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Our Voices

Gender Equality and Gender Equity–A Far Cry For India?

An picture of an indian woman kneeling before the God Ganesha. Whe is wearing a red skirt and black top.
Women turn to God Ganesha. The diety's upraised hand depicts protection. It means, 'Fear not, I am with you', and his lowered hand, palm facing outwards means endless giving as well as an invitation to bow down.

India is a country where tradition and modernity continue to collide and clash. The government, and those who fight for progress  work hard to increase gender equity and equality. However, financial independence is a critical enabler in the advancement of women’s equity and equality in India. Given the grim situation today, financial independence seems miles away from being a possibility for India’s women.

Here are some of the reasons why:

Education is discouraged

Education offers the best opportunity for women to find employment, provided it continues to be encouraged. Since 2010, India has provided free education for every child until 14 However, not being compulsory, children have the right to education but not the obligation. Many girls do not find themselves in classrooms because their parents prefer to educate their sons. Girls are forced to help with housework. Women have persisted against all odds, and are now getting an education, and a way to becoming financially independent.  With this change, the term ‘gender equality’ has grown increasingly popular in recent years. However, there is a significant number of people here who are unable to distinguish between gender equality and gender equity. Gender equality refers to outcomes that are equal for all genders. Gender equity acknowledges that women and persons of different genders do not have the same ‘starting position’ as men.

Cultural barriers to independence

We in India endorse the ‘Educate the Girl, Save the Girl’ campaign. Yet, sadly, a university degree is nothing more than a piece of paper used to entice a suitable groom. Many are educated with the sole purpose of getting husbands, not to join the workforce. In Gujarat, I visited a few marriage bureaus.  It came as no surprise to learn that upper-middle-class families prefer a female who is well-educated, but willing to leave her job (which requires commitment and time) after marriage. Allowances are made if you want to work from home, but it’s usually to create the impression that the ladies are suitably engaged. If a boy comes from a middle-class home, he is receptive to marrying a working lady, but not at the expense of housework. They’re aware that for any woman to perform both duties well without assistance is challenging. It’s best for all if the woman is a full-time housewife.  Thus, many educated women who could be national treasures are staying at home, which leads to dependence on husbands for the rest of their lives.

Cleaning jobs and similar low-paid jobs are considered menial and do not provide women with dignity. It’s a point of contention whether women who are highly paid receive more respect. In 1972, Ela Bhatt started The Self-Employed Women’s Association – SEWA. The name means ‘service’ in numerous Indian languages. It is an Indian trade union founded in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, that advocates for the rights of low-wage, self-employed women. With over 1.6 million participating women, SEWA is the largest organization of  informal workers in the world. SEWA is based on the idea of complete employment, through which a woman can provide food, health care, childcare, and a safe place to live for her family. This stellar organization has transformed innumerable women’s lives. Giving them what women need most – financial freedom.

An image of a woman's face scarred by an acid attack.
Organization founded in 2015 seeks to end acid attacks on women.

Acid attacks – a burning issue

Violence against women continues to be huge problem in India. Acid attacks is the most horrifying. Acid attacks are at an all-time high and increasing every year, with 250–300 reported incidents every year. Although acid attacks occur all over the world, this type of violence is most common in South Asia.  In most cases, this crime is linked to a relationship gone sour, marriage, or dowry issues. It’s the worst form of revenge, where acid is used to disfigure women permanently, snatching away their dignity forever. These vicious attacks lead to untold physical, mental and social damage. A few days of news and sympathy are not enough to give women the strength to survive. This is summed up well in the film ‘Chhapaak (Splash),  directed by Meghna Gulzar. It is a biographical drama, based on the life of an acid assault survivor, in which the survivor says, “He attacked me once, but society attacks me every day.” Stories of violence like this reminds women the world is not safe for them, discouraging many to be out in the world. Just another insidious way to keep them at home and financially dependent.

The Kanoria Foundation is an NGO that supports the surgeries of acid victims and collaborates with educational institutions such as universities to help with their education. It also offers financial aid for their children’s education.

Too many ways to discriminate and discredit women

Women HIV carriers find it harder to be employed. I met a woman who married the man her parents had chosen for her. The man had concealed the fact that he was HIV-positive. She discovered this when she was pregnant.  She was unable to deal with this ordeal. In another case, the boy’s family claimed that their son became infected due to the girl’s HIV infection. The truth eventually came out, and the girl was exonerated.  Even though this case caused a furor, Indian society will still never accept the girl if she is infected. HIV-positive women have no way of gaining financial independence.I was therefore surprised to read that a couple of non-governmental organizations in Ahmedabad are selling ‘dry food’ produced by HIV-positive women.

Divorce is yet another significant issue. Recently, it was reported that a woman committed suicide because she was being abused by her husband. She had the means to return to her parents’ house, but she was afraid to even try because she would bring them shame. Society would judge her and her parents. The truth is never revealed in these situations. Only one girl dared to post on social media that she couldn’t find the right man to marry until she was 32, and that her relatives treated her badly when she attended social functions. “Now that I am married, people have begun to invite me. I created a website called ‘Human is around you, you are not alone’ and I’m getting a lot of questions regarding our society, which is a big cause of depression”, she says.

Disabled or divorced women face further discrimination. Not to mention, in Indian society, girls do not have a right to their parents’ property.

With so much stacked against them, financial independence is a crucial part of the feminist agenda in India. Without it, women cannot rise to their full potential.  Without it, women in abusive, unfulfilling marriages can never leave. Without it, they languish on the margins.  Without it, their future is bleak.

Achieving financial independence safely is the Indian woman’s first step towards finding and retaining their dignity.

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Our Voices

The Language of Change

Illustration by Marta Lebek on Stocksy

Storytelling can help us through challenging situations. By reading other people’s real-life stories, those who are depressed might get a ray of hope, realizing that anything is possible. However, it can be hard to share our pain directly with others. This is why it can be powerful to write our stories, and know that someone is there to hear us.

I started to write about myself on International platforms, including Women For One. But my English is not at all excellent, so there’s the possibility that I might not convey the exact message with the exact feeling I want. Sometimes, this makes it hard to capture readers’ attention, and I can feel my effort is in vain because of the language barrier.

Here in India, the majority of the people speak a regional language, and even if some know English, they prefer to write or share their feelings in their mother tongue.

Still, I would like to try and narrate one incident. A girl from my college followed our tradition and married a guy whom her parents found right for her. Just after marriage, she started facing dowry demands and domestic violence. There was no love, no trust and no attachment, but the girl tried her best to live with her partner as she was very well aware that if she went back to her parents’ house, it would be nightmare for her as well as for her whole family.

She spent a year with her husband, but nothing worked and she suffered bone fractures due to domestic violence. Her parents got her back, but since that day, society started torturing her and ruining her life.  She gained 15 KG in a few months for months due to medicines and improper diet. No one dared to stand by her. Her neighbor started giving advice to her parents to settle the matter as a girl living with parents is a burden.  A few people ordered their daughters not to talk to her, in case they gave the wrong impression of their married life.

Her parents were not able to give their opinions, nor could she. If she dared, people raise a question, “You couldn’t handle your family, how will you handle this issue!”

One day she decided to commit suicide and posted her warning on Facebook. Timely action saved her, but the question is still there: Who gave society the right to plunge into someone’s personal life?

This girl is still being harassed and she is not the only girl. There are number – students, men, women who are — being harassed for being unable to get good marks, unable to bear a child, unable to get married at 25 and so on.

I give a voice to this kind of incident and try to give it voice so people might start thinking and we can have change.

Publisher’s Note: Dhara Patel is a journalist who lives in Gudjarat, India, and long time member of the LiisBeth community.

If you enjoyed this story and appreciate our work to give voice to feminist journalists and advance gender justice, please consider becoming a donor subscriber today!  LiisBeth Media is 100% womxn-led/owned and depends on reader donations. [direct-stripe value=”ds1577108717283″]

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Our Voices

Meet Mithula Naik: Feminist Designer, Latent Entrepreneur

Mithula Naik

Mithula Naik was studying industrial design in Chennai, India, a city of eight million, when she observed that women roaring around town on motorcycles and scooters were wearing bulky, ill-fitting helmets. As the daughter of entrepreneurs, she immediately saw an opportunity to capitalize on her interest in gender and design. “I didn’t just want to take a pink-and-shrink approach to designing a new helmet line for women,” says the now 26-year-old. “I wanted to see how I could enable a better riding experience by designing a better fit. So I researched the particulars of how a woman’s head shape and size is different from a man’s and came up with a better helmet that is ergonomically suited.”

