Activists raise concern over the stereotyping of women as ‘victims’ instead of addressing vital issues in a policy draft for women put out by the Maharashtra government

Even as Maharashtra took the seemingly progressive step of launching the third women’s policy draft in March this year, activists across the State have raised concerns about the government’s ‘victimhood’ approach, while ignoring the reasons of poverty, patriarchy and power dimensions as the root cause of women’s issues.

Women’s organisations from various parts of the State have taken objection to the portrayal of women across the policy document that allegedly reinforces gender stereotypes.

Stating that the policy does not address the larger issues that lead to women’s suffering, activist Kiran Moghe of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) said, “It does not recognise women’s exploitation as a larger structural or systemic issue. The State continues to see women’s issues as ‘women’s problems’. An issue observed across the policy is that of referring to women as victims or pidit. The policy document typifies women as needy of welfare. So women are portrayed as victims and thus deserving of a piece in the development pie.” Coming together under the network of Stree Mukti Andolan Samparka Samiti, Ms. Moghe and representatives of other organisations have sent recommendations to the State’s Ministry of Women and Child Development.

The policy is silent on the more pressing needs of the State, Medha Kale, a member of the network said. “For example, it is non committal on the reinstating of the women’s commission and its democratic functioning.” The post has been lying vacant for the last four years, and reportedly mired in political debate between the ruling Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress alliance in the State.

Explaining a contentious example, Sneha Gole another member of the network, stated that the policy uses the term “adult unmarried women” (praudh kumarika) for schemes meant for older women. “The assumption here is that all women have to be married by a certain age and those who cross that age would be referred to as adult unmarried women. So here we still function within the framework of family and marriage as the final goals to be achieved for women. Anything outside of the family framework is treated as a problem to be addressed.”

Stating that the policy fails to set a context for the State, Seema Kulkarni of the Samiti said, “Firstly the policy comes across as a standalone document with no forward or backward linkages. It does not take stock of the achievements of the past policies and neither does it mention the gender indicators which it wants to improve upon.”

Another complaint is that the objectives of the policy are very general and do not respond to the changing contexts and the current situation of women. “It does not refer to any current data on women at the State level, for example, increasing caste violence, informalisation of labour in agriculture and otherwise, lowered sex ratio, honour killings, conditions of waste-pickers, sex workers, etc. Thus a very generic understanding of women’s concerns would lead to providing generic solutions,” Ms. Kulkarni said.

The policy states that 10 per cent of the funds will be allocated from the revenue that accrues to the State. Disagreeing with the manner of allocations, Ms. Moghe said, “The section on gender budget shows a rather limited understanding of what gender budgeting is all about. Besides 10 per cent is an ad hoc figure. Ideally it should have stated a very broad ball park figure of some 30 per cent or so, since the State would need to prepare a budget based on the policy statement that it has prepared.”

Medha Kale of Tathapi stated that women’s right to health as an individual in her own right and not simply as a mother, wife or daughter is not recognised in the policy. “The present policy however states the importance of women’s health more because it impacts the health of the child and the society at large.” Ms. Kale also underlined this as the reason why there is no mention of the social determinants of women's health: poverty, caste, patriarchy as leading to poor nutrition, lack of access to medical care, etc in this section.

She believes that by putting forth “hollow” promises such as a counselling centre per public health centre or every district will have a women’s hospital, the policy or the State absolves itself of providing basic primary health care for all. “It shows disconnect with the ground reality wherein there are no well-functioning PHCs themselves or not stocked with basic medicines — iron and calcium for example for women. Rather than sensationalising the policy by giving everything “women special” there is a need for a more rational and sensitive health service in the State with focus on women, Dalits, tribals and other socially and economically discriminated sections,” she said.

Swati Kamble of the International Alliance for Dalit Women’s Rights stated that the policy disregards issues of diversity, historical injustice on oppressed social groups. “The historically oppressed social groups, the Dalits, the ‘former lowest castes’ and constitutionally termed as Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), Nomadic Tribe (NT) and De-notified Tribe (DNT) women are sidelined if not fully ignored,” she has said, in a letter to the State’s Women and Child Development Minister, Varsha Gaikwad. Stating that the policy mentions no provision for the socio-economic upliftment of Dalit women, the letter says: “We strongly recommend that a Adivasi and SC (Arthik) Vikas Mahamandal (Tribal and Scheduled Castes economic welfare board) be proposed in the present policy draft, to improve socio-economic status of tribal and SC women and to uplift them to the level of socio-economically developed women.”

“Most importantly the policy misses the point of the denial of constitutional right to political participation of women. Therefore, we recommend that political reservation for women and within it proportional reservation for SC, ST, NT and DNT women should be included in this policy document,” Ms. Kamble stated.

As reported by The Hindu earlier, although the women’s policy draft includes transgenders, it suggests ‘preventive measures’ for stopping people from being transgender. It suggests that this can be done through monitoring pregnant mothers and hormonal levels, a measure that activists and psychiatrists have slammed. A member of an organisation for sex workers and transgenders stated that the policy shows a lack of sensitivity and understanding of the issue. “One of the reasons cited for being a transgender is “under too much influence of women” or the reason for being transgender as a ‘distortion’, which reflects the level of empathy among the government for people's choices,” she said.

The policy draft was kept open to the public for two months — till May 8 — since the launch. This week, women’s organisations across the State will be sending their recommendations to the Ministry with the hope that the State recognises the roots and reasons of women’s issues, and through that the importance of women themselves.