“It is important for men to be feminists… When everybody is equal, we are all more free.”
In a recent essay that the US President Barack Obama wrote, he reflected on American women’s long fight for equality and called on men to fight sexism and create equal relationships. In this essay, Obama warns against ‘dated assumptions about gender roles’ and insists that ‘we need to keep changing the attitude that permits the routine harassment of women, whether they are walking down the street or daring to go online…we need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs’. I find these words of President Obama that became news in the recent media pertinent as we discuss on the question of ‘Gender Equality’ in Churches and Societies of Asia. While in America, Obama is calling on men to have a feminist consciousness in order to promote gender equality, I think in Asia we have a long way to go as in most of our Asian societies man-woman relationships are still structured on gender hierarchy, and even majority of Asian women are not awakened to a notion of equality between the sexes.
However, I am inclined to think that Asia also has many men who have a feminist consciousness even though they may not make a declaration of it like Obama. This can be substantiated by the fact that in these AYA/ATF conferences of which the lead organizer is a man, the question of gender equality is consistently discussed so that the young people develop a healthy feminist outlook and translate to life the transformative import of this vision.
With this introduction, I proceed with my task that is to reflect on ‘Gender Equality for Promoting 2030 Agenda for Ending All Forms of Discrimination in Churches and Societies in Asia’. I imagine that all are well aware of what the 2030 agenda is all about. It is the deadline UN has set for realizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To put it differently, as envisioned by the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, 2030 is set as an ‘expiry date’ for ending all forms of inequalities, of which gender inequality is a key determinant .
The SDGs envision a new Global Partnership that enables a transformative, people-centered and planet-sensitive development agenda. In targeting the year 2030 for the achievement of these goals, the UN puts a note of urgency and invites governmental and non-governmental organizations and individuals to join hands for the realization of this vision. The fifth SDG spelt out as ‘Achieving Gender Equality’ is based on the conviction that empowering women and promoting gender equality is crucial to accelerating sustainable development. Already in 2014, the United Nations World Survey on the Role of Women in Development pointed out that “Women should not be viewed as victims, but as central actors in moving towards sustainability.” This indicates that there is an intrinsic link between gender equality and the achievement of sustainable development goals like ending poverty, fighting inequality and injustice at all levels and tackling climate change by the year 2030. It is from this standpoint that SDGs advocate building up women’s agency and capabilities in order to create better synergies between gender equality and sustainable development outcomes.
Addressing the complexities of the gender question
While ‘achieving gender equality’ is apparently a desirable goal for anyone with a sensible mind, its realization entails examining critically the multi-layered conditioning of the human identity on this issue and consciously undoing what blocks our growth as human persons. I think the gender question becomes pertinent for our discussion on the grounds that it is not just a concern of women, but a human question where all are implied-man, woman, the transgender and those with different sexual orientations. Since our identity is constructed in relation to each other, any change for better or worse, affects all. I take an anecdote to explain this. Once at a discussion during one of my gender-training sessions with boys and girls in their late teens, I asked the group to share their opinions on the issue of women’s employment in relation to the question of marriage and family. One of the smart boys responded immediately that he thinks that when both men and women go to work, the future of family life is at stake. In his opinion, wherever families can afford, women ought to stay at home and take care of the children and the elderly while men get back to the earlier bread-winner role. Interestingly, his argument was not based on the concern he felt for the care of children and elderly. He himself acknowledged that it was out of economic concerns, since in the state of Kerala, it was difficult to find jobs – as the state is known for low employment rates in spite of the highest human development indices in the whole of India. In his opinion, it will make it more difficult for men if women also compete for the already scarce job opportunities. And he added benevolently: Women have many things to do at home and they are good at it. Since, Kerala is a state where the level of education of women is at par with that of men, some girls who were listening to him were horrified by this line of argumentation and what followed was a heated discussion on what is meant by gender roles and gender equality in the Indian society.
Even as there is a certain apprehension over the changing gender relations with women entering the public space, in the corporate sector, it is observed that companies are now beginning to appreciate the role of women in organizational growth. According to a study by Development Dimensions International (DDI) – a global leadership development consultancy, organizations that have 30 per cent of women in leadership roles are 12 times financially more successful. On the other hand, even while more and more companies are investing considerably in grooming their women employees for leadership roles, DDI reports that women form less than 20 per cent of C- suite executives though they comprise half the workforce today in the IT sector, and only five percent of CEOs are women.
I think we need to ask why this glass ceiling that blocks women’s growth and mobility beyond a certain level of leadership is so persistent? In the Asian urban setting, even though there is greater gender parity in having access to education, having equal access to employment opportunities remains an unresolved question. Women encounter many constraints in taking up meaningful jobs, since ‘employment’ continues to be a gendered phenomenon for various reasons. The Gender Gap Reports of the World Economic Forum illustrates this point. A country like India, which is considered to be among the fastest growing economies in the world, ranks 108 among the 145 countries rated on the Global Gender Gap Index 2015. Even though India has moved up six positions in this report compared to the previous year mainly because of improvements in the health and political empowerment categories, the country ranks 139th when it comes to economic participation and opportunity pillar, which according to analysts is due to a decline in female labour force participation and for the question of unequal wages for similar work. Even within Asia, ranking in Gender Gap Index varies for different countries. Philippines has a high ranking of 7 –as obvious from the high visibility of Philippino women across the globe- whereas for Thailand it is 60.
