Ravi Verma for over three decades has worked on issues of men and masculinity, male sexual health, gender equality in relation to violence against women, and reproductive health. The regional director of the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) Asia, he was part of the panel discussing how gender affects health and healthcare at Difficult Dialogues. He spoke to NT NETWORK about gender discrimination in our country and the road ahead to improve the health of its people
Danuska Da Gama I NT NETWORK
In our patriarchal society like India, gender equality is what we yearn for- not just on paper, but in reality. With it, come all the other aspects that would lead to well being of both the genders, less violence and atrocities. Regional director of the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) Asia, Ravi Verma, through his organisation has been doing ground work across cities among middle to low income communities to create awareness and educate people about gender equality and violence.
‘Gender equality is not a women’s issue, it’s a human issue.’
The larger issue- Gender Discrimination
While women empowerment stories gives us a ray of hope, the fact of the matter is- gender discrimination is rife in India. From facing obstacles at home, and at workplaces including less income than men for the same work done, if not more, to unsafe public places.
What is perturbing is that there is no quick fix to the problem for it has several adverse effects, including psychological and health besides social problems.
Talking about the issue Verma explains that gender discrimination has its foundation in the patriarchal belief that ‘men are superior to women and that aggressive masculine idea and notions are desirable and are standards of excellence’. He says: “This belief is so deeply entrenched that women and girls and those who are perceived as ‘less’ masculine are systematically denied every opportunity including education, health and economic severely impacting their self-esteem, efficacy and capabilities.” He says that, they are not only denied opportunities but are stigmatised and violated upon too. He further mentions that inequitable gender norms also impact men and boys adversely leading to higher rates of suicides, violent deaths and depression.
Verma is very optimistic and believes that gender discrimination can be uprooted from our country. He says: “We need a comprehensive strategy with committed resource and legislative framework. The strategy must allow challenging and changing inequitable gender norms and institutional practices on one hand and enhance individual agency and voices on the other.”
Suggesting affirmative actions are an important aspect of this strategy, he is of the opinion that schools must be brought within the purview of the strategy to help promote gender equality on an urgent basis. “This will ensure that the process begins early and is sustained through a participatory and engaging pedagogy.”
With gender education there is a need to create awareness about violence. This is the peripheral problem linked to gender inequality. More often than not we find women who think it is okay for them to be beaten up (corrected) by the men in their life.
Talking about this Verma says that the problem is that violence and violations are so normalised that they often remain unnoticed especially if they happen to be of emotional and non-physical forms.
“Unfortunately, our society considers dominance and not mutual respect and equality as integral parts of ensuring emotional bonding. Women and girls come to imbibe and accept these norms very early in life. Some forms of violence are justified on the grounds of disciplining and they become the tools for controlling and thus considered necessary,” he says, before suggesting that gender education should make everyone aware of the various forms of violence and violations in day to day life.
Indian women and their health
The right to health is every human’s right. And health is also an important factor that contributes to wellbeing and economic growth. Women in India face numerous health problems. Shedding light on the same Verma says that one major health concern among Indian women as compared to other countries is that during adolescence and early stages of marriage, women and girls suffer from high levels of unrecognised and untreated burden of reproductive health issues including unsafe and risky pregnancies, unsafe abortions, maternal mortality and morbidities.
Women from the middle and lower classes in India are generally not too concerned or aware of health issues and healthcare facilities. Verma says: “In general, we are not a health aware or health conscious society. Moreover, our health system has failed us. Brutal privatisation has made health a luxury.”
He believes that the only solution for improving health care of women in our country lies in improved and efficient public health system.
Safety of our women
Digressing from health, but coming to another important aspect is the safety of our women. This has been a concern all over, where today because of the number of rapes, acid attacks, there is curtailment of freedom and sense of fear among women who would otherwise roam about freely.
Concern about the same issue, Verma says that there is a need for high quality data on a regular basis to monitor and address the issue of safety. “It is a major concern and must be addressed through proper data, documentation and records to make the system accountable.”
Evidence based programming, public awareness, public auditing and prompt and visible actions from law enforcing agencies are key to making public spaces safer he says.
Is education the only hope?
Being the director (Asia) at International Centre for Research on Women, he reveals that the three main women issues that haunt him are:
Issues concerning adolescent girls from poor, oppressed and marginalised communities. They are the most vulnerable to all forms of discriminations, violence and violations.
Undervalued productive roles and under recognised contributions of women and girls in the economy at all levels consequently their inability to control resources.
Pervasive forms of violence and continued violations of women and girl’s personal spaces and their inability to access public spaces as their right.
Many experts voice that education is the only way forward to change our mindsets, reduce violence against women, bring about gender equality, and tackle all other problems.
On a concluding note Verma points out that it is important to reform institutions and impact norms and practices. And for the same educational institutions should be one among them. “Public opinion against gender inequality must be formed and collective actions must be taken to hold institutions accountable and make them responsible,” he says..