Thousands of women in colourful saris forming a human chain. It’s a powerful image, and one that dominated our screens last week. The press reported the human chain was up to 620km in length, and may have involved more than five million women. Although social media is covered in conflicting data about how long, how many women, and even whether all women were voluntarily there, the photographs clearly show a multitude of women standing in protest.
But what got them so passionate?
In September 2018, the Indian High Court overruled legislation from 1972 and banned women of menstruating age (10-50 years old) from entering Sabarimala shrine, one of India’s largest and holiest Hindu pilgrimage sites. The ruling had determined that women should have the freedom to worship at this and other sacred sites. Following the ruling in September, conservatives stripped women of these rights and enforced the ban on women entering the temple.
Until Wednesday, January 2, when two women entered via the staff entrance at dawn. That simple act, with police protecting the women themselves, triggered major protests and violence.
Women stand shoulder to shoulder as part of a "women's wall" in Thiruvananthapuram,
in the southern Indian state of Kerala, on Jan. 2, 2019.
The women who subsequently took to the streets to stand in human chain were not partaking in the violence – they were simply reminding the world that, whilst Indian women have legislated rights, there’s some way to go before gender equality is real in their everyday existence.
Empowerment comes from when women are treated with respect in their everyday activities. Empowered women are able to make decisions about their own lives and activities, including where they can undertake the humble act of worship. Empowerment is women, feeling valued and valuable, being able to protect and stand up for themselves. It’s not just about legislation – it is about the underlying culture that impacts everyday actions.
The #metoo movement has highlighted how women in the developed world can be taken advantage of. Despite the legal framework, it took hundreds of thousands of women to stand together – and some very brave individuals to file cases – to start the cultural change we are seeing in the entertainment industry today.
Opportunity International Australia is committed to empowering women, particularly in the developing world, places far from the #metoo movement in Hollywood. With 4.5million of our clients living in India – 95% of these being women – Indian women are at the core of our thoughts, passions and actions. India has some of the strongest anti domestic violence legislation in the world, but very few women know about their rights under the law, or how to exercise them. We’re committed to changing that, with the help of our Domestic Violence Mitigation partner, My Choices.
Our reasons for focusing on women are not simply economic, despite the many benefits that come from loaning primarily to women. By lending to women, we are providing the tools they need to empower themselves. Our model ensures the women meet together with the loan officer (and often a Health, Sanitation and Nutrition educator through our partner Healing Fields) every fortnight. Women support one another, to get advice from about their microbusiness ventures, and to feel valued and valuable – the core of empowerment. Many of our Health, Sanitation and Nutrition educators, also women, feel empowered as they travel – some for the first time without a male relative as chaperone – and are empowered through their investment in training and education. One woman I met last year discussed how, as a Health educator, she felt more valued than the family’s cow – for the first time in her life!
As a woman in the developed world, I take so much of my empowerment for granted – I have been well educated, been able to decide who to marry and when and how many children to bear, made choices about my career, and been listened to and respected in board rooms around Sydney. Sure, as a female professional in the accounting sector in the 1980s and 1990s, I experienced inappropriate sexual advances and heard far too many blue jokes for my liking! But like a vast number of professional women in the developed world, I have never felt that my life was threatened or that I would not be listened to on important matters. The same can’t be said of millions of women around the world.
So, professional women in the developed world, please stand with me to support those in the developing world who are not yet empowered, and who need our support to change the world.