People's Democracy

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


No. 11

March 14, 2010

AIDWA Organises National Convention of Young Women


Subhashini Ali


THE Senate Hall of the Bengaluru University was filled to overflowing in the morning of March 4.  A large majority of the faces were those of young women from different parts of the country, coming from a wide range of communities and classes but united in their sense of hope and excitement.  They had come to participate in the �National Convention of Young Women:  The Right to Choice� organised by the All India Democratic Women�s Association and they were sure that issues dear to their hearts, their dreams and their fears would all find expression in the course of the day.


AIDWA had taken a decision a few years ago to organise state and district conventions of young women to listen to their concerns and aspirations.  While Delhi and Haryana organised state-level conventions, district-level conventions were held in some of the other states.  At the same time, AIDWA units across the country were dealing with more and more cases involving young women � cases of acid attacks, attacks in the name of �honour�, attacks seeking to enforce dress codes, cases of rape and gang-rape etc. The Tamilnadu state unit organised a series of district conventions of single women culminating in a state convention and it was found that a large number of these women were very young � widows, divorcees, abandoned women etc.  Many young girls who had been married very young, others whose education had been forcibly stopped and many others who had had their rights infringed upon in one way or the other were also coming to AIDWA for support.  It was very apparent that the right of choice, enshrined in the constitution and guaranteed to all citizens above the age of 18, were being denied to vast sections of young women and girls. 


It was in the light of these experiences that the decision to hold the national convention was taken and Bengaluru was selected as the venue because of the fact that while it was seen as a modern city promising young women careers and lives of their own choosing it was also home to regressive, Hindutva forces who were determined to impose their own social norms on young women in the city.


The Karnataka state committee and Bengaluru district committee of AIDWA enthusiastically welcomed the decision and worked very hard to make the convention a great success.


On March 4, the inaugural session of the convention was introduced by Lakshmi, state president, AIDWA who said that this was the beginning of the observation of the Centenary Year of International Women�s Day.  The chairman of the reception committee, Dr Basavaraj Kalgudi, a professor with an extremely progressive outlook who has written extensively on social reform and gender-issues, welcomed all the delegates and said that when the country became independent, the language of most women in India was the language of silence.  While changes had taken place, the diverse and assertive voices of women were still not being heard and, in fact, regressive forces who felt threatened by social and gender equality, were determined to silence these voices once again.  He referred to the hooliganism of the Sri Rama Sene in Karnataka who had recently attacked AIDWA leader, Vimala, and said that the BJP government was actually complicit in this.


The convention was formally inaugurated by well-know film actor, Suhasini Maniratnam, who is recognised for her commitment to social causes especially those connected with the rights of women.  After releasing the report on the findings of the AIDWA survey of young women that had been carried out in 13 states, interviewing 2,450 respondents, she made a spirited speech which she began by thanking her mother for allowing her to live since she was the third daughter born to her in a district in Tamilnadu infamous for female foeticide.  She spoke about the fears and insecurity that all women, even those who are independent and successful, carry within them and the social conditions responsible for this.  Suhasini concluded by saying that while there should be anger against atrocities and injustice, there should also be an effort to help women attain happiness in their lives and, as an illustration of how this could be done, she sang songs in Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada that were joyful and enthusing for women! 


Subhashini Ali, president AIDWA, then presented a brief summary of the findings of the survey report. 

Sudha Sundararaman, general secretary, AIDWA gave the vote of thanks and concluded the inaugural session with a call for young women�s conventions to be organised in all the states.


The first session �Crimes of Honour�, was an extremely moving and inspiring one.  Shilpa, a young woman from Haryana, who had married a young man eight months back recounted the horrors that had been inflicted by the self-appointed caste panchayat of her husband�s village.  The panchayat issued a fatwa that since the couple belonged to the same sub-caste, the marriage was hereby annulled and they would now be brother and sister to each other.  Shilpa and her husband refused to accept this and they were supported by their families.  The panchayat then exiled her in-laws from their village.  Her husband in a fit of desperation swallowed poison in front of the panchayat but was, fortunately, saved.  Then villagers from 13 surrounding villages collected and stoned Shilpa, her husband and his family members and their home in the presence of the police.  Then the beleaguered family approached the High Court which ordered the Haryana police to arrest 12 panchayat members if they did not rescind their decisions.  The panchayat then changed its decision to one of exiling Shilpa�s father-in-law to 3 months� exile and one whiplash for each family member.  Now Shilpa is forced to live in Delhi with her husband while her in-laws live in the village.  Their security has been withdrawn and they are all fearful for their lives but Shilpa says that because of the support of AIDWA she is determined to continue her struggle.  Concluding her speech, she asked the audience � How long will these self-styled community leaders continue to dictate to us and how long will political leaders, who are free to marry as they like, as often as they like, continue to allow them to violate the law?


