Power to resist

Published : Apr 09, 2010 00:00 IST



The landmark Womens Reservation Bill got passed in the Rajya Sabha after a long battle. While it has been a huge triumph in the face of overwhelming odds, there are still many hurdles, put up by intraparty and interparty politics and vested interests, to be overcome.

Amidst all the opposition and hullabaloo, one needs to think seriously about the fact that passing of the Bill in Parliament will be a historic and momentous decision that will pave the way for a gender-just society. Womens active participation in politics will have ripple effects in the social arena as well, changing gender dynamics for the better. Every issue, whether developmental, social or economic, will be seen from the gender perspective. Moreover, it will mean that there will be stringent action by the state against discrimination and violence against women.

The track record of the state in preventing violence against women has been dubious. In one incident in Maharashtra, a 16-year-old tribal girl was allegedly raped by two policemen on the premises of the police station in Chandrapur district. In this case, Tukaram and Another vs State of Maharashtra (1978), the Sessions Court acquitted the defendants stating that the girl was habituated to sexual intercourse and her consent was voluntary, and under the circumstances only sexual intercourse could be proved and not rape. The Bombay High Court set aside this judgment and sentenced the accused, but unfortunately this verdict was reversed by the Supreme Court, which acquitted the policemen.

The Delhi High Court infamously stated in Harvinder Kaur vs Harmander Singh (1983) thus: Introduction of constitutional law in the home is the most inappropriate. It is like introducing a bull in a china shop. In the privacy of the home and the married life neither Article 21 nor Article 14 has any place. Of course, the states response to violence against women has come a long way from that. While more women in positions of power will not necessarily ensure prompt responsiveness on the part of the state towards violence, it will definitely open the doors for more dialogue with womens groups and organisations to bring in the gender perspective into all areas of decision-making.

Many argue that the Bill will be misused as women will be mere puppets in the hands of men. It is not true. Similar concerns were raised during the discussions on the 73rd and 74th amendments, which reserved seats for women in panchayati raj institutions and urban local self-governments. While the first few years following the amendments were rocky because it was difficult for women to cope with the structure, functioning and planning process of panchayati raj, many organisations in Maharashtra, such as the Resource and Support Centre for Development, the P.V. Mandlik Trust, and Manavlok, came together to train women in overcoming these hurdles. This resulted in women making positive changes on the socio-political scene. The panchayats are churning out able women leaders. The same trend will be observed in Parliament as well.

Maharashtra has always been considered a progressive State economically, socially and politically. It was the first State to come out with a policy supporting reservation for women in politics. It was also the first State where the police force took a major step towards empowering women by opening all mainstream duties to them, in 1994. Apart from these, Maharashtra is considered one of the safest States for women in India. The State passed the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act in 1988 as a result of work done by various groups. It was subsequent to this, in 1994, that the Central Act was passed.

Despite this history of progressive attitude towards women, Maharashtra has been in the news for the wrong reasons in the past few years. According to the report Crime in Maharashtra 2008, brought out by the Maharashtra State Crimes Record Bureau, compared with 2007, crimes against women have increased by 5.42 per cent. A specific increase of 900 cases was reported at the State level in 2008. Cases of cruelty by the husband and his relatives increased by 6.4 per cent and molestation cases increased by 9.47 per cent. As many as 1,558 cases of rape were registered, a 7.37 per cent increase. Mumbai alone accounted for 9.3 per cent of all crimes committed against women, the highest share in the State. Of all cases charged under the Indian Penal Code, 8.31 per cent were crimes against women. A recent report states that Maharashtra has a higher crime rate against women than Bihar.

So, is Maharashtra steadily losing its status of being the safest State for women? No, on the contrary, it is safer for women here than elsewhere because the high rate at which crimes are reported indicates the confidence of women here in state agencies such as the police. More and more women, be they from rural or urban areas, are breaking their silence and reporting violence against them to the police. Even domestic violence cases, which were the least reported, have shown a consistent increase in the number of cases reported, reflecting the changing mindset of women and their determination to end such violence.

