The Ministry for Women has come up with what it claims is a rights-based Draft Policy for Women. Its time to cut through these stalling platitudes and calls to come up with a powerful policy against the casual, ubiquitous violence and abuse in society that curbs women in accessing what we are aware is rightfully ours
Two women Chief Ministers elected again in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu; women driving cars, flying aeroplanes, walking around in malls and the streets; semi-clad women pouting provocatively from film posters - makes it seem like women have it better in India than many other countries, but it is paradoxically and sadly not entirely true at all.
Statistics depict a different story – the male-female ratio in India continues to be lopsided, women continue to be poorly represented in almost every sphere of public life – most notably in parliament, bureaucracy, judiciary (possibly the worst) and the corporate sector.
So the need for a National Policy for Women cannot be overstated. And the Ministry of Women carved out in January 2006 from the Ministry of Human Resources Development, has come up with a 24-page Draft National Policy for Women that it wants women to respond to, so here is one.
To begin with, the claim of a ‘rights-based’ approach for the draft policy is intriguing. Given that our constitution, drawn up by the visionary Dr Ambedkar, already extends equal rights to women anyway, which has only been strengthened by additional Acts and amendments over the past 68 years, what does a rights-based policy mean?
One would expect countries like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and others, where women’s basic rights are interfered with, like of free movement and speech, implementing dress codes, banning driving, and so on, coming up with a ‘rights-based’ national policy for women.
The Indian constitution, on the other hand, clearly supports affirmative action for women. Arguably, some of our laws, like the recognition of single mothers as sole legal guardians of their children, sections of the dowry and rape laws can be seen tilted firmly towards the safeguarding of women’s interests.
So in India there exists a paradox – the snail-paced progress on health, education, safety and professional advancement of women in India, who despite supporting laws – are unable to exercise those rights to the scale and vigour they should be.
It is this gap that needs to be studied, which the policy draft does not address at all, or it does just perfunctorily. It makes out an exhaustive list of problems faced by women – a ‘laundry list’ - as Swarna Rajagopalan, founding trustee of Prajnya Trust calls it.
This is an exercise that has been undertaken before – in 2001 the HRD Ministry had also unveiled a National Policy for the Empowerment of Women - which was very similar, albeit briefer, crisper. Instead of reflecting and analysing why that policy and vision has had so little impact, this policy draft makes a substantially longer litany of crimes, adding some new ones that have evolved with new technologies, like related to cyber space and on social media platforms.
The simple fact of the matter is that women worked visibly and on equal footing with men during India’s nationalist struggle. Yet, even after 68 years since Independence women have not risen to participate, rather continue to be meagrely represented, in public and private enterprises – WHY? This is the moot question – which is not addressed in the Policy draft at all.
Rich and poor women divide
Persistent, large-scale poverty of course is one significant factor in crippling the empowerment of women. However, India is not all poor at all. In fact, the condition of women (and men) in the country today swings riotously between two extreme socio-economic rankings.
India today resembles what the two-time British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, and writer of the novel ‘Sybil’ (1845), described Victorian England scathingly:
England is two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.
For poor women in India, it is the most elementary problem of all – of survival, freedom and dignity. If she survives being murdered at the foetal stage, the chances of her being sick, starved, assaulted, trafficked over the next 16 years is high. If she survives that, she’ll be married off as early as possible, under pressure from the beginning to have children – preferably boys. If her husband forces her to have sex against her will, well too bad, she just has to bear it.
She’s probably the unpaid servant of the house while working for close to nothing in other people’s homes or fields or factories without sufficient laws to protect her. If she sees old age, it’ll be wretched, insecure and possibly abusive.
Strong social policy interventions are needed at every stage of this miserable cycle to break it.
At the other end of the spectrum, rich and middle-class women need improvements in their quality of life.
They need public spaces to be safer, they need more freedom to explore and follow their own desires and abilities. Between these extremes lie many hues of aspirations.
Addressing violence of religion, patriarchy and caste
Given such disparity is it possible to have a policy that addresses the entire spectrum of needs of Indian women?
