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Powerfully empowered?

Empowerment alone does not seem to have solved the problems faced by women. What is needed, says MOHINI GIRI, is a change in the mindset of men, which will go a long way in redressing the balance in the gender equation.

Activists in Lucknow taking a pledge not to tolerate atrocities against women.

I HAD hoped that the past year would see tremendous changes in the grassroots empowerment of women, that the 73rd Amendment would bring a sea change in the villages of India, the health situation of women would improve, laws pertaining to women would be implemented and the 33 per cent reservation for women that we have been demanding in Parliament would become a reality.

We are citizens of a free and vibrant democracy and swear by the concept of equality; our constitution abhors discrimination in the name of sex. If that is the constitutional creed which we desire to permeate in society, how can we tolerate behaviour and action opposed to it? Theoretically we condemn it, but at the same time we practise it.

For gender justice to be really meaningful, we have to respond to the several discriminatory practices towards women and specially the girl child.

From the beginning and through the year we only heard promises and attended seminars for improving the plight of women. Recommendation after recommendation made by the National Commission for Women in 1987 fell on deaf ears and none of them were even put up to the woman's empowerment committee of Parliament.

Large sections of women are still spending their time in jails as undertrials. Trafficking among girls continues unabated and every day thousands of girls are sold in open markets by unscrupulous men. Our survey showed that young girls who have passed class 8 or 10 do not get jobs and are an easy prey to prostitution. They are trapped due to the frustration of not getting employment, by unscrupulous middlemen who offer them jobs and take them to brothels. Let us for a minute look at mental asylums. The plight of inmates is no better than the rest. It is possible for a man to get a fake doctor's certificate to prove the mental instability of his wife and get a divorce. How often do we have reviews of the mental condition of these women?

Let us also take a look at the Panchayati Raj. Has the 33 per cent reservation really helped women? With great difficulty and persuasion, 60 articulate and vibrant women sat listening to the trainers at a workshop, wanting to imbibe as much as possible for their own capacity building. Suddenly Vimla Devi's baby started screaming; she looked behind her and beckoned her husband with her eyes and asked him to take the baby out so that she could concentrate on the lecture on legal literacy that was going on. The husband Phool Singh, looked daggers at Vimla and nudged his colleague, another "Pati Pradhan" and said "If I take the child people will laugh at me and it is not the job of men to take care of the child. I've to think of my `mardangi'." Some people around the room heard these comments and in low tones discussions began. Some people in the room started saying: "Was he not ashamed at the time of siring the child that today he feels shy to pick up the child?" All the men who had accompanied their wives to the workshop supported the husband and asked the woman to take away the crying child from the room.The major hurdle faced in most workshops is the presence of men during the training period who become mocking and abusive. Hence, apart from changing the mindset of men in society, there is a need to see and train women to come to these workshops without the men. Suresh Kumari stood up during the workshop and said that if she could learn how to ride a motor bike then she would come without fear to these meetings, reflecting the women's desire to be independent and mobile. Many of these women tell their husbands to drop them and go back but it is considered a social stigma by the men to leave their wives unescorted at any place.

Women have problems attending these workshops because they have the sole responsibility of looking after not only the family but also the cattle. Ishoo Devi, a very vocal and sincere 35-year-old woman, said that after a workshop she reached home at about 8 p.m. Until then her cow Bindiya did not allow anyone to milch her. This is a problem we have faced several times during our interactions. In fact it was hilarious when one of the participants said that at the next workshop she would bring her cow along with her husband since one won't let her be on her own and the other cannot do without her.

In order to make women's role meaningful in the Panchayati Raj, we should also have a training module for men and other family members to share household chores so that a woman could really become an effective instrument of change in society. No one in the home will make an effort to allow her to perform her official functions. It suits many of the men to keep the women in a perpetual stage of ignorance. Astonishingly, in many of these workshops the women had to ask their husbands the name of the block of which they were the elected Pradhans. This is the tragic irony of grassroots democracy.

To conduct a residential training workshop for grassroots governance in backward States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is very difficult and hence we will have to develop modules of shorter duration with emphasis on one topic at a time spread across a week, which would make it easier for the women to attend. Often we have seen that women want incentives to attend these workshops. When we asked Rajwati why she wanted this kind of incentive, her answer was that if she goes back empty-handed to the village, people would laugh at her and tell her that she has been fooled by city dwellers who have not given her anything. Any incentive beyond a conveyance reimbursement seems like a bribe for education. We must find ways and means of getting the women motivated for the sake of knowledge as a means to better their performance as elected leaders.

