As the political drama over reservations for women continues in the Parliament, with mikes being uprooted, papers being torn and angry words being exchanged, one feels that the real objective of reservation for women, fighting gender disparity, has been overlooked.

Gender disparity is one of the pressing problems confronting India. There are several dimensions to it – pscyhological, social and economic. Psychologically, it is the result of prevailing stereotypical attitudes against women; socially, it is the result of a society that confines women to certain roles; economically, it is the result of an economy that provides little incentive for the poorer lot to educate girls and empower them economically. The problem, therefore, is caused by a complex set of factors – prevailing attitudes, the glass ceiling effect, economics – which is why cosmetic measures like reservations in legislatures are bound to be ineffective.

Every individual’s behaviour is determined by his/her personality, the entire spectrum of characteristics that are unique to the individual. Every individual’s personality is influenced substantially by the process of Socialization. Socialization is the life long process by which an individual becomes a member of a society by learning the society’s culture, norms and ideologies.

Socialization occurs through the agents of socialization – family, school, peers, society and the media. All of us spend a larger portion of our childhood at home, and this is where we acquire much of our personal characteristics, our attitudes, values and interests. The family is helped substantially by teachers, peers, the larger society and the media (literature, newspapers, TV, the internet etc.)

Gender disparity results from the attitudes that we acquire against women from the socialization process. At the social level, these attitudes result in confining women to certain roles – housewife, mother, grandmother – and keeping them out of other roles – bread earner, soldier, ruler etc. Further, when a poor parent is presented with a choice to educate his son or daughter with his meagre income, simple economics dictates that he invest where the maximum returns are expected – in his son’s education.

Therefore, fighting prejudices against women is central in the fight against gender disparity and that requires change in the way we, as a society, groom individuals. This kind of change has to come from within the society, and this is why the government is poorly placed to fight effectively against gender disparity. Beyond increasing education levels, extending healthcare services, better nutrition and security to women and making other such peacemeal efforts, the government is powerless. For example, the Domestic Violence Act – the toughest government measure yet to fight domestic violence – may result in a statistical decrease in violence against women but it may not change the attitudes that drive domestic violence. That is a job half done. You may imprison a man for eternity but never his mind.

Reservations for women may directly address only one part of the problem – the ‘glass ceiling’ effect, the imaginary barrier that prevents women from reaching positions of power in the polity, administration and business. However, the ‘glass ceiling’ is never truly broken until the attitudes that sustain it are destroyed, and the patronizing attitude that motivates the current drive towards reservations for women shows that we got it all backwards.

 

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