Mohini Giri (1938-2023): A dauntless voice for women’s rights

Her lifelong fight for equality and gender justice leaves a lasting imprint on India’s women’s movement.

Published : Dec 21, 2023 16:22 IST - 4 MINS READ

Mohini Giri, photographed in 2013.  Mohini Giri led the NCW from 1995 to 1998 during its formative years, providing it with the constitutional mandate it needed.

Mohini Giri, photographed in 2013. Mohini Giri led the NCW from 1995 to 1998 during its formative years, providing it with the constitutional mandate it needed. | Photo Credit: RAJU V

On December 19, Mohini Giri, former chairperson of the National Commission for Women and a dedicated advocate for the women’s movement, passed away at the age of 85 in New Delhi following a brief illness. Mohini Giri, the daughter-in-law of trade union leader, freedom fighter, and former President of India V.V. Giri, demonstrated a similar commitment to pressing social issues in her time.

Her passion for addressing the challenges faced by war widows, observed during fieldwork after the 1971 war, led her to establish the War Widows Association in 1972, which now has branches across the country. In 1979, she founded the Guild of Service, an organisation dedicated to empowering widows and educating children.

The Guild of Service, in a statement, hailed Mohini Giri as an icon of the women’s movement, recognising her influential advocacy for a gender-just world. The Guild credited her ‘pioneering efforts’ for bringing the vulnerabilities faced by widows to national and international attention.

In the early 1990s, due to the persistent efforts of the women’s movement, the National Commission for Women (NCW) was established by an act of Parliament. Mohini Giri led the NCW from 1995 to 1998 during its formative years, providing it with the constitutional mandate it needed.

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Known as a determined social activist, Mohini Giri was committed to the cause of oppressed women, regardless of caste or religion. She consistently supported national women’s organisations and opposed the erosion of women’s rights over the years. In 2000, she became the founder-trustee of the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia.

Unafraid to tackle contentious issues, Mohini Giri faced criticism for encouraging fifteen widows to wear colourful clothes and jewellery. In 2013, media reports indicated that she was physically attacked in South Delhi while intervening to prevent the molestation of a teenager.

In 2007, Giri was honoured with the Padma Bhushan. Five national women’s organisations, including the All India Democratic Women’s Association and the National Federation of Indian Women, paid tribute to her, expressing their loss of one of their “most eminent friends and allies in the all-India women’s movement.”

Rising up

Born in pre-independence Lucknow in 1938, Giri studied at Lucknow University and is credited with establishing the Women’s Studies department there. Her father, who passed away when she was ten, had set up the Political Science department at the same university. In a media interview, she revealed that her mother was asked to vacate the official bungalow, perhaps influencing her dedication to issues affecting single and widowed women. In 2023, filmmaker Meera Dewan created a documentary about Mohini Giri titled Still We Rise: The Passion and the Compassion of Mohini Giri.

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Mohini Giri’s interventions, both on the ground and in strengthening the autonomous status of women’s commissions, were commendable. In 2000-2001, when destitute widows in Mathura-Brindaban faced potential displacement from Uttar Pradesh by the State government, she emerged as a saviour, providing relief through the Guild of Service. Under her leadership, Amar Bari (Ma-Dham) shelter homes were established in Brindaban, aiming to provide livelihoods and instil self-respect and independence among these women dependent on religious charity.

Mohini Giri during an election victory celebration in the early 1990s.

Mohini Giri during an election victory celebration in the early 1990s. | Photo Credit: UNKNOWN

Women’s organisations recalled that as Chairperson of the NCW, Mohini Giri, “put the Commission on the national map with many legal and administrative interventions”. She effectively networked with State Women’s Commissions in different States, emphasising their autonomy. Mohini Giri’s tenure saw the NCW as a formidable force. She was “an extremely persuasive mediator between the women’s movement and insensitive bureaucracies, she sometimes went out of her way to ensure that laws and government schemes impinging positively on women’s rights got properly implemented; at the same time, she was uncompromising in her basic principle as a social activist, namely that the interest of the most deprived women in our society should be maintained above all things,” stated an obituary note from All India Democratic Women’s Association, All India Progressive Women’s Association, National Federation of Indian Women, and others. 

Even after her tenure as Chairperson ended, Mohini Giri remained a vocal critic of attempts to curtail the autonomy of women’s commissions. She initiated efforts at an all-India level to amend the law on the National Commission for Women, aiming to give it the deserved status in a democratic country. “We remember these efforts, especially at a time when most women’s commissions, national or state-based, are being turned into meaningless figureheads merely serving the interest of the political party in power,” it said in a release. Despite living a mostly privileged life, Mohini Giri’s empathy towards the marginalised will be unforgettable.

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