Editorial: Let’s Talk Gender Equality

Real women’s empowerment still awaited in Sikkim

Social indicators across the board suggest that Sikkimese women enjoy a better status than women in most other parts of the country. But that should hardly be a comparison to gloat over. While the shame of female foeticide remains unheard of, and dowry related harassments have not reached worrisome levels, there still remain other issues which hamstring equality for women even in Sikkim. Given that Sikkim has had a largely peaceful and consistently stable past two decades, one would have expected it to have made stronger strides towards gender equality and empowerment. There will be those who will not agree, but let’s face it, gender equality evades Sikkim. The State Government has initiated several policy decisions to bring women’s issues to centre-stage and has even attempted some forward-thinking legislations within the space available to it, but the societal engagement required to see such plans through and institutionalise gender equality have unfortunately not come about yet. Empowerments that governance can deliver on its own have made rapid strides in Sikkim. For instance, female literacy rate has nearly quadrupled in the past three decades from 22% in 1981 to 76% as of 2011, and now Sikkim is fully literate. This leap has been even more substantial in rural Sikkim where female literacy has gone up from 18% in 1981 to 73% in 2011! While literacy among women is still 11% below males (87%), the gender gap in this indicator has halved from the 22% recorded in 1981. What also bodes well for the future is that literacy levels are handsomely higher among women aged between 15 to 24 years, around 95% of whom are literate (as per State Govt records as of 2007-08). Impressively for Sikkim, the gender parity index in enrolment for higher education and professional courses on government nomination has been tilting in favour of women of late. As per data released by the Human Resource Development Department of the Government of Sikkim, 54% of the students nominated for higher studies by the State Government were women in 2005. In 2010, this share had slipped but was still higher than males at 52%. What this improvement could help achieve for Sikkim is a stronger representation of women in the organised workforce. As things stand though, even though there is 30% job reservation for women in State Government employment, women represent only 21% of the total officers in the Groups A and B category. Even here, they are seen more in the traditionally established vocations for women in the State Agricultural Engineering Service, Health Services and Education. In recent years though, women have managed to outgrow the quota by occupying 34% of the posts in the State Civil Services. It helps their ambition to know that the first Sikkimese to clear the UPSC exams to become an IAS officer was a woman – Rinchen Ongmu, IAS batch of 1979, who retired some years ago as the Chief Secretary to the Government of Sikkim and has since been appointed the Chief Administrator of the State. And yes, she was the first lady to become CS in Sikkim, and thus far, also the only one. This is not a condescending paean to woman power in Sikkim, but an effort to highlight that the fact that they are reaching higher despite a societal indifference to their rights. They manage all this despite a legacy of rules, old laws and practices which are regressively sexist. The linking of a woman’s status and identity as a Sikkimese to her father and husband, and refusing her the right to pass on her independent identity to her children is unfair and discriminatory. Similarly, women in Sikkim are particularly discriminated against in that they do not enjoy any legal rights to family property, neither of their parents’ nor of their husband’s. They can acquire a share of family property only by way of a gift or through a will, but cannot otherwise make any claims to it as a matter of right under law. Yes, a small step towards ensuring some measure of equal property rights at least for unmarried daughters and surviving wives was attempted by the State Government in the year 2008 with the introduction of the Sikkim Succession Bill. Someone should ask what’s happening with that and also read up on how offensive the Married Women’s Property Regulation of 1962 is. No one expects the past to be anything but regressive, but to perpetuate the same attitudes without concerted efforts to amend things, despite a governmental hint at more forward-thinking changes, is disheartening. These issues are still to receive any traction in the public domain. Perhaps the young will ask for better.