The 2010s were a decade which shook India as women, in both urban and rural areas, hit the streets in unprecedented numbers as a mark of protest on various issues. It began in 2012 when, for the first time, thousands of young urban women stood outside India Gate in the heart of New Delhi to protest against the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman in the capital. Images of the protesting women being dragged away by the police and blasted with tear gas remain vivid in memory because these were neither politically motivated nor organised protests. They were ordinary women who had stepped out in solidarity against rape and the poor conviction rate in crimes against women in India.
This was followed by a series of protests where women led from the front-the 2015 agitation at Pune's FTII (Film and Television Institute of India), the 2018 #MeToo movement and the anti-CAA and Dalit rights protests in 2019. "The face of the woman protester has become much more visible in the past decade, partly due to media coverage and partly due to more women wanting to fight for their independence and their rights," says social activist Sunitha Krishnan.
Indeed, the country has come a long way in the last century. Many prominent women campaigned against regressive and cruel traditions, such as sati, the purdah system and dowry, to send out a strong message to the public. Others have entered and achieved success in politics, judiciary, armed forces, science, business and entrepreneurship. Literacy rates of women have risen from a paltry 8.9 per cent in 1951 to 64.6 per cent in 2011. The number of girls who drop out of school has reduced by half since the 1980s. And the gender pay gap has improved from 48 per cent in 1993 to 34 per cent in 2018.
But there is still much to be done before it can be said that India's girls and women are safe, empowered and have access to justice, healthcare, equal employment and equal rights as men. According to the 'State of World Population' report released by UNFPA in June 2020, India accounts for 46 million of the 142 million girls who went missing across the world over the past 50 years as a consequence of pre and postnatal sex selection. The calculation is based on the shortfall in number of women relative to the expected number of women in a region or country. Child marriage is rampant. In the present married population, 55 per cent of the girls got married between the ages of 14 and 19. Marriages in the 10-14 age group increased by 35 per cent between 2000 and 2011.
There are problems outside of the home as well. Male participation in the workforce is four times that of women, which in 2019 was at an all-time low of 20.5 per cent. Crime against women per 100,000 people was 62.4 in 2019-the highest ever-while the conviction rate remains dismal. Only 28 per cent of those facing rape charges in 2020 were convicted.
According to UN Women, women's empowerment has to start by first changing the social and cultural perceptions about girls and women. As a country, we collectively need to recognise that women have the right to freely make decisions about their life, bodies and future. Recognising the rights of women is as much the responsibility of men. Only when you will see enough men demanding an equal environment for women will you know that change is truly on its way.