Urgency of Feminist Perspective in Public Policy

    • By,
      Rashika Singh – Student, Kautilya

A feminist perspective recognizes that the hierarchical organizing of the world around gender is key to maintaining social order.” This quote from Nivedita Menon’s book, ‘Seeing like a Feminist,’ sums up what she tried to unwrap in her work. The patriarchal system has survived by strengthening several societal as well as economic and political institutions and systems that perpetuate its existence. Today’s social order is rooted in hierarchical ideas. The struggle to destabilize this system hasn’t been easy but starting with the first-wave feminist movement, we have made tremendous progress. I believe this is the best time to work in the area of gender studies in public policy simply because, despite all that’s been done, there’s just so much more that needs to be done.

The two major questions we need to ask are: Are the laws and policies already in place effective? What are the other areas we need to focus on? The numbers say we have a long way to go. India was ranked 135 out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, 2022. The report considered four key dimensions- economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. India further ranked the lowest at 146 in health and survival. Moreover, according to a study by the Pew Research Centre, while India’s sex ratio at birth has stabilized slightly, it’s still at 108 boys/100 girls (2019-21). Meanwhile, according to the World Bank, India remains to have one of the lowest female labor participation (hovering around 20%). There have also been extensive records of persistent violence against women, transgenders, and the LGBTQ+ community.

While the government has been taking initiatives, the Indian society wrought with several oppressive cultural norms and deep-rooted patriarchy can end up causing good-intentioned policies to have unintended negative impacts. Studies show that all-women police stations have made it harder for women to report crimes, the ban on sex determination has a link with a drop in female high school completion and university enrollment, and inheritance rights for women have translated into an increased female child mortality rate. We are replacing one form of discrimination with another. Additionally, there’s the issue of oppressive societal ideas permeating the judicial system, exemplified by the Bombay HC’s judgment in a case under the POCSO Act. The court’s judgment pronounced “skin-to-skin” contact as an essential condition for qualifying an act as sexual assault.

Ineffective or discriminatory laws have become other significant hurdles facing our society today. The Maternity Benefit Act has no provision for paternal leave or for women working in the unorganized/informal sector. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act is criticized for having minimal force, being a civil rather than criminal law. Furthermore, the act has no provision for the children of an abuser or males. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act has several issues ranging from the non-inclusive definition of transgenders, conditionalities over obtaining a gender change certificate, criminalization of begging by transgenders, and disproportionately lesser punishment for crimes against transgenders as compared to cis laws, etc. Moreover, for the LGBTQA+ community, the Indian law has barely started with the basics by decriminalizing the community’s sexual relations. There is a clear disconnect between the realities of these oppressed communities and the laws that are formulated to tackle their issues, in addition, the laws often reflect the biases prevailing in society.

Significant gaps in laws and policies must be filled to ensure that women, LGBTQA+, and trans people’s rights are secured. Extensive policy analysis focused on identifying implementation issues and causes behind ineffectiveness and unintended negative impacts is required. There are many focus areas one can work on- recognizing the economic value of women’s household work in all related jurisdictions, like marriage, divorce, and child custody; regulating the unorganized sector of our economy; modifying the Transgender Act; addressing the issue of marital rape; adoption rights for the LGBTQA+ community and legalizing their marriages; regulating sex work to safeguard the rights of sex workers, etc.

In addition to the focused areas discussed above, there is the broader issue of our entire social order having its roots and foundation in hierarchical ideas. From the institution of marriage to that of caste, all ensure the continuity of patriarchy. The contributions of several oppressed sections of our society go unrecognized while their right to equality and dignity gets trampled on. Patriarchy is ingrained into the most fleeting of our social interactions- a woman getting catcalled on the street; to the more defining and extensive parts of our lives- education and job opportunities. Arguably though, catcalling can also be as defining and as extensive a part of a female’s life in a society where protecting a section of people entails caging them instead of the perpetrator(s). Evidently, overturning this discriminatory social order will require intensive and persistent work from all sections of our society. But in the meantime, government policies and laws can be the foundational structures that can play a significantly extensive role by strengthening the bridge between the ground realities and redressal mechanisms and breaking the hold of oppressive social ideas in our formulation and interpretation of laws.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.