By Neha Basnet
Young women contribute greatly to the youth initiatives, specifically in freedom struggle, but they are conspicuously absent in the conceptualization of ‘Youth’.
In the globalised and translational world of today, youth continues to be an integral and potential agent of change. History in the absence of ‘her story’ has been a testimony of the role played by ‘youth’ time and again in raising and addressing pertinent issues, initiating and sustaining processes of social change. Change symbolizes and translates the exercise of agency, which challenges the conventional norms and status quo perpetuating social divisions, inequalities, and violation of human rights. The emergence of youth movements, leagues, councils, and clubs have been diverse modes of civic engagement in the realm of social, political, and economic issues. These have been a vital fora and spaces through which youth demonstrates active participation and exercises rights of citizenship. Drawing upon youth initiatives during the freedom movement in India and the post-conflict context of contemporary Nepal, this piece questions the limited participation and conspicuous absence of young women vis-à-vis young men. Rathgeber (1995) says that such a phenomenon identifies the role of women being integrationist, instead of applying an intersectional analysis of social categories perpetuating discrimination and inequality.
Glimpses of two major youth initiatives in South Asia
Events such as the Indian freedom struggle testify the large-scale participation of young people in mass agitations, playing a crucial role in raising awareness and expressing discontent towards the British colonial power. However, an analysis of the movement allows extricating certain tightly-knit characteristics of youth participation. One of the most striking features of the movement was the civic engagement of students, which leads us to ponder whether the identification and consciousness of being the ‘youth of India’ was the driving factor for young people to participate or was it the nationalistic fervor that appealed strongly to the student body and resulted in glorified ‘youth activism’. In the context of the struggle for independence, the unifying cause that bolstered student movements was apparently ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’ that catapulted a tumultuous mass agitation.
The Indian independence movement was a rare occasion that saw the participation of young women in the public realm, even if in more of a supportive role as compared to that of young men of the time. The role of young women was essential for building mass movements and was more integrationist in nature. They, too, were drawn by nationalistic feelings rather than rooting their identity as youth and equal participants to young men. This was more because of the male connotation in the perception of youth. It has been argued by some scholars that the traditional models of political behavior have been built on androcentric model of the public sphere, the political, which predictably eliminate women and related issues. Stewart et al. (1998) mentioned that feminists on the other hand have also established that personal is political, whereby it is the unequal status of women within the private domain which transcends to define her position in the male-dominated political arena.
The young men as leaders of the movement urged for young women’s participation within the prevailing paradigm of emancipation. Having a more social reformist bent, they raised issues condemning the social evils of sati (immolation of a woman on the funeral pyre of her husband), female infanticide, bride burning, etc. However, in no way they challenged the social conditions in which women were located that perpetuated these violations. The domestic domain remained the legitimate area for women’s intervention, thereby epitomizing the conventional gender role of women based on sexual division of labour and not the earlier mentioned relational concept of gender. It is the latter that contests the unequal power dynamics in relation to men and women, questioning the stereotypical constructions of femininity and masculinity, where women are supposed to be subordinate, submissive and passive vis-à-vis men who are expected to be dominant, aggressive, and active agents. Thus, young women in India’s national movement played an adhesive role and their efforts to exercise agency and access individual rights were discouraged in the interest of the larger vision of freedom for the nation-state. This became evident when in his first article on women in “Young India”, Gandhi expressed that women should take their proper place beside men, but not with a “votes for women” campaign that would only detract the fight for freedom. Women, he argued, should use their energy “helping their men against the common foe.”
Nepal, in a post-conflict era, is trying to recover from a decade of war, striving to establish economic and socio-political stability through focused nation-rebuilding interventions. The country has suffered severe losses in both productive and human capital. The government envisions the youth of the country as an asset for development and has formulated programmes around youth development and resource building. At present, the impending challenges facing the country include a high maternal mortality rate, teenage pregnancies, a high rate of sexually transmitted diseases, and a low level of life expectancy—from 42 years in 1990 to 34 years in 2002. Youth in the context of Nepal is an age-bound category (between ages 12-35 years), according to which approximately 34 per cent of the population is youth. However, government and intergovernmental programmes are aimed at integrating young people by improving human capital services, creating opportunities for employment, motivating civic engagement, and rebuilding social capital.
The People’s War (1996-2006) was one major movement against decades of monarchial power suppression. The movement sought to eradicate poverty and create national unity; not through politics but through war. The establishment of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) saw huge male domination. However, the participation and integration of women in to the Army wasn’t invisible. Similar to the Indian freedom struggle, young men were the leaders of the Army and women played an important part in the domestic terrain, taking up causes like the emancipation of the Kamalaharis, equal property rights for women, child marriage, and so on.
Using age to define youth makes the elimination for young women an automatic process as “the patterns of growing up on which the concept is based were not universally experienced.” Wyn and White (1997) in their work “Rethinking Youth” mentioned that the transitions to adulthood for women were very different from their male counterparts. This basically relates to the fact that despite belonging to the age category mentioned earlier, women post-marriage no longer fulfill the category of being a young woman; rather, they are situated in the category of adulthood. The initiatives with regard to resource building and ‘productive employment’ also have an inherent focus on young men as in the post-war period the hopes of economic and social development are tagged on as responsibilities of young males.
It has been argued that the male gender bias in the concept of youth builds on the “significance that youth had in the 1950s and 1960s as a symbol of the emerging post-war, virile and self-determined economies and societies of the developed world.” It was perhaps the connection between this belief and the success of white middle class young men that assured a smooth and secure transition to adulthood for young working class males. It is apparent that programmes on political and civic engagement were woven around young men as young women rarely participated in the political sphere to voice their decisions, which usually are taken by men.
Hence, based on the above analysis, it could be concluded that the inherent masculine character in the conceptualization of youth insinuated the purpose of youth initiatives to be gender-biased. The invisibilization of women’s issues reaffirms the conventional norms and beliefs with regard to gender discrimination and related power dynamics. Thus, it raises the pertinent issues of rethinking and engendering the concept of youth.
Neha Basnet is a graduate from the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University, The Netherlands. She writes about development, child rights, and youth.
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