Assam-based writer and social activist Pooja Nirala says it is not often that women or girls in India get to speak their mind openly and tell what they want.Nirala's observation matched the experience of most women from various sections of society The Federal spoke with. As these women were asked about their dreams and desires, most fumbled to answer as the "question" took them by...

Assam-based writer and social activist Pooja Nirala says it is not often that women or girls in India get to speak their mind openly and tell what they want.

Nirala's observation matched the experience of most women from various sections of society The Federal spoke with. As these women were asked about their dreams and desires, most fumbled to answer as the "question" took them by surprise. "Nobody asks women what they want as our political and social structure don't consider women's views and issues important," adds Nirala.

Nirala's opinion is based on her personal and professional experiences. Daily she meets scores of underprivileged women who struggle hard to break the shackles of never-ending poverty, gender-based violence and ostracisation. "These women stay in slums or poor housing colonies. If they work, they are employed in the informal sector. They earn their livelihood as domestic help, vegetable vendors, ragpickers or manual scavengers," informs Nirala, who works with marginalised communities in Assam's Guwahati and Jorhat.

Remedy against violence: Education and economic empowerment

"Two things that are urgently needed for women's empowerment are education and job security. Women face layers of exploitation because of their gender, caste and class. Of late, we have come across several women who face domestic violence but have no mechanism to address them.

"The Domestic Violence Act of 2005 is there to protect the victims. However, most women don't pursue cases against their husbands due to economic and social factors. These women are dependent on their partners economically or are under social pressure to stay with their husbands and raise children, considered a primary role for women," adds Nirala.

The latest National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) annual report, released in 2023, showcases a huge rise in crimes against women in the country. In 2022, 4,45,256 cases were registered.

The majority of crimes against women under the Indian Penal Code were of cruelty by husband or his relatives (31.4 per cent) followed by kidnapping and abduction of women (19.2 per cent), assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty (18.7 per cent), and rape (7.1 per cent), the NCRB stated.

Fight against multiple roadblocks

Giving an example of how marginalised women fight several battles simultaneously, Nirala says that despite the Street Vendors Act of 2014, most female street vendors have no access to toilets and drinking water. "They work 12 hours a day in open spaces. Some also bring their small kids with them as they sell different goods. These women have no physical, economic or social security. Most of them belong to underprivileged castes and communities. Because of their low income, they can't send their children to schools," adds Nirala.

The Street Vendors Act of 2014 is considered a pioneering initiative to protect the livelihood rights and social security of urban street vendors in the country and thereby aid poverty alleviation efforts of the government.

Interestingly, the latest global report done by the United Nations, "We the women", cited that around half of the women worldwide report that climate change, economic insecurity, and gender inequality significantly affect them.

The report was based on a survey held across 185 countries where 25,000 women took part and expressed their opinion on varied social, political and economic issues. The United Nations revealed the results of the survey in May.

The report was divided into 10 parameters:

i) women’s leadership

ii) optimism over pessimism

iii) barriers for change

iv) women and the sustainable development goals or SDGs

v) key issues affecting women now

vi) climate change and conflict on women’s minds for their future, vii) artificial intelligence will be positive for many

viii) providing solutions

ix) we the women across regions and

x) we the women: the generations

Where are women workers?

Content writer and aspiring novelist Shruti Dastidar from Mumbai says the survey sample is small and can't speak for everyone. "However, it has covered issues of importance including providing solutions to problems faced by women."

"If you ask me what I want as a woman, I will say economic freedom. Even many educated women don't enjoy the freedom to go out and earn their livelihood. There are personal and social barriers for women to go and earn. Once women enjoy the freedom to be economically independent, the country will progress," said Dastidar.

According to the India Employment Report, 2024, released a few months ago by the Institute for Human Development and the International Labour Organisation, the female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) is very low compared to the male counterparts. In 2023, the male LFPR was pegged at 78.5; and the women LFPR was 37 in India.

Let’s talk about caste and race

Sampa Thapa, a domestic worker, in Hyderabad, agrees that unless women don't have economic freedom, it is difficult for them to survive. "I had to leave my hometown Darjeeling in West Bengal to earn my livelihood. While I have studied till class ten, I can't get any other job. So I am working as a domestic help in five houses in Hyderabad,” adds Thapa.

