Print edition : December 27, 2013

Malini Bhattacharya, the new president of AIDWA, speaks at the inaugural session of the conference. Photo: TKR

The 10th national conference of AIDWA deliberates on important issues that confront Indian women today.

AGAINST the backdrop of increasing crimes against women, widening communal schisms, deepening economic insecurity caused singularly by the policies of the present government, and the unrestrained growth of communal and sectarian elements, more than 750 delegates of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), the largest organisation of women in the country, assembled on the Magadh University campus in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, to deliberate on contemporary national and international challenges. The occasion was the 10th national conference of AIDWA, held from November 22 to 25, where delegates representing 23 States placed their concerns over the worsening condition of women and the polity.

Underscoring the exponential increase in crimes against women, six women from different parts of the country narrated how mass organisations such as AIDWA had successfully led struggles for land rights and for justice for victims of rape, political hooliganism and fake encounters. The inaugural session, therefore, featured a special session titled “Women against Violence: Fighting for Justice, Resisting Violence, Claiming Rights”.

Among those who addressed the conference in this session was a survivor of the mass rape at Vachathi, a remote hamlet in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu. The place made headlines in June 1992 when a posse of Forest Department personnel and policemen descended on it and unleashed terror on its people on the pretext of looking for smuggled sandalwood. Eighteen women were raped, men assaulted and property destroyed. Thanks to the efforts of AIDWA and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), 269 officials were convicted in 2011 for the atrocities while 17 were convicted for rape.

Also present at the conference was the teenage victim of a gang rape in Dabra village, in Hisar district of Haryana, last year; the girl’s father committed suicide after the incident. AIDWA took up her case when only four of the 12 accused were convicted, and got the Attorney General to take up the matter in the High Court.

Similarly, Manwara Bibi from Bardhaman district of West Bengal narrated the saga of her struggle following the brutal murder of her husband and how she won the panchayat election securing 83 per cent of the votes polled. Other women who narrated their struggles included Sushila Devi of Bihar who took on landlords to get eight acres (3.2 hectares) of common village land released; Shamima Kausar, mother of Ishrat Jahan, who was slain in a fake encounter by the Gujarat Police in 2004; and Arunima Sinha, a national volleyball player from Uttar Pradesh who lost her legs and yet scaled the Everest this year, making a record for herself.

Brinda Karat, AIDWA patron and former Rajya Sabha member representing the CPI(M), called on the delegates to ensure that the forces that “beget inequality, violence, insecurity, indignity and humiliation in our lives” did not pass. She was referring to a historic speech made by the revolutionary communist leader Dolores Ibarruri in which, while challenging the forces of fascism in the Battle of Madrid, she declared, “No Pasaran” (They shall not pass). Brinda Karat said a code of conduct for elected representatives was required to “name and shame those who use sexist language and made retrograde statements blaming women for the violence around them”. She emphasised that AIDWA needed to broaden the very concept of democracy to include as a basic prerequisite, a violence-free environment, “where a woman does not have to battle poverty, caste- or community-based discrimination, where she can walk, talk, study, work, dress, partner without fear of violence...”.

The outgoing general secretary, Sudha Sundararaman, presented the report on international and national situations. As many as 33 delegates spoke on these issues. They emphasised how aggressive exploitation by imperialist forces had led to wide-ranging changes in labour laws worldwide, which heightened the insecurity in the lives of women and led to other forms of exploitation like trafficking. They urged AIDWA to coordinate with progressive, secular and democratic women’s organisations at the international level which are fighting the onslaught of neoliberal policies and fundamentalism in their own countries.

On the domestic front, the delegates put forth the adverse impact of the neoliberal policies of the Congress-led government at the Centre and the communal propaganda of right-wing forces as experienced in their respective States. Other areas of discussion included growing domestic violence, sexual harassment at the workplace, lack of preference for girl children, conservative and patriarchal mindsets, sexual objectification of women, food insecurity, collapse of the public distribution system (PDS), the falling rate in work participation, and the increasing influence of regressive and communal forces, particularly in States ruled by right-wing parties, such as Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. The West Bengal delegates expressed concern about the violent political attacks on their leaders and activists ever since the Trinamool Congress assumed power in the State. The acts of self-proclaimed “godmen and godwomen” were also highlighted.

Seven commission papers on gender budgeting, corporatisation of health care, work and employment, women and the conservative backlash in society and the media, women and panchayati raj, Muslim women in India living with growing insecurities, and education were discussed at the conference. Looking at gender budgeting and critiquing it conceptually and ideologically, the authors observed that the conventional and neutral gender budgeting approach did not encompass any element that was aimed at changing patriarchal norms and the class bias in society. The conventional approach did not treat women as a part of the development process but as a beneficiary.

The paper on the corporatisation of health care noted that a shift in strategy had taken place with a new jargon, “Universal Health Coverage”, which was not the same as “Health for All”. This primarily envisaged that the government would pay for health services mainly through insurance schemes while the services would be provided by the private sector. This, the paper noted, would impact the health needs of the poor and women and severely weaken public health care services.

The paper on work and employment, quoting research studies, observed that there was “feminisation of unemployment” and that around two crore women had actually gone out of the labour force during 2005-10. Most women actively sought work but were unable to access it for various reasons. Most existing pieces of legislation were merely on paper, like the one on the implementation of minimum wages, or had inadequate coverage, like the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act which did not cover all workers in the unorganised sector. In addition, there was no protective legislation for home-based workers.

The conference also took note of the conservative backlash that was spawned, aided and abetted by the neoliberal reform framework where there was no apparent contradiction in the simultaneous growth of casteist, communal and patriarchal trends and values. Capitalism, the paper noted, had always felt the need to reinvent the most barbaric and retrograde forms of violence in spite of peddling the slogans of individual freedom, liberty and progress.

The conference saw the passage of 10 resolutions pertaining mainly to the national situation. Apart from the condolence resolution for Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, resolutions were passed on food security, implementation of the Sachar Committee recommendations in letter and spirit, the need for a national law against superstitions and irrational practices, attacks on women in West Bengal, a code of conduct to prevent anti-women remarks by persons in public positions, women’s unity against increasing communal polarisation, a stand-alone law on honour killing, 33 per cent reservation for women, and the immediate implementation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act.

The resolution on communal polarisation highlighted how, with the impending Lok Sabha elections and the projection of Narendra Modi as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, “a planned attempt to polarise communities on religious lines and incite violence is becoming apparent”. This was evident, the resolution noted, in many parts of the country, most recently in the horrific events of Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, where over 80 persons died and over 50,000 people belonging to the minority community were displaced. More specifically, the resolution noted that a “disturbing feature of the recent incidents of communal violence has been the manner in which the real problem of different kinds of sexual harassment faced by women and young girls is deliberately and cynically used to create and foment communal tensions and friction”.

The conference renewed its commitment to combat the neoliberal policies of the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre and the divisive communal agenda of right-wing parties. It concluded with the election of a new Central Executive Committee, which will have Jagmati Sangwan from Haryana as general secretary and Malini Bhattacharya as president.

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