Convincing manufacturers to buy into her idea was not easy. “I had to go to several manufacturers. At first they didn’t think a different helmet for women was necessary, let alone sell,” she says. Eventually, India’s Vega Helmets decided to give the idea—and Naik—a try. And the product took off, launching in 2014.

Naik identifies as a feminist and a feminist designer. LiisBeth recently interviewed her to chat about growing up in India, feminism and how we can redefine entrepreneurship:

LiisBeth: What did your father and mother do for a living?

Naik: Both my parents are entrepreneurs. Both of them work in business. My mother runs a primary school and day care centre. It is based on a Montessori model of education, and goes from preschool/day care through to the fourth grade. Her school is now 35 years in operation. It’s not a large school; it has about 100 students. She prioritizes maintaining quality instead of franchising and expanding the school. My father runs a business for flooring and interiors, so he does granite, marble and interior-related work.

LiisBeth: As a person who’s growing up in an entrepreneurial family, what’s your perception of how entrepreneurship is viewed in India in general?

Naik: Entrepreneurship is understood in two very different ways in India. Firstly, there’s micro and small businesses, the mom-and-pop-shop kind. This kind isn’t considered so special and is often taken for granted because it’s what everyone does. It’s mainstream. A lot of people are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial because they have to be. It’s needs based and a well-known way of life.

The second kind is medium to large businesses. More recently, with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promoting “Make in India,” there came a new kind of entrepreneur. FlipKart’s largest ecommerce chain competes with Amazon. Ola Cabs, India’s very own online cab aggregator, competes with Uber. These are the newer more aggressive and high-growth-oriented entrepreneurship ventures.

But back to the small business world, the influence of family expectations plays a big role in how young people consider entrepreneurship as a career. Your grandfather had a shop. Your father expanded it to two shops, and now as the next in line, you’re taking it to the next level, either developing a third shop or looking to expand internationally with a higher growth mindset. This is the mindset maintained by many of my friends from India. Many go abroad, get international business degrees and then come back to manage and grow their family businesses.

Growing up I believed it was, in fact, harder to get a corporate job than start a business. The entrepreneurial family and the life that goes with it were familiar enough to me that I didn’t really think of it as a desirable career option. There was a certain amount of predictability to it. Also, there is a profound sense of responsibility of a different kind, in that you have to carry the foundations of what your parents have persevered for. I feel extremely fortunate because my parents never placed any expectations on my brother and me to take their businesses forward. They wanted us to dream our own dreams.

LiisBeth: I want to explore this idea a little bit more because I find it intriguing. You grew up in an entrepreneurial family, in an entrepreneurial culture, yet you thought a job would be a great idea.

Naik: Yes.

LiisBeth: [Stunned] Why is that?

Because entrepreneurship, as any career would, comes with its constraints. Just because you are the CEO doesn’t necessarily mean you will be making as much money as you could be working for someone else. A lot of Indians return to India after spending time in the west earning more working at a job than their families ever did owning a small business in India. But this is common as well, immigrating to the west for a higher socio-economic standard. Entrepreneurship is also a deep commitment and responsibility like I mentioned. Personally, I couldn’t see myself putting all my energy in my early 20s in building one business, in the same city I grew up in and having to stay on to build it for the rest of my life. And although that is an equally joyful and challenging journey I personally wanted to travel and experience what was out there, and I was very fortunate to be able to. The world is a smaller place these days.

My core skill is design, and I need to grow as a designer. I thought I could best accomplish this by working with a large company where I would have the opportunity to collaborate with talented people from multidisciplinary fields. Working in an organization and in teams to solve problems seemed to me to be a more attractive idea than jumping on one “big idea” I might have as an entrepreneur.

LiisBeth: Are women entrepreneurs respected in India?        

Naik: I’d say the idea of women entrepreneurs who are in business for themselves in India is not as common as it is in North America. A lot of Indian women pursue business training (MBA) but then are weighed down by family expectations to work in their family’s business or join the corporate workforce. The idea of an Indian woman having her own business where she has 100 per cent autonomy is something rather recent. However, the stereotype of Indian women entrepreneurs being married women who work alongside their husbands, or daughters working with their fathers, is slowly changing.

The changing scenario can be seen by looking at the many young Indian women today using the internet and social media platforms to start their own autonomous businesses. Facebook for Business, particularly for small and medium enterprises, I believe is thriving in India. Start-ups from women entrepreneurs seem to be currently concentrated in traditionally women-led industries such as cosmetics, accessories, fashion and confectionery, but I definitely see that women in India are waking up to starting their own enterprises in other areas.

LiisBeth: Are you a feminist?

Naik: I would surely consider myself a feminist.

LiisBeth: What does that mean to you?

Naik: I guess it’s just the radical idea that women and men are equal! [Laughs.] But seriously, if you have a belief in fundamental human rights, you need to be a feminist. I really loved this new idea I read about, where we should stop asking people if they are feminists. We should ask instead if they’re sexist because really, you’re sexist if you’re not a feminist. Unfortunately, people, including many women, don’t understand the true meaning of feminism. There are too many negative connotations people associate with it, which takes away the basic meaning of feminism.

LiisBeth: Tell us about your final master’s major research project.

Naik: My project is titled “Beyond the Economic: The Influence of Women Entrepreneurs in Canada.” In an exploration of women’s entrepreneurship in Canada, my project seeks to re-examine the stereotype of the male as the prime entrepreneurial role model. It does this by uncovering the distinct experiences of women entrepreneurs for the expansion of both economic growth and social impact.

LiisBeth: What did you find out?

Naik: My research shows that Canadian women entrepreneurs have a lot of experience negotiating between the two complex entrepreneurial systems of for-profit entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship to reveal a middle ground. As a result, they are quicker to adopt a vision of Canadian society wherein businesses do not act in conflict with the good of the people, but rather alongside it. Think, hybrid enterprises. However, my study calls for more research in the subject, as there’s still a lack of available data on women’s entrepreneurship when compared to men.

LiisBeth: Why study women entrepreneurs in Canada?

Naik: Initially, I wanted to learn about how women entrepreneurs work in a first world country like Canada compared to a developing country like India. I thought I might come away with a sense of the ideal Canadian woman entrepreneur archetype that might be useful, motivating and instructional when comparing them to other women entrepreneurs in other countries. Instead, I came away with a much more interesting finding. It turns out Canadian women entrepreneurs have had a long history of fusing social benefit with business—a little known fact from what I could see. That experience and knowledge seems to be highly undervalued here. They could serve as a role model to so many others around the world.

LiisBeth: Can you discuss one of your project’s recommendations?

Naik: My first recommendation is that we begin to understand “impact” in more ways than merely financial and fully value the contributions made by women-led ventures. Many of their ventures not only contribute to the economy in the form of jobs created and supplies purchased, they also lead the way in running enterprises that measurably improve society and the environment. More progressive enterprise valuation formulas based on a broader definition of economic contribution could lead to new funding mechanisms and unleash a horde of financially oppressed but growth-minded women entrepreneurs.

LiisBeth: Any ideas on how to measure the value of social and environmental contributions?

Naik: Sure. We can start by carrying over new and now generally accepted “social impact metrics” and put a dollar value to social benefit outcomes. The social finance space is pioneering new ways of measuring social value. And the non-profit sector has also developed many new methods for assessing social impact and converting them into monetary terms. All we have to do is carry this concept over into the for-profit, commercial-lending and investment spaces so that a blended value enterprise can gain access to higher levels of funding since their balance sheet would include these other assets. I think government banks like BDC (Business Development Bank of Canada) could play a lead role in this.

LiisBeth: Being new to Toronto, and Canada, what strikes you as the one thing that sets us apart from other countries?

Naik: Inclusivity. I know diversity is emphasized in many places, but you can be in a highly diverse space that is largely segregated and less inclusive. From what I have experienced, Canada as a country emphasizes inclusivity to a great extent. It allows people from all over the world to come together to produce great things regardless of their differences. This has surprised me on many occasions. In my experience so far, Canada looks at people’s inherent capacities, what they bring to the table and not the colour of their skin or where they come from.

LiisBeth: What’s next for Mithula?

Naik: I have been working with the Central Innovation Hub at the Privy Council Office and definitely looking forward to working on many more exciting projects. I’m using the tools of design thinking and social innovation to solve policy and service delivery challenges in the public sector. Can’t wait!