Sushma Pradhan, a young woman from Uttar Pradesh who was born and brought up in Mumbai related her story with incredible dignity and courage.  She said that she belonged to a Brahmin family but had married a Malyali boy whom she loved.  Eight months after their marriage, when she was expecting their first child, her brother brutally killed her husband, his father, his younger brother and his friend.  She said that had it not been for AIDWA she would not have been able to survive the tragedy, bring her daughter into the world and fight for justice.  She said that the Sessions Court and High Court in Maharashtra had sentenced her brother to death but the Supreme Court had reduced his sentence to life imprisonment.  She said that the Supreme Court judges had opined that when an upper caste woman married someone from a lower caste, her family members, especially brothers, often react emotionally and spontaneously to what they believe is an affront to their prestige.  Sushma said � how can they call a cold-blooded, planned murder a spontaneous, emotional reaction?  How can they reduce his sentence and set him free in a few years without asking me how I am faring?  I have lost my husband, I have no family, I have to bring up a little girl by myself.  Have they bothered to understand what I am going through?  Had it not been for AIDWA, I would not have been alive today.


Jagmati, AIDWA assistant secretary, concluded the session.  She placed honour crimes in their social context and said that self-choice marriages must be seen as a very important aspect of the struggle against caste, class and gender oppression.  They threaten hierarchies and take forward the struggle for equality and that is why they arouse such violent opposition.  But if organisations like AIDWA intervene effectively, this opposition can be made to crumble.  She also said that AIDWA was finalising a draft law to deal with all aspects of this crime.


The second session was �Voices from Different States�.  Saumya, a young tribal woman from Kerala, spoke about her life of poverty and deprivation and said that it was only when the Left Front gave her family a small plot of land that they were able to improve their living standards.  She had been able to study only till the XII but had written many short stories about tribal life that had been published and she was now working on a novel.  She said that she wanted to continue her studies so that she could teach poor children, specially children who suffered at the hands of alcoholic family members.  A minor Muslim rape victim from Uttar Pradesh sent her statement to the convention in which she said that at the age of 12 she, the daughter of a poor, rag-picker, had been gang-raped by rich and powerful young men, one of whom was the nephew of a Samajwadi Party MLC.  Since this occurred when the SP was in power, even the Women�s Commission tried to hush up the case.  It was only when AIDWA intervened that the case was filed.  Now two of the culprits had been arrested and the case was continuing.  AIDWA had helped her get admission in a boarding-school and she was determined to study and become a lawyer so that she could help others fight for justice.  Valentina from Tamilnadu had been the victim of an acid attack when she was only 14 when a young man who stalked her and was trying to force her to marry him was rejected by her.  He threw acid on her and her parents and they had to be hospitalised for four months.  She had to undergo a series of operations.  While the incident took place in 1996, the court sentenced the perpetrator to ten years imprisonment only in 2008.  The court also directed the state government to give her a job which has not happened till today.  She said that she is an MSc but when she goes for a job interview, no one looks at her certificates, they only look at her face and reject her.  In 2008, Valentina came in touch with AIDWA and she says that she has become so self-confident after that that she is no longer afraid to go out of her house and also speak in public.  Padma, a lawyer from Andhra Pradesh, spoke about her work dealing with cases, especially of domestic violence and said that governments are not serious about implementing the law.  Saraswati Tudu, a tribal elected panchayat member from West Midnapur, a Maoist-effected area, spoke about the political violence that poor tribals especially women, girls and children have to face.  She said that it is these women and children who are left most vulnerable when the men are driven out of their villages and they are the ones who are also used as �human shields� by the Maoists.  Sunita, a slum-dweller from Rajasthan said that she was a nine year old fifth class student when she was married to a drunkard, 15 years older than herself.  Her studies were discontinued and  she was hidden under a veil, confined to domestic drudgery.  She said that she had been raped by her husband when she was only 11 and became a mother at 13.  She had seven children in ten years and lost two of them.  When her eldest daughter was being removed from school, she came away with her family to Jaipur where she had to change homes all the time finally ending up in a slum which was soon demolished.  She met a CPI(M) leader who helped her with her struggle for re-habilitation and came in touch with AIDWA.  Now she has become an activist and is sending all her children to school.  Her husband has had to stop beating her.  She has now gone back to school herself and got 64 out of 100 in her last exam.  She assured the audience that she would definitely get more than 80 per cent in her XII next year!

The last speaker was a devadasi from Karnataka, Durgamma.  She said that when she was seven, her poor, dalit parents made her a devadasi.  When she attained puberty, a married man with children entered into a relationship with her and she decided to make this a permanent relationship and, she said, she was fortunate that he was �better than other men and agreed�.  She said that other devadasis were not so lucky.  After their first relationship, they became the prey of anyone and everyone and led lives of degradation, oppression and poverty.  She said that three years ago she came in contact with AIDWA during a campaign against the devadasi practice and she joined the campaign.  She said that in these three years, no new devadasi had been consecrated to �the gods� in her area.


Gouramma, AIDWA leader from Karnataka, thanked all the participants and all those who had helped in making the convention a success.  Subhashini Ali concluded the programme and called upon the participants and AIDWA leaders and activists to ensure that young women came into the organisation in large numbers.  This could only happen if AIDWA lived upto their expectations of campaigning for their rights.  By doing this, the organisation itself would be rejuvenated and strengthened.