I read a wonderful article on shelter homes in Afghanistan by Rafia Zakaria some days ago. What really struck me was her observation that though the shelters had been a boon for many suffering women, this thought was often not echoed by the local men as they felt that providing such a refuge contributed to fostering ‘disobedience ‘ in women. If women did not have these alternatives, they would more likely ‘conform’.
In a world where a woman’s happiness is not high priority, ‘alternatives’ is a word that fills you with the promise of hope. It suggests a plethora of choices. It reveals another way of doing things, of taking ‘the road less travelled by’ as described by the poet Robert Frost in his beautiful poem. This brings us to the question of how to create more alternatives for women, to enable a greater number to realize their potential and lead a better quality of life.
Here are diverse examples of some imaginative alternatives created for women: Day long crèches for labourers’ children are run by the NGO, Mobile Crèches. At these centers, typically close to construction sites, labourers can leave their children in safe hands while they work. There are teachers who educate the older children and caregivers who ensure that the babies stay well fed and healthy. The labourers can work sans worry and the family can enjoy the benefits of a double income as the mother does not have to mind the kids throughout the day.
Some companies have Vishaka guidelines in the workplace i.e. they have well established procedures for dealing with sexual harassment. This commitment to creating an enabling environment for women attracts more women to jobs and thus makes them eligible for a salary.
Similarly, making safe transport arrangements for women at night gives them the option to work late shifts The national airline, Air India, recently decided to allocate an area of seating for women exclusively on their flights. This was because some women felt uncomfortable when co- passengers leaned onto them or misbehaved in other ways.
The step was controversial; some welcomed it, and some saw it as being regressive in that it segregated the sexes further. It was, however, a gesture full of kind intent - a move to create an alternative for women who were afraid to speak up publicly if harassed by a copassenger.
Similarly, there are an increasing numbers of choices for rural folk as well: like self help citizens’ groups where local community members support each other. Sometimes, just providing safe, concrete, enclosed toilets is all it takes to make a place conducive to a woman to spend long hours there.
Despite such initiatives, there is a long way to go, and women especially, need the creation of several more alternatives so that they are not compelled to lead a life of deprivation, unfulfilled potential and misery.
Here are some suggestions, of which some are already in place but unutilised fully and some which can be worked upon. One of the most important alternatives we need to tap in a big way and institutionalise is a safe lifelong shelter each one of us is born with: our parental home.
All parents must be sensitised to offer this universal alternative to their daughters, throughout their lives. If they can share their houses with their son and his family, what prevents them from doing so with their daughter? Many women put up with an abusive husband because they have nowhere to turn to. I am not sure why we keep looking for shelter homes for survivors of domestic violence when they have living parents. It is also surprising why parents would let social pressures cloud the fiercest love in nature - parental love? Similarly, women need concrete ways to be able to stand on their own feet.
To this end, companies and chambers of commerce can step in. Instead of allocating funds for various CSR projects, they can instead reserve 5 per cent jobs for vulnerable women or those in need of shelters. Such a gesture is an excellent investment for the company too. It gives more permanent rehabilitation to a human being than a temporary project may provide and once such persons are back on their feet, they are grateful to the company and likely to exhibit long term loyalty.
Sometimes all women need is some advice from a more experienced person. To this end, the sarpanches in villages can organize the elderly women in the villages to offer a shoulder for the younger women to lean on emotionally. It will make the older women feel useful rather than feeling neglected/abandoned as they often are, and the youngsters, who are under-confident when faced with the uncertainties of life, will be more secure.
This mentor-mentee team will be well suited to face the vicissitudes of local life. In urban centres, more professional help is available. Several mental health counseling centers give free services to those who are depressed, like the reputed Sanjivani. Some religions have in- built methods for the lightening of mental loads.
The Christian system of confessionals, for example, served a great purpose. It was a place where you could pour out your deepest guilt and be assured it would be kept confidential. The most impactful changes would be at the government level - the re-allocation of resources in a big way for citizens.
Several gender resource centres in the capital were shut down recently for lack of funds for paying the staff. This already existing infrastructure should be speedily revived. The women’s representation bill which is pending in Parliament for over 20 years, if passed now, will justly and fairly allow more women to participate in running the country and establishing important rules (about their own as well as others’) welfare.
The task of creating social options for women may appear uphill at times, but an easy way to start is by helping any woman close to you multiply her choices. Each new path created together makes it easier for someone else to walk in that direction. Over time, a tiny path becomes a road well travelled.
The writer is a New Delhi-based medical practitioner.