HeForShe in India: Can an “International” Women’s Movement Represent Developing States?

Last month, UN Women launched the HeForShe initiative as an international campaign for gender equality. In her speech introducing the program’s platform, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson explained how the campaign seeks to “galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for gender equality.” HeForShe’s strategy to overcome gender stereotypes involves the mobilisation of both men and women in an effort to achieve lasting and sustainable progress towards women’s rights.

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Image courtesy of Sandeepachetan, ©2013, some rights reserved.

Gender equality is a fundamentally systemic problem that requires transformative change within the political, economic, and social spheres of a state. In this regard, HeForShe’s approach can be effective because it acknowledges the need for structural reform, and has formulated its strategy accordingly. Redefining gender norms, perceptions, and understandings is essential to creating an environment that can foster equality amongst men and women. However, attempting to implement such transformative change on a global scale will be an incredibly difficult task because a scope too broad cannot account for the diverging interests and experiences of women in a wide range of countries. For this reason, HeForShe will struggle as an overarching international feminist movement by failing to address state-specific historical, cultural, and social factors that inhibit gender equality.

The differences in how women are perceived in the developed world and the developing world underline how the needs of women cannot be comprehensively represented by a single, uniform feminist movement. As emphasised by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, “gender inequality is not one homogeneous phenomenon.” For this reason, women in the Third World face different challenges and pressures than do their counterparts in more developed regions. Without taking these discrepancies into account, HeForShe will move very slowly towards global gender equality, and certainly will not reach its goal of solving the issue of women’s rights by 2030. Although HeForShe does advocate for a bottom-up approach, the campaign needs more tangible, context-specific goals if it truly hopes to expedite progress on gender equality worldwide.

Looking at a map that is colour coded according to the number of men in each individual country who has claimed to support HeForShe, we can see a trend that the initiative is gaining greater traction in more developed areas of the world such as the US, UK, and EU as opposed to developing regions such as Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The lagging support from developing countries may indicate how these areas may not be adequately represented by a movement that focuses on Westernised ideals of what feminism can achieve.

Take India for example. In recent years, gender inequality in India has grabbed the attention of international media through cases such as the Delhi gang rape in 2012, the increasing prominence of ‘invisible women,” and dowry-related crimes. With a history as a patriarchal society, the case of India presents especially strong challenges to women’s rights activists who seek to deconstruct structures and institutions that have sustained gender norms over long periods of time. Women activists such as Supreme Court Lawyer Karuna Nundy have identified six goals which could guarantee gender equality in India, including: legally-protected freedoms, equal access to education and political representation, better policing methods, economic opportunities, and laws to effectively curb high rates of sexual and domestic violence.

The concerns of women in India are largely linked to the country’s development, and the role that they can play within that process. Amartya Sen believes that “India should…tap the energy of women to spur development.” The UN’s Gender Inequality Index ranks India at 135 out of about 150 countries in terms of reproductive health, political empowerment, and economic status. The relatively low level of development in India creates a very unique experience for women in that country, turning their focus onto equality in terms of security—the movement towards women’s rights in India is preoccupied with circumventing violence against women, and empowering women to become economically self-reliant. Nundy has stressed moving away from a dependence on “patriarchal promises of protection,” and towards self-made security for Indian women. In India, there is a hope that women can contribute to the development process, and that in turn, development will contribute to the cause for women’s rights, as well.

On the other hand, women in the developed world have an inherently different perspective on how to qualify gender equality. The challenges they must confront greatly diverge from those faced by women in the developing world. As a woman from the United Kingdom, a country listed as exhibiting “very high” levels of development according to the UN, Emma Watson stated that her interests include: equal rates of pay, political power, and respect for women. While these may apply very generally to women around the world, they are not specific to those in developing nations such as India. Women operate within different constraints according to the nature of their state. For this reason, development presents an exceptional environment which necessitates an approach that caters to the distinct needs of women in developing countries.

On 18 October of this year, UN Women launched the HeForShe campaign in India. So far, HeForShe has offered men and boys in India with the opportunity to pledge themselves to the movement’s mantra. The simple expression of solidarity, however, will not do much good without guidelines that can lead to real action. In what ways can men in India act upon their commitment to gender equality? HeForShe is unable to explicitly answer this question because it is too focused on the big picture. Working with existing women’s rights organisations within India is a good start, and it seems as though UN Women will cooperate with groups such as MenEngage to advance its own campaign. In this way, we can move beyond a discussion of why men and boys must be involved, and begin focusing on how they can become involved within the specific context of their own society.

HeForShe is not irrelevant in developing countries such as India, because the movement promotes a very important ideal of transformative and structural change. However, the campaign’s broad scope weakens its ability to account for the varying and diverse set of needs of women in both developed and developing nations. HeForShe has the capacity to influence progress for gender equality, but cannot implement change on its own. Real change seems to be the movement’s priority, and as Watson stated in her speech, HeForShe does not “just want to talk about [gender equality], but make sure it is tangible.” In order to do so, the movement will have to cater to different needs—going beyond just raising awareness, but partnering with initiatives that will take action to put sustainable mechanisms in place that will ensure equal rights and opportunities to men and women in every country of the world.