Some days back it was the one hundred and twenty-ninth birth centenary of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar and there is more than one reason to remember this great person in these trying times.
As a woman to me, it becomes a matter of grave concern to find almost every news media reporting of rising violence against women. While the world is trying its best to cope with the pandemic, we suddenly realise that it is not the virus alone that kills.
Along with it, there are numerous related socio-economic issues that are killing the people or pushing them into a life of extreme hardship. One such is the gender issue. Alarmingly, the rising domestic violence and abuses of women in the lockdown period has already been labelled as ‘shadow pandemic’ by the United Nations.
Disaster studies have proved that post-disaster it is the women who have to suffer the most. Whether it is an epidemic or natural disaster, women have to deal with multiple levels of exploitation and abuses all across the world.
In an article on Pandemics and Global Violence published by Centre for Global Development, it is said that though the impact of this pandemic is yet to be clear, there are examples from the past which proves the vulnerability of child and women in such crisis periods.
Citing an example, it says, “During the Ebola outbreak, adolescent pregnancies in some parts of Sierra Leone increased by 65 percent...In the longer-term, early marriage and adolescent pregnancy are associated with increased threats of violence, both during pregnancy and over the lifetime.”
The above-discussed after-effect of the Ebola outbreak is just one of many such instances. COVID-19 is no different. Already warning bells are ringing loud and clear. Each day there are numerous SOS calls to women and child care agencies globally regarding fresh cases of violence.
Forced to stay within the house at all hours, those women already in abusive relationships find no respite. Moreover, economically too women are going to be worse hit as a large number of women work in the unorganised sector. Cases of violence against women in society would also rise jeopardising the limited progress that has been made in terms of gender equality.
A lot of discussion regarding the effect of lockdown on women is going on at both national and international levels, all of which point at the rising violence and pitiable condition of women amid the pandemic. Jayanthi Natarajan, former Union Minister, aptly says in The Hindu that home is no more the safest place for victims of domestic violence in this lockdown period. She focuses upon the need of the policymakers to address the well being of the women whether within house or working as health workers, sanitation workers, other essential service providers, etc.
It is in this context that it is important to go back to Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s views on women. His vision of a discrimination-free society was the main impetus behind his ideas about women. His Hindu Code Bill which though not passed by the legislature then, points at his farsightedness.
He wanted women to have the right to divorce, the right to inheritance and allow inter-caste marriages, or in other words, he sought to provide agencies to women through choices, which in turn would mean empowerment. Though the bill was not passed in the form drafted by Ambedkar, it did lead to a number of later laws to improve the position of women.
In a patriarchal society like India, Ambedkar knew that legislative measures were the only ways to improve the condition of women. So he not only tried to bring education and awareness among them, he also tried to work in the legislative front.
Hence our constitution provides:
1. equality before the law and equal protection of the laws;
2. prohibits discrimination against any citizen on the ground of sex;
3. empowers the State to make positive discrimination in favour of women and children;
4. provides for Equality of Opportunity in matters of public employment;
5. prohibits trafficking in human beings and forced labour;
6. enjoins the State to provide equal means of livelihood and equal pay for equal work;
7. enjoins upon the State to make provisions for securing just and humane conditions of work, and for maternity relief;
8. imposes a Fundamental Duty on every citizen to renounce the practices derogatory to the dignity of women;
And so on.
In a society which is incapable of taking care of its women, the legislature and judiciary needs to play a stronger role. While the constitution safeguards women’s rights, society keeps flouting them, more so within the close doors of lockdown period.
In a world with limited resources, restricted mobility and no escape routes visible, women are once again extremely vulnerable. Social stigma, fear of ostracism and lack of awareness are some of the reasons that stop women from even reporting any violence or injustice.
Deep-rooted patriarchy often fails to identify exploitations. The gender equality that Ambedkar had envisioned, along with all other equalities, remain a distant dream. Now that it is already clear that COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon, and there is going to be significant changes in our lives, these rights and responsibilities become even more important.
It is unfortunate that in spite of thinkers like Ambedkar who had been working for women’s equality since pre-independence, one pandemic is enough to push back whatever little the women’s movements had gained. It makes Ambedkar’s cause even more contemporary and proves him to be a visionary way ahead his time.