The problem

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RARELY have issues specific to women’s empowerment (that much used/maligned word) been more visible and debated as in the last decade. The Government of India not only declared 2001 as the Year of Women’s Empowerment (Swashakti), it passed the National Policy for the Empowerment of Women the same year.

In India Shining, not only are more women working in BPOs and other such new occupations rather than breaking their backs as farm labourers or sewing buttons for a pittance in the rag trade, they are successfully occupying top positions in a variety of sectors. They are seen as achievers as opposed to survivors. Most competitive exams return women amongst the ‘toppers’, usually dominating the list. Managers, CEOs, educationists, scientists, successful brokers in the world of high finance, biochemists, soldiers and pilots – the list is endless. It even includes high ranking politicians, none more than the President of the country. Equally, women now enjoy a mandatory 33% representation in the panchayats and form the bedrock of the successful and much touted micro credit sector.

Is this the real picture or is there a large murky grey area, responsible for India’s low rank at 128 among 177 countries in the UNDP Human Development Index?

Though significant concessions have been wrested through pro-women amendments in the existing legislation and by introduction of new legislation, viz. The Domestic Violence Act, perceived as instruments to ensure just and equitable redressal for women, continuing violence against women, both in the personal and public domain, reflects poorly on the rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

This despite the fact that the Constitution guarantees equality to all Indian women (Article 14), no discrimination by the state [Article 15(1)], equality of opportunity (Article 16), and equal pay for equal work [Article 39(d)]. In addition, it enables the state to make special provisions in favour of women and children [Article 15(3)], permitting provisions for securing just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief (Article 42). It also specifically denounces practices derogatory to the dignity of women [Article 15(3)].

The early years of independent India saw little struggle for equality by women’s groups, probably because they may have been lulled by promises of constitutional equality. Though India made dowry illegal in 1961, feminist activism really picked up momentum only during the latter part of the 1970s. One of the first national level issues energizing women’s groups and bringing them together was the Mathura rape case. The acquittal of policemen accused of raping a young girl in a police station led to wide-scale protests in 1979-1980. Widely covered in the national media, the protests forced the government to amend the Evidence Act, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Penal Code and introduce the category of custodial rape. Autonomous women’s groups united over issues such as female infanticide, gender bias, women’s health and female literacy. They also questioned fundamentalist interpretations of women’s rights under the Shariat law and challenged the triple talaq system.

In 2006, Imrana, a young Muslim woman, was raped by her father-in-law. The pronouncement by some Muslim clerics that Imrana should marry her father-in-law led to widespread protests and finally the father-in-law was given a prison term of 10 years. The verdict was welcomed by many women’s groups and, more significantly, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.

But what about other cases of rape, or conviction under section 498A? According to the National Crime Records Bureau, crimes against women continue to rise at fifteen per cent annually. On the flip side, violence against women is no longer hushed up as a sense of personal shame for the woman or as a purely private family matter. We have even begun to recognize marital rape as a crime.

In the 1980s, the Indian government began to acknowledge women as key actors in development instead of treating them only as welfare recipients, renaming the wing for women’s welfare as the Department of Women and Child Development and launching new programmes to increase economic opportunities for women. Various states began to experiment with the reservation of seats for women in local government and soon an agitation began for a national-level reservation for women’s participation at every level of the political system. Though political parties across the spectrum unanimously agreed to the constitutional amendment for women’s reservation in panchayati raj institutions, they unfortunately continue to dither over reservations in Parliament.

Policy-makers and other stakeholders (who are central in planning developmental priorities for the five year action plan, both at the central and state level) acknowledge that women are a major productive and economic force within the domestic and public domain, and are major contributors to a healthy GDP growth. But is this reflected in the budgetary allocations or is it just populism?

Take the wide disparity in the sex ratio between male and female babies, reflected in the uniquely Indian phrase, ‘the missing girl child!’ Much to the surprise of many, it is the more economically advanced states like Punjab that top the list. Violence against women seems to have got a further impetus, especially within urban societies adjusting to changes in lifestyles influenced by aspirations encouraged by globalization. Currently, 39.7 million women are missing in India. The situation will worsen say experts, who fear greater violence against women.

Alongside is the co-option of rights based vocabulary and strategies by the establishment, be it the Indian government or the UN system. The appropriation of symbols of liberation, such as 8 March, the International Women’s Day, may well defeat its political significance. After all, it is on this day that women all over the world come together to assert – ‘we will not tolerate another injustice.’ Nowadays, this occasion is celebrated by organizing events such as sports competitions and antaksharis drawing on sponsorship from cosmetic companies and other consumer giants posing as friends and supporters of women’s rights.

Though almost all universities offer courses on women’s studies, both their intention and content are questionable. Even as mainstream publishing houses explore the sound ‘business worth’ of women’s literature, including that based on academic research, we have seen the marginalization of small women’s publishing houses that were were linked to the movement and sought to amplify women’s voices that had no platform, apart from a small niche market. Thankfully, mainstream publishers seems to be moving to greener pastures as the current market trends favour ‘chick lit’ over serious women’s literature.

The trend of corporate domination is amply evident in Bollywood as well, the objectification of women best illustrated with the heroine playing second fiddle to the hero, if not doubling up as an item girl. Glamour has become synonymous with liberation. The role of corporations is not limited to imagery alone, as they have directly and indirectly adversely affected the lives of women. As subsistence farming gets displaced by market-linked production and farm lands are taken over for SEZs and mega development projects, women continue to be at the receiving end, negating their role as producers while foregrounding them as consumers.

India has a long history of women’s activism. Throughout the country’s long struggle for independence, women stood shoulder to shoulder with men. The freedom movement was their movement, and the battles were their battles. In fact, it was a woman – the Rani of Jhansi – who best represents the beginning of the freedom struggle in 1857.

One of the major strengths of the contemporary women’s movement is that it has not shied away from taking an unpopular stand – be it opposition to population control, for rights of sex workers, on homosexuality or for that matter issues concerning bar girls – in the process forcing society out of its complacency.

This issue of Seminar wrestles with a central question troubling the movement groups: are women today really part of mainstream development processes, enjoying an equitable distribution of power and decision-making, or are they being further marginalized? Despite a spate of pro-women legislation, do women really feel more secure and safe? What is the ground reality when core issues that define any movement get co-opted by the state? The movement, the individual and group members within it, are catalysts of change. But when the state takes over core concerns, the real issues for a meaningful and lasting change in the systems of governance can only get diluted.