People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Vol. XXX

No. 05

January 29, 2006

Achieving Gender Equality-An Unfinished Agenda


Sudha Sundararaman


THE last session of Parliament was witness, yet again, to the reluctance of the mainstream political parties, barring the Left, to place and pass the Women’s Reservation Bill. The BJP’s contribution to the scuttling of the Bill was a shameful turnaround of its earlier endorsement, thereby emboldening other parties’ withdrawal as well. Yet again, attempts at a ‘consensus’, that is, dilution and subversion, about the Bill has become the slogan, in contravention of the fact that all bourgeois political parties had endorsed it in their election manifestos and electoral promises.


Why this vacillation and prevarication? Though the arguments vary, essentially the opposition arises from social conservatism and a patriarchal ideology that refuses to accept women as sharers of political power. Even today, 56 years after the Sovereign Democratic Republic was formed, the weakness of a democracy in which the highest decision-making bodies have less than 10 per cent women is a reflection of the yawning gap between rhetoric and reality. Despite the Constitutional guarantees to gender equality, in practice women continue to occupy a subordinate position. The struggle for more equitable political representation for women is thus actually part of a larger struggle towards a true democratisation of the State and the social polity.


This struggle requires that women entering the political representative system must not be co-opted into the prevailing system, but must rather question and challenge the status quo. In panchayats where elected women have been most successful, they have changed behavioural norms, challenged fatwas, overcome family resistance and bureaucratic non-cooperation, and have succeeded in making water and sanitation facilities widely accessible. Of course, there are still innumerable instances of benami elected women, but with a little bit of support and training, women are learning to get over the panchpati syndrome.


Clearly, the space for political action, when utilized, also leads to an expansion in the social and public space occupied by women. It has been the Left’s position that women’s efforts to radicalize the Indian political space can only be given adequate impetus by a Women’s Reservation Bill that does not compromise with the forces of status quoism.


Historically, what has been the experience of women in their struggles for social justice vis-a-vis the State? On what issues have activists come together to make common cause for the sake of women’s rights. The principles of gender equality and justice enshrined in the Constitution were achieved through struggle and sacrifice, and it was an entitlement gained by women through their extensive participation in the Freedom Movement. In later years, however, this promise was left unfulfilled, and women’s issues were marginalised by the state through a welfarist approach. The women who had taken to the streets with flags in their hands, found themselves forced back into the household with belans and jhadhoos instead, as the State connived with prevalent social conservatism to renege on the promise of equality.


As the Status of Women in India Report of 1975 demonstrated, in almost all walks of life education, health, employment, discrimination against women was rampant. From top-sided sex ratios at all stages of life (produced by the ‘customs’ of dowry, polygamy and child marriage) to discriminatory legal frameworks and a general neglect of the economic and social contribution of women, the Report underlined how a fundamental inequality was rooted in social structures, and was being exacerbated by the path of development being pursued. Ironically, the Report was published during a period in which the democratic aspirations of the people were under direct assault, and Emergency was declared by a woman Prime Minister.


The struggle against the Emergency was another instance of people uniting as a whole to fight for and reclaim the political space; women too played a role in this resistance. The anti-Emergency movements saw the rise of many new women’s groups, who not only protested against authoritarianism, but also mobilised women against crimes against women, rape, dowry deaths, population control, State-sponsored violence, etc. bringing pressure upon the State, and making important gains such as legal reforms in the rape law and the anti-dowry Act. In these processes of mass organisation and struggle, women activists came to explore and make significant socio-historical linkages about the source of women’s oppression.


No critique of dowry related violence, for example, could be complete without studying the linkages between caste-related customs, denial of property rights, wider socio-economic changes, and increasing consumerism. Sex-selective abortions cannot be arrested without looking at the commercialisation of the medical fraternity, the secondary economic status of women, the prevailing son preference traditions, the sharp increase in dowry and the perception of women as a burden, and the State-sponsored coercive population policy. These were lessons drawn from work on the ground.


By the 1980s, many women’s organisations started coming together to address macro policies of the government from a perspective that integrated gender with class and caste. In this period, the women’s movement exposed the character of gender- based exploitation — women’s work was defined as light work, thereby being accorded a lower wage rate — and raised demands relating to the labour and land rights of agricultural women. Also, in this decade, the right to maintenance of Muslim women proved to be a flash point, and the adoption of the retrograde Muslim Women’s Protection Act ushered in a new era of unprecedented mobilisation on communal issues.


