A judgment for women’s rights

Economic agency is one of the most enabling elements to release women from oppression, violence and powerlessness.

February 15, 2016 01:03 am | Updated 01:19 am IST

"Economic agency or a livelihood is a critical requirement for self-affirmation.” File photo shows women carrying tea leaves in Guwahati in Assam. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

"Economic agency or a livelihood is a critical requirement for self-affirmation.” File photo shows women carrying tea leaves in Guwahati in Assam. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

A Supreme Court Bench has once again proved that our judiciary can be the torchbearer of progressive attitudes towards women.

In 2013, the Justice J.S. Verma Committee, while responding to the horrific December 16, 2012 gang rape in Delhi, prepared a report that drew from the observations of members of the women’s movement among other sources. The report was heralded as one of the most comprehensive reports not only in India but in the world.

The judgment The latest evidence of such progressive and informed thinking is a directive given to the Chhattisgarh government by a Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices A.K. Sikri and A.M. Sapre. The Bench directed the State government to appoint a woman Excise Sub Inspector as Deputy Superintendent of Police after granting her relief in the upper age limit.

Richa Mishra’s name was not included in the list of successful candidates for the post as she had crossed the age limit stipulated for the same. As per the Chhattisgarh Police Executive (Gazetted) Service Recruitment and Promotion Rules, 2000, the upper age limit for appointment to the post of Deputy Superintendent of Police is 25 years and Ms. Mishra had already crossed that age.

But the judges overruled this proposition by referring to another rule which was quoted by Ms. Mishra in the court: age relaxation as per Rule 8 of the Rules, 2000 which states, “there shall be age relaxation of ten years for women candidates for direct appointment in all posts in the services under the State in addition to the upper age limit prescribed in any service rules or executive instructions”.

The judges said: “It is to encourage women, hitherto known as weaker section, to become working women, by taking up different vocations, including public employment. It would naturally lead to empowerment of women, which is the need of the hour… Empowerment of women… is perceived as equipping them to be economically independent, self-reliant, with positive esteem to enable them to face any situation and they should be able to participate in the development activities.”

Message of the women's movement For decades, the women’s movement has been underlining many important aspects of women’s role in the economy, as was outstandingly articulated in ‘Towards Equality: report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India’ in 1975. The movement has been highlighting the need to recognise the vital, if invisible and uncounted, role which women play in the economy and argues for their recognition in policy, data collection and programme design. It has been emphasising that economic agency or a livelihood is a critical requirement for self-affirmation. It also emphasises that economic power within and outside the household makes a difference to gender relations.

We see these thoughts resonating in this judgment which says that the agency, freedom and intra-household power of women are strengthened when women are given an economic value; when they are enabled to hold a position in the economy through employment. And by relating women’s economic empowerment to their ability to access, contribute to and direct economic development, the judges further expand on the value of their order. They state: “There is a bidirectional relationship between economic development and women’s empowerment, defined as improving the ability of women to access the constituents of development — in particular health, education, earning opportunities, rights, and political participation”.

Scholars who have explored and studied women’s work, especially among the poorest in the most marginalised locales and communities, have been highlighting the importance of recognising women’s work, the importance of women as economic agents. These include those who try and understand self-employed working women and those whose work focuses on revealing the value that women bring to agriculture, food production, and the handicaps they suffer from lack of recognition. Further, activists have been detailing how women organise themselves to escape from various types of bondage, exclusion and exploitation.

During the preparation of the 11th Five Year Plan, women scholars highlighted the kinds of changes that were required to be initiated in the development, design and allocation of funding in the Plan if women’s roles in the economy were to be taken into account.

All this affirms what the judges said: economic agency is one of the most enabling elements to shift gender relations of power, to release women from the kind of oppression, violence and powerlessness that they experience. Women’s inclusion in the development design would enhance the outcomes of development it the self.

The message in this 38-page verdict does more than simply allow Richa Mishra to get her posting. It is an advisory to all the Departments of States at all levels, to Ministries, to Niti Aayog and its State-level counterparts, as well as to research and policy forums about the importance of women in the economy.

(Devaki Jain is an economist and founder of the Institute of Social Studies Trust, New Delhi.)

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