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Women's Day: the future is up to us

It is time we stopped sending the message that the status quo is acceptable

Virginia Saldanha, Mumbai Virginia Saldanha, Mumbai
  • Virginia Saldanha, Mumbai
  • India
  • March 8, 2011
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In Kerala, early in February a 23 year old woman returning from work alone in a ladies’ compartment of a train was attacked by a man. In her attempt to escape she jumped from the train but he jumped behind her. He raped the injured woman on the tracks. A passenger who saw her falling from the train raised an alarm. She was found near the tracks seriously injured and succumbed a few days later.

Simultaneously in UP body parts of the 16 year old dalit girl were cut off when she resisted the attempts of three youth to rape her

A fourteen year old girl in Bangladesh committed suicide after being denied justice when gang raped by men of her Catholic tribal community. The elders of her community convened a meeting with the rapists and the family who withdrew the court case for a cash settlement. Obviously no attention was paid to the wishes or trauma of the girl.

Across cultures and belief systems is the theory that men are superior to women. To maintain that superiority and assert authority they use various forms of controls and coercion which include violence to women. From a young age boys seem to assimilate the message that somehow they are stronger and superior to girls. They bully and physically use force to demonstrate superiority. As teenagers it may graduate to sexual assault.

Culture and Tradition are influential forces that shape gender relations in the family and society. A culture that dictates women need the protection of a man makes an unaccompanied woman ‘fair game’ to a potential attacker. Religious traditions that consider women unworthy to occupy positions of leadership, keep women in perpetual subjugation to male authority and consequent abuse.

Commonly it is women who transmit and maintain the status quo of culture and tradition. The internalization of inferiority makes them vie with each other for male recognition and affirmation. This gives them the dubious label of being “woman’s worst enemy”.

In the foreword of the gender policy of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil rightly states that “Through dominating social structures men own, control and manage financial, intellectual and ideological resources as well as the labour, fertility and sexuality of women, and thus perpetuate gender discrimination”. He expresses a hope that “the CBCI Gender Policy may inspire the Universal Church to make a favourable situation for women that will create co-partnership in the family, society and the world.” However, it is naïve to think that with the release of the document, its implementation is automatic and women will be empowered. If the women do not study the document closely and hold the bishops accountable to their commitment therein, no change will take place.

Women’s struggle for equality is an ongoing task which has to be taken seriously if women are to claim a place alongside men to make the world a safer , peaceful and just place for all. Culture and tradition have to be critiqued and awareness created about the role these play in shaping images and rules that govern women’s reality.

A meeting of four women over tea on July 13th 1948 set in motion big changes in the reality of women. These women critically evaluated the impact of the American Revolution on the lives of women. They felt that women needed to get more involved in playing active roles in the new republic so that society and the new nation would benefit. This gave rise to the first Women’s Rights Convention which took place within a few days.

The idealism, courage and determination of these women became the launching pad of the women’s movement in the world. Today, women who have inherited and benefited from this great legacy, have an obligation to carry the baton forward.

Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences Office of Laity with responsibility for the Women's Desk. A freelance writer, she has a diploma in Theology for Laity from the Bombay Diocesan Seminary and is a woman activist working in India


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