She came to Hyderabad with her husband three years ago. Thapa plans to start her restaurant in the coming years. "My husband is already selling momos and noodles from a makeshift cart. He earns decent and we are saving money to open our dream restaurant."

As Thapa's class and gender make her vulnerable, it is the daily racial taunts that have left her traumatised. “Here in Hyderabad, it is a little better. When I was in Delhi for one year before shifting to Hyderabad, my hair was once pulled by a bike rider.

"I was walking and he slowed down his vehicle and attacked me physically. He called me Chinese, as I have mongoloid features. After pulling my hair, he pushed me and I fell on the footpath. My right arm was left with bruises," Thapa recalls the episode, which she calls the worst in her life.

Like Thapa faces racial prejudice, Mangala Devi, another domestic worker from Hyderabad, says it is "caste-based discrimination which she has faced multiple times". Devi, a friend of Thapa, adds that every time she meets a prospective employer she is asked about her caste. "After I tell them I am a Dalit, the conversation ends and I don't get the job.

"In one of my past jobs in a posh locality, I was never allowed to touch utensils in the kitchen. I was hired to mop and sweep the house. One day, during a celebration at the house, I was offered food in a newspaper as they had no paper plates. Others were eating on ceramic plates. My food dropped on the floor as the newspaper could not hold it together for long. After that, they never offered me food. I worked there for several years. Now they have left for a different locality," adds Devi, who stays in a slum in Hyderabad.

Being a Muslim woman

Sarah Mehkri from Bengaluru says she wants a safe society. "I aspire for a secure future where the government takes care of its citizens, especially those in need like destitute, elderly population or those suffering from medical ailments."

As a Muslim woman, who is also a social activist, Mehkri wishes to have the freedom to practice her faith without any obstructions. The repeated crackdowns by the government like Eid prayers being barred by the authorities for the sixth time in a row at Srinagar's Jama Masjid and Eidgah or violent attacks on Muslims by Hindu vigilante groups have left those who follow Islam alarmed and insecure in their own country.

"I want mutual respect among fellow citizens and brotherhood. I want a reduction in income tax rates. The government needs to bring reforms to protect our rights. There should be laws to provide a safety network for workers against corporate exploitation. There should be equal pay and opportunities for all in the country," adds Mehkri, a member of Sampark, a group that works for communal harmony.

Dwelling further into the issue of hate speeches and hate crimes against Muslims, Mehkri expresses concern.

"Yes, we all are devastated by the tyranny and injustice against our community. It hurts us 24x7. Muslims are wrongly portrayed by the current regime, the media and the world at large. In reality, Muslims are the kindest and most generous people. We strongly believe in brotherhood and equality."

In February, a report by the India Hate Lab, a United States-based research group, documented about 700 hate speeches in the country in 2023. While incidents of violent attacks against Muslims have become a norm, the Delhi riots of 2020 (which is called a pogrom by activists as most victims including more than 50 casualties of human lives belonged to the Muslim community) is the last most talked-about anti-Muslim episode in the country.

"India is a progressive nation and each citizen, community and culture contributes to the progress and success of our country. I want India to grow and be a developed nation with zero corruption and true freedom to practice religion and express opinions," says Mehkri.

In the United Nations report, an overwhelming majority - 60 per cent – of women believe that women’s representation in leadership roles in their respective countries will improve over the next decade. Moreover, more than two-thirds of women worldwide assert the necessity for enhanced representation in leadership positions at both national and global levels to influence the future.

"An overwhelming 85 per cent of women identify themselves as advocates for women’s rights. The survey reveals widespread optimism among women regarding a range of issues, even amidst the world’s concurrent pressing challenges, conflicts, and crises.

"For women, climate and conflict are the top concerns. The survey also reveals a widespread dissatisfaction with international collaboration in addressing global challenges. Only 19 per cent believe countries are adequately cooperating to resolve conflicts, 21 per cent to tackle economic insecurity, and 30 per cent to address gender inequality — highlighting a perceived lack of effective multilateral action," added the report.

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