Gender equality stands as the cornerstone of a just and inclusive society, ensuring that all individuals, regardless of gender identity, have equal rights, opportunities, and treatment. It embodies the principle of fairness, rejecting discrimination and bias based on gender norms or stereotypes. Recent legal strides in India have aimed to dismantle entrenched inequalities and promote gender parity. In this editorial, we explore these advancements, particularly in the contexts of LGBTQ rights and the permanent commissioning of women in the army, Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 etc, alongside key Indian judgments that have shaped the landscape of gender equality.

What is Gender equality?

Gender equality refers to the equal rights, opportunities, and treatment of all individuals, regardless of their gender identity or expression.

It encompasses the belief that everyone should have the freedom to pursue their aspirations without being limited by traditional gender roles or stereotypes. Achieving gender equality requires dismantling systemic barriers and addressing discrimination based on gender, including biases against women, transgender individuals, and those with non-binary identities.

Some Landmark Judgments on Gender equality:-

Indra Sawhney v. Union of India (1992): While primarily addressing reservations in public employment, this judgment emphasized the importance of substantive equality and non-discrimination, setting a precedent for affirmative action measures to promote gender equality.

Shayara Bano v. Union of India (2017): The Supreme Court's verdict in this case declared the practice of instant triple talaq (talaq-e-biddat) unconstitutional, affirming women's right to equality and dignity within the Muslim community.

Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India (2018): The Supreme Court of India decriminalized consensual same-sex relations, overturning Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. This judgment marked a significant step towards LGBTQ rights and recognition in India.

Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya (2020): In this case, the Indian Supreme Court granted women officers in the Indian Army the right to permanent commissioning, recognizing their equal rights and capabilities in the military.

Assessing Current Legal Strides Towards Gender Equality in India:-

Women, Business and the Law 2024 report was released March 4, 2023. In 2023, governments made strides in advancing legal equal-opportunity reforms in three categories—pay, parental rights and workplace protections. However, the report revealed poor performance in the two new categories being tracked—access to childcare and women’s safety. Women’s safety emerged as a significant weakness, with a global average score of just 36, indicating that women have barely a third of the required legal protections against domestic violence, sexual harassment, child marriage and femicide. Childcare laws also receive low scores, with only 78 economies providing financial or tax support for parents and just 62 having quality standards for childcare services. The report underscored the obstacles women face in entrepreneurship, pay disparities and retirement age inequalities. Urgency is emphasised in reforming laws and enacting public policies to empower women to work and engage in business.

Women's Reservation Act, 2023: The Constitution (106th Amendment) Act, 2023, reserves one-third of all seats for women in Lok Sabha, State legislative assemblies, and the Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, including those reserved for SCs and STs. The Impact of Women’s Reservation Act, 2023 on promoting inclusivity in the democracy, making it more participative and eliminating gender gap in the long run.

Recent Legal Strides towards gender equality:-

Recent legal strides towards gender equality have seen notable progress, particularly concerning LGBTQ rights and women's inclusion in traditionally male-dominated sectors like the military etc.

LGBTQ Rights: Legal victories, such as Obergefell v. Hodges and Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India, have expanded rights for LGBTQ individuals, recognizing their equal right to love and marry and decriminalizing same-sex relations. However, challenges persist, including discrimination in employment, healthcare, and education. Ongoing legal battles are essential to ensure full equality and protection for LGBTQ individuals.

Army Permanent Commissioning of Women: The Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya judgment in India exemplifies recent advancements in women's rights within the military. Granting women officers the right to permanent commissioning acknowledges their equal capabilities and contributions to national defense. However, cultural biases, sexual harassment, and unequal opportunities for advancement remain challenges that require continued legal and institutional reforms.

The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017: This amendment extended the duration of paid maternity leave for women working in the organized sector from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. It also introduced provisions for maternity leave of up to 12 weeks for women who adopt a child below the age of three months and for commissioning mothers.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013: This law mandates the establishment of Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) in workplaces with more than 10 employees and prescribes procedures for the resolution of complaints related to sexual harassment. It aims to create safer working environments for women and ensure prompt redressal of grievances.

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019: This legislation seeks to protect the rights of transgender individuals and prohibit discrimination against them in various spheres of life, including education, employment, healthcare, and housing. It also provides for the establishment of welfare measures and recognition of transgender identity.

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2018 (POCSO Amendment): The amendment to the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, introduced harsher penalties for sexual offenses against children, including the death penalty for aggravated sexual assault. It aims to strengthen the legal framework for the protection of children, particularly girls, from sexual abuse and exploitation.

Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India (2018): In this landmark judgment, the Supreme Court of India decriminalized consensual same-sex relations by striking down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The ruling affirmed the right to equality and non-discrimination, marking a significant victory for LGBTQ rights in India.

These examples highlight India's commitment to advancing gender equality through legal reforms, addressing issues such as maternity rights, workplace harassment, transgender rights, child protection, and LGBTQ rights. While there is still much work to be done to fully realize gender equality in India, these legal strides represent important steps forward in the journey towards a more inclusive and equitable society. By recognizing and rectifying systemic injustices, we can pave the way for a future where all individuals, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, can thrive equally.