Today, in contrast to the past centuries, we find women literate, educated, and liberated to lead. We find their surge forward not only in the political front, but also in social life where they act as agents of change contributing to economic development as well.
But first of all we need to understand what empowerment of women really means if we have to understand its impact.
Empowerment is about being given authority and power to do something.
Empowerment is about becoming stronger and confident.
Empowerment again means to become aware of one’s rights and privileges.
Empowerment also means the ability to control one’s life in a more meaningful and fulfilling way.
The term empowerment naturally presupposes a sense of powerlessness; doesn’t it? Well, with women it has been rightly so. As we look back at the centuries we find many dark ages where women in different lands were suppressed, treated as commodities, with no voice in decision-making and no role in deciding how social and community life evolved. But empowerment of women made a radical change in the whole situation.
And this change has come about not without its struggles and sacrifices, protests and conflicts. This transformation passed through many difficulties when those who led with a vision to emancipate women were often viewed with suspicion from within the ranks of women themselves and opposed by the male-dominated hierarchies. Even today there are ripples and reflections of these tendencies. One can never say the world has seen gender equality and rights of women championed in the fullest sense.
But change did come. From powerlessness, women have come to recognize that they are individuals made in God’s image and likeness just like men; and are valuable and precious in God’s eyes. They have come to celebrate their differences from men not as a reason for subjugation, but as a joyous gift of God to give an active support and contribution to the family first, to the workplace next and the community at large in a broader sphere.
In all these areas women have risen to greatness and power by utilizing available resources and increasing their influence in the decision-making process. The key to this change has been literacy and education. Economic freedom came through women finding employment in different spheres like nursing, teaching, management, and the like. Today, women have made their presence felt in the field of police, defence, sports, space exploration,* research and development, social work, and many other fields as well.
But all this was not enough as they had to have a political empowerment which especially came through right for women to vote through some tough campaigning. Emmeline Pankhurst who helped women win the right to vote in Britain cannot be forgotten. Perhaps a day will come when the most awaited 33% reservation for women in the Indian Parliament would become a reality. If that happens it will be a grand day when the the voice of women will ring out more loud and clear in the central hall of the world’s largest democracy.
Personally, I have been motivated by many examples where empowerment of women is first of all felt by the masses through the vision of a pioneering lady. Be it Florence Nightingale who made nursing into such a structured and noble profession, Ida Scudder who in response to witnessing three tragic deaths of women in childbirth in Tindivanam in a single night in the late 1890’s responded to the challenge and heard God’s call to become a missionary doctor and establish the reputed Christian Medical College (CMC Vellore, first started for women), Amy Carmichael, who dyed her skin with dark coffee to make her skin brown to gain access to and acceptance with young girl children and rescued hundreds of them from a life of forced prostitution in Dohnavur, Pandita Ramabai, a scholar in Sanskrit who saved the lives of thousands of women in famine struck times through her Mukti Mission in Pune; the list goes on. Today, the need is to have women with such vision and burden for the upliftment of women.
There are countless examples in modern times; Malala Yousafzai is one young voice many listen to today. Her courage and words inspire; and she emphasizes the importance of education as a means of women empowerment. As she said in an interview,
“The important thing to note is that it is not important whether Malala was shot or not — Malala is not asking for personal favors or support. She is asking for support with girls’ education and women’s rights. So don’t support Malala, support her campaign for girls’ education and women’s rights.”
I am sure there are several other names that come to your mind even as I speak. Indira Gandhi, Prathibha Patil, Rani Lakhsmibai of Jhansi, Kalpana Chawla, Indra Nooyi, Kiran Bedi, Arundathi Bhattacharya, Bachendri Pal, the list goes on. If you recognized some of these names, it is simply because women have learned to lead, have challenged existing norms of society and have taken a proactive role in changing traditions and rewriting history. Surely, women empowerment is a reality; isn’t it? I am sure you are compelled to agree.
