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Proportional powers

Publication Date : 22-01-2013


One of the vital aspects of combating violence against women (VAW) is promoting and ensuring proportional inclusion of women in all power structures. Southeast Asian and South Asian countries are slow, even reluctant and resistant, to accept it. Nepal is no different. If any improvements in the conditions of girls and women are sought, everybody, especially the state, must accept the premise that inclusion is not something desirable, but necessary.

Four male government employees working at the airport were involved in harassing and looting Sita Rai, one later allegedly committing the heinous crime of rape. What would have happened if two of the employees were women? Even fundamental statistics tells us that the probability of the incident would have decreased by 50 per cent. Here the assumption is that a woman in power would be more considerate and less likely to harass or rob another woman. Human interactions do involve such dynamics. Even if one questions the assumption, the probability of the rape would certainly have decreased.  

The effect of the working environment that the presence of an equal number of women would create at the airport would lower the probability of such an incident even further. This is the power of inclusion. The Tribhuvan International Airport — a micro-manifestation of society — is just an example.     

Many factors have been identified and blamed for the sorry state of girls and women in Nepal. Several measures, including educating girls and women, raising public awareness, improving community responses, providing gender equality training, formulating a tighter legal framework for gender-based violence, empowering women economically, dismantling patriarchal values and cultures are said to help mitigate VAW. Nobody can argue against these, for each of these and many other similar measures, if applied, will have a considerable impact. However, in the absence of women in an equitable number at various levels in the power structures, the full potential of these measures is difficult to attain.

Ensuring inclusion of women, more so in the state power structures such as the political, judicial, security and administrative organs, must be the foremost priority. It is especially vital in countries like ours, where the state wields so much influence over citizens’ lives. Women need not only “access to”, but also “power over” state structures.

India is a perfect example of how mere economic development is not sufficient to overcome many societal vices including VAW. During the last 20 years, India has been a poster child for economic progress. Millions have moved up into the middle class category in this period. India’s women, although disproportionately, have been a beneficiary of this economic boom as well. But it has not resulted in improvement in the treatment of Indian women. India is still considered to be in the dark ages in this regard. The culprit is clear — the inclusion of Indian women in boardrooms, in political offices and in public structures, where everyday interactions take place, is staggeringly dismal.     

The roster of judges in the Supreme Court of India is a representative example. Currently, there are two women judges compared to 25 male judges. The scenario in High Courts, District Courts and other courts is similar and, in some cases, worse. It is, thus, not surprising when the Global Fund for Women (a publicly-supported, non-profit grant-making foundation that advances women’s human rights by funding women-led organisations worldwide) says that 48 per cent of judges in India believe it is justifiable for a man to beat his wife, despite the fact that existing laws in India criminalise domestic violence. Tightening the legal framework against VAW is desirable, but it will not result in a substantial change in women’s conditions in an environment where the implementation of laws and policies are destined to be weak, stifled, or selective.

Let’s look at the male-to-female education differential ratio as an indicator. Male and female literacy in Nepal, with respect to total population (age 15 and over), is 73 and 48.3 per cent respectively, according to the CIA Factbook. For Bangladesh, it is comparatively much better (61.3 and 52.2 per cent respectively). However, in the women’s physical security parameters, Bangladesh fares worse than Nepal.  

Scandinavian countries are the safest place for women in the world. That didn’t happen magically. It has required Norway, for instance, to ensure that every 8.8 females are employed in paid work compared to every 10 men. Writing for The International Herald Tribune (June 29, 2011), Katrin Bennhold points out how imposing a female quota for board directors in 2003 in about 400 publicly-listed and state-owned companies lifted the share of women from seven per cent to 40 per cent by 2011. The country has laws that require 40 per cent of boardroom seats to be filled with women, and there is a minister of equality to ensure the laws are implemented.

The proportional presence of female in public and private spheres is necessary not only to create deterrence against VAW, but also for the overall well-being of the country, as it enhances the contribution of women in the total labour force. In an Op-Ed in The Hindu (Jan 9, 2013), Jayan Jose Thomas, who teaches Economics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, interestingly notes that Delhi’s female labour participation rate is one of the lowest in the country. The region is known for its harsh treatment of women. One might argue that the contribution of women in the labour work force is not bad for Nepal. Indeed it is very high: in 2009, about 7.9 women for every 10 men were contributing to the total labour work force in Nepal, according to UNDP’s international human development indicators. For India, the number stood at 4 females for every 10 male.

But the reality looks different when those employed in traditional sectors like agriculture, and those women who do not receive monetary compensation for their work or receive at least part of their payment in kind, are removed from the calculation. Then, only 0.7 woman for every 10 men work in the professional, technical, or managerial occupation in India, according to a 2009 report published in by the Indian government. The number can be assumed to be comparable for Nepal.  

The argument for inclusion in state power structures, as the best and most powerful way to mitigate VAW and to achieve a greater degree of justice, applies not only to women, but also to other marginalised groups. But that is a discussion for another time.


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