A lesson from Kutch about empowerment.

Two weeks ago I had predicted that the wasted Monsoon session of Parliament would do no work at all. I was wrong. Apparently, it managed to do some work. At the very last minute, before our worthy Members of Parliament headed back to their homes, they passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill 2012.

Two cheers for that. But only two. Because although the Bill was passed, the MPs did not invest any time in discussing or debating a law that will impact the lives of millions of women. If they had, even for a short time, perhaps some of the lacunae in an otherwise good law could have been noticed and perhaps modified — such as excluding women agricultural workers or women in the armed forces and paramilitary forces. Fortunately, women domestic workers are now included, a change made in response to vigorous advocacy by several groups.

Also, if the law had been debated, the media would have paid some attention. When the media joins the debate, people learn about the law — not just its name but what it stands for. Knowledge about a law, what it can and cannot do, what kind of rights it gives the citizen, constitutes more than half the challenge of ensuring that it is implemented.

I saw first hand how such knowledge can truly “empower” women, even the poorest and the unlettered. In the stark, dry and tough terrain of Kutch, India’s second largest district, you need perseverance and resilience to get through the daily travails of life. It rains but rarely. Every other year is a drought year. Cattle die; the one crop that the poor soil could yield fails. And basic services such as health care, education and legal help are as sparsely scattered as the dry-land vegetation.

Beautiful spirit

But then you meet the women. And you stop short. For they are strong, they are beautiful and they know how to fight. Since 1989, the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) has been working with the women of Kutch, listening to their stories, understanding their lives, and working with them to resolve their problems. Water, fodder and land — these were the priorities in an environment where the existence of entire communities is linked to the state of the natural resource base.

Divert grasslands that have supported cattle stocks for generations to other uses, such as industry, and you destroy the lives of millions of people. Set up thermal power stations and industries along the coast, and you force people who have lived off the fish they catch from these waters into penury. This “developmental” reality is destroying not just the natural environment of Kutch but with it the lives of those who depend upon it.

An equally tough environment is the social one, something the women must face. Here some women are not permitted to step out beyond their villages, girls are still not educated, and alcohol — in a state where it is officially banned — wreaks havoc on the lives of many families.

How do you teach the women who live in this environment about their rights, as citizens, as women? Is it even possible for women who have rarely stepped beyond the boundaries of their villages to have the courage to step into a police station?

One of the many interesting interventions of KMVS is to give women para-legal training. They learn about the law, especially those concerning women, they understand the structure of the police and of the judiciary, and they are taught the steps that any person can take in the process of enforcing the law of the land. At the end of the training, they receive a certificate from the Indian Institute of Paralegal Studies and an identity card.

For many of these women, the card has made a world of a difference. Where earlier the police would have paid no attention to them, now they are able to go to police stations with confidence to register an FIR and read the Riot Act if the police resist or drag their feet.

“Sometimes we have to sit in the police station till 10 at night to get the FIR registered,” says Devalben, a Ghadvi woman from a village near the port of Mundra, who was denied an education but has managed to educate both her daughters. Another woman says, “Now the police call us. Earlier they made fun of us.”

Says Devalben, “In a rape case, we didn’t know what to do. Police would say, ‘Where’s the proof this is a rape, take the woman to the doctor.’ The doctor would say, ‘This is a police case.’ The police would make us run around. Now this does not happen.”

It is a small beginning but holds out an important lesson. Teach a woman how to use the law, and the law might just protect her. Leave her ignorant, and you might as well not have a law.

sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com

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