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‘In 2020, we’re nowhere near equality of women in judiciary, society’

Mumbai, 07th October 2020: With fewer equal pay opportunities, less representation of women at the top and implementation hurdles, women’s equality is still far, far away in 2020, concluded an international panel on the subject on Tuesday, October 6.

Eminent women lawyers and legal luminaries from India and the United States came together to discuss ‘Women’s Rights: Sharing of Judicial Experience & Learning Between India & the USA’ at an online webinar organised by the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. Domestic violence during the pandemic, unequal pay and fewer opportunities at the workplace were some of the concerns raised at the table, while involving men into the rights conversation was one of the suggested solutions in this wide-angled discussion.

The panel included advocates Karuna Nundy (Advocate, Supreme Court of India), Lakshmi Challa (Founder & Managing Attorney of Challa Law Group, USA), Mrunalini Deshmukh (Advocate, India), Nilima Singh (Advocate, India) and Navneet Bhalla (Executive Director, Manavi, USA).

“Lady Justice’s blindfold, sword, and scale are reminders that justice should be administered in an impartial, firm, and balanced manner. What strikes me is that the mascot is a woman. But is the blindfold a reminder to the women to turn the blind eye to the injustice happening around them?”, asked Naushad Panjwani, Regional President of IACC- West India Council.

The panel observed that though there were laws to ensure women’s equality and landmark cases which set a precedent at multiple occasions, these were not enough without the proper implementation and dealing with the systemic and mental mindset when it came to such issues. “We need to acknowledge that we have the law, the opportunity but need to now work on the mindset, the cultural and systemic challenges too, which diminish opportunities and scope to excel”, said Lakshmi Challa, an expert in immigration laws in the USA.

“The starting point is to frame women’s rights as human rights, our fundamental human rights. There have been numerous domestic laws and moves for equality moves. We need to recognise the lag between the laws and statutes on paper and how they exist in reality”, said Navneet Bhalla, a seasoned UK advocate, who is now the Executive Director for Manavi, a New Jersey-based women’s rights organisation. Manavi addresses cases of domestic and gender violence against South Asian women in the USA.

It’s also about getting everyone, especially men, involved in the conversation. According to advocate Mrunalini Deshmukh, that’s how the movement for women’s equality had begun, “All social reformers initially have been men who have valued women as an integral part of their society in the age and era where they came from. Today, it’s a combined effort for all women, activists, judges to bring us to a stage where we can openly discuss the journey of women’s equality”, she said.

“I think it’s essential to ensure that the men are equally engaged in the conversation for women’s right movement, shoulder to shoulder to advance the cause”, Navneet added.

The group also focused on how the current COVID-19 situation had impacted the women’s agenda. Balancing the present work/life dependencies, job losses and the pressures to excel in all fields have only increased so far. The quarantines have also locked in women facing violence at home, with their abusers.

“In Mumbai, we saw domestic violence hit its peak during the pandemic as there was no one to talk to, and the police did not have time to deal with these issues. Remember, the origin of domestic violence comes from the power equation, where the man feels that he is the superior of the lot. To change misogynistic mindsets, we need to make men empowered to recognise and hold these actions as wrong. We need to train our boys, our men that violence at home, the workplace and anywhere against women is wrong and needs to be condemned accordingly”, highlighted Mrunalini.

Navneet concurred. “The onus or responsibility for an assault, violence or a crime against women is still put on the woman. In terms of a systemic change, I put the onus on the men – hold such actions, jokes and comments as unacceptable”, she said.

“Without safety, without value, without respect, there would be no value for women’s equality, especially at the workplace”, pointed out Shubika Bilkha, Founding Partner at EdPowerU, who moderated the discussion.

Challa observed how the workplace was also shaped by these systemic and mindset issues, especially the judicial systems in both nations. “I often say, ‘they see us, but they don’t hear us.’ Society’s self-imposed hearing impediment is rooted in the systemic devaluation of woman. A difference in a chromosome should not automatically depreciate otherwise identical calibre of work. It is only when women and men in a concerted, united effort, raise their voices against gender disparity and design infrastructures eroding the historical gender bias that’s within our organisation systems. Yes, men and women are different, but different does not mean substandard. After all, both men and women have the X chromosome; it is just that women have something EXTRA, our X factor which needs to be valued in parity.”

“Women constitute half of the population of the world; they deserve to enjoy all rights without any discrimination, deprivation or bias. This should be the motto of the survival of social life”, concluded Saurabh Shah, Regional Vice President of IACC- West India Council at the end of the discussion.

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