Reality check on women's rights

Published : Feb 09, 2007 00:00 IST

The Indian delegation faces tough questions on discrimination against women at a U.N. committee.


THE Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, at its 37th Session in New York between January 15 and February 2, faced the reality that reconciling domestic laws of different countries with the principles it has outlined is not going to be easy. That seemed to be the thrust of most of the government delegations; non-governmental organisations (NGOs) highlighted violence against women and the lack of reform in marriage and family laws.

The committee, which is constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), is mandated to hear out reports from member-states on their compliance with CEDAW articles. While some countries had set up progressive institutions and framed women-friendly policies, some others took discrimination to new heights, as the CEDAW committee found out. For instance, in the Maldives women are banned from holding top political and judicial offices as well as the posts of President and Vice-President.

The 23-member committee considered reports from Peru, Namibia, the Maldives, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Greece, Vietnam, Ajerbaijan, Colombia, the Netherlands, Suriname and Austria, besides India. Each country is supposed to send a report in the first year following its ratification of the Convention and subsequently every four years. Though India ratified the CEDAW in 1993, it has submitted only its second and third reports so far. The committee had a separate session with NGOs as well, which included presentations from NGO representatives from these countries.

The Indian NGO delegation, led by Dalit activist and Right Livelihood Award winner Ruth Manorama, highlighted issues such as the rehabilitation of and justice to victims of the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, internal conflict and its impact on women, rural poverty, and poor access to health care and education for Dalit and tribal women. It also raised specific issues pertaining to the rehabilitation of women in disaster situations, witch-hunting, protective labour laws for the unorganised sector and trafficking. All these issues were located in the context of globalisation and neo-economic liberalisation.

While most of the concerns of the Indian NGO delegation were reflected in the questions put by the CEDAW committee, the role of women as producers and the conditions in which they work did not feature substantially. India's macro-economic policies, where they pertain to women, were also not questioned rigorously, unlike in the case of Nicaragua, whose government delegation was grilled on the situation of women workers in the maquilas or free-trade zones.

The NGO concerns were raised in connection with the responses of the Indian government to questions posed by the committee. The CEDAW committee had observed in August 2006 that the Government of India's second and third periodic reports did not provide the requested information on the events in Gujarat and their impact on women, on the mainstreaming of gender perspectives in military operations and conflict areas, and on the strategies and time frame to amend laws that were discriminatory against women. The committee recommended a review of the prevention of terrorism legislation and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in consultation with other bodies.

There were also questions on how the government planned to implement land reform legislation and increase women's access to land, on sex-disaggregated data and on affirmative action, cultural stereotypes, educational enrolment status and the current position on implementing the constitutional provision for free and compulsory education.

The committee put 29 questions in the context of the second and third periodic reports. However, the government's response, a detailed one, was made available to the CEDAW committee only a day before India's reports were taken up. Some experts, such as Hanna Beate Schopp-Schilling of Germany, expressed their displeasure at the delay in the discussion of the second and third periodic reports and the government's delayed response to the committee's queries.

India had ratified the CEDAW with two reservations - on Articles 5(a), 16(1) and 16(2). Article 5 concerns sex role stereotyping and prejudice, while Article 16 deals with the issues of marriage and family life. The government made a declaration that it would abide by Article 5(a) and 16(i) in conformity with its policy of non-interference in the personal affairs of a community without its initiative and consent.

The head of the Indian delegation, Deepa Jain Singh, Secretary, Ministry of Women and Child Development, reiterated India's position on Article 5(a) to the committee. About the Gujarat riots of 2002, she said in her introductory remarks that they were an aberration that should never have happened. The Solicitor-General, G.E. Vahnavati, echoed similar sentiments.

On its reservations about Article 21(a), which allows for a dispute between states to be submitted to arbitration, and in case of failure to the International Court of Justice, the government stuck to its stand. On the Optional Protocol, too, the delegation held its ground. The protocol, which the Government of India has not ratified, allows the committee to receive and consider complaints from individuals or groups.

While Deepa Jain Singh pointed out that the protocol was optional, Hanna Beate Schopp-Schilling clarified that it was not an attack on the independence of the judiciary but an additional monitoring mechanism to assist a country in implementing the Convention better. When Cornelius Flinterman from the Netherlands inquired about a timeframe for signing the Optional Protocol, the delegation expressed its inability to give one.