Now let me point out that social reformation alone is not just enough for women empowerment. The mind-set of society also has to keep pace. To ensure this transition, laws had to be enacted. Several laws have been enacted to ensure the safety and protection of women especially in the workplace.
But it is sad that there still needs to be a radical change in the way women are viewed in society. A women gets educated, earns a well-paid job and then suddenly finds herself being bargained for in the marriage market. This is sad and tragic. In this world of commercialization, women are in many places regarded as liabilities rather than as assets. This has to change if women empowerment has to become a reality in the fullest sense.
Finally, top leadership is something that women can aspire and reach to. But massive change for the empowerment of women has to begin and be sustained at the grass roots level. Assurance of employment, maintenance of good physical and emotional health should also be priorities as far as women empowerment is concerned.
Kudumbashree, a community organization of neighbourhood groups in Kerala started by the government in 1998 has proven itself as a successful model of women empowerment at the grass roots level. Such models need to be multiplied across different geographic regions across the world where there is a felt need for women empowerment.
Before I conclude, let me point out one more historical moment of women empowerment. When Jesus Christ rose from the dead; it was Mary Magdalene who had the privilege of seeing the Risen Lord first and had the unique distinction of being the first witness to the fact of his resurrection. This was her testimony: “I have seen the Lord!” the echoes of which still resonates in many millions of human hearts even after 2000 years of its happening.
But the point is that Jesus by allowing Mary Magdalene to be the first witness was empowering women for all time. This is stunning because Jesus did not reveal himself first to his inner circle of disciples who were all men and Jewish law did not permit women to be witnesses. And in that society, men usually prayed thanking God that they were not born as women. The way Jesus treated women with respect and dignity will always empower them to claim their rightful share not only in God’s kingdom but also in homes and workplaces; in politics and economics as well.
Two more new areas of women empowerment cannot be left unmentioned in this 21st century:
One is of women’s active presence in the social media. Several women needs and priorities have been brought to light through intense campaigning through the social media. This is powerfully used to promote a cause, share a story, change public perception and even prevent negative stereotyping of women.
The second area of women empowerment in the 21st century is the need to have a massive drive for bringing school and college students into sports and games and outdoor activities. This coming together will not only help teenagers gain self-confidence and esteem; but also increase their physical and emotional health.
Let me now confront some bitter truths. Women empowerment is definitely a reality today. But the question is, Is it enough? Is there more work to be done? Without doubt, there are many places where the voice of women is still not heard. Discrimination still exists and even in the Corporate world we talk about the glass ceiling. The media sensationalizes crime against women which is growing alarmingly.
Domestic violence, dowry, gender discrimination, continue to be evils of our times. Politics is still male dominated even when half the population is female. The dignity of women and their worth as persons and individuals is often tainted by wrong portrayals in movies, advertisements, and even in beauty pageants. The lot of sales girls in ever growing super market outlets looks glamorous with their uniforms and dignity it seems to afford; but some serious study should be done as to how difficult their days are in spite of the smiles they gift us with. The list of negatives can go on.
But there is hope. The voice of women will still be heard loud and clear in spite of attempts to silence them. More stories of women empowerment are being scripted in every village and city not only in our state and nation but across the boundaries. It can very well be the transforming reality of the present. Thank you.
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Sources and further reading:
In appreciation of the work of Pandita Ramabai for the advancement of Indian women, the government of India approved the issuance of a commemorative stamp of Pandita Ramabai in 1989.
- Ida Scudder as a young girl heard three knocks at her door one night. Three men from different religious background came at different times with the same request to assist their wives in childbirth. Ida Scudder told her lack of medical experience and offered the services of her father, a doctor. But those men could not bear the thought of a male presence. The next day Ida Scudder saw the corpses of three women being taken for cremation. This incident which all her biographers note challenged her to earn a medical degree and come back to India and do something for the health and well-being of women.