The gender challenge… for the haves and have-nots…

As the cover story of this issue focuses on the record-making seven women governors in our zones this Rotary year, as yet another International Women’s Day rolled by in March, let’s try and find some answers for a couple of critical questions. Are working conditions getting any better for women? One of the best sources to find some information is the “glass ceiling index” done by the iconic magazine The Economist every year. And what about countries, such as Afghanistan, where forget working in an office, a little girl can’t even attend school?

Each year, to mark International Women’s Day, The Economist’s research team crunches the numbers on ten indicators — from labour force participation and salaries to paid parental leave and political representation — for 29 members of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). The magazine defines this group as “a club of mostly rich countries”; and expectedly it includes countries such as US, Japan, Germany, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, France, Turkey and South Korea. Sorry, despite the many pats we keep giving ourselves on the back in recent years, India is not on that list.

Returning to the Glass Ceiling Index, the magazine article admits that since they began this exercise in 2013, “the pace of change has been glacial, but in most places, things are at least moving in the right direction.” Coming to the chart comparing women’s professional opportunities with those of men, Iceland continues to top the list for the second year. No prizes for guessing… and we have seen this in political leadership too… the Nordic countries have always given their women a level playing field and whether it is in the political, business or educational arenas, Nordic women have always scored high. And again, no surprise, at the bottom of the glass index of these countries are South Korea, Japan and Turkey. To their credit, Australia and Poland had made great progress — both up by five spots compared to last year.

You’d think education was a key factor in one’s professional and economic development. Yes, and no. In so many countries, more women, than men, graduate from universities, and yet they make up a lower share of the workforce, and this is true of this glass ceiling index too, being “most notable in Turkey, Greece and Italy, where less than two-thirds of adult women are employed.” The result is a slower climb on the corporate ladder; “in the OECD women earn around 12 per cent less than men,” found the survey. But the good news was that in this group, 33 per cent women had made it as directors on the boards of companies, for the very first time.

By the way, in November 2022, the European Parliament formally adopted the new EU law on gender balance mandating that by 2026, corporate boards would compulsorily need to have 40 per cent women among the non-executive directors or 33 per cent among all directors in companies. Our data on this aspect is dismal. It took a decade… 10 whole years… after the implementation of the Companies Act 2013, which mandates at least one woman director on company boards in India, for the Nifty-500 companies to have at least one woman director on the company’s board. And this compliance too came only after several reminders from those in power! If you look at the percentage of women directors, there is only one woman director in five on the boards of Nifty 500.

It took 10 whole years after the implementation of the Companies Act 2013, which mandates at least one woman
director on company boards in India, for the Nifty-500 companies to have at least one woman director on the company’s board.

But leaving aside the privileged part of the world, let us look at the situation of women in conflict-torn zones such as Gaza, Afghanistan, or Ukraine. For lack of space, let us just look at one aspect — women journalists in Afghanistan, where radio networks, supported mainly by the western world, are the only medium of employment for trained female journalists.

In Afghanistan, where radio is the main source of information for a larger part of the population, particularly women, through an EU-funded project, UNESCO is supporting 28 regional and local radio stations. Muska Radio, a local community radio, is one of them and provides job opportunities to women journalists in Helmand province in the south of Afghanistan, one of the most restrictive places for women journalists in the country. From 2008, this independent radio station is dedicated to serving a female audience and their families. It has had a bumpy ride thanks to the country’s regressive policies on women’s education and employment, but has struggled on heroically nevertheless, disappearing for a while, but re-emerging, like a phoenix!

Radio Begum is another feisty network that has turned out to be a lifeline of hope for girls who have been banned from school. It provides educational material, on-air-schooling, mental health support and financial literacy classes to Afghan women and girls. This radio has reached an astounding audience of around 5.9 million in 19 provinces, 63 per cent being women and girls.

According to a UNICEF report, “with Afghan girls having been out of school for over two years, women being banned from working in many sectors, and often being confined to the house, the psychological impact and trauma on an entire generation is increasingly felt.” Following the ban on women working for NGOs and the UN, Radio Begum recorded an increase in the call-in programmes providing psychosocial advice first by 33 per cent and later by 156 per cent, as a result of the antenna extensions. Said a recent UN women’s survey: “Their psychological programming is the most listened show of the station — a sad testament to the mental health crises facing women in Afghanistan, with 90 per cent stating their mental health was bad or very bad.”

Let’s end with the story of Fatima, a 15-year-old girl blind since birth, and a beneficiary of the Informal Education Classes aired by Radio Begum. With no access to a school in her province, she remained illiterate, and along with her elder brother, who is also blind, used to listen to Radio BBC before Radio Begum started its broadcasts. But once she discovered this radio, she never misses a programme, and feels included in the community after talking to the presenters of Radio Begum because they are all girls!

Her ambition: to become a radio presenter someday! But right now, she is soaking up all the information she gets on authors, poets, different health issues as well as psychological issues through the radio. She says she might never get a chance to attend a blind school or learn how to write but being able to get educated through the radio is a great asset for her, for which she is grateful.

Rasheeda Bhagat

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