Possibly yes, because across this expansive band hangs the thick, impenetrable, overarching fog of violence, abuse and criminality, much of it religiously sanctioned, which makes it impossible for poor, and indeed many privileged women, to rise above it.
A profoundly patriarchal society where abuse and violence are the first resort to resolving differences becomes a toxic, tyrannical combination for women, compounded manifold if she also happens to be Dalit, uneducated, differently abled, lesbian – basically vulnerable or ‘deviant’ in any way.
Women age 15-49 who have experienced physical violence since age 15 by wealth quintiles, India, 2005-2006
Source: International Institute for Population Sciences and Macro International, 2007. Graph by Sean Zheng
The fifth Priority Area in the draft policy does identify ‘Violence Against Women’ and goes on to list ten ways by which it will be tackled. It reads like a cliché that every Government release on the issue sounds like with its “holistic perspective”, “judicious combination”, “advocacy through awareness and sensitisation”, “will receive prioritised attention”.
Besides just the boring banality of the script, it treats violence against women at par with the other problems – of health, education, economy, governance, etc. that can be cured through a prescription of laws and “engaging men and boys” and “specific gender training”.
However, any policy or action that is serious about empowering women in India needs to do is to recognise and reduce threat and violence that women face – from within the family and outside it - in schools and colleges, on roads, buses and trains, in work-places, in parks ……. basically everywhere, which frightens and wears most women down – especially those who have little financial and family support – to simply withdraw rather than participate.
What women need
We don’t need more laws, we need less teasing, touching, insulting and intimidating to be able to access those laws. The Ministry can support us by coming out with a strong, zero-tolerance to violence and abuse.
This needs to be done at macro and micro levels. The Ministry needs to persistently and tirelessly follow women in riot and disaster hit states and those under the AFSPA. It needs to do everything to ensure their protection.
The Ministry and the Minister herself needs to challenge and shame states into responding faster and better to cases of assault, rape and discrimination.
But neither seems in a mood to take on these Goliaths at all.
Marital rape our Minister says is a ‘family’ matter. No matter that many of our prime ministers and chief Ministers have been single or estranged or living in rather ‘Modern Family’ style households and many of our female Chief Ministers prefer it single. But she wants to protect an idea of a family that is fast evolving in another direction.
More importantly, children from poor homes – living in tight, close quarters - are far more likely to be exposed to incidents of marital rape, and when they realise that it is not a legally recognised crime it has a deleterious effect on their understanding of body boundaries, and the law.
The recently passed, odious Juvenile Justice Act is not a law that will protect women better but one which will make children more vulnerable, unless abuse and crime is substantially reduced in society.
The draft policy – a lifeless skeleton
What is missing in the policy is a drive and commitment to change things – it is a boring duty that is being fulfilled – drawing up a skeleton with no interest at all in breathing flesh and blood into it, leave alone a spirit.
In fact, the stilted and formulaic script of the policy draft often reads like a patriarch’s hand being forced to write on gender equality. The first difficult step perhaps in trying to “wean society away from patriarchal moorings” as it says on page 21 of the draft!
No wonder. It was with utter disbelief that I saw the Hon’ble Minister smiling benignly out of the Meet the Minister page titled thus:
Maneka Sanjay Gandhi
Now it would be a perfectly acceptable display of eternal spousal or filial love if it were inscribed both ways; like for instance, some male ministers too attaching the names of their wives or mums to their name. However, it’s not so. It is Ms Gandhi and Ms Irani who feel the need to emblazon their husbands’ names on their ministerial scrolls, while thundering, or whimpering as the case may be, against patriarchy.
So what do you tell your female domestic help about the Draft Policy for Women? You say that our subcontinent is founded upon ancient traditions of entitlement, exploitation and abuse, some of us simply deserve to be on the rights side of policy and others not.
It’s called Karma. So it is beyond the purview of policy; and certainly this one by Ms Maneka Sanjay Gandhi.