NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) - India may be holding back its full potential for economic development because it has yet to give women equal rights and a bigger role in politics, South African peace icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said.
"India is doing fantastically. I mean they are complaining about seven percent GDP growth! Imagine if you then enlisted the participation of 50 percent of the population: women. Imagine what it would be!" Tutu told TrustLaw late on Wednesday.
"I think that India is poised to become a very significant player, but that role would be greatly, greatly enhanced when women are given their proper place."
Tutu, 80, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for speaking out against white minority rule in South Africa, and is one of the world's most celebrated and respected personalities, on a par with fellow anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.
Now championing a campaign called "Girls Not Brides", aimed at curbing the practice of child marriage, Tutu said on a trip to India that the South Asian nation is failing to benefit from a winning resource by denying women an equal role in society.
In a rapidly modernising country that remains tightly bound by traditional patriarchal views, Indian women face a plethora of threats from sexual violence, early marriage and dowry murders, to discrimination in health, education and land rights.
SMALL POLITICAL STEPS?
Gender experts say one of the most important issues to be tackled is giving women a stronger political voice. That would have a trickle-down effect, helping women at the grassroots level to fight abuse, discrimination and inequality, they argue.
"I think that we also have to address men because basically they are the ones who still call the shots... the leadership in most communities is still masculine and we are saying you are losing out on a fantastic resource,” Tutu said. “I mean 50 percent of the population. It's crazy! It doesn't make sense!"
India is the world’s largest democracy, but only 10 percent of seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house) and Rajya Sabha (upper house) of parliament are occupied by women.
Despite 17 years of protests, rallies, demonstrations and hunger strikes by women, male legislators have blatantly blocked a bill aimed at reserving a third of assembly seats for females, as is the case for village councils.
Tutu - who has campaigned on many issues from human rights to fighting AIDS and homophobia - said there are encouraging signs in India, with the appointment of its first female speaker of the house, Meira Kumar, and four women chief ministers.
The diminutive Anglican bishop, known for his boisterous laugh and affectionately called "The Arch", cited the example of his own church where women were only permitted to be ordained to the priesthood in 1992.
"When women came in, there was an enrichment of the church which would not have happened had we still locked women up and let them be in purdah," said Tutu. "As women are set free, we discover, hey - this is a resource that we had allowed to lie fallow."