March is Women’s History Month, and March 8 is International Women’s Day. With women representing half of the human race, it may seem odd that a particular month is designated to honor them, and perhaps the day will come when gender is such an unimportant feature in our lives that we feel no need to mark it. But that day is not today. Throughout the world, women face special challenges simply because they are women, and it’s appropriate that we set aside a month to, in the word’s of President Obama’s proclamation declaring the month, “reaffirm our steadfast commitment to the rights, security, and dignity of women in America and around the world.”
I was honored to be invited as chief guest to two celebrations of International Women’s Day in Hyderabad. The first was with women members of the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen and the South Central Railway Employees’ Sangh (SCRES). The SCRES ceremony followed a day of programming designed to enhance health awareness of women and to empower women in the fight against sexual harassment and domestic violence. I was especially pleased to be able to participate in this program because I have such respect and admiration for India’s working women. I’ve worked all my life, since I first was paid to babysit when I was 12 years old, and my mother and grandmother were both working women. I know how lucky I am to have a job that gives me great fulfillment as I earn my living. I am also fortunate in having a supportive husband and the means to employ others to keep my household functioning. I know some Indian women have the same advantages I do, but the great majority of India’s working women perform difficult toil and bear the additional responsibility outside the workplace to cook and clean for their families and nurture their children. It was wonderful sharing a celebration with these heroines at the Rail Nilayam on March 6.
I was equally impressed by the women who attended the “Stars of Safa” International Women’s Day celebration on March 7. This celebration was a great representation of the theme of the 2012 Women’s History Month: “Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment.” Safa works with women in a disadvantaged, inner-city community to reduce dependency and poverty by providing skills training and organizing income generation through selling women-made products. Profits from the sales support scholarships for the children of the community, and on March 7 Safa launched a new scholarship fund that will help girls continue their education to a higher level. Safa is focused on income generation, but it also encourages women to liberate themselves from the isolation of their homes and gain the confidence to speak up for themselves. A number of these women demonstrated the courage to step up on the dais and speak into the microphone on March 7, and the example they are setting for their sons and daughters is even more important than the scholarships Safa offers in ensuring that the women of tomorrow enjoy freedom and respect.
In general, I don’t think I have the right to make judgments about different cultural practices and norms. But I don’t apologize for making a judgment about the crimes that are committed against women every day on the streets of Hyderabad and throughout India. I am horrified by the prevalence of sexual harassment in public spaces in India. Calling groping and verbal abuse “eve-teasing” diminishes the offensiveness of what amounts to physical assault. In addition to the crimes against individuals, fear of harassment restricts all women’s freedom of movement. I find it shocking that so many men engage in this activity and that others stand by and let it occur. On the occasion of Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we have much to celebrate, but much more remains to be done.