Intractable problem of sexism

Why is women’s equality so hard to fathom?  Sometimes I am just stunned … because when you think it can’t get worse, it does.

Sometimes projects that aim to address problems that affect women replicate the structures of sexism and violence that make women’s lives difficult in the first place.  It happens in subtle as well as overt ways.

 For example, village health programs often select married women to train as village level workers.  The reason being, a single woman is expected to move to another home, probably in another village, after marriage.   This means that even before marriage, the village is not treated as “her” village, nor is she regarded as belonging to that village.  From her childhood in fact, people talk about where she will “go” after marriage and what she will take with her, with the unspoken assumption that the family assets do not belong to her by right.

To some extent, accepting some injustice while dealing with another is inevitable.  You may not be able to solve a larger problem, so you work on a smaller problem.  Freed from those problems, women may be in a better position to question the system that gives rise to and exacerbates these problems.   If, in a context where women have difficulty accessing health services and even food,  you raised the question of women having the option not to marry, or married women having equal rights in their homes, it may remain at best a theoretical discussion.  But if one loses sight of this, fails to question broader injustices or treats them as normal, then they threaten to undermine the struggle for full equality.

Some health services directed at reproductive health screening are offered only to married women, on the assumption that this service is not required for single women.  What would a single woman who in fact needed this service do?  Some organizations have recognized the problem with such assumptions and modified their outreach so that it does not overtly discriminate against single women.  Others persist in their stereotypical assumptions, which allow them to work more “efficiently.”  Catering to atypical cases takes more time and attention after all – which means that these cases often fall through the cracks.  When there is so much unmet need even in the “typical” cases, few government or non-governmental services will make the effort to reach out to others.

Recently we met some people who work for an organization that aims to eradicate the oppressive practice of devidasi, wherein young women, primarily from SC / ST backgrounds are “dedicated” to temples to serve as sex workers.  They are working both to prevent further dedication as well as to assist children of devidasis who face additional discrimination, making it difficult for them to marry or to access reservations normally available to SC / ST categories.  Their assistance, however is not provided equally for boys and girls.  For boys, they provide education and vocational training.  For girls, they arrange marriages.

“Why?”  I asked.  “Because earlier no one was coming forward to marry these girls, and that put them at greater risk of becoming devidasis,” one worker replied.

“But they could also get a job and earn their living without becoming a devidasi.”

But where jobs were so hard to come by, they suggested, the high rate of male unemployment was a greater threat to society in general and to women in particular.   Unemployed men were taking to alcohol, causing social unrest, even pushing their sisters into the trade, they said.  An employed man could marry a woman but an employed women might not necessarily find a man to marry her.  Another surprising statement I heard was that in some families, a daughter is made a devidasi so that she does not marry and go to another household.  It may be that there are no sons or for some other reason.  In some cases it is even for the purpose of retaining the families’ land in the family.

So we are looking at an extraordinarily messed up social framework in which women aren’t able to assert their rights over their own bodies, their labour-power, their homes, or their land.  This remains so even for women who are not poor.  While poverty sharpens this injustice in the extreme, alleviating poverty does not necessarily put a dent into it.  In fact, on the contrary, it is often by accepting the overall sexist framework of society that women are able to achieve specific goals.   Sometimes these achievements lead to steps that challenge patriarchy.  Only sometimes.  That is why the pace of change is so glacial.



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