"I want to ask parents when daughters turn 11 or 14, they keep a tab on their movements. Have these parents ever asked their sons where they have been going, who they have been meeting? Rapists are somebody's sons as well! Parents must take the responsibility to ensure that their sons don't go the wrong direction."---- Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India.
The aforesaid quote by PM Modi, showcases his hugely progressive mindset. He is a leader with many flattering firsts to his credit, for good reasons. Amongst his many big bang reforms, one that stands out for its sheer scale, size, reach and of course, the manner in which it has revolutionalised the lives of millions of Indian women, is the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana (PMMY). Since its inception, about 25 crore people have benefitted from total loans sanctioned, in excess of Rs 11 lakh crore. Of this 25 crore, over 70% of the beneficiaries are women, especially those belonging to the marginalised sections of the society. They say, proof of the pudding is in the eating. Indeed, if that is true, then nothing explains the success of women entrepreneurs more, than some of the real-life stories available in the public domain, of those who benefitted from Modi's Mudra Yojana.
Ms Kiran Kumari, from Bokaro, Jharkhand, who was a hawker,is now a proud toy and gift shop owner after receiving a loan of Rs. 2 lakh.Ms. Munirabanu Shabbir Hussain Malek from Surat, received a Mudra Loan of Rs. 1.77 lakh, took LMV driving training and is now earning Rs. 25,000 per month, by driving an auto rickshaw.Ms. Veena Devi, from Kathua District of Jammu and Kashmir who worked as a weaver, received a Mudra loan of Rs. 1 lakh and is now one of the leading manufacturers of Pashmina shawls in her area. Conventional thinking has been that, employment is generated either in the public sector or in the private sector. The Mudra scheme, has, however, helped in the development of the “personal sector,” as a means of livelihood and self-employment.
Similarly, cooking food, using a gas connection may not be a big deal for many but for the eight croreth beneficiary of Modi's Ujjwala scheme from Maharashtra, Ayesha Shaikh, getting a gas cylinder was nothing short of a major milestone. For this daily wager, Ayesha, who is a mother of five, from Ajanta village, the days of fetching dry wood from nearby areas for cooking on a humble 'chulha', billowing toxic smoke, are over.
Last year, in March, on International Women's Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, invoked the indomitable spirit of "Nari Shakti", by reaffirming how India fully endorsed the United Nations in its "think equal, build smart, innovate for change', motto,with regard to women empowerment.
On August 15, 2020, in keeping with his women-centric governance model, Modi pointed out that now women have an opportunity to have permanent employment in the Indian Army and Indian Navy, something that was unthinkable earlier. He added, “Whenever women got an opportunity, they made India proud and further strengthened it. The country is now determined to provide equal opportunities of self-employment and employment to women. Now, women are also working in coal mines. Our daughters are scaling heights by flying fighter planes".
But if there was one thing that stirred the imagination of 1.38 billion people, more than anything else, it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi's unabashed acknowledgement from the ramparts of the Red Fort, of how 6000 Jan Aushadhi Kendras had provided around 5 crore sanitary pads at Re 1, to poor women in rural India. Despite all the bombast of how 21st-century women, both in India and across the globe, are ready to take on the world, having broken every conceivable glass ceiling, the harsh reality is that, even in the most educated, elite, modern and seemingly civilised societies, menstruation is often, a topic that is taboo. It should not be, but it has come to become a source of embarrassment, with men squirming at the very mention of the word "menstruation", not only in traditional, dogmatic societies but even in supposedly progressive ones, both at home and abroad.
Hence, for Modi, an international leader of towering repute, to openly embrace and mainstream the issue of women hygiene, is not mere symbolism. By doing what he did, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent a strong message, that for him, good governance is all about walking the talk, tackling the issue at hand, head-on, with no ifs and buts whatsoever and doing what needs to be done, without the fear of opprobrium.