The Gujarat riots of 2002 and their aftermath evoked many questions, particularly on the total number of people killed. Committee members expressed doubts over the figures given by the government, as they were far lower than those given by NGOs. The members also wanted gender-disaggregated data on the victims of violence and expressed disappointment that they had not been provided despite repeated requests.

The government responded by highlighting the proactive judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, which had directed the reopening of 2,000 cases and ordered the transfer of the cases outside Gujarat. When the committee persisted with its demand, a Joint-Secretary in the Home Ministry, who was part of the delegation, replied that 67 of the 4,000 cases registered involved violence against women. He did not specify the nature of the violence.

Replying to a question on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Deepa Jain Singh reiterated the government's position and said that there was no situation of armed conflict in India and that steps had been taken to sensitise and inform the military and police forces on the dos and don'ts when on duty. The armed forces, she said, had an excellent track record, overall. She said the committee that worked on the issue (without naming the Justice Jeevan Reddy committee) had given its recommendations, which were not in the public domain. The gender dimension of conflict, if any, was sidelined completely.

On the issue of the attainment of education goals, Vrinda Saroop, Joint-Secretary in the Department of Elementary Education and Literacy, Ministry of Human Resource Development, quoting an anonymous independent survey, said 687,000 additional classroom spaces - not schools - had been added. Whether these spaces were part of the formal education system was not clear. Notwithstanding the reports that have criticised the efficacy of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, the official claimed it to be a huge success. She offered no objective analysis on retention and dropout rates.

The delegation faced many questions on the educational status of girls, especially those from the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. While detailing figures of high enrolment in primary education, Vrinda Saroop admitted that enrolment in higher education would improve only with greater enrolment at the primary and secondary levels.

On the issue of making free and compulsory education a fundamental right, she said a model Bill had been drafted and circulated to State governments, but would not go into the responses of State governments and persons involved in the right-to-education campaigns.

The government delegation was particularly insensitive on a query relating to manual scavenging. The delegate representing the Labour Ministry said that while rehabilitation and liberation had been attempted through several schemes, "there was a group of people that totally lacked entrepreneurial spirit" and they were not interested in taking up occupations other than what they were doing. Replying to a specific question on the rehabilitation of Dalits and tribal people displaced by mega projects, a government delegate said that while tribal people and minorities were confined to certain areas, Dalits were "everywhere" and were more affected by displacement.

Committee members Shanti Dairiam of Malaysia and Heisoo Shin of South Korea were sceptical about the success of micro-credit schemes. The government delegation, while admitting that the majority of self-help groups (SHGs) did not comprise the poorest among poor women, said they helped women to think and take decisions. Deepa Jain Singh said the twin issues of poverty alleviation and SHGs had to be kept apart. Micro-credit groups sat together and attended meetings, and this helped teach them (the women members) discipline. Needless to say, NGOs were deeply worried over this definition of women's empowerment.

Referring to the impact of globalisation and liberalisation, the delegation made it clear that the economic boom had to be sustained and globalisation would continue. No detailed answers were provided on the impact of macro-economic policies on women though the government agreed that 93 per cent of the working population was in the unorganised sector. It was also indicated that downsizing would continue in the public sector. There was no mention of the impact, if any, this would have on women employees.

The women's reservation Bill and the 86th constitutional amendment also came up for discussion. Committee members observed that the government's commitment to allocating 6 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) to education made at the time of the Beijing Conference in 1995 was yet to be fulfilled. While Deepa Jain Singh assured the committee that the government was committed to reserving for women one-third of the seats in State Assemblies and Parliament, she expressed her inability to cite a time frame by which this would happen.

The government delegation also sought to allay fears regarding the immunity given to government officials in the Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill. Deepa Jain Singh said the Bill was still in the draft stage and the government was amenable to suggestions.

Overall, the government's responses had the requisite language and jargon but fell short on commitments. By placing the onus of women's empowerment on an active judiciary, SHGs, micro-credit and a slew of government schemes, the government delegation did not seem to convey the impression that it was interested in a qualitative change in the lives of women in the country.

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