At a recent event held in a Delhi-based college, the college union disrupted a talk organized on sexual harassment in the Digital space by singling out one woman speaker. In light of the event Esha Shekhar of Ungender writes on the need for awareness among women of their right to live with dignity and freedom to express themselves in any space, be it offline or online.

Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of women empowerment to discuss and debate on many issues of Indian women, like women literacy, female hygiene, women skill development, financial literacy. Without taking away the importance of talking about such issues and these topics, I see one aspect which precedes the discussion over all such issues and which does not get its deserved attention- the right of women to speak up. And speak on the issues that are pertinent to them, that impact them and issues on which they are seeking any change and speak loudly and unabashedly about them.

Women talking about issues and raising voices is not something new. However, changing means of communication and technological development has provided a new and empowering mean to express their opinion. The way #MeToo and #Time’sUp became viral and turned into a global movement, which would not have been possible in a pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook era. But despite these global movements, how much do we see Indian women speaking up? Both online and offline, except prominent women in some industries, how many Indian women are expressing their opinions freely?

What is it that stops Indian women from exercising their right to speech and talk about issues that impacts them- be it at home, in public spaces, at workplaces, and online?

In a recent incident at a Delhi-based college, I saw a young college activist being heckled and harassed by college hooligans, while she was there talking about her personal experience of facing online harassment and how she handled it. The reason: she belonged to a rival student organization. The harassers were present in the college auditorium while the panel discussion was on, in which I was contributing on the legal avenues present for women if they face online harassment. They heard the discussion which was held for the girls studying in their college, to help them understand how to tackle online harassment. Despite that, they created a ruckus and stopped an event, which was held to empower their fellow students, especially women, on having a voice.

Despite an open conversation with the women just 30 mins back on their legal rights in the online space, the women did not seem to think that they could make any difference whatsoever, if they raised their voice.

I also witnessed many young women in the audience sobbing and crying and clearly shaken by the heckling and harassment that happened. I witnessed one student constantly telling the girls (around 20-25 in number) to get together and raise a voice against such college hooligans and stand up against them. We told them- that these hooligans are just bullies who are creating a ruckus, just because they think they can. But all I witnessed among the women was fear. Despite an open conversation with the women just 30 mins back on their legal rights in the online space, the women did not seem to think that they could make any difference whatsoever, if they raised their voice. The fear that they would be shut down weighed more on their heads than enforcing their right to speak.

I also witnessed many young women in the audience sobbing and crying and clearly shaken by the heckling and harassment that happened. I witnessed one student constantly telling the girls (around 20-25 in number) to get together and raise a voice against such college hooligans and stand up against them.

And that raises a very important question: we keep talking about gender equality, but do we even talk to women from the perspective of their rights- Does a woman understand that she has the same right as any other person around her? That she has the right to be born, the right to live with dignity, the right to demand the same standards that are applicable to other gender, the right to employment and career advancement without discrimination?

The Indian Constitution gives a right to be equal and freedom of speech and expression to every citizen and that includes women.

The Indian Constitution provided right to equality as well as power to the executive to make laws which actually encourage women participation and empowerment in every field. The basis of such thought process was simple- even though we were striving for equality, it was important to pass such laws as was necessary to push women to come to a level, where we could truly talk about and believe in equality. Such laws were necessary to bring women at par with men, in terms of status, opportunity and dignity. And in India, many such laws have been passed. Women have been given rights to be deemed equal to men in property succession; right to divorce was provided, and the definition of cruelty has been expanded.

Major issues like child marriage and widow-immolation was prohibited through laws. Prenatal diagnosis and sex selection has been prohibited. Domestic violence was addressed with the law against domestic violence being passed where women were given a medium to challenge the inherent patriarchy at home and in the larger society and live life with dignity. One of the most important laws for working women- prevention of sexual harassment at workplace law was passed in 2013 to prevent, prohibit and provide redressal mechanism to women if they faced sexual harassment at workplaces.

One of the most important laws for working women- prevention of sexual harassment at workplace law was passed in 2013 to prevent, prohibit and provide redressal mechanism to women if they faced sexual harassment at workplaces.

With so many laws, one would expect the quality of life of Indian women to be significantly improved but that is not the case. As per statistics, India has one of the worst sex ratios and has the highest incidences of gender-based violence in the world. Women are constantly heckled, harassed and trolled both online and offline for speaking on an issue.  As a legal practitioner, I have noticed that we cannot always blame the laws for having failed in giving proper protection to women from gender-based violence and furthering the cause of gender equality- but it is the lack of education of legal rights that have resulted in such a gap in promoting gender equality.

The implementation of legal rights provided to women is in question because women do not know or have been told about the legal rights that they have in the first place.

Till women are informed of their rights, they will not be able to raise their voice on issues that plagues them- at home, public spaces, online or workplace. And before we begin any conversation on right, we need to start with telling women that their lives matter. Their voices matter. And that they need to start openly discussing matters important to them to bring about any change in the situation they are in.

Esha Shekhar is a lawyer and Managing Partner at Ungender. You can reach out to her at esha@ungender.in.

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