The participation of civil society in fighting discrimination and violence against women is also tremendous in Maharashtra. Historically, Maharashtra has witnessed the rise of women such as Pandita Ramabai, Tarabai Shinde, Savitribai Phule, Anandibai Joshi and Durgabai Deshmukh who were at the forefront of reformist movements in the country and fought for the rights of women. For any womens movement to be successful, the participation of men is equally important. People such as Acharya Balshastri Jambhekar, who fought actively against the practice of sati and female infanticide; Dhondo Keshav Karve, who dedicated his life to the cause of womens education; and Jyotiba Phule, who revolted against the caste system and upheld the cause of untouchables and education of women of the lower castes, were champions of womens causes.

Even today, various groups, along with non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations, are in the forefront of the battle against discrimination and violence against women. Their services include providing counselling, legal aid and medical help; forming womens groups and empowering them; and lobbying and advocacy. More and more interventions are made in collaboration with state agencies such as the police and the Department of Women and Child Development (DWCD).

The State government is taking initiatives to make the system more gender-sensitive. It has recognised the need for collaborating with civil society organisations to deliver meaningful service to women. The result is institutionalised services. The Special Cell for Women and Children is one such institutionalised service. It was established in 1984 by the Mumbai Police and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, to provide professional support services to women facing violence. In the past two and a half decades, the Special Cell has provided services to countless women and has shown that a strategic alliance with the police can make a significant impact on womens search for support and justice. Recognising her pain and the reality of the violence she faces, social workers at the Special Cell are trained to bolster a womans sense of self as she takes the first step towards ending such violence, said Trupti Panchal, coordinator of the Special Cell.

The project was taken over by the Government of Maharashtra under the ambit of the DWCD in 2005. From just one cell in 1984 at the Police Commissionerate in Mumbai, it has now grown to 20 cells across Maharashtra. The Haryana, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh governments, too, have adopted the model. In fact, in a 2003 report, Radhika Coomaraswamy, former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, said the Special Cell model was considered one of the most effective strategies to deal with violence against women worldwide.

The 103 helpline of the Mumbai Police, too, reflects the States proactive role in ending violence against women. In December 2007, when two women were molested outside a five-star hotel on New Years Eve, Akshara and 12 other womens organisations, along with [actor and political activist] Shabana Azmi, approached the Mumbai Police Commissioner demanding stringent action against acts of violence against women. This concerted campaign resulted in the launch of the toll-free 103 police helpline to report crimes against women, children and senior citizens, on February 28, 2008, by the Mumbai Police in collaboration with the Campaign against Violence against Women and Girls (VAW Campaign).

Akshara took up the initiative in 2008 to ensure the smooth functioning of the helpline by training the police staff, and launched a media campaign in collaboration with the advertising agency Leo Burnett to spread awareness about the helpline. Over the past two years, the helpline has taken action in 2,810 cases, out of which 1,623 were of domestic violence and 516 were of eve-teasing. It has helped in a way that women who face any kind of harassment, either at home or in colleges or in workplaces, feel confident about approaching the authorities to complain about their problems and seek justice, said Police Commissioner D. Sivanandan at the recent launch of the new media campaign of 103.

Whenever a woman calls the helpline, a police van arrives at the scene within 10 minutes. The fear of prompt action by the police has deterred many habitual offenders from committing crimes against women. Focussing on the importance of such a number, Chandra Iyengar, Additional Chief Secretary (Home) in the State, has announced that the 103 helpline, which is currently functional only in Mumbai and Thane, will become a State-wide toll free number from April.

There have been many progressive decisions with respect to women in public space this year in Maharashtra. For instance, on March 8, the government declared that one police station in every district and five police stations in Mumbai would be headed by women police officers. This was done to break the glass ceiling within the force and also to make the force more sensitive to women who approach it.

For a long time, the State had a skewed gender ratio within the forces. In the police force, only 7 per cent are women. To counter this, the State Home Ministry also announced the recruitment of more women into the force as police drivers. This shows the States increasing acknowledgement of gender justice across all spheres of public and private life. May 1 will mark the Golden Jubilee of Maharashtra as a State. With the Womens Bill almost on the threshold of being passed, this year could be the golden year for women in India as well.

Anisha Padhee is an activist with Akshara, a womens resource centre working on issues of gender and social justice. The article has inputs from Nandita Shah, co-director of Akshara.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment