Thursday, March 7, 2019


Usha Bonepalli

Type of ship     :     A small mini-ship.
Location           :     Highseas, in the South Pacific Ocean.
Between Lyttelton (New Zealand) and Falkland Islands (Argentina)
Climate             :     Rough weather, stormy winds, extremely cold climate.
Ocean waves of 7 metres height.
                                Wind speed of 60 knots (i.e. 112 km/s – speed of Rajdhani express)
Nearest port    :      5000 kms away, on both sides, at least 20 days to reach.
Crew                :      Only six members on the mini ship.

Comrades, this is not a story of fiction. And I am not talking about a voyage of Magellan, about whom we studied in history text books, as the first person who sailed around the world. I am talking about 6 women, who sailed around the world, in a small ship, from Sep 2017 to May 2018. Braving storms on high seas in treacherous oceans. The total strength of crew is 6, and all 6 are women. Vartika Joshi, Pratibha Jamwal, AishwaryaBoddapati, P Swathi, S Vijaya Devi, Payal Gupta. These 6 women sailed on INSV Tarini and circumnavigated the world in 9 months. Let me repeat, only 6 crew members on the ship, all 6 are women.

This display of nerves of steel, steely resolve, resolute determination, determined steadfastedness – these are attributes that each and every woman is born with. Except that these qualities are not recognized. Even by herself.

As the famous story goes, an eagle’s egg was placed with hen’s eggs and hatched. Eagle baby grew up with hens, thinking that it is a hen. When it sees an eagle flying high, it thinks –if God blesses, I will be born as an eagle in next birth.

A woman is conditioned to think that she does not have the bouquet of abilities that she is born with. Stereotypes are created, projecting women as weak, meek, fragile, dependent, and delicate. In households, peer groups, societies, films, advertisements, mass media, and every facet of life that women encounter - as a budding girl, a teenager, a young lady and a woman. It gives immense satisfaction when women break these stereotypes, and emerge as courageous, path breaking icons.

There is no shortage of such path breaking icons. On Jan 4 2019, when Arunima Sinha climbed Mount Vinson in dead-chilly Antarctica, she covered all the highest peaks in all seven continents. She is an amputee, lost her leg when she was pushed from running train while she fought robbers. She was also the 1st female amputee in the world to scale Mount Everest.

Justice Indu Malhotra became the 1st woman judge to be elevated as a Judge to Supreme Court directly from the Bar. For the 1st time, we have three women Judges in the Supreme Court. Flight Lieutenant Avani Chaturvedi became the 1st Indian woman pilot to fly solo in a MiG-21 Bison fighter jet. ManikaBatra led India to gold in Table Tennis in the 2018 Commonwealth games, defeating Singapore, which never lost in Commonwealth games since table tennis was introduced in 2002. She was featured on cover of July 2018 Femina. 

Indra Nooyi became 1st independent female director of International Cricket Council(ICC). Debjani Ghosh became 1st woman President of NASSCOM, organisation which champions the $ 167 billion Indian IT services industry. Anny Divya from Vijayawada became world’s youngest woman commander to fly a Boeing 777. Himadas, daughter of a farmer from Assam, became 1st Indian sprinter to win a gold medal at an international track event. She is India’s 1st ever youth ambassador of UNICEF. Jayshree Ullal, CEO & President of Arista Networks, is one of just 72 self made women billionaires globally. For the 1st time, an all women contingent of Assam Rifles, oldest paramilitary force in the country, walked down Rajpath on Republic Day 2019, led by Major Khusboo Kanwar, daughter of a bus conductor in Rajasthan.

We need to recount, applaud and celebrate these icons, who broke the stereotypes, and proved that women can excel in any given field. Many of them came from middle class and poor livelihoods. But today, they are rich trailblazers to a generation of young eager women trying to explore their potential, trying to make a mark in the world, in their individual fields.

It is this trail that is the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, as given by UN Women: THINK EQUAL, BUILD SMART, INNOVATE FOR CHANGE.

The motto of THINK EQUAL is what churned the organised working women movements around the world. Historically, women are not paid equal pay to equal work. Even today, in the words of Chidi King, Director of the Equality Department of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the main international trade union organization representing the interests of working people worldwide, and a member of UN Women and ILO’s Equal Pay Champions initiative, women across the world still get paid 23 per cent less than men. From ages, women kept waging struggles against such discrimination, but these struggles were routinely ignored or crushed. The exploitation did not weigh them down, it made them think, made them organised. One of the first sparks flew at Massachusetts in 1834.

Women workers at Lowell Cotton Mills in Massachusetts worked for 14 hrs per day. The working conditions were filthy, there was no ventilation, they worked in confinement, noise, and the air was filled with lint. The wages were 1/3rd as compared to men. When these wages were also cut, they felt enough is enough, they organized and went on strike. Women in several other mills joined them. Management crushed the strike within a week, but it stood out as the first organised women workers’ movement in history.

In 1836, when management of the same Lowell Textile Mills announced a rent hike to be paid by textile workers living in company boarding houses, the female textile workers formed Lowell Factory Girls Association and organised a strike. This went on weeks, and eventually, Board of Directors withdrew the rate hike.

In 1945, the workers started Lowell Female Labour Reform association, which was the first working women’s association. It was started with 12 operatives, but membership grew to 500 in 6 months, and continued to expand rapidly. The association was run completely by women, held their own meetings, set up branches in other mill towns. They ran huge petition campaigns and political action, asking the Massachussets state legislature to cap working hours in mills at 10 hours. In 1847, New Hampshire became the 1st state to pass a 10 hour working day. This was the first success for organized working women in any part of the world. This success fuelled organized women movements throughout the world’s working class. Today, we remember that struggle with a sense of pride and honour.

