#ActEqual fails to shock. Gender equality needs a whole other approach

#ActEqual fails to shock. Gender equality needs a whole other approach

ActionAid has just launched a digital campaign called #ActEqual.

The purpose: to shock and awe viewers into noticing gender inequalities.

The first video shows men carrying pots of water across villages to get home. It's a job we traditionally associate with rural women. So when we see men do it, it surprises us. With the knowledge that in an ideal world, it shouldn't.

The second video has men harvesting the crop while two women on a tractor look on. Another substitution of one gender with the other.

The third shows a boy performing household chores, looking after his younger sibling and waiting for his sister to come home from school. Another gender role reversal. Another shock and awe.

It's a device we've seen used before. Role reversals have always been an effective tool to display stark gender inequalities. And as the videos demonstrate, for a large part, they work.

Indian women are chronically thin

The videos are pointing to a very important problem in this country: Indian women are thin and overworked.

They chronically suffer under the double burden of both agricultural labour and house work. According to a report by the UN Research Institute for Social Development, women perform on an average, ten times as much housework as Indian men. That ratio is the worst in the world.

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Indian men perform 2.5 times the paid labour that women do (also the worst ratio in the world). The brunt of unpaid labour, therefore, falls on women.

A direct consequence of the epidemic of unpaid women is that women lack the financial autonomy to buy supplementary nutrition. Besides, they eat their meals after everyone else is done.

And because they eat last - they eat least.

Where all of these heartbreaking numbers find their manifestation is in this: India has the highest percentage of babies born with low birth weight (2.5 kilos). Compared to countries far poorer, compared to countries with greatest gender-disparity, India still ranks last.

Which takes us to this easy deduction: there's more to our unpaid women problem than something as innocent as poverty and ignorance. There is prejudice.

Right problem, wrong solution

And this brings us back to the videos at hand. They are quite rightly pointing to an epidemic that doesn't get the attention it deserves.

Indian women are oppressed, unpaid and unacknowledged. They are thin, they are weak and they are ill-equipped as child bearers. Most significantly: they're treated as just a little less than human.

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But that's also the fullest extent of what the video manages to do. It draws attention to the visuals of the problem - here look, this what it would look like if men were subject to the same prejudices and oppression that women endure. Where the videos fail entirely is that they never address the underlying problem.

They neither address the prejudice itself, nor enlighten ways to overcome it.

But we'll come back to that in a bit. Before we can proceed further, let's shift our attention to...

Orchards and tea plantations in Maoist China

In the 1970's in China, the Maoist regime enforced a shift in agriculture to cash crops. Farmers could choose between tea plantations or orchards. Many chose the former. And this gave rise to the greatest and most telling experiment in development economics the world has ever seen.

Orchards largely require male manpower. There's heavy lifting involved and men seem to do that better than women. Tea plantations on the other hand, require small hands. And women seem to fit that role perfectly.

Which meant that on tea plantations, more women were employed, as opposed to orchards.

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Very soon after, and rather surreptitiously, changes began to occur. Areas with tea plantations noticed an increase in the female demographic. The number of women per thousand men (China has the world's lowest man-woman ratio) began to increase.

There was also, rather curiously, a betterment of female and child nutrition. All economic indicators - infant mortality, literacy, fertility - turned for the better.

Why? Because women were employed. And because women were employed, they had access to better nutrition. They had more incentive to keep female infants alive. They married later. They had fewer children.

There was significant improvement in a mother's child-rearing ability. That also translated into better education and healthcare for children.

Everything we measure economic development by, had improved. Meanwhile, no significant changes occurred where there were orchards.

The development we chase so desperately had happened inadvertently. By simply employing more women.

The ActionAid videos

The videos are simplistic. They seem to hold the understanding that inequalities can be remedied by simply pointing them out.

The harsh truth, however, remains that no man is ever going to pick up a pot of water or a baby, simply because he likes the notion of equality. It will never be the idea of gender equality that forces women out of the house to work. It will be financial duress.

Here's what Action Aid's campaign release says:

"... if work inside a home is equally shared and if basic services like water are brought closer home, it liberates women to participate in the labour force ."

This is far too shallow an understanding of rural home economics. In fact, the reverse is true.

Time is very rarely (and the water wives in Maharashtra may be a rare example) a constraint on female employment. The real impediments, as China vividly demonstrated, are opportunities for employment and employable skills. If those are presented to the Indian rural women, odds are, women will go out and work.

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If it is financially lucrative for an impoverished rural Indian woman to work, she will work. The man will, perhaps grudgingly, begin to partake in household activities. It will no longer be a matter of choice. It will be a matter of survival. The economics will inevitably trump social prejudice.

The task in these videos should then, not be to simply demonstrate gender inequalities. The real task is to demonstrate, in video, the infinite possibilities that will open up for the entire family if a woman has the skills to work.

In other words, show a woman the benefits of being employed, not just the visual of what that would look like. It's important enough an issue to deserve better treatment than this.

Edited by Anna Verghese

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Sneha Vakharia

Sneha Vakharia @sneha_vakharia