MUMBAI, Dec 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sithara Shahnawaz is torn between wearing a gown or a traditional salwar kameez when she attends the first all-night New Year’s Eve party for women in her hometown in southern India.
The local government at Perinthalmanna, a small municipality of about 50,000 people in the state of Kerala, is holding week-long New Year celebrations exclusively for women for the first time as a “women’s empowerment” exercise.
The events, aimed to ensure that women are more included in cultural and business activities, will culminate with an all-night party on Dec. 31 that officials and local community members expected will draw over 2,000 women.
“Only boys celebrated New Year until now. The Christmas to New Year period was meant for them to party,” Shahnawaz, 23, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Perinthalmanna.
“This is the first time I will be out with my friends. I am looking forward to seeing women fulfil their desire without any fear or discomfort. We are all very excited.”
Data from the International Labour Organization (ILO) shows less than a quarter - or 23% - of women aged 15 and above participated in India’s labour force in 2019 compared to about 79% of men.
Social norms, patriarchal attitudes, limited choice of job options that are considered safe, lack of public transport, and safety concerns often hold women back from working in India.
But officials in Perinthalmanna - a semi-urban area known as a healthcare hub with several hospitals - said families were comfortable with women participating in the inaugural New Year activities as it was all organised by the government.
Government agencies working on livelihood options and charities that help women start small businesses have partnered with the municipality for the event.
“Women don’t step out here because of tradition or religious customs. Many of them are Muslims. For this event, we are sure they will come out,” said Dileep Kumar, an officer at Perinthalmanna municipality overseeing the event.
Kumar said women had asked them to organise a New Year celebration during some other women’s empowerments events a few weeks ago in Perinthalmanna.
Social norms and safety concerns often restrict women’s movements after sunset in many parts of India.
In major Indian cities, police have announced measures - from mobile apps that can track a woman’s movement to helplines and patrolling - to keep women safe on New Year’s Eve.
But for women in Perinthalmanna, social norms are the main barrier.
Subairul Avan, manager with the government’s National Urban Livelihood Mission, said Perinthalmanna was a Muslim-majority town and, while there was progress in education of girls in the last decade, their potential was largely untapped.
More than 60% of girls in India are educated but states like Kerala record a higher rate of over 90%, according to India’s last census data.
"They are not making it to the society's mainstream and face stigma if they do. This event is for their social empowerment," Avan said. (Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)