It is increasingly evident that women have been invisible in all aspects of social existence. The 1961 census recorded bride price, not dowry, as being practised by more than 60 per cent of the population. Dowry, they said, was the main reason for killing women before birth, after birth, or after marriage. Female foeticide and infanticide have become major areas of concern. For women suffering from harassment at the work place, although the Supreme Court has issued guidelines, deep-rooted patriarchal set-ups in various offices prevent many cases of sexual harassment from being resolved. There are 13 lakh complaints of sexual harassment in the private sector in the Department of Company Affairs and if this is happening to educated, economically independent women, then one can imagine the lot of those who have not even registered their cases for fear of stigma.

The recent bill proposed by Justice Leila Seth on Property Rights of Women has to some extent given a hope to women in matters relating to inherited property. Yet very often justice is denied to women by their families. In many instances the women concerned are illiterate and therefore duped into signing away their legal rights to property. If they are aware of their rights, they are either coerced or emotionally blackmailed into giving up their share in the interest of maintaining harmonious relations with their families. Women are hampered in their quest for justice by the fact that the necessary documents relating to inherited land are often not available or withheld from them by local administrations or village panchayats, weakening their case in the lower courts.

I would like to focus on crimes against women, which are mounting day after day. It is not as if we have no Mahila Police Stations and Crimes Against Women Cells but creating them and then dragging the cases for years is not really the answer. If we go deep down into the reason for this kind of a crime, drinking comes foremost. The anti arrack agitation of Nellore district has been one of the most significant women's agitations in the last decade. Liquor emerged as a central issue that pushed household economies to the brink, in the light of the deteriorating economic situation of the poor consequent to the new economic reforms. However many more elements of change have taken place in these villages. An effective thrift programme, which is self-managed, has followed the arrack struggle. It has also been followed by effective social action by women in groups against social crimes such as the use of female child labour, child marriage, rape and other forms of violence against women, revealing that women's collective struggle against arrack has a greater and wider value than the elimination of liquor from households. Women's struggles have tended to be against policy, sometimes against development, but women have rarely been able to translate their struggles into a political platform. The anti arrack struggle proved that it can be done under certain conditions.

Women in the hilly regions of Uttar Pradesh have been agitating against men's drinking habits for several decades. They also agitated against Dabur and other Ayurveda tonics, as they contained a high percentage of alcohol. The hilly districts have been agitating for a separate State, Uttarakhand, where again women have been in the forefront. These women reveal extraordinary clarity in defining the kind of laws, economic policy and political arrangements they demand. They want full rights guaranteed over village trees, land and water. These women want 50 per cent of the places on the agencies that control forest land (Van Panchayats). They want control over the tourist industry as tourism today threatens women's security — it brings with it liquor and prostitution.

A large sector of our population is in the field of agriculture. According to Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, the renowned agricultural scientist, in many hill and remote areas of developing countries such as the Himalayan region, agriculture is largely in the hands of women, since men tend to go to towns and cities in search of salaried jobs which can augment family income. Therefore, without the total intellectual and physical participation of women, it will not be possible to popularise alternative systems of land management of shifting cultivation, arrest gene and soil erosion and promote the care of the soil and the health of economic plants and farm animals. Scientific and technological empowerment of rural women alone can usher in prosperity to them as well as the rural society. In the past, research and development institutions have unwittingly ignored this angle. The contributions of farm-women have been quantified, recorded and recognised, with the result that they have been neglected from the mainstream of development, be it research, education or extension. If we have a good grassroots networking with institutions of agriculture, we could change the lives of many women as 80 per cent of our women live in rural areas.

The only silver lining is that the year 2000-2001 saw the National Policy for Women being declared. This is certainly a very laudable step to correct the gender balance in all its dimensions. Indira Jaisingh has helped draft the Domestic Violence Bill which is yet to see the light of the day. Violence continues on daughters, sisters, domestic maids but no solution has been formed.

I wonder whether one year is sufficient for changing the mindset of centuries of patriarchy. Isn't it time that we think of empowering men towards gender justice and to become the agents of change for society? I strongly feel that we should dedicate at least a decade to changing attitudes among men and in communities and societies.

The writer is honorary chairperson and vice-president of the Guild of Service, New Delhi.

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