Women's Issues

Gender concerns

Print edition : June 13, 2014

Women labourers heading back home, at Paritala in Krishna district in Andhra Pradesh. Women are the section worst affected by price rise and vulnerable employment. Photo: THE HINDU Archives

It will be watched keenly whether the new government will take up proactively issues relating to women’s rights in consultation with organisations that have been pushing a progressive agenda.

IN the aftermath of the gang rape and murder of a young physiotherapist in Delhi in December 2012, a clamour rose across the country for strong measures to prevent crimes against women. Naturally, one of the challenges before the new government will be to provide a safe and secure environment for women and children.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) manifesto promises strict implementation of laws on crimes against women, especially those dealing with rape. However, several other laws that need to be implemented strictly, such as the ones relating to domestic violence, sexual harassment at the workplace, dowry, and the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, do not find adequate mention in the document. It is also silent on separate legislation on acid attacks and crimes committed in the name of honour.

The section “Women—the nation builders” in the manifesto appears to have a limited agenda. Commitments given therein include passing the Constitution amendment Bill providing for 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and the State Assemblies, including self-defence training in the school curricula, and setting up business facilitation centres and “business incubator” parks for women.

The Women’s Reservation Bill has been hanging for nearly one and a half decades. Despite the support of the Left parties, the Congress failed to get its allies on board to get the Bill passed.

An issue that all political parties except the Congress raised during the election campaign was the modalities of the dispensation of the fund for the relief and rehabilitation of victims of rape. Not a single paisa was spent from the fund the government had set up in the aftermath of the December 16, 2012, gang rape.

Arresting the declining child sex ratio is a major challenge for any government. Quoting 2011 Census figures, women’s organisations point out that child sex ratios (CSR) fell from 927 to 914 between 2001 and 2011 in 27 States and Union Territories. Recently released Census data show a sex ratio of 919 for the 1-6 age group and 911 for the 7-15 age group. This is a damning indictment of the policies of the Central and some State governments and an exposure of the utter failure to implement the PCPNDT Act. According to women’s groups, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had taken virtually no action against those doctors and medical technologists who were out to make profits, without whose collusion sex-selective abortion cannot occur.

Empowerment

The legislative agenda with regard to women’s empowerment is one that will be keenly watched. The Planning Commission’s Working Group on Women’s Empowerment had expressly recommended a separate law dealing with honour crimes, and a Group of Ministers was constituted to look into it, but this was folded up.

Women’s organisations also point to the inadequacies in the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2013, which was passed by the UPA government on the basis of the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee, constituted following the gang rape in Delhi. In a detailed charter addressed to political parties, the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the National Federation of Indian Women, the Joint Women’s Programme and several other groups expressed the need for a relook at the Bill. It says: “The Bill failed to address the important issues of marital rape exception, does not acknowledge the social, economic and political power of those who rape with impunity women from the most vulnerable sections of our society, does not protect young boys and girls who are in a consensual relationship between the ages of 16 and 18 years from the criminal consequences of statutory rape, does not accept the recognition of command responsibility, excludes AFSPA [The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act] from its purview and retains the death penalty.”

Women are also the section worst affected by price rise and vulnerable employment. As such, the charter outlines certain measures for the economic amelioration of women.

It demands that the government should remove the cap on “priority” households in the National Food Security Act and universalise the public distribution system (PDS) and exclude only taxpayers; ensure a minimum entitlement of 35 kilograms of foodgrain a household or 7 kilograms a person in a family; and conduct special drives to ensure that all households, especially single women, workers in the unorganised sector, the disabled, migrants and street-dwellers, have ration cards.

The PDS, the charter says, should be strengthened and the list of items under it expanded to include pulses, sugar, tea, edible oil, salt, milk and vegetables at controlled prices. It also demands strict action against hoarders and black-marketeers under the Essential Commodities Act and calls for a ban in futures trading in commodities. If good times are to come, as the BJP slogan says, the government may well have to look at what the charter says, representing as it does the interests of the majority of women in the country.

Other demands include removing the cap on the number of domestic LPG cylinders available at administered prices, providing subsidised LPG for cooking midday meals at Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres, and ensuring a quota of at least five litres of kerosene a person at controlled prices through PDS shops. The charter also demands a reduction in the prices of petrol and diesel by cutting excise and customs duties, and the rejection of the system of cash transfers and linkage of Aadhaar for availing oneself of essential commodities, especially food and fuel, through PDS.

Although the BJP manifesto talks about incorporating the “best practices of successful PDS models and revising the existing PDS”, it is silent on the issue of universalising the PDS. It says it will address the issue of under-nutrition and malnutrition without saying anything about regularising the services of women engaged in dealing with the nutritional issues of children of the poor.

A major issue at hand is the regularisation of the almost one crore scheme-based workers, including 27 lakh anganwadi workers, 26 lakh midday meal scheme workers and nine lakh accredited social health activists of the National Rural Health Mission. The BJP’s commitment in the manifesto extends only to the point of reviewing the working conditions of anganwadi workers and enhancing their remuneration.

Cultural heterogeneity

There are also legitimate concerns about fringe right-wing groups starting to impose norms under the garb of Indian culture on young men and women. The attacks on women going to pubs or on couples on Valentine’s Day and the targeting of the rights of sexual minorities when the BJP was in power are still fresh in public memory.

The issue now is whether the BJP, having secured a decisive mandate, will preserve cultural heterogeneity and take up proactively issues relating to women’s rights in consultation with organisations that have been pushing a progressive and democratic women’s agenda.

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