The first National Women’s Day was held in NewYork in 1909 to commemorate the 1908 garments workers strike. On 8th March 1908, 15000 women garment workers marched through Union Square to demand economic and political rights. The three month strike against Triangle Shirtwaist and other mills became hugely successful. This success was celebrated throughout Europe and Soviet. Clara Zeitkin, a German socialist proposed designating a day as ‘International Women’s Day’ at International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen in 1910. From 1911, we are observing International Women’s Day. From 1975, UNO began celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8th.

Comrades, it is because of such glorious struggles in all parts of world that we could secure statutory framework that protect from discrimination against women.

The Convention concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value, or Equal Remuneration Convention was framed by the ILO in 1951. The Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. It is often described as an international bill of rights for women.India is a signatory to both.

Movements of working women have also ensured that statutory safeguards were included in Maternity Benefit Act 1961, Factories Act 1948, Equal Remuneration Act 1976, Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 etc. None of these acts were made by way of compassion, but were a result of prolonged struggle of the working women.

After struggling through restricted opportunities in education and employment, having to work 24 x 365 as a mother, wife, sister, daughter, having to run to office after attending to household chores and run back from office to attend house chores again, balancing multiple roles, the least a woman expects is respect in workplace. If she is subjected to sexual harassment, there is nothing more cruel than that. But it is everybody’s knowledge that women are subject to sexual harassment of varying degrees, in varying forms, and they are expected to comply or be silent. It is only in 2013 that the latest Act against sexual harassment at workplace was passed. It was not passed out of voluntary compassion, but as a result of protracted legal struggle resulting in Supreme Court issuing guidelines in the Visakha case. We should keep this in mind that nothing could be achieved unless we organize and wage struggles. We should realize that, though the working women’s movement has achieved significant results, there is a significant lot more to be achieved.

As working women, as much as we are concerned about our working conditions, we are as much concerned about our girl children and fellow women in society, and obstacles they face in their journey to emancipation. The obstacles to equal emancipation are many. If we look at some trends, among students who stopped studies after primary education, 70% are females. Most of the girls are not facilitated to study till higher education. If family size increases, schooling will be provided to boys, girls are compelled to drop out. These conditions result in lack of education, which leads to lack of opportunities. If such obstacles to education are removed, evidence shows thatwomen excel exceedingly. In a report published by American Enterprise Institute (AEI), for a ninth time in a row, women earned more doctoral degrees (Ph.Ds) awarded at US Universities in 2017, than men. Though this is a matter of satisfaction to show that women will excel given a chance, yet a detailed analysis shows the effect of stereotypes: the ratio of Ph.Ds between men and women is 75 : 25 in Maths and Computer Science, 76 : 24 in Engineering. The ratio is 39 : 61 in social and behavioural sciences, 31 : 69 in education, 30 : 70 in health sciences. In the technology areas of maths, engineering, computer science, women Ph.Ds are very less. In health sciences too, we have more women in dental, physiotherapy, gynaecology, obstetrics etc. In niche and high visible areas women are conspicuous by their absence. Women are not into specialities like cardiology, oncology, orthopaedic surgery. Remember when you have heard about a female cardiologist who did an angioplasty or a bypass surgery?In areas regarded are technologically superior, even today, women do not find encouragement to enter, mainly because of stereotyping. Women have a long way to go, to unshackle these stereotypes that women are suitable for such and such jobs only. Women need to think that they are eagles, and fly high.

Women not only have to THINK EQUAL, they need to BUILD SMART.This aspect of BUILD SMART is more critical in these times of revolutionary changes in technology. We need to see more and more women talking enthusiastically about Internet of Things, Cryptocurrency, Blockchain, Data Mining, Cyber Security, Cloud Computing, Machine Learning -the future of employment is in sectors like these. These new technologies are called ‘disruptors’. They disrupt the way we work. The skills, the technologies, the methods, that we are using in our workplace are suddenly becoming defunct. We see boys flocking to computer institutes to learn these skills. Unless girls focus on BUILD SMART i.e., building such skills smartly, there will be a huge gender gap in employment.Men will be doing all technologically suave jobs which pay more, and women will be relegated to less paying non-tech jobs. In this context, the UN Women motto of THINK EQUAL, BUILD SMART AND INNOVATE FOR CHANGE is compellingly relevant. 

Today is the day to think about the road traveled and about the road to be traveled. Working women’s movement made spectacular advances, we are proud of it. At the same time, we are also vigilant about the challenges. We are conscious of the frame work to achieve that :

a. Maintain a gender parity mindset (question any lack of women’s participation, identify alternatives that are more inclusive, nominate women for opportunities, always include and support women, think 50/50 as goal),

b. Challenge stereotypes and bias (question assumptions about women, challenge statements that limit women, always use inclusive language, work to remove barriers to women’s progress, buy from retailers who position women in positive ways),

c. Forge positive visibility of women (identify ways to make women more visible, extend opportunities to women first, assume women want opportunities until declined, select women as spoke-persons and leaders, support visible women),

d. Influence others’ beliefs/actions (supportively call-out inappropriate behavior, campaign for equality in meaningful ways, lead by example via inclusive actions, be a role model for equality, actively contribute to change the status quo) and;

e. Celebrate women’s achievements (believe achievement comes in many forms, value women’s individual and collective success, ensure credit is given for women’s contributions, celebrate women role models and their journeys, support awards showcasing women’s success).

As Chairperson of the Women’s Committee of Confederation of Central Government Employees and Workers, I am confident that we will realize and release the eagle in us. Hearty fraternal wishes for a happy, cheerful and dynamic International Women’s Day 2019.


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