We are constantly hearing about gender differences, gender awareness, gender discrimination, gender sensitisation, gender and socialisation, gender training, gender orientation of legislation, gender roles and so forth.
Bennet: an outspoken critic
Recently, at a workshop organised by the YWCA on the theme: "The girl child - the first stage towards equality and equity?" a participant asked: what is gender and what does it all mean? Dr. Belinda Bennet from Tamil Nadu, a social worker and consultant to NGOs and the corporate sector on gender training , human resources and organisational development, explained what it was all about.
The participants were from Sri Lanka and other SAARC countries - India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
Dr. Bennet said that gender refers to the institutionalised system which allots resources, property, functions to persons according to culturally defined gender roles, on the basis of sex and biological differences and not on merit.
There is, she said, a cultural superstructure which governs the behaviour of the sexes. While sex determines that women should be child bearers, she has also to be the child rearer, even though a man has had a role in the creation of that life. This is the role allotted to her in a patriarchal society.
These well-defined cultural stances, roles, attitudes, prejudices are difficult to break through, even though more often than not, the woman is performing the double role of man and woman and carrying multiple burdens.
If you try to move away from these positions there is rejection and stigma, Dr. Bennet said.
Both men and women, from childhood undergo the same socialisation process and these gender differences are instilled into their minds very early. So naturally, women trained and nurtured to accept an inferior role, cannot get away from these attitudes.
Generally women are the biggest supporters of many forms of gender discrimination, she said.
She was, of course, talking about India, but though some forms of gender discrimination are not as intense in Sri Lanka as in other countries of the region, some forms do prevail.
Dr. Bennet who is a staunch supporter of the liberation of women to enable women to take their place in society with men in equality and equity, is an outspoken critic of the disabling and gruesome practices in India such as female foeticide, infanticide, dowries and dowry burning, battering and trafficking in women and children, child marriages ( all of it forbidden under Indian law) and the non- education of girls related her own experiences in relation to gender and social conditioning.
She travels a lot in India on her training courses.
One day her eight- year- old daughter and her husband came to the station to see her off.
As the train took off an unknown man started lamenting to her: What! Are you leaving behind your daughter; how sad and what not. She told him that her husband was perfectly competent to look after her daughter during her absence. But even she was made to feel guilty, she said.
So, says Dr. Bennet, the liberation of women from these barriers has to be in partnership with men. She believes firmly that gender training and gender sensitisation have to include men.
In a patriarchal society like India, the dominant sector makes the rules and they are reinforced by the media, folklore, religious history, legends etc. and is institutionalised by marriage.
She works with battered women and always and always she finds that the police try to find some reason to father the blame on the women: 'You must have done something', they say. 'Did you cook the wrong kind of food, or get a bit late or forget to wash his clothes', they ask and search to find some incriminating circumstance against the woman.
It is all-pervasive in Indian society she says. After she obtained her Masters degree she applied to the National Institute of Mental and Neuro sciences in Bangalore.
But her professor refused to give her a letter of introduction because she would be robbing a place from one of the four boys who were also applying.
She went ahead, looked the interviewers in the face and said that she forgot to bring a letter. They took her, she came first and led all the rest,
In all our countries, she said, men and women have to learn about the dignity of labour- sweeping, cleaning, washing plates, cleaning toilets etc. Even Sri Lankan men ask her: You mean, you want men to wash plates? they need gender sensitisation she says.
Everything works against women in our country, she says. The caste system, the police, the judiciary and courts system, employment, and the domestic situation. You name it, the laws are all there in place.
There is equality before the law, but equity is another matter, she says.
There has to be an attitudinal shift. When she conducts gender training courses, the men get very angry sometimes and assert that they have no problems and complain that it is a waste of time. She probes beneath the surface with them participating in the discussion of their lives, careers, homes, ideas and subtle forms of gender discrimination surface.
In Tamil Nadu, Dr. Bennet says that these attitudes are reinforced by many proverbs - you can trust a cobra that is about to strike, but not a woman. There is fear that the whole familial system would break down if women cease to be homemakers only.
But in fact women have through the ages drudged at home, cooking, washing, carrying water and firewood from afar, looking after children AND working in farms, family enterprises and in the formal and informal labour sectors.
We need people to question these attitudes, she says.
It is as important that governments should be prevented from cutting expenditure on welfare, health education, subsidies etc., because it is the woman and the girl child who are caught up in the crunch.
We have to reduce prejudice, says Dr. Bennet, but change is most painful.
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