By Santosh Digal
Mumbai:Virginia Saldanha, a lay Catholic woman theologian, is the secretary of the Indian Christian Women’s Movement and the Indian Women Theologians Forum. The Mumbai-based activist has represented laity, family and women’s issues in organizations of Asian and Indian bishops.
She spoke to Matters India on the eve of International Women’s Day on March 8.
Matters India: How does “International Women’s Day” matter in India today?
Virginia Saldanha: International Women’s Day continues to be important as it is an opportunity to raise awareness on the status of women in our country. Some women are comfortable and therefore are unaware of the reality of women who suffer violence. They could be a neighbour, a colleague, or even a relative but lack of awareness and sensitivity could blind them to the reality.
Women in urban areas have no clue how their counterparts in rural areas struggle with poverty, low caste social status, or strong cultural bias against their gender. Culture continues to bind the poor woman in urban areas as her shift to the city has not liberated her from her cultural background unless she joins a group or has access to an NGO that helps her make the shift.
Women need to be empowered to voice their discrimination and the women’s day could be a start for many women’s journey to liberation from the cultural bondage of subservience to patriarchal norms. The relatively rich and well-placed women of Hollywood are highlighting the discrimination and sexual exploitation they have been facing over the years. Many would have imagined that everything is so comfortable for these women, but the recent “Me too” campaign has really picked up momentum and highlighted what these well-heeled women have faced in life. This is how things change.
However, today the market is high-jacking the occasion and using it as a means to make a quick buck. As a result, they give wrong messages to women, trying to make them buy all kinds of products they do not need. They divert attention from real issues.
Is there a need to address the gender equality issues as women continue to suffer compared to men?
Yes, most certainly.
What has India achieved in improving women’s status? What more is to be done?
According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2017, India ranked 108 among144 countries, the previous year it was 87, so the country seems to be slipping backward with regard to women. In the World Economic Forum report, countries are ranked on parameters of gender equality in health, education, economics, and politics. On the issue of health and survival, India remained the world’s least improved country in this measure over the past decade, ranking the fourth-lowest at 141 this year. In economic participation, India stands at 139 and at 112 in education. Indian women have done well in political participation ranking at 15. This is perhaps because of the reservation for women in the local governing body – the panchayat.
How do you compare the gender equality and women empowerment in urban and rural areas?
India cannot be spoken of as a unified whole. The regional disparities are vast. While Goa performs the best on the four parameters of health, economic participation, education and political participation, the states of Jharkhand and Bihar are the worst in India.
Culture plays a big role in the subordination of women and culture is as strong in urban as in rural areas. Of course, the social pressures from the community are stronger in the rural areas while social control is comparatively weak in cities.
So women in urban areas will have greater freedom to be independent and autonomous.But if women are tied to the family then they may be no different from their rural sisters. Cultural conditioning is the biggest factor that affects the status of women in the family.
What are the difficulties women face in India and how to address them?
Culture is the strongest challenge to women. Women find it difficult to stand up to cultural pressure.
The next is tied to, as sex object, as good or bad, mother or “loose” woman, etc. Anyone who does not fit the stereotyped image of a woman is subjected to violence in all its forms – physical, emotional, mental and economic.
Will greater participation of women in the workforce improve their socio-economic conditions?
Just women’s participation in the workforce is not enough. The workplace has to be conducive to accommodating women. The workplace has to be woman-friendly and mother-friendly to accommodate women who become mothers in the course of their work life.
Attitudes among colleagues and employers have to change to ensure that the workplace remains safe and accommodating for women.
Today with the number of women-headed households rising, the need for a woman-friendly workplace is very strong. So that women continue to remain in their jobs and are able to give of their best.
Also, there has to be more equality in salaries and promotions. It is said that men feel qualified for a job if they meet with half of the required qualifications; while women feel qualified when they meet with 100 percent of the job requirements. Women have to change their attitudes toward themselves and gain more confidence.
What are the structural changes needed for women’s empowerment and liberation?
Women’s day should not be seen as a celebration of women only, but mainly as a day for creating awareness. The day should be first used by every institution to create awareness to usher in required changes for the empowerment and liberation of women from the negative attitudes in all institutions whether they be family, social, political, religious or economic.
All our churches are very happy to celebrate women’s day by “celebrating women”, but they will never touch on the entrenched structures of discrimination that exist in the Church, especially because leadership in the Church is exclusively male. This effectively keeps women out of not just leadership but also from decision making bodies. The recent disclosure by a Vatican newspaper supplement on women, regarding the exploitation of nuns as cheap labor in the church, is a good example of how the Church structures oppress women.