An expanding movement

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

A national conference of the All India Democratic Women's Association considers the problems and challenges that confront women and re-asserts its programme of intervention and action.

THE sixth national conference of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), held in Visakhapatnam from November 23 to 27, marks an important stage in the growth of the organisation and in the maturing of the Indian women's movement within which it holds a pre-eminent position. The 900 delegates who gathered in the quiet township of the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant, representing a membership of 59 lakh women reflecting the socio-economic, religious, linguistic and cultural diversity of States as far apart as Kerala and Tripura, deliberated on the problems and challenges that confront Indian women. The discussions and exchange of experiences and ideas by delegates covered a spectrum of issues and concerns, a measure both of the expansion of the organisation into new regions and amongst new sections of women and its growing confidence and understanding of itself.

Since its last national conference held in Bangalore in June 1998, AIDWA has increased its membership by over five lakhs. Units now function in the new States of Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh also. Its growth, however, has been an organic one. Over the last three years, AIDWA has identified the issues that relate to the lives and work concerns of women in specific contexts and milieus. It has been able to weave these strands into a shared programme of intervention and action at the national level, which in turn has strengthened its position within the women's movement. This aspect came through forcefully in the debates. Linkages were forged across the disparate experiences that AIDWA activists brought.

The young Adivasi panchayat president from Kannur in Kerala elected in a general constituency; the panchayat president from Madhya Pradesh who faced repeated no-confidence motions; the Adivasi woman from Manipur branded a witch and beaten within an inch of her life for demanding property rights for women; the young Muslim student from Almora who won her college elections despite adverse propaganda by Hindu groups; the Dalit housewife from Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu, ostracised by her caste panchayat for refusing to surrender her property to a husband who took a second wife and deserted her; the activist from Maharashtra who struggled against state cutbacks in the public distribution system; or the Dalit agricultural worker from Bihar who fought landlord terror for her right to her land... each saw her oppression and fight mirrored in the experience of the other. For the delegates this pooling of experience held many lessons and re-affirmed the need for a continuous organisational response.

The high point of the opening session was the address by Sahar Saba (see interview), a representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who received thunderous applause and a standing ovation. She spoke about the past and current situation in Afghanistan, the courageous role and struggle of its women against the medieval repression of the Taliban regime, and the role for women in the future government of her country.

A session on women and terrorism in the Indian context followed. Four delegates spoke of their personal experiences in fighting the many forms of terror and fundamentalism that they have been made to face. Shabnam, a young delegate from Jammu and Kashmir, described the ongoing attempts by militants in Kashmir to impose on women dress codes and the wearing of burqa, virtually at gun point. Militant and fundamentalist groups in the Kashmir Valley have declared family planning to be un-Islamic. Despite the enormous toll that militancy has taken, women in Kashmir have refused to surrender their rights for an agenda set by militants. Urmila Riyang from Tripura spoke of how in her state, women, particularly those who have dared to join Left and democratic movements, have become targets for militant groups.

Satyabati Bhuiyan, former chairperson of the Barpeta municipality of Assam, described the situation in Assam - yet another State where armed militancy is a threat to civil society. Activists who work with organisations such as AIDWA are caught between threats from competing militant groups. She recalled the courage of Reena Basak, an elected sarpanch who refused the demand by a militant group to allocate to it Rs. 25,000 from the panchayat's development fund. For her refusal they shot her husband.

Parveen Begum from Mumbai spoke of her personal experience, shared by others like her, of being caught between the threat from the Hindu Right, and the pressures from fundamentalists in her own community.

THE discussions at the conference focussed on four areas of concern: the impact on women, and working women in particular, of market reform and globalisation policies; the growth of regressive communal ideologies that erode the position of women in the public domain and private life; the disturbing increase in the extent and forms of violence on women; and lastly, the response by women to these many pressures in the form of struggles for change. Women are fighting against oppression and for change in many forums: in elected bodies, in the courts and in the streets.

Delegates from several States painted a grim picture of the profoundly negative impact that economic reform policies are exerting on the lives of the working people, women inevitably being the hardest hit. There are few regions, or spheres of life and economic activity, which are not experiencing its impact. Falling agricultural prices, for example, is a countrywide phenomenon. This has increased rural poverty, leading to hunger, migration, and in States like Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, suicides by farming women and men.

