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Saturday, December 14, 2002

Needless to say half the world’s population are women. In most western societies women play an equal and some times even a dominant role (as in Scandinavian countries) in the social, economic and political spheres. These gains came after long, hard battles and coincided with the industrialization and modernization of these economies. But the women in traditional, patriarchal societies like India continue to suffer discrimination and humiliation that the western women have largely overcome almost half a century ago.

My work gives me opportunity to meet many interesting individuals, several of them women. I am always surprised to note that many of them never realize what their true potential is and consequently have never aimed high. In our society we seem to have cast a woman as soon as she is born into a traditional role – a good daughter, supportive wife, capable mother or doting grandmother. She is ‘groomed’ to be an asset for others but not for herself. She is rarely encouraged to think of herself as an individual  - it is as if she shouldn’t have any identity!

Even in families where boys and girls are supposedly equal, there is discrimination. But rarely does the girl growing up in such families feel she is being discriminated. She is given the same material comforts and good schooling. The difference being - early on roles have been typecast. Where the boy’s abilities, latent or non-existent, are nurtured with full force and he is groomed to be a doctor, engineer, successful businessman or take on the family mantle, a totally dependant role is carved out for the girl.  Where the male child realizes his  ‘immense’ potential, the girl grows up not even realizing she has one. She rarely grows up knowing that she has it in her to become something big. A girl has to show a lot of fire, brilliance and determination to be allowed to make something of herself. Very often, even then the determined woman has to face many obstacles. Where a man is encouraged and admired, a woman is often discouraged and laughed at for wanting to try out something on her own.

Only in times of crisis is a woman forced to test her abilities – when a husband dies or the family is in great financial crisis. That is what happened to western women during the Second World War. With all able-bodied males on the battlefront, women came into their own; and those societies were transformed forever. In such circumstances a woman cannot hope for the traditional support that a man has when carving out his career. No wonder my friend says “we would be seeing a lot more successful women if only they had wives!”

Women are capable of so much if only they are given the encouragement and same opportunities as men. Low levels of literacy and lack of exposure or experience are not at all a hindrance to their contribution to society. Recently a few of our colleagues visited Dr Aroles’ Comprehensive Rural Health Project in Jamkhed, Maharashtra. There the primary healthcare is provided by illiterate women, often from the lower rungs of the society. Dr Arole trained them systematically to provide health services including prenatal counseling, deliveries etc. When these village health workers interacted with my colleagues, some of whom happen to be physicians, they were amazed at the confidence, poise, knowledge and skills of these ordinary women. In fact one competent family practitioner lightly commented  “I am beginning to question my own ability” !

There are many instances where women have made it big in a man’s world. But this required the display of a lot of  ability, grit and determination.  As some one said “Whatever women do, they had to do twice as well to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult!”

If  high quality health care can be delivered with the help of  “ordinary” women, just imagine what can be achieved if the potential of millions of Indian women is tapped and given an opportunity to contribute to the societal good.