THE PRAJNYA 16 DAYS CAMPAIGN PUBLIC LECTURE 2009
Empowerment, Equity and Freedom from Violence
Dr. Jaya Arunachalam
President, Working Women's Forum (India)
Thank you for giving me this opportunity and especially Ms. Swarna Rajagopalan for inviting me to deliver the public lecture on the significance of empowerment, equity and freedom from violence.
We in Working Women’s Forum (India) (WWF) focus on the empowerment of grassroots women through various programmes/activities. To put the activities of Working Women's Forum concisely, I would like to trace back the three decades of our work. Initiated in 1978 with 800 women, it has today grown into a social movement comprising of 12,00,000 women in three southern states in 14 branches.
We feel very gratified in our endeavour of mobilising / empowering and advocating poor women, making micro-credit as point of entry through our banking outfit i.e. Indian Co-operative Network for Women and also bringing in micro insurance and other welfare measures to benefit grassroots women. Besides, the trade union wing i.e. National Union of Working Women helps women to fight for land, labour, housing, human right violations such as female infanticide, child prostitution and child labour that affects women on a daily basis.
While focusing on the topic Violence against women, it is the most degrading aspect of treating women as inferior beings. Such violence manifests in the form of rape, dowry deaths and discrimination - the worst of them being domestic violence that occurs on a day-to-day basis. Most of these are planned atrocities affecting the dignity of women. This makes us realise that this is just to keep women in perpetual subordination, confining her within the four walls of the house and making her remain closed to the world. Condoning or ignoring such atrocities by states/societies (as often as it happens) as unimportant domestic incidence, instills not only insecurity in the minds of women but also creates permanent stumbling blocks to women’s progress in general.
Well, the story of dependence of women is as ancient as the days of ‘Manu’, the great Indian law maker, who had laid down the stringent law of Hindu social order. This great personality had to his credit a kind of codification of the unwritten ancient Hindu customs as law and has forewarned women. According to this, women are not eligible for any freedom. Pita rakshati gaumare, bhartho rakshati yauvene, viruthyena putro rakshati, na stree swadantriya arhathi”(i.e.) her father protects her in childhood, her husband protects her in youth and her son protects her in old age, a woman is never for independence.
Unfortunately, such customary laws cannot be ignored as mere fiction of a bygone era. Even today, many of these laws are alive as horrors that continue to haunt the lives of many women in several remote areas of our country making them lesser equals and dependent.
Thus violence against women is a cultural pattern in which women had no dignified place or respect as human beings. According to many religions, not only in Hinduism, women are considered and treated as objects of pleasure and not as an intellectual or rational being. This prejudice has in fact been the basis of sexual subjugation paving the way for the exploitation of women. Brainwashed by such patriarchal values for centuries, unfortunately our women too perceived that their virtue lay in being subservient, an ideal wife, a role model of socio-cultural and stereotypes of gender subordination. Thus, this is the story of women losing their identity, denied their existence as multi-faceted personalities, talents thwarted, capabilities ignored and initiatives suppressed that continues as an extension of their male counterparts.
Later with the passing of time, atrocities against women took several forms such as obsession, hatred and repugnance against girl children. This is prevalent even today among caste and class of Indian society. Thus, female feticide, child prostitution are all one side of the same coin.
Prejudice in many rural communities against girl children does not end with the killing of unborn female child in the mother’s womb. In many families, it ends up in the mortality of these female children being questioned owing to tradition bound Male Child Syndrome of the parents. In many areas the girl children is denied proper nutrition, medical care, equal opportunities or even honoured existence in the world. Taking away the rights of human species in those communities, every female child born is continuously blamed, accused and thought of as a drain in the family and therefore they have no right to exist. The irony remains that the perpetrators of such crimes are not strangers but the victim’s own family and friends.
It will be surprising that child marriages still occur, yet another atrocity practiced on very young female children denying them even their normal basic childhood. It is a practice followed in semi-tribal families in states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and eastern Uttar Pradesh. What is worse is that as these children grow up, they lose track of their partner. Parents then arrange for a second marriage, ‘Nutra’, where a huge bride price is collected from the bridegroom. This is a practice that exploits the female children, as the same girl is offered to several bridegrooms for a huge sum.
The Devadasi system is a sheer exploitative practice of dedicating female children in the service of God, who later end up as prostitutes. This is a common phenomenon in some parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Despite a legal ban, such degenerated, oppressive and exploitative customs continue to flourish in the name of culture/tradition even in our modern democratic set up. Such customs condemning hundreds of young girls to a life of poverty, sexual exploitation and misery is reflective of the incompetence of the legal systems and the lack of political will. With such indifferences in communities, a revolution and change process in our societies seems distant and remote.