From defining the nation's first menstrual hygiene protocol, amending the Medical Termination Pregnancy Act of 1971, giving women reproductive rights over their bodies and increasing the foetal gestation period from 20 to 24 weeks, welcoming more women recruits in the NCC, which will now be extended to border and coastal areas, to criminalising the inhuman and unconstitutional practice of instant triple talaq and, setting up a committee to explore an increase in marriageable age from 18 to 21 years for women, the Modi government has truly exhibited a bold, women-friendly approach which is both mature and modern, and something, which no other government in post-Independent India can dare boast of.
Banning commercial surrogacy which had led to mushrooming of illegal IVF and surrogacy clinics, was yet another bold move by the Modi government, last year. According to the new laws, only married Indian couples, who have been together for a minimum of five years and have been deemed medically unfit by a doctor or practitioner to conceive children naturally, will be allowed to depend on a surrogate. The move now makes it difficult for people to run a 'rent a womb' business and exploit women in the economically weaker sections, who were earlier, often left in the dark about their rights.
Modi's decision to set up a committee to explore the possibility of an increase in marriageable age of girls, is unprecedented. The committee will look at key parameters like Infant Mortality Rate (IMR), Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR), Total Fertility Rate (TFR), Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) and Child Sex Ratio (CSR). The law prescribes a minimum age of marriage to essentially outlaw child marriages and prevent the abuse of minors. Personal laws of various religions that deal with marriage have their own standards, often reflecting customs.
For Hindus, Section 5(iii) of The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, sets 18 years as the minimum age for the bride and 21 years as the minimum age for the groom. The Special Marriage Act, 1954 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 also prescribe 18 and 21 years as the minimum age of consent for marriage for women and men respectively.
The Indian Penal Code enacted in 1860 criminalised sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 10. The provision of rape was amended in 1927 through The Age of Consent Bill, 1927, which declared that marriage with a girl under 12 would be invalid. Currently, intercourse with a girl of less than 18 years is deemed as rape even if it is consensual, as a minor is not supposed to know of or give her consent in such matters, in any case. A legal framework for the age of consent for marriage in India only began in the 1880s.In 1929, The Child Marriage Restraint Act made 16 and 18 years as the minimum age of marriage for girls and boys respectively. The law, popularly known as the Sarda Act after its sponsor Harbilas Sarda, a judge and a member of Arya Samaj, was eventually amended in 1978 to prescribe 18 and 21 years as the age of marriage for a woman and a man respectively.
The Law Commission consultation paper had argued that having different legal standards “contributes to the stereotype that wives must be younger than their husbands”.The international treaty Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), also calls for the abolition of laws that assume women have a different physical or intellectual rate of growth than men. The Commission recommended that the minimum age of marriage for both genders must be set at 18. “The difference in age for husband and wife has no basis in law, as spouses entering into a marriage are by all means equals and their partnership must also be of that between equals,” the commission noted.
From bringing in gender-neutrality to reducing the risks of early pregnancy among women, there are many arguments in favour of increasing the minimum age of marriage of women. Early pregnancy is associated with increased child mortality rates and affects the health of the mother. Also, different legal age limits for marriage for men and women are against Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution, which guarantee the right to equality and the right to live with dignity, argue many. Hence Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to bridge the existing gender divide with respect to marriage is a fearless one and, will be far-reaching in its impact in improving the overall health and safety of women, if the age limit gets increased.
Women empowerment is not just about gender equality and gender justice. It also means more jobs, equal opportunities for growth and entrepreneurship, higher safety, protection of the girl child and most importantly just "letting women be".If there is one leader who has recognized women for what they are and who they are,it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Whether it is providing free cooking gas via the famous "PM Ujjwala Yojana",or financial inclusion, or enabling women to leverage technology, a slew of schemes have been launched in recent years to empower women on the path of self-reliance. Speaking of women empowerment, schemes like Mahila-E-Haat launched in 2016, is a bilingual online marketing platform that leverages technology to help aspiring women entrepreneurs, self-help groups (SHGs) and NGOs, to showcase their products and services. Among the many services provided by Mahila-E-Haat are, facilitating direct contact between the vendors and buyers, sensitisation, advocacy, training, packing and soft intervention workshops, and offering a web-based approach.
Open to all Indian women above the age of 18, this platform offers an easy sign-in process and convenient payment modes. Everything can be handled on a mobile with no other intervention required. The portal is said to have attracted lakhs of visitors since its launch and features over 2,000 products and services across more than 18 categories.