Since the question of gender equality is a determining factor even for the realization of other development goals, perhaps we can look at a few areas where we are directly involved in order to see how we can initiate change. I would like to focus here mainly on the family and the Church.
Family and Gender
In many societies that are still inscribed by patriarchal gender norms, the upkeep of the home continues to be primarily a woman’s responsibility, which means in simple terms that it is women’s duty to see that everyone in the family is fed, the children and elderly are taken care of and the house is kept clean- even though she is working full time outside the house like the man. So for many working women, it is a daunting task to balance home and career. Where men are not ready to shoulder domestic responsibilities, these women either function as ‘Super-Women’ or they reach a breaking point. Hence it is not surprising that many career oriented young girls are either postponing marriage or opting not to have children. Among the new generation couples where both are engaged in competitive careers, conflict is sure to arise if there is no sharing of responsibilities in the domestic space and marriages even fall apart on account of this.
Home is the space where the children learn the foundational lessons of gender. Since parents are the basic models in gendering, children’s growth gets conditioned by the gender moulds offered to them by their parents, moulds that shape boys to think and behave in a certain way and girls to think differently. It is said that in India girls have begun to think differently from their mothers on the gender question, but it is not very clear if Indian boys are becoming different from their fathers on what they think is ‘manliness’.
The SDG on ‘achieving gender equality’ is not just about gender roles in the family, but focuses on ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere and addresses a whole range of issues which include:
- Eliminating all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation;
- Recognizing and valuing unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family ;
- Ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life;
- Adopting and strengthening sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality etc.
In response to this drive on the part of the United Nations, the governments of our particular countries may be making some moves for addressing gender concerns either through legislations or by providing reservations etc. However as we all know achieving gender equality is not an easy task. It calls for a multipronged approach that addresses critically the set patterns of thinking about masculinity, femininity, the fixations around what it means to be a ‘man’, ‘woman’ or the gender moulds in which we cast human identity. It implies undoing the many layers of socio-cultural and religious conditioning that we have on the way our own identity is constructed. The question is: are we ready to work on ourselves, our relationships in the family and at the workplace ?
I would like to take our discussion to another important area that is of religion and for us the Church.
Church and Gender
The Catholic Church has consistently affirmed the equality of the sexes on the basis of the biblical injunction that both women and men are created in God’s own image and likeness. It advocates women’s empowerment by promoting activities that enhance women’s economic productivity and participation of women in church activities. However, there is a serious problem with regard to man-woman relationship in the Church. This is due to the fact that the Church still understands the role of men and women in a very gendered framework.
In the Church we have a strong gender paradox of women’s presence and absence. Women make up the majority of the practicing faithful particularly in the countries of the global south, so they are present and active in the churches, filling the pews, giving visibility to the Church’s works of charity, their hands constantly available for the maintenance of the Church in terms of cleaning decorations etc. Even though women are very present at these levels, their absence is glaring when it comes to the questions of leadership and decision-making roles in the Church.
While feminist theologians both women and men envision the Church as a discipleship of equals, gender hierarchy continues to be the way of being Church, a structure that legitimizes women’s subordination in the family, that is considered the domestic Church. Pope Francis has appointed a few women to leadership in Pontifical institutions and dicasteries, but they appear to be a mere token representation. The Commission set up by the Pose to study the question of female diaconate in the Church, though considered a welcome move, also raises questions as to whether that would make any difference to the gendered positioning that women have in the Church today.
Before the 2030 call of UN to achieve gender equality, the Catholic Church has a very long way to go. I would like to ask the youth here a simple question: As the faithful of the Church, how do you think that you can address gender concerns within the Church? Or what do you think is the role the youth can play in order to bring about change from below?
Before I conclude, I would like to share a dream particularly with the youth here, that could throw light on our path as we move towards the goal of ‘Achieving Gender Equality’ in Asia. This dream is about GIFT. This GIFT is not a thing, but an acronym for ‘Gender Instruction For Transformation’. It is about initiating gender education at different levels, starting with formal and non-formal education, through schools and other spaces of learning, through catechesis and other platforms of training and formations of children and adults. I have been holding this dream for some time and I try to translate it to lived experience at different levels on a personal capacity, wherever I am called to speak or train people or through my writing. Surely many individuals and organizations are doing this under different labels. But I think GIFT needs to infiltrate the Church and society at different levels, through education, consciousness raising programs, retreats and many other activities. For this we need many hands, many hearts and many minds. I believe firmly that when youth of today are awakened to an egalitarian consciousness, it will begin to have a transformative impact on the Church and Society. Your response is decisive for ‘Ending All Forms of Discrimination in Churches and Societies in Asia’.
 Daniel Victor, “ It is important for men to be feminists, writes President” New York Times News Service, cited in The Hindu, 6 August 2016, p.12.
 Cf. A NEW GLOBAL PARTNERSHIP: The Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, New York: UN Publications 2013, p.3.
 United Nations, Gender Equality and Sustainable Development: World Survey on the Role of Women in Development, 2014, p.11.
 Cf. The Hindu, 4 May 2016, p.15.
 Gender Gap Index is measured taking the parameters such as economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival ; and economic empowerment.
Yasmina Bekhouche, “India in the World Economic Forum’s 10th annual Global Gender Gap Report 2015” in Business Today, November 23,2015.
See the Open Working Group Proposal for the Sustainable Development Goals, available at http://undocs.org/A/68/970, accessed on 4 April 2016.