Women not part of political agendas

Published : Jan 04, 2008 00:00 IST

Brinda Karat: We have moved forward in the resistance to domestic violence. - S. SUBRAMANIUM

Brinda Karat: We have moved forward in the resistance to domestic violence. - S. SUBRAMANIUM

Interview with Brinda Karat, Communist Party of India (Marxist) member of the Rajya Sabha.

Brinda Karat: We

Brinda Karat, national vice-president of the All India Democratic Womens Association (AIDWA) and Rajya Sabha member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has been one of the leading voices in the campaign on violence against women for the past three decades. In her view, the neoliberal phase of the Indian economy ushered in myriad forms of violence against women, which, despite its seriousness and spread, is far from becoming a priority issue to be addressed. Excerpts from an interview:

There is a broad agreement that violence against women has gone up in both general and specific terms. How is the situation today different from that in the 1980s, which was characterised by campaigns on violence against women.

Firstly, there are a much larger number of women coming out in protest against different kinds of violence, particularly in urban India. In many cases, there is also more social reaction. In smaller towns also, one finds a growing resistance by women to violence. That is the most positive thing. The second aspect is that violence against women is being recognised as a form of violence. In the 1970s and the 1980s, it was a big struggle just to get it out from the private sphere on to the public sphere and to say that if a woman is being beaten within the four walls of the home that does not make it any less of a crime.

Dominant cultures are still very prevalent in large parts of the country. The trivialisation of wife-beating and different aspects of domestic violence is rooted in the notion that this is bound to happen. It is believed that women have to adjust and that modern women just do not want to adjust. This attitude is very prevalent. However, there is a greater feeling, especially among younger women, that one has to challenge these cultures prevailing in the name of tradition. We are observing a lot of social reaction from the younger generation particularly against sexual harassment. Young women are able to speak out much more as compared to 20 or 30 years ago.

I will not say that the efforts of womens organisations have gone in vain. But now the issue is whether this is enough. This is a context where there is a huge increase in violence along with some contradictory trends. This whole concept of Indias development sans social justice and social reform lies at the crux of it. We have a pattern of development that really does not challenge unjust cultures. The way politics is developing in the Indian context, for example, increasing caste identity politics and the tendency to use religion, religious symbols and religious tradition for political mobilisation, we find that the position of women is somehow located at the bottom of the ladder. Their status is intrinsic to these structures.

Consider the notion that Indian tradition respects women. It may respect women but she is respected if she remains within the four walls of the house and is the mother of a son. But it changes the minute she is a working woman or a woman who steps out on the street. I recall reading in the journal Organiser a few years ago where a sevika [a woman volunteer of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] was quoted as saying that women should work only if there is an economic necessity. This kind of an approach is problematic and when there is political mobilisation around this mode of thought, it automatically acts as a brake on the advancement of women.

On the one hand there is the modernisation of the economy and, on the other, there is acute economic distress. All of this exists with the notion of Indian culture. In the Indian context, while fighting violence against women, one has to fight the caste structures as well as the cultural conceptualisations of what a womans role should be while earning the respect of society. We are in a sense in a cultural prism, which seems to justify violence as soon as the woman steps out of the so-called Lakshman rekha. The concept of punishment for breaking a social norm is still part of this dynamic of violence against women.

There are more women visible now in the public sphere and many more are working as well, mainly in the unorganised sector, but the ways of seeing women have not changed in a very fundamental sense.

The utter failure of our system to punish the perpetrators of violence is one aspect. Unless there is a much quicker, speedier process of justice which is taken seriously, and there is an enabling environment for women to speak, the feeling is that one can get away with it. The low rate of convictions in almost all cases of violence against women is absolutely appalling. When people think that they can get away with it, they end up getting away with it.

There is now a growing recognition that there are newer forms of violence against women that are on the rise domestic violence, communal violence and honour killings. With nearly two decades of economic reforms one would have expected that women would be better off as compared to the 1970s and the 1980s.

A migrant woman

We have moved forward in the resistance to domestic violence. For as many women who are beaten, there are an equal number of women who refuse to be beaten. It wasnt that domestic violence was not there. It is only that it is being recognised as a form of violence. But caste and caste structures are a greater impediment to womens mobility and freedom. There is a strong reaction to women transgressing caste norms, which should have no place in a civilised society. Honour killings are still not recognised as a serious crime. There are numerous instances of couples who may not face exact violence but face discrimination, economic and social isolation.

Apart from the obvious savage brutality faced by Dalit women one of the worst forms of caste violence against women, which is not acknowledged in todays neoliberal world, characterised by fragmented work, casual labour and insecurity of work conditions, women are more vulnerable to violence. For instance, NSS [National Sample Survey] data show that womens participation in agriculture has gone down, while their participation in self-employed forms of work has gone up. And this is the core of increasing violence against Dalit women. She [the Dalit woman] is putting herself at risk every day because of the conditions of work.

