A manifesto for women

Print edition : April 04, 2014

ELECTIONS in India always raise the decibel volume of public discussion, and this time is no different. This general election is being described by different groups of varying political persuasion as a “watershed” election, often for contradictory reasons—yet in many ways it is no more than a continuation of political tendencies that have been apparent for some time. In this febrile political season, charges, countercharges, promises and exhortations are being thrown about with abandon by different political parties and aspirants to elected office. Yet amidst the cacophony, there seems to be a deafening silence in one crucial area: the rights and concerns of women.

That is why a recent document brought out by nine women’s organisations is so welcome and so important: “Towards a secular government that promotes women’s interests: Women’s Charter for the 16th Lok Sabha elections”, brought out by the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM), the All India Democratic Women’s Federation (AIDWA), the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), Guild of Service, the Joint Women’s Programme (JWP), the Medical Women’s Federation (MWF), the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). It provides a succinct summary of many of the main concerns of women in India, cutting across regions, income levels and social groups, and puts forward a checklist of demands that all political parties should consider.

Reading this makes one wonder why, in an era when identity politics of various kinds has proliferated, women as voters have still remained so invisible to those seeking votes. Consider just one of the dominant current concerns, that of violence against women.

We are going through a period of rising violence against women in both private and public spheres, which of course has multiple causes. It is even possible that this reflects some backlash against the greater involvement of women/girls in education and the greater visibility of women, as well as an outlet for male frustrations driven by greater inequality and material insecurity. Because of the different forms that such violence can take as well as the different specific factors and causes, dealing with it effectively is complex and requires manifold strategies. This is not least because patriarchal mindsets dominate not just among men but also among women, and there must be many changes in society and in daily life that work towards reducing this violence. The patriarchal attitudes that underlie so many public statements of those in positions of power and responsibility, which effectively blame women for the violence against them because of forms of dress or behaviour, are just one example of this.

Even so, it is fairly obvious that controlling such violence, in homes or outside, requires explicit and systematic public intervention. These interventions are required in the legal sphere; in the administrative way in which legal rights and requirements are sought to be fulfilled; in the way in which public resources are allocated, for example to ensure basic utilities such as street lighting and safe sanitation as well as in the provision of emergency helplines and assistance; in changing the attitudes of those charged with ensuring the safety and security of women and girls (whether in the police or as administrators of institutions). What needs to be done on a priority basis by public authorities is now obvious —so why do political parties not explicitly put such promises into their manifestos?

Similarly, consider the legal system, which still operates to discriminate against women and perpetuate various forms of oppression. It is no one’s case that the mere enactment of more progressive and equitable laws serves to solve the problem. Indeed, women know only too well that many laws that were finally passed because of pressure emanating from prolonged struggles (such as the anti-dowry legislation and the law protecting women from domestic violence) are largely ineffective. This is chiefly because they have not had the political and administrative support that would ensure adequate financial provisions, infrastructure and personnel to ensure proper implementation, and because authorities have simply turned a blind eye to blatant violations of the law.

So passing laws is not enough. But in many cases, it is a necessary step towards reduction of gender disparities and greater empowerment of women. As the Women’s Charter highlights, even some recent laws passed under tremendous public pressure—such as the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2013, passed by the United Progressive Alliance government—reflect inadequately the sensible recommendations made by the Justice J.S. Verma Commission on laws related to rape, sexual harassment, trafficking and child sexual abuse. As a result, many significant concerns have been excluded, such as the issue of marital rape; the concerns of those who use their social economic and political power to indulge in rape, including members of the armed forces and police; and so on.

Meanwhile, there is structural discrimination embedded in other laws. Women still do not have the right to property on equal terms with men. Various personal and community laws continue to deny women equal rights to inherited and matrimonial property. Even when laws have been revised (such as the changes made to the Hindu Succession Act in 2005), loopholes like the possibility of “voluntary relinquishment” of property rights by women continue to be used against them to deny them equal rights with their male siblings or husbands. Changes in these laws would do more than affect the relative situation of girls and women —they are also likely to have positive effects on the status of women in general and therefore also on features like the adverse child sex ratio. Yet once again, this does not seem to be on the agenda of any major political party.

Meanwhile, there is little explicit condemnation by major political parties of some of the most oppressive, restrictive and violent forms of patriarchal control over women —such as the khap panchayats, the other community groups that seek to control women’s freedom and autonomy, the urban lumpen youth brigades that target women’s dress and behaviour, and so on. There is apparently fear among political parties of alienating the men who engage in these practices, and the possible loss of votes that entails. But then why is there no fear of the electoral repercussions of alienating the women who have to suffer from such unacceptable attempts at patriarchal control? And why is there no recognition among such parties of the unspoken but implicit solidarity that most women feel with their sisters who are so targeted?

Obviously, to be heard politically, women need to raise their voice more and make these demands become a greater part of the mainstream political discourse. The demand for one-third representation in Parliament may seem to be symbolic, but it is very much part of this wider need. Only with sufficient numbers can some points be made more strongly and institutional cultures be changed. Having a few token women, even when they happen to be the leaders of their parties, is no substitute for this wider representation because without a change in culture little real change will occur even in these ways. So, it is probably not surprising that even the women-led parties in the country, several of which now have explicitly national ambitions, have not raised the demands central to women’s lives.

This makes this particular document a valuable resource to be used in the run-up to the current election. There may be quibbles with particular details of some demands, but the overall thrust of the charter is important and greatly needed. And it goes beyond what seem to be concerns relevant only for women, to cover broader issues of food security, quality and quantity of available employment opportunities, and much else.

This can serve as the beginning to opening up a wider—and louder —debate on gender concerns in the political process generally. Women actually hold up more than half the sky in India, through myriad and often unrecognised contributions to society and the economy, but the false eulogies that seek to put them on a pedestal while denying them true equality simply will not work anymore. It is time for women themselves to demand their rights, and the democratic electoral process is a good place to start.