The government also launched the Mahila Shakti Kendra in 2017 to empower rural women with opportunities for skill development, employment, digital literacy, health and nutrition. The Mahila Shakti Kendras work through community engagement via student volunteers in over 115 most backward districts. Each Mahila Shakti Kendra provides an interface for rural women to approach the government to avail of their entitlements through training and capacity building. It works at the National, State, District, and Block levels. The Modi government, a few years back, also launched affordable "Working Women Hostels", on a war footing,to ensure availability of safe and convenient accommodation for working women and single mothers, along with daycare facilities for their children, wherever possible in urban, semi-urban and rural areas.
Again, the Support to Training and Employment Programme for Women (STEP) scheme, aims to provide skills that give employability to women and to provide competencies that enable women to become self-employed. The Scheme is intended to benefit women who are in the age group of 16 years and above, across the country. The skills imparted include, but are not limited to, agriculture, horticulture, food processing, handlooms, tailoring, stitching, embroidery, zari, handicrafts, computers & IT-enabled services along with soft skills and skills for the workplace, such as spoken English, gems and jewellery, travel and tourism, and hospitality.
No discussion on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pathbreaking initiatives for empowering women and the girl child, can be complete without elaborating upon the landmark "Beti Bachao Beti Padhao" (BBBP) initiative, launched at Panipat in Haryana, in 2015. It is more than just an energising slogan--it is the Modi government's policy cornerstone. The objectives of the scheme are to prevent gender-biased sex selective elimination, to ensure survival and protection of the girl child and to ensure education and participation of the girl child by addressing various problems including the declining Child Sex Ratio (CSR) at birth.It is being implemented through a national campaign and focusses on multi-sectoral action in 640 districts after starting off in just 100 districts on a pilot basis,initially.
In the last few years, vested interests have taken it upon themselves to run down the Modi government's Beti Bachao Beti Padhao initiative, which is so much more than being just a mission statement. The fact that this mission statement has found resonance with the average Indian, is best exemplified by the surge in the sex ratio at birth (SRB) in Haryana, from 871 in 2015, to 914 in 2017, with districts like Panipat and Yamunanagar reporting SRB of 945 and 943 for every 1000 males.
World Health Organisation (WHO) data shows that the nationwide maternal mortality rate (MMR) has fallen from a high of 215 in 2010 under an incompetent Congress-led UPA, to 174 in 2018, with the Modi government's intention being to bring it down to 100 or lower by 2020-21. The infant mortality rate has also fallen from 40/1000, in 2014, to 37 per 1000 in 2016 and 34 per 1000, in 2017.
To cut a long story short, on every conceivable parameter, girls in India are far safer today than they were, say six years back. Yes, when it comes to the safety of our girls, there is always room for more, but in this case, the buck does not stop with the elected government alone. The other stakeholders in nurturing a safe environment are the civil society and the media. Unfortunately, glib talking activists who adorn television studios have trivialised ghastly crimes like rape, thanks to their selective outrage. The outdated Lutyens club of garish women with their name dropping mannerisms and the kitty party hopping Khan market gang of out of job and out of favour power brokers, have been rattled for good. Unlike these fake liberals, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is a truly progressive statesman with a liberated mindset--a modern, sensitive, thinking leader, who has uplifted scores of women by strengthening policymaking tools, to deliver, where it matters most.
Working towards women empowerment is best achieved, when we get rid of our doublespeak. For instance, there is stony silence from lawyers, activists and the media mafia that rubbishes every single move of the Modi government, but has stoically refrained from so much as even questioning the bloodthirsty Communist ideology in Kerala, which reported a total of 16960 cases of crimes against women and children in 2016, including 2578 rapes!
Coming back to Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, the most path-breaking step by the Modi government on this front has indeed been, bringing in the Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection of Children) Act of 2015, that lowers the trial age for heinous crimes like rape and murder from 18 years, to 16 years. A 16-year-old will now be treated and punished like any other adult as per due process of law, under Sections 376 and 302 of the Indian Penal Code.