Many delegates also said that some of these policies are met with stiff resistance by those affected. In Andhra Pradesh, AIDWA and other democratic organisations conducted a sustained campaign in 1999-2000 against the increase in power tariff by the N. Chandrababu Naidu government, imposed in response to conditionalities laid down by the World Bank. The Maharashtra delegation described a prolonged campaign against another feature of reform that has directly hit the poor, namely, the cutbacks in the public distribution system.

Examples of the targeting of minorities, and women from amongst them, by communal and fundamentalist organisations such as those that are part of the Sangh Parivar dominated the discussions, particularly by delegates from the northern States, suggesting the greater strength of such organisations in states where the Bharatiya Janata Party is in power. Here communal ideology has got institutionalised, through the policy of administrative appointments in government, the rewriting of textbooks from a Hindu perspective, and through channels of popular culture.

A delegate from Uttar Pradesh spoke of how even unused space in government offices is often converted into a 'bhajan mandali'. Extreme brutality has been shown to women who dared to defy moral and cultural policing. Bharati Bharot from Ahmedabad, who married a Muslim, was held prisoner for several days by Hindu extremists who wanted to break her marriage and make her undergo a purification ceremony. In desperation she immolated herself in the office premises of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. It took the local unit of AIDWA 10 days to even get a first information report registered.

Both these contemporary issues, namely economic reforms and fundamentalism, have intensified violence against women. A globalised media and popular culture have contributed to the devaluation of women by reinforcing and reinventing tradition and ritual, and practices such as dowry. Women are made easy targets of abuse and violence. In many States, such as Tamil Nadu and Haryana, this increased level of violence is getting sanction from a resurgent caste consciousness. Azhagamma, a delegate from Tamil Nadu, spoke of how she was fined Rs.51,000 by her caste panchayat for refusing to give her land to her husband's second wife. She was socially ostracised and no one was allowed to work for her. The panchayat then said she could work her fine off, but at a humiliating cost. Each time she prostrated before them, Rs.1,000 would be cut from her fine. She did this 47 times. The Tamil Nadu AIDWA unit is now fighting her case.

In the villages of Haryana, Jat panchayats have issued death fatwas against couples who have married out of caste. Jagmati, a delegate from Haryana, related a case where the Jat panchayat in Jaundhi village forced a young mother to exchange a 'rakhi' with her husband in front of them, to signify the breaking of their inter-caste marriage bond. Here too AIDWA is fighting for their right to live as a married couple in the same village.

AN entire session of the conference was devoted to the many forms of protest against women's oppression that is taking place across the country. This growing consciousness is expressing itself in many ways and not merely through public protest actions. Reservations, for example, may have ensured women a place in panchayat bodies, but in exercising effective leadership women must contend with resistance from men, in particular from upper caste men. A Dalit woman panchayat president cannot sit on a chair in front of her subordinate who is an upper caste person. A panchayat president from Madhya Pradesh complained about the repeated no-confidence motions she had to face. Making panchayat democracy effective through the participation of women is a struggle that AIDWA is involved in. "The impact of globalisation and fundamentalism," AIDWA general secretary Brinda Karat said, "imposes upon us the need to assert the common identity of working people, particularly women."

The conference passed seven resolutions. These included a resolution on the market-driven resurgence of dowry, and one on legal reforms for women. This included a demand for fresh legislation to tackle domestic violence and to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace. In a resolution on the proliferation of sex-selection techniques in the context of declining juvenile sex-ratios, AIDWA demanded an amendment to the Pre-natal Diagnostics (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, to restrict all genetic testing procedures to government institutions.

The six reports that have been put together by the conference presents a distilled version of the experience, information and data that the delegates brought with them.

The conference elected its leadership for the next three years but not before it acknowledged the role played by the founders of the organisation, some of them such as Kanak Mukherjee, Ahilya Rangnekar, Capt. Lakshmi and Mallu Swarajyam who are amongst them, and others like Vimal Ranadive who passed away recently. The contributions to building the movement by the president Susheela Gopalan, who is battling cancer, were warmly and emotionally remembered. While Brinda Karat has been elected general secretary for the second term, the new president is Subhashini Ali, with Shyamoli Gupta as working president. An 85-member central executive committee was elected.

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