Almost ten years ago, I asked several women one simple question: IF you had a choice, what would you choose to be reborn as? Nine out of ten times, the answer was, “A man”. I doubt very much whether the response would be any different today. Years of social conditioning erode at a woman’s perception of herself. She is taught that she is physically, emotionally and intellectually inferior and, therefore, undeserving of any care and consideration. The little she receives by way of food, clothing and shelter is considered a privilege for which she is expected to pay by contributing her (non-wage) labour to the family. She learns to become passive and resigned to her fate.
That the root of this problem lies in infancy and childhood is an accepted fact. As reported in The Lesser Child, from the day of her birth, a girl is viewed as a burden and a liability. The obsession for sons cuts across all barriers of class, caste and religion, and determines the amount and quality of investment that parents make in their female children. More often than not, girls are physically and emotionally deprived of the family’s affection and resources. The web of prejudices that a girl child encounters rob her of both her individuality and her dignity.
Let us analyze the factors that influence the woman’s concept of herself. In infancy and early childhood, the girl’s primary contact is within her family. It is at her mother’s or grandmother’s knee that she is first introduced to the collective wisdom of her culture through its lullabies, songs and folklore. Most often, each of these reinforces the concept of male superiority and the inherent qualities of the male child. The family’s behaviour and interaction only reinforce these views. As she grows older, the girl’s contact is extended to the community which acts as a larger patriarchal unit and reaffirms the traditional, male-dominated, norms and ideologies. If she is lucky, she might even be allowed to enrol in school. Here again, the teachers encourage conformity with the patriarchal value system and the text-books extol the virtues of brave and chivalrous male heroes and meek and submissive females.
If and when the girl extends her contact further, she has to contend with the discriminatory and stereotypical images of females portrayed by the media. Girls and women are either invisible or when given the occasional exposure, are depicted as being socially, economically and emotionally dependent. The infrequent portrayals of independent, assertive women are usually those of the celluloid ‘vamp’.
The girl reaches puberty. She needs to be joyfully introduced to the fact of her physical maturing and prepared for the blossoming of her sexuality. Instead, the adolescent girl is locked away in a darkened room, prevented from seeing sunlight, isolated from most human contact, and forbidden to read, listen to music, or do anything which might relieve the tension, confusion and terror of the first menstruation. From now on, she is asked to cover herself, and rigid rules of modesty are suddenly clamped on her. Outside contact, especially with unrelated males, is strongly discouraged. She starts being readied for what is considered her ultimate purpose in life: marriage and child-bearing. Curiosity or discussion about her body is almost totally forbidden. Fundamental knowledge about sex and sexuality is taboo. Is it any surprise, then, to learn that most women, after reaching their adulthood, and for their entire lives, are unable to identify themselves as anything but daughters or wives or mothers?, That post-graduate students from upper-middle class families have no notion about family planning methods? That educated women die at the hands of illegal abortionists because they are too scared to discuss their pregnancies with their families?
As an adult, if a woman happens to belong to the ranks of the disadvantaged and the poor, she becomes a prime “beneficiary” for the development agencies. The involvement of women is currently considered an integral part of every project and each document religiously carries mention of the critical importance of women in the development process. Donors vie with one another to fund women-focused projects. But witness some of the reasons articulated for justifying the emphasis on women:
- Female literacy: Educate a man and you will educate an individual. Educate a woman and you will educate a family (or even a nation).
- Income generation: Men most often spend their extra income on themselves, whereas women use their income to buy food for the family and improve the quality of life of their children.
- Maternal health and nutrition: Healthier mothers have healthier babies.
Noble causes and intentions. But where is the focus on the woman, except inasmuch .as she is seen either as a womb to bear children or as an instrument to rear them? Once again, what we are reinforcing is the traditional belief that a woman’s worth does not come from being herself, an individual in her own right, but from the degree to which she can be of use to others (her children, her family, her community and her nation).
We all agree that unless women become a priority in health, nutrition and education, there can never be Health for All, or Education for All, or any form of social justice. The focus on women must become an integral part of all our development programmes. However, unless we attack the root cause of the problem, our efforts run the risk of being short-lived and rejected by communities at large.
Before we can expect a woman to make the most of the opportunities and services provided for her, we need to ensure that she has enough self-esteem to believe that she actually deserves what is being offered. Without that conviction, she will neither actively pursue nor be able to fully participate in any opportunity that comes her way. Any development project that aims at providing services for women must, therefore, include the building of self-esteem as an integral part of its project objectives and activities. Development programmes must aim at changing the centuries-old attitudes which perpetuate negative and stereotypical images of women.
Perhaps the first step should be for us to critically examine our own attitudes towards girls and women. The public rhetoric of seminars and workshops is all too often forgotten the moment we step out of the meeting halls. But in actual fact, do we consider our own sons and daughters to be of equal status and importance? Do we have the same code of conduct and hopes and aspirations for them? Or do we, too, feel that the end of the road for every girl is to be married and to bear children? We would make rather poor advocates if we do not truly believe in the cause that we promote.
It is time that the woman started being considered important, as an individual who mattered in her own right. It is time for us to stop treating her as a passive recipient of services, and to go the extra mile to ensure that she becomes an active determinant of her own future: a person who demands good health, nutrition, education, and above all, equal status, not as privilege but as a birth-right.
Rina Gill is a film maker and presently is chief of the Communications Section of UNICEF/Nepal. These opinions are her own.