Cabinet approval on 21 April 2018 for an ordinance to bring in amendments to the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act to ensure death penalty/life imprisonment to rapists where the victim is less than 12 years of age, raising the minimum imprisonment tenure from 10 to 20 years where victim is less than 16 years and from 7 to 10 years where the victim is an adult and, setting up fast-track courts to deliver verdict in a time-bound manner, have indeed been, sweeping measures by the Modi government, to ensure justice is neither delayed nor denied!
Leftist cheerleaders and left-wing bigots of various hues who have been mocking the Beti Bachao campaign, would do well to know that the Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana, to facilitate the education of the girl child, has already reached out to more than 3 crore aspirational young women. Ditto with the PM Jan Dhan Yojana, wherein, of the 40 crore bank accounts opened, more than 50% of the beneficiaries are women, from the weakest sections of the society, giving financial inclusion a whole new meaning. Unarguably, however, the landmark achievement of the BJP government to further the cause of "Beti Bachao", has been the over 11 crore toilets built in rural India under the "Swachh Bharat Abhiyan", scheme.
As an outcome, on October 2, 2019, India became open defecation free (ODF). This has, among other things, also led to a dramatic fall in heinous crimes like rapes in the rural hinterland.
Speaking of safety, as an opinionated, ambitious and strong-willed woman in Modi's India, I feel safe, secure, confident, free, empowered and proud of being who I am. I have never been made to feel subaltern because of my gender or the choices I have made. I have an unshakeable faith in my political ideology but my political affiliations have nothing to do with how good or safe I feel. I have friends who do not necessarily subscribe to my political beliefs but nonetheless agree with me that they have always been treated with dignity and as equals, in Modi's "New India".They have never felt discriminated against, simply for being the fiercely independent women that they are. I myself, have been a globe trotter, many times over, having visited places and countries I have almost lost count of, over the years.
Prior to 2014, there was always a sense of foreboding on what to expect after landing at an international destination. The treatment meted out to most Indians was cringeworthy. After Modi took charge in May 2014, post a sweeping electoral victory, things have improved dramatically, more so for Indian women. The credit for this remarkable change on the ground and in global perception belongs to Modi. They say, "Behind every successful woman is a tribe of other successful women, who have her back". Well, in the case of India, every law-abiding woman, successful or otherwise, knows she has the unflinching support of Prime Minister Modi, who is working 24/7, to ensure women get their due.
There is another famous quote--"Behind every successful woman, there is a man". Well, that may not necessarily be true all the time. There are many supposedly successful women who have all the strappings of power but are still confused and unsure about their identity and who they are. Look at Kamala Harris for instance--Vice Presidential nominee and, the running mate of Joe Biden, the Presidential candidate of the Democrats, in 2020, U.S. elections. Kamala religiously claims she is a proud, "Black Baptist", while at times she sings paeans about her Indian origin Tamil background. Yet, on other occasions, she flaunts her Jamaican descent, completely obliterating her Indian roots and preferring to be called an "Asian Black". In a world where even the suavest, well-heeled and emancipated women can often be seen floundering, trying to get a handle on their "roots", we have a man, a visionary leader, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is strikingly sure-footed, confident of who he is, where he came from and where he aspires to be, empowering along with him, millions of women, so that they "do not forget who they are, in order to get what they deserve".
Within hours, #SelfieWithDaughter became a rage across social media. It was the top trend in India both on Facebook and Twitter and was trending worldwide among the top five positions. People from Africa and Europe shared selfies, contributing to the fervour. Empowerment of women has been an issue on which PM attaches vital importance. As Chief Minister, his visits to parents during peak summer in Gujarat, to get their daughters educated, is well known. The proceeds from all the gifts he received as CM were donated towards girl child education. At the Centre, proactive steps have been taken for women empowerment, be it in educating the girl child, maternal health, or improving gender ratio and women’s safety.
It would be apt to conclude by quoting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who so succinctly summed up the Modi government's ethos towards women when he said that---"Daughter is not a burden; our daughters are our pride".
(The writer is an Economist, National Spokesperson for BJP and Bestselling Author of "Truth&Dare--The Modi Dynamic".)