Value and visibility are the two things women must have when we talk of gender equality, women’s rights and empowerment. Our first target has to be the poorest women in all countries who are routinely left out of the development loop. I have seen this all too often in my own country, India. They need education and training, and policies and laws to ensure fair and equal treatment, which are the main – and perhaps only – tools to end violence and prejudice against them.

The main reason for the invisibility, vulnerability and dependency of women is that, in many societies, they are not deemed worthy of equal economic value, dignity and rights. This is part of our skewed social and cultural norms. So getting more women into the workforce is, as I see it, one of the vital steps towards empowerment. There is no reason why conditions cannot be made conducive for more women to enter the workforce.

I am acutely aware of the gender disparity in my country when it comes to the economic participation of women. Factors such as safe working conditions, basic social security, existing disincentives including discrimination, cultural attitudes, taxation policies and, perhaps most importantly, competing family responsibilities, pose major hurdles.

Making work safe and flexible

But these can be overcome. We need to look at flexible hours for women if they are to juggle both work and home. Flexitime, telecommuting and childcare at the workplace offer women a much greater opportunity to compete on a level playing field. Women working in shifts, for example in call centres or the media, need assurance about their safety and security. Women don’t want concessions or charity, they want support systems.

Wherever legal frameworks exist, employers must ensure compliance. They need to align their policies with the law. And, most important, it is necessary to create a culture of non-discrimination and gender equality in the workplace. Clear and stringent sexual harassment policies will go a long way in raising women’s confidence and faith in their workplace.

But to empower women to enter the workforce, we need to think several steps backward. We need to get girls to enrol and stay in school. The way to do this is often as simple as having proper sanitation facilities in schools. The Indian prime minister has begun a drive to build toilets. I think this will make the difference between staying in school and dropping out for girls, especially in countries like India with its vast rural hinterland.

Fighting child marriages

The result of dropping out of school, in developing countries, is often early marriage. In India, we also have the problem of child marriage, something I feel is a major factor undermining the rights of women. And it exists despite strong legislation. Developing countries are seeing an increase in child marriages. The figure is estimated at 142 million between 2011 and 2020. And worse, it may increase to 151 million in the coming decade. We simply have to push to make the law work to prevent this gross violation of women’s autonomy.

Child marriage constitutes violence against the girl child. This and other forms of violence are very much part of the lives of women. To end this, I feel that the first step is to engage men and boys in a dialogue. Today, one in three women is subject to some sort of violence. In our subcontinent, we have unique forms of cruelty towards women in the form of dowry killings, female foeticide and acid attacks. Unless men can be convinced that this is completely unacceptable in a civilized society and that they dehumanize themselves by indulging in such ugly violence, we cannot hope to change things for the better.

We also need to ensure the certainty and severity of punishment to send a message that no one can violate a woman’s dignity and rights and get away with it. Action has to follow once laws are in place. We have to hold our governments accountable to our women; we can never give up. We have to keep up the pressure.

Lessons from the Nordics

For women to get a fair shot at realizing their potential in whatever field they chose, we need to provide them support structures. These would include services like electricity, sanitation, drinking water, roads, access to finance and insulation from violence. And men must be convinced that, at least in enlightened self-interest, women’s empowerment creates a win-win situation both economically and socially. The Nordic countries have understood this and, with their progressive policies, their record of women’s empowerment is exemplary. Theirs are the best practices that other countries should adopt.

Being from the media myself, I see the importance of showcasing not just the lives of women who have become empowered, but also the stories of men who have made it clear that they have no tolerance for gender-based bias and violence. I am not saying change will come overnight either for India or the rest of the world, but I am optimistic that we are getting there – though far too slowly for comfort.

Author: Shobhana Bhartia is Chairperson and Editorial Director of HT Media, India

Image: An Indian girl waits as her mother stands in line to cast her vote at a polling centre in Ganjad village 90 km (58 miles) north of Bombay. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe