coordinating from the country office in New Delhi.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we share an interview with Damyanty Sridharan, led by colleagues from FES India, on the women’s movement, the current situation for working women in India and the work by FES in this arena.

FES India: Looking back at the long history of the women’s movement in India, where do we stand today?

Damyanty Sridharan: On the occasion of National Women’s Parliament in Amravati (the new capital of the youngest Indian state of Andhra Pradesh), a Telugu Desam Party Minister of the Legislative Assembly compared women to cars saying that eve teasing, harassment, kidnap and rape can be averted if women stay at home as housewives just like cars are safe when parked in the garage.

Such misogynist statements by politicians are unfortunately not an exception. At the same time media attention, public outcry, and women’s groups outrage leads to quick retractions.

Another statement by the IMF Chief Christine Lagarde may seem at odds where she says that India could increase its GDP growth by 27 per cent if the gender gap in employment can be reduced.

What is the current situation of working women in India?

DS: In India, women contribute only 17 per cent of India’s GDP and make up 24 per cent of the workforce, compared to 40 per cent globally. The social attitudes reflected in the politician’s statement and the economic hypothesis by IMF’s Chief are facts. However, one needs to scratch the surface a bit to realise that the two statements do not reflect the situation on the ground.

We need to address both economic and social issues

Most women still work in insecure informal employment. Their unpaid care and domestic work is a constraint on the type of work they can undertake, reinforcing their socioeconomic disadvantages. There is evidently a need to address social and economic issues in tandem as one is not exclusive of the other.

How can we do that?

DS: To jump to a seemingly unrelated issue, the mobilisation of youth after the 2012 Nirbhaya Delhi rape case and the subsequent policy changes in rape laws are testimony to two facts. Firstly, misogyny and patriarchal attitudes are being challenged day in and day out. If that were not so, the flash mobilisation in 2012 would not have been possible. And secondly, a strong women’s movement has been instrumental in highlighting and bringing change in discriminatory laws and practices in the country.

A series of legal reforms with respect to workplace harassment, maternity benefits and gender budgeting have become the part of an official agenda due to feminist thoughts and movement.

What can organisations like Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung do?

DS: At FES India we focus on the social and economic dimensions of women’s by working mainly in the informal economy. We also encourage participation and representation of women in politics and we do so by gender sensitising – raising awareness of gender equality – amongst multiplicators and change makers.

Changing mindsets in a patriarchal society is the biggest challenge and this holds for both men and women. We work closely with partner organisations to challenge gender norms.

Can you give an example of this work?

DS: For instance, with street vendors, our partner organisations Nidan (a Hindi word for solution) and NASVI (National Association of Street Vendors of India) advocate vehemently for the rights of women street vendors. We started off by organising women vendors.

With investments in workers’ organising, gender equality laws and policies to address issues of violence or care work including elderly care or child care are possible. This undertaking led to a law for the Protection of livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending in 2014.

Participation of women in decision making bodies is essential for pushing the women’s agenda

The law recognises the employment generation by street vendors and seeks to balance their right to work along with preventing overcrowding; it mandates involvement of street vendors in local government planning processes through participation in Town Vending Committees. One third of the members there are women. Their voice is necessary to strengthen women’s agency.

For instance, when recording basic infrastructure for vending, it came to light that in New Delhi (2013) there were 3712 public toilets for men and only 269 for women.

What is the core message that you want to stress for the Women’s Day 2017?

DS: Women have a potential to contribute to the economy by bringing a feminist view into policy making and in this way prevent for economic and social policies to be formed and implemented in isolation.

Adapted for format and style, the text first appeared on the new thematic portal by FES on care work. 

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