Food insecurity also leads to added vulnerabilities. There is violence in the form of abusive language that attacks the very dignity of a human being. We have seen in our work in rural areas that there has been a phenomenal increase in crimes against Dalit women. The conditions of work have worsened for women in rural India. The violence that emanates due to economic vulnerability is not documented anywhere. There is no record of what crores of rural women face.

In our right-to-food campaigns in several States, we observed that women had internalised such violence and had deemed it as intrinsic to their daily lives. They never reported it. I think that the levels of such violence have grown in the past 20 years along with the levels of agrarian distress. What these poor women go through is totally invisible to human eyes. Today, when womens organisations, political parties or lawmakers talk about violence, they have to talk about these conditions as well and make it a part of political agendas. The big tragedy is that women still do not figure as part of political agendas.

The other aspect which is so cruel about globalisation is this huge increase in the organised trafficking of young girls. The trade has such powerful backers. The demand for young girls is shocking. This kind of violence involves a large number of adolescent girls. What kind of society do we have which produces no alternative and young girls are forced into a position when there is then a subsequent demand to legalise the trade. It is so contradictory. As a reality, there are so many different aspects to this, and poverty is a determinant of increasing violence against women, including trafficking.

Poverty and dowry are both determinants of trafficking. There has to be major intervention at the source centres of trafficking, where poverty exists. The focus on violence has to shift. There are a large number of women who are part of the unorganised sector workforce who face violence on a daily basis, but this problem is not addressed. Violence against women has to be a national issue and not just a matter to be taken up by womens organisations. How can we even discuss development in such a scenario?

There is the other aspect of politics and violence against women. We have seen increasing insecurity against minority women, and this is directly linked to aggressive Hindutva. Women are also victims of various kinds of fundamentalisms. For instance, in the name of Islam, various kinds of injustices, such as fatwas, are passed on women. But the good part is that women themselves are resisting it. Muslim women become particularly vulnerable as they are targeted not only by Hindutva forces but by the forces of fundamentalism within their own community as well. It is important for political agendas to support reform within communities.

The womens movement conducted many successful campaigns against dowry in the 1980s. There is a resurgence seen in the system of dowry, which has become the main reason for domestic violence and other forms of violence against women and the girl child.

Dowry, I would say, is the main engine driving different forms of violence against women. For example, sex-determination tests and sex-selective abortions, child marriage, trafficking and domestic violence are all manifestations [of the problem]. The most unfortunate thing is that there is so much social sanction for this practice. If it is not dowry, then it is opulence, lavish expenditure at weddings. The understanding is that if one has wealth, it should be flaunted. The worth and status of a person is determined by the amount he or she can spend and not by the quality of the individual.

The worst practices of the rich trickle down and have some of the most devastating consequences on poor people. These practices are promoted by the media and by advertisements. It is appalling to see the Barbie culture being highly prevalent among six-year-olds in some of the private schools in Delhi. It is not that it is everywhere, but it is still the dominant trend.

There is also this huge hiatus between the laws and their implementation.

I dont agree that we can do away with laws and only deal with social reform. It is important to recognise a crime as a social crime and as a crime under the law. It is true that the framing of laws is full of loopholes. The Domestic Violence Act and the PNDT [Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques] Act are examples where there is so much of bureaucratisation that makes it so difficult for the victim to get access to the law.

The other aspect concerns the implementing authorities, where I would fault the police and large sections of our judiciary. It seems extraordinary that even in cases of child sexual abuse, it should take 10 to 15 years for a conviction. The victim is victimised all over. It is another thing that we do not even have a proper and comprehensive law to deal with sexual assault.

The attitude of the police is also very discouraging. They do not encourage filing of complaints. Instead they [the police] convince the complainants that by filing the complaint, they would face social ostracism and may have difficulties in getting the girls [victims] married, etc. If someone has a daughter, it becomes very difficult for them to pursue the matter to get justice. It is the height of cruelty. We have fast-track courts, special courts, women courts, but it is not working. There has to be a time-bound system to deal with rape, assault as well as child sexual abuse.

The system should not look at the victim as a victim but in a way that strengthens gender justice. Unfortunately, mainstream political agendas are far removed from gender issues. When there are debates in Parliament on the PNDT Act or even the Domestic Violence Act, the presence of parliamentarians is minimal. It is not that women issues are neglected deliberately. If one simply adds up all the victims of terrorist attacks, the figure would be much less than [that for] crimes committed against women in this country. It is a question of making it a political priority.

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