International Women’s Day is an annual event that shines a spotlight on the achievements of women throughout history, while placing the social injustices that women still face today, at centre stage. Although the progress we’ve made is undeniable, it’s important to recognise that the liberties women enjoy in 2017 are only a reality in certain parts of the world.
In the west, the vast majority of women benefit from equal access to education and healthcare. Social inequalities and micro-aggressions still exist, but women are free to learn, develop and pursue their passions. They're given a choice. A chance. Opportunities. The freedom to work towards their career aspirations, and live an independent life, uninhibited by gendered constraints that limit their prospects. In India, women exist in an intensely-patriarchal society, and have no choice but to contend with the educational, health and career-related disadvantages this brings, everyday.
For Indian women suffering from disability, mental health issues, other health problems, the barriers to your happiness and success are even more robust. Faced with political corruption, patriarchy, inequality and stigma, Indian women affected by conditions like HIV, leprosy and cancer face extreme neglect and injustice, begging the question: how much has women’s status actually improved in India over the past 20 years?
Not enough. Mahatma Gandhi said that “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”. When it comes to the treatment of women with mental health issues and disabilities in particular, India is lagging far behind other countries in the world.
In the arena of economic empowerment, having a disability only intensifies the already huge gender gaps in Indian society, as any hopes for financial independence are eliminated by the stigma attached to disability. Limited access to competent education means that attitudes to disabilities are really narrow minded, and grounded in assumption rather than fact. People presume that women with disabilities won’t be able to marry, and are thereby treated as a financial burden on their parents. They are also highly vulnerable to sexual violence and assault, as perpetrators exploit the fact that victims often can’t verbalise their abuse.
For women who suffer from mental health problems, the situation is frustratingly similar. Suffering in silence because of their inability to comprehend or even express the complex condition of their interiority, women with mental health problems are either institutionalised without their consent, or live a life full of mistreatment and inadequate support. It’s a life plagued by suffering and injustice for reasons that aren’t their fault. Powerless because of patriarchy and powerless because of their invisible illnesses, these women are victims to oppressive social conditions that can even make their psychotic symptoms worse. Tragically, it’s not unusual that the development of mental health issues is triggered by social factors. When they fail to meet parental expectations or fail to live a life in accordance with the prescribed Indian values of how women should be, women can internalise the negativity that’s projected onto them.
Although Indian women with disabilities and mental health problems face a complex web of disadvantages and setbacks, the commonality is that neglect and abandonment is inevitable for so many of them. We believe we have a moral obligation to use our privilege to help our Indian sisters. So much needs to be done and International Women's Day is an opportune time to begin taking action.