The communalisation of society, the riots targeting minority women, the lack of safety was addressed by the joint women’s movement at a time when not even the government came forward to protect the minorities. Although rosy ideas about ‘sisterhood’ were challenged by evidence that women from majority communities were guilty of fanaticism and communal hatred, the knowledge directly contributed to a greater politicisation of the movement. In particular, awareness of the specific nature of some forms of oppression led to a greater diversification of the movement and by the 1990s, issues confronting Dalit and tribal women, and women from the minorities, were sought to be highlighted by the mainstream movement.


While the struggle for an adequate response from the State to the demands of Indian women, be it for reservation in Parliament, water, land, or against violence and discrimination’ will go on, the women’s movement is all too aware of the pervasive threat that neo-liberal globalisation poses for its aspirations, indeed for the very survival of democracy in developing countries. The assault is multi-faceted. As inequality grows, women who are already amongst the marginalised are further impoverished, leading to the feminisation of poverty. Women’s employment now lies mostly in the unorganized sector, and particularly in home-based work, which entails a greater work burden on women, for lower returns. Combined with anti-farmer policies in agriculture, neo liberal policies have engineered an agrarian crisis of unimaginable proportions. Women in large numbers now migrate in search of work, and are made more vulnerable to exploitation, as the reported increase in the trafficking and sale of girls from poor rural areas demonstrate. Even the apparent increase in employment in some sectors is offset by the lack of any kind of labour rights, and an increased vulnerability to sexual harassment and violence, as in the case of the call-center employee in Bangalore shows.


The state’s withdrawal from many areas crucial to women’s lives like education, health, social sector, and the policy changes dictated by World Bank International Monetary (WB-IMF) that undermine the Public Distribution System (PDS) and the food security fall backs threaten women’s survival. Their daily lives are rendered more labour intensive as drinking water gets privatised and fuel and fodder costs zoom up.


While immiserisation does lead to violent protest, the gap between aspirations and reality can also become fertile breeding ground for the rise of Right-wing traditionalist mobilizations on the one hand, or extremist terrorism on the other. Rather than identify the real causes for growing inequality, such groups locate the enemy from within communities, and are particularly hostile to women’s emancipation. Operating in the name of religion, ethnic or caste identity, or tradition, these movements seek to thrust women back into the private confines of the household, in the process entrenching patriarchal ideologies, including violence, as a means of confining women. Although declining income forces an accommodation with women leaving the home for work, women end up bearing double or triple burdens, and are unable to participate in union activity because of the constant demands of domestic work and child care. Lack of social sanction for outside home activity is often compounded by the threat of violence (especially after alcohol consumption) sexual abuse, bride burning and abetted suicides. While women are contending with these combined forms of oppression, another front of the violation of their rights has opened up. In this era of globalisation, the technology revolution has created access to information as never before, but also limitless possibilities for the commodification of women through pornography and sexual titillation. The forces of the new imperialist conquest are armed not with guns, but with the power of mind control through the promotion of false aspirations and consumerism. In this world, the empowerment of women is represented as an individual choice, in order to counter the collective struggle for social justice. How many women are really free in our society to make such choices, away from caste, community, class, or family? Even women from the privileged sections make their choice within not so obvious parameters.


To meet these challenges, the movement for social change has to build on the resilience and resistance of women and their collective strength. The stereotype of the submissive docile creature has to be replaced by the thinker and actor, of the ‘real woman’ of today who competently performs many roles, who challenges the myth of women’s inability and dependence on others the woman in the literacy campaign, in the joint struggle for the rights to land, work, life and social justice. In short, the woman who stands for an alternate culture in which men and women are truly partners.


Today, the defence of democratic entitlements is a battle that has to be fought on many fronts. If women’s interests are not mainstreamed, and if women do not become partners in the struggle, it will be impossible at the current historical juncture to take on the forces that are antagonistic to democratic processes of development. It is imperative that the agenda for change should consciously and explicitly include gender issues, thus together challenging the status quo and altering the trajectory of development.