Reinventing violence

Published : Jan 04, 2008 00:00 IST

Dowry now has a new face, says Malini Bhattacharya. - C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Dowry now has a new face, says Malini Bhattacharya. - C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Interview with Malini Bhattacharya, member, NCW.

Dowry now has

THE National Commission for Women was set up in January 1992 in response to a sustained demand from the womens movement for a statutory body to monitor and study the legal and constitutional safeguards for women. The institution itself has come a long way, adapting to the challenges that emerged in the past 15 years. NCW member Malini Bhattacharya spoke to Frontline on the issues confronting women today. Excerpts:

It is generally agreed that there has been an overall escalation of violence against women. Why do you think this is happening?

I think that the very obvious increase in trends of violence against women could be partly owing to a backlash. There are some laws in place, awareness has increased, there are more educated women, and many more women are going out to work. We hear voices being raised against violence, and if voices are raised, it is a threat to patriarchal structures. Sometimes such violence is interpreted as a breaking up of traditional society. I would like to emphasise that this is not true. Certain kinds of violence have always been there, the kind against subordinate classes and castes and women who belong to these sections. There is no use thinking that the past was golden. We thought that with more education, with women moving out of their homes, dowry would have come down. But what we find is that [the demand for] dowry has gone up and there are certain new dimensions to it.

The face of dowry violence has changed. It has become associated with the issue of property, which has come out very starkly now that women have a right to parental property. There is a whole new lifestyle, particularly among the upper middle classes, which is continually encouraged by the media, the advertisers and by the whole array of consumer goods. So the girl who is educated, who is working, also claims that her marriage would not have a good start if she does not have an ostentatious wedding accompanied with gifts. Most television serials also promote such images. What is accepted as the standard among the Hindu upper classes has spread to the less affluent classes and other communities. Dowry now has a new face.

The whole question of sexual assault on women is one other aspect. Earlier, it was said stay indoors to be safe. But women have always faced violence within homes. Now it is being recognised. Overall, society also has become more violent. The corporate culture, which is very competitive, very aggressive, is creating a culture of violence and aggression that makes all disempowered sections its victims. If there is violence generally in society, women are bound to get affected. So we have violence against women as well as sexual harassment in BPOs and in the corporate sector. Violence has always been there; it is being reinvented.

With economic reforms, there are said to be more opportunities for women. What then went wrong?

The whole sphere of employment itself has changed. The kind of employment that women are getting in the new deal is mainly contractual. When an employee is a permanent employee, he or she gets certain benefits and protections. . The shift from permanent to contractual employment and the opening up of opportunities, mainly of a contractual nature, gives a different dimension to womens employment.

Therefore, certain things that were given as rights by employees are no longer prevalent. At another level, in certain ways, as far as the middle and upper middle classes are concerned, certain opportunities have opened up and so there is a disparity. Economists describe this not as jobless development but as job-lost development. This means that now employment is not available for men but for women, at more exploitative conditions. The conditions of work for the majority of women are not favourable. Never before has migration been so common among the female labour force. When women who really belong to the ranks of the dispossessed and the deprived migrate for certain kinds of work, they become open to certain kinds of abuse. It is very difficult to demarcate migration from trafficking. In the neoliberal regime, freedom for migration is talked about but it is very difficult to figure out where voluntary migration ends and trafficking begins.

The NCW has been proactive in taking up issues. Yet there is a feeling that the impact has not been significant, for instance, in the area of the declining child sex ratio.

It is part of the NCWs mandate to propose laws, policies and amendments in existing laws. In the past 15 years, several such interventions have been made by the NCW. I shall highlight some of the interventions in the past three years. We can only recommend certain things to the government. In the past three years, we recommended a fund or a scheme of funding for the rehabilitation of victims of rape. We had hoped it would be included in the Eleventh Plan, but so far it has not happened. We also had a major national workshop on a comprehensive Bill on sexual assault. We were helped by the All India Democratic Womens Association, which drafted a Bill that we had a discussion on and later adopted. We took up suggestions on the definition of rape and on the rehabilitative aspects apart from including special provisions on child rape and child sexual abuse. At present there is no law to deal with that. We took the help of Lawyers Collective to prepare a draft Bill on the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace. We held a national consultation and then sent the final Bill to the government. We had hoped it would be presented in Parliament but that has not happened. It is a long haul, but we feel it is a necessary exercise.

The National Plan on trafficking was jointly prepared by the Department of Women and Child Development, the NHRC [National Human Rights Commission] and the NCW. This Plan redefines trafficking in a much more comprehensive way. The ITPA [Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act] is concerned only with brothel-based trafficking. We have emphasised the aspect of rescue and rehabilitation. Now this has been finalised and is lying with the government. The other area of intervention was the PCPNDT Act [Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act], where we suggested modifications to make it more effective.

Yes, the declining child sex ratio is creating havoc both from a demographic and from a social point of view. There is one argument that says that womens value will increase if there are fewer women. This is preposterous as lesser numbers will only result in greater exploitation. This is a demographic disaster. The other concern articulated is: how would the wives, mothers and daughters come up? But even this is not the main issue. It is a matter of great concern that after so many years of the womens movement, after all these years of independence, we find that women are so devalued that their birth itself must be prevented.

Why is it so difficult to get womens issues to become a national priority? There is also a lot of cynicism that the legal system has not really worked favourably for women.

We feel that these are social issues; but somehow, in the social sector the governments intervention has become minimised as a result of its neoliberal policies. It is not that womens issues are not accepted as a priority at the policy level. For example, under the PCPNDT Act the use of certain medical technologies are required to be regulated. But in a scenario where both the service provider and the service seekers are attuned to a particular ethos, the government abdicates responsibility. Do we need all these medical technologies in the first place? It is difficult to bring in any regulation as the prevailing trend is that one has to allow freedom of choice to the service seeker and the freedom to sell by the service provider.

Another example is of that of the Legal Service Authorities. According to this, Dalits, Scheduled Tribes, poor men and women should get free legal aid. We have been unable to implement it. Where there is an overall atmosphere of making profit, it is difficult to get people to do social service. The poor have every right to be disenchanted with laws. The existing laws just do not work for them. We are a hierarchical, class- and caste-driven society and we cannot expect that the law would be above the socio-economic structures. It has its own patriarchal, elitist, class components. But if the laws had not been there, it would seem that we were endorsing crimes against women.

For example, we know that the anti-dowry Act has not been effective, but if it had not been there at all, it would be as if we were endorsing dowry. Laws have a different use altogether; it lies more in a formal recognition that certain things are not acceptable.

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