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Gender and Human Rights


GENDER AND HUMAN RIGHTS The rights of women are an inalienable, integral, and indivisible part of universal human rights. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, women perform an estimated 60 percent of the world's total work but receive only 10 percent of the world's income and own a mere 1 percent of the world's land. They constitute nearly 60 percent of world's poor. Recent attempts at structural adjustments and economic liberalization have led to further marginalization of women and an increasing feminization of poverty, particularly in the developing countries. India is no exception to these trends.

The traditional Indian social structure is heavily tilted in favor of men, giving them authority and prestige while confining women primarily to domestic roles. Even if women work outside the home, most of them have no control over their own earnings. Even in the case of highly educated and professionally qualified women, a dowry is still provided at the time of marriage. That is why in many communities, the birth of a female child is still treated as a curse and a financial liability. In some regions sex detection tests and female infanticide are widely practiced, disturbing India's male-female ratio adversely over the last few decades.

India still does not have a uniform civil code. Personal and family laws discriminate not only between men and women but also between one woman and another. A Hindu woman is not entitled to a share in joint family property. Under Muslim law, a male child is entitled to double the share of a female child. A Parsi girl is discriminated against in matters of inheritance in case she decides to marry out of the community. Most Indian girls are treated as paraya dhana (somebody else's property) in their parental homes and as outsiders by their new families after marriage. Very few women have the courage to raise their voice against such discrimination, and most women remain unequal, dispossessed, and disadvantaged throughout their lives.

Under ancient Indian concepts, culture, and ethos, women were honored with the status of devīs or goddesses, yet in practice were denied human rights and basic freedoms. After independence in 1947 some steps were taken to bridge gender-based disparity legally. For instance, the Constitution of India gave Indian women civic and political freedoms equal to those of men. Whereas Article 14 guarantees "equality before law" and "equal protection before law," Article 15 prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, or gender.

The Indian government has also passed various legislation—including the Hindu Marriage Act, the Hindu Succession Act, the Dowry Prohibition Act, the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, Indecent Representation of Women Prevention Act, and the Sati Prevention Act—to safeguard the dignity, control of sexuality, and reproductive rights of women. Many judicial verdicts have also favored the rights of women in order to raise their status. However, the constitutional and legal provisions appear to be too radical in view of prevailing sociocultural realities, which frequently create a resistance to the special protection and acceleratory measures that were designed to enable women in India to achieve their just and equal position in society. The majority of women in India act as custodians of family well-being and in general are neither aware of their legal rights nor anxious to assert themselves against established norms and practices. Traditional values and behavioral norms, which have evolved over thousands of years, inhibit women from asserting themselves as individuals, except in a very limited context.

The success of several thousand Indian women who, after independence, used courage, financial means, and family support to break sociocultural barriers does not imply the emancipation of Indian women or the enjoyment of human rights by Indian women in general. Most Indian women are still waiting for equality, and many are forced to live what may be considered subhuman lives. Working women have to face additional problems, owing to conflicts in their educational values and age-old socialization practice. Inequality affects not only the mental health and physical well-being of India's women, but also the well-being of their families and society at large.

As such, it is in the interest of humankind to protect women's rights as human rights. Addressing the World Congress of Women at Moscow in June 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev observed "The status of women is a barometer of the democratism of any state and an indicator of how human rights are respected in it." Fortunately, India has a rich tradition of vociferous women's movements and nongovernmental organizations sensitive to women's issues. The National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Women have been striving to promote and preserve women's rights as human rights in India. Both are statutory bodies. The National Human Rights Commission was established in 1993, with the power to investigate and recommend policy changes, punishment, and compensation in cases of human rights abuse (though it is prohibited by statute from directly investigating allegations of human rights abuses by the army and paramilitary forces). The National Commission for Women was constituted in 1992 to facilitate the redress of grievances and accelerate the socioeconomic development of women.

Both the government and nongovernmental organizations rely on active and positive support from the media to portray images consistent with the acknowledgment of girls and women as individuals capable of relating to other persons on the basis of mutual respect. Education is also playing an increasingly vital role in the mainstreaming and sensitization of a gender perspective of human rights in India, transforming notions of "men" and "women" into a broader view of humankind.

Asha Gupta

See alsoFamily Law and Cultural Pluralism ; Human Rights ; Women and Political Power ; Women's Education


Agarwal, Bina. "The Idea of Gender Equality: From Legislative Vision to Everyday Family Practices." In India: Another Millennium?, edited by Romila Thapar. New Delhi: Viking, 2000.

Saksena, Anu. Gender and Human Rights: Status of Women Workers in India. Delhi: Shipra Publications, 2004.

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