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The pathogen called gender discrimination

By The Assam Tribune
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Rosie Kalita

A lot of frontline workers have been suffering from depression with resultant psychosomatic illnesses. Much have been written about women’s physical health but their mental health is an area of huge concern. We simply owe it to ourselves to prioritize it in the utmost possible way.

In the raging global war against Covid-19, perhaps, the only saving grace for women is that men, especially older men, are twice as likely to suffer Covid-19 fatalities compared to us women. The IFR (Infection Fatality Ratio) was found to be 4.6% for women, compared to 11.6% among the aged men. A Spanish study in June 2020 showed that the gap increases as we age and the epidemiologists had speculated that the female immune system is better at spotting pathogens early and fighting them off.

The question we have before us is far larger on how to develop and nurture our immune system in the broadest possible sense to fight the evils of crimes against women. We are ranked 108th in the gender gap index in 2020, a measure by the World Economic Forum, which measures gender equality, that shows improvement down the years, as we ranked 113 in 2011. However, we do have a long way to go on other aspects too, such as associated health and education parameters. Gender discrimination is a virulent pathogen and its pursuance continues to put it in centre stage and is being addressed with a slew of progressive powerful initiatives.

Looking back at our own history, Assamese women have played an important role since time immemorial. During the Ahom times, they occupied important positions in the Ahom courts, the kunwaris (princesses) were even given separate estates to rule. In fact during the reign of Siba Singha (1714-1744), his royal insignia and umbrella were given to Phuleshwari Kunwari, Ambika Kunwari and Anadari Kunwari. Many in fact featured on coins, attesting to their importance. Besides, as the Aryans entered Assam, they realized that obscurantist practices such as sati, child marriage, etc., were absent and the Assamese women were far better off in many ways here. The composite Assamese culture had a rich tapestry of women centric beliefs many of which endure till today. Kamakhya Devi, revered by all, represents the power of the Mother Goddess enshrined in one of the oldest Shakti Peeths of the country, at Kamakhya, Nilachal Hill. As a result, the theme of the sacred allied with women highlighted the pre-eminent role played in society. Srimangala, queen of Harjaravarman, Naynadevi, queen of Sthithavarman, among others, have been likened parallel to goddesses. It is this spirit we need to recapture in our present times.

The pathogen of gender discrimination has been pervasive not just here, but across the world and our first line of defence, in fact our first vaccine, is education. This has to be a sustained all-pervasive campaign across all ages, gender and classes to highlight the role of the girl child, be it 18-year-old freedom fighter Kanaklata Barua, who was martyred during our Freedom Movement, or the legendary social activist Kiran Bala Bora or sprinter Hima Das who has made India proud, among many others.

The LFPR (Labour Force Participation Rate) of women has to be boosted while its underlying factors are social, which are changing at best sluggishly. One estimate suggests if we increase our women’s participation in the workforce significantly, we could add 700+ billion US dollars to the GDP. Equal participation would push up our GDP by 27% encouraging active participation through economic and social as well as communication incentives.

Needless to say, the Covid times have seen a near doubling of domestic violence, the ‘Shadow Pandemic’ as the UN calls it. The lockdown incapacitated women, as they remained confined unable to move to safer areas in the event of spousal violence. There is of course a key factor which is rampant in combating the spectre of not only domestic violence, but sexual violence in general as well. The victims are concerned regarding ostracism, managing economically if they walk out of an abusive relationship, etc. There is a huge lacuna in terms of awareness of their rights and laws specific to them, whereas the Vishakha guidelines focusing on harassment at the workplace have to be enforced continually in a sustained manner. We would have an effective dose only if we work in a concerted, holistic manner on this. In this case, there is a strong need to create sustained awareness campaigns and with the recent trend towards purpose-driven communication, brands too could come forward and build equity by spreading this message and popularize these. We of course need to strengthen and put strong processes and monitor the same so that the actual cases could be addressed in a phased manner.

The third broad issue is women’s health and the recent epidemic has fuelled the need for health and wellness consciousness amongst all of the 7.6 billion of us, not just women. Considering the dimension of health, mental health mostly does not get the attention it needs, and the pre-existing gender gap in mental health has noticeably widened. A lot of frontline workers have been suffering from depression with resultant psychosomatic illnesses. Much have been written about women’s physical health but their mental health is an area of huge concern. We simply owe it to ourselves to prioritize it in the utmost possible way.

The solutions here too encompass awareness and rapid action to address these issues. More support groups, more online health helplines, learning to embrace uncertainty, fixed times for exercise/yoga, etc., are necessary. Yet again this vaccine needs to be largely formulated and administered by us to ourselves and thereby generate awareness. There are many ways here, lying in our own traditions of Ayurveda, to build our mental and physical immunity. We need to step up and practice it; it is not a weakness to reach out and ask for help. We are faced with visible and invisible pathogens. We need to build up our inner strength with our antibodies spruced up to tackle these as best as we can.

Men should realize we share this planet and our lives. Only if we work in unison would we be able to truly celebrate life on a fragile planet and achieve happiness for all as well as for our future generations. Modern humans (Homo sapiens) have walked the earth only for 50,000 years. This is a tiny fraction of time for our 4.5 billion-year-old planet. We have been nearly 50 billions, each gender, so far; 108 billions of mankind have lived so far, we need mankind to survive and thrive for many years to come. We need to live in total synergy for this to happen and these booster vaccine shots will definitely create antibodies to fight the antigens of society.

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