Sense of betrayal

Published : Apr 10, 2009 00:00 IST



SEVERAL national womens organisations have on their own prepared a charter summing up many of their long-standing demands. They want the charter to be a part of the political agenda of the parties contesting the 15th Lok Sabha elections. The organisations recalled how women across the country, hoping for a better political and economic deal from the new government, voted against communal forces in 2004. In their joint statement, the 11 signatories to the charter pointed out all the unfulfilled promises made by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

We feel particularly let down by the non-passage of the Womens Reservation Bill, said Sudha Sundararaman, general secretary, All India Democratic Womens Association (AIDWA). The womens organisations were taken by surprise when on the last day of the Lok Sabha, the government hurriedly announced that it was going to set up a Mission for Womens Empowerment. It was the biggest betrayal, noted the other signatories to the charter, which include the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), the Joint Womens Programme, the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, the Young Womens Christian Association and the Guild of Service.

Representatives of AIDWA and the NFIW pointed out that even where the UPA had done something creditable like passing the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), it was only after the repeated intervention of the Left parties. Even then, the Act was effectively sabotaged by setting up high productivity norms, difficult working conditions and unequal wages. On the agrarian crisis that had adversely affected women, the government had ignored the recommendations of the M.S. Swaminathan Committee, which included specific ameliorative measures for women, they said.

On the social justice front, despite a recommendation by the Justice Ranganath Misra Committee, the claims of Dalit Christians to reservation in the Scheduled Castes (S.C.) category have been bypassed. Instead, a Bill was hastily passed in the Rajya Sabha, excluding 47 institutes of excellence from the purview of reservation for S.Cs and the Scheduled Tribes. Our experience in cases of rape involving Dalit women is that the police never register a case under the S.C. & S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, said Vimal Thorat, representing the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch.

The failures have not been only on the political front. Despite the recession affecting almost every sector, including the export sector where women are employed in large numbers, the government has failed to take any steps to bail out the industrial working class. Incidents of violence against women have gone up in the past five years. Owing to the sustained pressure from womens groups, the government incorporated changes in the Hindu Succession Act and enacted the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. Even this has turned out to be a half-hearted exercise, as no budgetary support is provided for the effective implementation of such legal measures.

Similarly, there was no attempt to enact comprehensive legislation to address rape and all forms of sexual assault, including child rape. The Bill for the protection of women against sexual harassment at the workplace remains in cold storage despite several rounds of discussions on it involving the government, the National Commission for Women and other womens groups. The implementation of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994, has also been tardy. The womens groups have asked political parties to take up issues relating to the universalisation and strengthening of the Public Distribution System; the extension of the Integrated Child Development Services to all habitations; the regularisation of anganwadi workers and ensuring just wages for the accredited social health activist, the lynchpin of the National Rural Health Mission; and increasing allocation for health and education.

Other demands include extending the NREGA to urban areas and removing the upper limit of 100 days of employment; providing loans at low interest rates for women in self-help groups; and enacting comprehensive legislation to regulate the working conditions of providing maternity benefits, public child care facilities and social security to agricultural workers and workers in the unorganised sector, a large proportion of whom are women.

On the legal front, the womens groups demanded the passage of the Womens Reservation Bill. Additionally, they sought a law to penalise sexual harassment at the workplace and sexual assault, repealing of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and a separate law to deal with child abuse, honour killings, acid attacks and so on. They said laws were needed to ensure joint matrimonial property rights for women and to check trafficking in women and children.

The expectations from the UPA were high, but it soon became clear that like its predecessor, the National Democratic Alliance, it was interested only in tokenism, they said.

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