Neerja Birla is the founder and chairperson of Aditya Birla Education Trust.
By observing Women’s Day, we not only celebrate their progress but also create a global, actionable platform to chalk out new focus areas in the ongoing journey to create a world where women have equal access to rights and opportunities. In the past few decades, we have made great progress in narrowing the gender gap for many women’s issues. This year’s Bloomberg Gender Equality Index reports significantly higher numbers in areas like women in leadership, equal pay, inclusivity and implementation of sexual harassment policies. In India, the number of women in STEM is increasing, and we have made great strides towards women’s healthcare, education and financial independence. We’re even seeing a slow change in traditional outlooks and cultural practices that once limited a woman’s role in the world.
However, women also face an incredible amount of pressure to fulfil each of her myriad roles to perfection. She must do well in the workplace, take care of her family, focus on her kids’ education, be a supportive partner, and be an active member of her society. She also must focus on her physical fitness, her intellectual pursuits and her cultural interests while also being happy and thriving. Maybe this pressure is the price we pay in order to prove to the world that we are capable and deserving of equal standing in society. While these achievements must be celebrated, they also bring us to a crossroad where one must wonder whether this pressure to succeed at ‘having it all’ is also causing harm in the long run.
The need for a spotlight on mental health
Just because women seem to rise to the challenge of succeeding on all fronts, and doing so seemingly effortlessly, doesn’t mean that everything is alright. There is one very deep-rooted and overlooked challenge that we need to address—to create a safer, more sustainable environment for women to grow. Without focusing on the mental and emotional wellbeing of women, we cannot holistically address the goal of creating a society where women can have opportunities, be successful and live a fulfilled life.
The socially constructed differences between women and men in roles and responsibilities, status, rights, and power interact with biological differences to contribute to the nature of mental health problems suffered by women. From the time she’s a little girl, she has to deal with gender discrimination, cultural limitations and expectations. She has to overcome traditional mindsets and cultural conditioning. She has to fight twice as hard to be taken seriously, first in school and then in the workplace. She has to overcome being discriminated against, being under-valued, and being objectified. For most women, the mental toll of such experiences builds up over their lifetime, with no way to heal from the trauma. It leads to anxiety, depression, body image and eating disorders, self-esteem issues, PTSD, and even self-harming behaviours. Women who experience physical or emotional violence in their formative years are at risk for developing various trauma disorders, personality disorders and substance abuse issues.
Prolonged exposure to emotional abuse is one of the least talked about issues when it comes to women’s mental well-being. Women live their whole lives with the fear of physical or sexual abuse and they are trained to watch out for it. But, when it comes to emotional abuse, which often manifests in the guise of established traditions or cultural norms, they are utterly vulnerable. From the conversations in most homes to the depiction of relationships in media and culture, women grow up internalising verbal abuse, manipulation and behaviours that whittle down one’s self-esteem and identity. Whether at home or at work, if one finds herself changing her regular behaviour out of fear of someone’s reaction, chances are that she is in some form of an emotionally abusive relationship.
The way forward
Today, roughly one in five women deal with a mental health concern. Not only is this overlooked by society, but by women themselves. For women, there is twice the stigma around mental health. The first is the fear of how others would treat them if they knew they needed help with their mental wellbeing. They worry about how it would affect their position in relationships, their career prospects, marriage prospects and even their freedom to live independently. The second is the silent fear that admitting they need help would mean that they have failed at being empowered, independent women.
It is not enough to celebrate women’s achievements but to also keep addressing the emerging challenges. Women’s holistic well-being must become the new bellwether for the progress made in gender equity and empowerment. I believe that the first step is to acknowledge and validate the mental health crises that women experience. We have made great strides in using primary healthcare centres to improve the physical health of women, and this infrastructure can be used to prioritise their mental well-being as well. Mental health campaigns in the community as well as in the workplace need to be able to address and redress the specific challenges and trauma that make women vulnerable to mental health concerns. As we continue to celebrate the many incredible achievements by women, let us remind ourselves that yes, we can have it all, but we need not do it all alone and without help. If you feel overwhelmed by the many battles you fight each day, remember that you ask for help not because you are weak but because you want to get stronger.
The writer is founder and chairperson, Aditya Birla Education Trust.
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
Check out our end of season subscription discounts with a Moneycontrol pro subscription absolutely free. Use code EOSO2021. Click here for details.