If women are getting more visibility today, it is partly because of the changes initiated by the UN conferences of the 1990s…

The most striking photograph of the farmers' agitation against the Yamuna Expressway last month was that of a 45-year-old woman, Rajkumari Devi (Indian Express, August 29, 2010). Captioned “Protesting Farmer, Zikarpur Village, Aligarh”, the story that accompanied the photograph described how Rajkumari, holding a lathi in her hands, sat in protest for days on end with other men and women, demanding more compensation for their lands that had been acquired for the Yamuna Expressway.

Her life was her land. “My day would start at four in the morning, feeding the cattle and then tilling the land. I would take a brief lunch break and get back to the field. It was during the evening that I finished my household chores and spent some time with my family and neighbours.” She told the reporter that she knew no other life than working in her fields, something she had done even as a child as her father was a farmer. “A farmer has no holidays. One is supposed to work everyday and all the time”, she said.

I was struck by Rajkumari's photograph and testimony for more than one reason. Her story is that of every farmer, man or woman, but her story is also that of women farmers, who are rarely acknowledged when one discusses any matter related to agriculture. Indeed, women as farmers continue to be invisible in India even though millions of them are as directly involved with agriculture as the men.

A reader wrote to me a few weeks ago and asked why I find this “women's” angle in every story. It is precisely because of stories like Rajkumari's, the invisible women who are an important part of our economy, our lives and yet their contribution is so routinely overlooked.

Her story reminded me that this month marks 15 years since the UN fourth World Conference on Women that was held in Beijing from September 4-15, 1995. It was the largest of the series of UN conferences held through the 1990s, bringing together thousands of official and non-governmental representatives from 189 countries to discuss women's rights, how to make them more visible and to strategise ways to ensure that governments legislate and formulate policies that ensure that women have the same rights as all other citizens in their countries.

I know that these days the United Nations does not have much currency. But through the 1990s, some of the important conferences that the UN convened saw the emergence of an international consensus on a number of important issues.

Significant conferences

Of these, as far as women worldwide are concerned, the two really significant meetings were the 1994 Cairo meeting on population and the Beijing conference. Cynics sometimes wonder what is achieved by these huge jamborees. But there was a time and place for them and in some respects the fruits of those efforts can be seen in the decades that followed.

The Cairo conference, for instance, established the link between population and development and between women's rights and population policies. As one of the signatories of the document that emerged from the conference, the Indian government had to look again at its reproductive health policies and discard the earlier system of incentives and disincentives that resulted in fudged data and women being penalised for being the ones who can procreate. The change in policy has, of course, not been uniformly implemented and every now and then we still hear stories about coercion. But 16 years after the conference, there is already enough evidence to show that developmental policies that deal with illiteracy, health and women's rights are a far more effective strategy to limit population growth than coercive policies such as forced sterilisation or limits on the number of children you can have.

Women's rights are a trickier issue. One of the star attractions in Beijing was Hillary Clinton, then the First Lady of the United States. She got the world's attention when she stated unequivocally that “it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights.” She said, “It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls, when women and girls are sold into slavery or prostitution for human greed. It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small, when thousands of women are raped in their own communities and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war.”

Uneven results

Of course, not all the countries present carried forward the philosophy behind this slogan in their policies post-Beijing. Women continue to be denied basic rights in many societies including India. Violence against women in the home and outside continues in all our societies. While we hear little today about violence at home, including dowry torture and deaths, statistics establish that women are far more prone to assault within the home than outside it.

So was the rhetoric, the declarations, the Platform for Action adopted at Beijing worth anything more than the paper on which they were written?

I personally think they were. What Beijing did was to reiterate standards that are universal within the rights context. It laid out violations of women's rights that were unacceptable. And it urged governments to legislate and enact policies that would make these rights a reality. It also gave civil society actors around the world a handle that was useful for advocacy for change of policy within their countries.

What does any of this have to do with Rajkumari from Zikarpur village? A great deal. Conferences like the one in Beijing set in motion campaigns and changes that were aimed at ending the invisibility of women like Rajkumari. If today we can see her proud face in our newspapers, and recognise that she too is an Indian farmer, then a small step towards ending her invisibility has been taken.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com