Faceless women with stereotyped gender roles: Do we see hope for gender equality?
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I am tempted to share this very recent photograph of a newly done-up mural in a very prominent area of my city barely a stone-throw distance from the state parliament. It is a clear depiction of what our patriarchal society wants its women to be--meek submissive, docile, their colourless faces devoid of any hope or desires. I fervently hope that it is not the sign of times to come.
This year's World Population Day theme of safeguarding the health and rights of women and girls is bang on spot, more so in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The recently held 2nd session of 10th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (#APCRSHR10 Virtual) on "Accelerating Rights and Choices for all in a Post-COVID Asia-Pacific", saw several gender-equality and women rights' activists draw attention to the ills plaguing women and girls, especially those living in the Asia Pacific region.
Dr Gita Sen, a scholar of international repute and Distinguished Professor at Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), rues that the pandemic has further heightened the risks of disturbing practices prevalent in Asia Pacific countries (including India) that harm women and girls and undermine their equality - as shown by The State of the World Population Report 2020 by UNFPA.
"The existing inequalities have only exacerbated during the current pandemic. We also saw emergence of another parallel pandemic of violence against women and girls--those who were locked up with their abusers in their homes during lockdown. We have seen too little active leadership to remove stigma and to deal with the backlash against gender equality and sadly some leaders have gone in the opposite direction and we really need to tackle this," she says.
India has a long way to go to achieve the three zeroes (that were set in motion by UNFPA) by 2030: zero unmet need for contraception; zero preventable maternal deaths; andzero gender-based violence and harmful practices. The UNFPA report points out that India's maternal mortality ratio (deaths per 100,000 live births) was still high at 145 and modern method contraceptive prevalence rate in women aged 15-49 years, was a mere 38%.
The report also corroborates that the majority of Indian women still lack the power to take decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health and to negotiate and choose if they are willing to get pregnant or wish to give birth to a baby. A strong preference for a son by families is still prevalent, abetted by the country's overwhelming patriarchal society.
In one of her articles, Dr Kalpana Apte, Director General, Family Planning Association of India (FPA India), said that sexual health is largely neglected and reproductive health is not a priority in policy discourse in India. Citing a recent report by FPA India, she shared some very disturbing data: 50% of maternal deaths among girls aged 15-19 years occur due to unsafe abortion practices; 26.8% women aged 20-24 years were married before age 18 years; more than 50% of children between the ages of 5-12 years have been sexually abused and more than half of the cases of sexual abuse and rape go unreported; 34% of adolescent married girls admitted to being physically, emotionally, or sexually assaulted.
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