The burden of dowry in modern India has made many parents transact their daughters as business objects under the guise of marriage. In poorer families, the girl, sold for a price, often becomes a victim of beggary or prostitution. We are not forgetting the stories of brides, often appearing in the news everyday for being burnt for not complying with repeated demands of dowry. Dowry is not a one-time practice but the burden is carried throughout the lifetime of the bride. All of us are aware that women are going down statistically in the sex ratio. The valid reason is nothing but the result of atrocities on women and female children. Even in the 1980’s, India witnessed the occurrence of ‘Sati’ in Rajasthan.
We should not forget to mention the worst form of violence against women that manifests in the forms of rape and sexual harassment. Such violations cause both mental and physical torture, leaving the victims scarred. Often, the victims do not opt for legal recourse. As the onus of proving is on her and fearing public dishonour, these victims often leave offenders scot-free. But even in the case of few who take legal recourse, it is a prolonged legal process aggravating the pain and suffering of these victims. With an appalling rate of actual convictions, i.e., even on the small percentage of reported cases, victims are discouraged to opt for legal redemption as they would only be stigmatised socially.
Women constitute 1/3rd of the world's population and 89% of India’s workforce, most of them belonging to the unorganised sector. There is so much of discrimination, they are given only secondary treatment. Women’s subordinate position at home is reflected in the workplace too. Despite the Indian constitution guaranteeing equal rights to men and women, women are still paid discriminate wages even though their work is same as that of men or even more sometimes. Further, their contribution is equally important to production process and national development. Despite working outside, children and family form major responsibilities regardless of their crucial contribution to the family. This reminds us of a proverb - man’s work is only from 10 – 5 p.m., but women’s work is never done.
The feminist’s struggle of gender-based violence not only pertains to India and South Asia, it is also found in entire regions of developing countries such as Africa and Latin America. International conferences have focused on the experiences of less fortunate women bringing to the fore the glaring realities of female circumcision in Africa. A brutal practice inflicted on young women brings untold miseries, pain, trauma, severe medical complications, infections and even death. In these African communities, the girl children who go through female genital mutilation are between 4 and 8 years of age, which according to those communities is the age for their children to know their social roles as women. Far from being perceived as a mere superstition, it is a local custom and recognised as a health practice in remote areas of Africa even today.
The most profitable trade is trafficking of women and girls in flesh trade and forced prostitution in East Asia and Latin America where women are denied even the basic right to live as normal human beings. The systematic and organised trafficking of girls makes them dependent as inferior beings. The adolescent girls are lured by anti-social elements with a promise of employment and for a better life. They are brought into major cities and passed on to lucrative flesh trade. This happens even today, even though prostitution is deemed as illegal in many of these countries.
While the anti-social elements who practice the trade as a lucrative business become quite wealthy, the women are locked in abysmal conditions and trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty. Women are the worst sufferers in ethnic conflicts, violence and very little is heard of the sexual abuse women suffer at the hands of soldiers. These are inhuman practices that deny women’s right to control or regulate their own sexuality and safeguard their reproductive rights.
Of course, media is interested in the coverage of women but it seldom does or depict everyday struggle of women as experienced both inside and outside their homes. The media focuses mainly on sensationalism and dramatisation of repulsive and unpleasant events, rather than gender sensitive and objective presentation of hard hitting realities. In fact, the images that media presents on violence against women, particularly the portrayal of rape or sexual slavery, only depicts women and girls as objects of lust and contributes to the rise of such crimes inculcating wrong values in the minds of younger generations.
In light of the facts mentioned above, it is not an exaggeration to say that incidences of violence against women occur not only in India but all over these contemporary societies in the developing world. Such incidents have not only become rampant and gruesome but also threaten the very basic rights of women, restricting to lead a life of dignity and self-respect. The need of the hour is that women should no more think that it is their virtue to be ‘tolerant’ or ‘patient’, but fight for a conducive social environment, establish a healthy concept of equality between the sexes and make the same a reality rather than engaging themselves in proverbial patience.
Thus women must challenge a situation to over glorification of virtues of patience and endurance and fight perpetration of injustice and inequality against women. So the need of the hour is more intolerance, impatience against such social discriminations and to accelerate the pace of social change, instilling a new social order promoting genuine fraternity between both the sexes.
In Working Women's Forum (India) apart from healthcare, access to credit per se is not important. We empower women against the atrocity and violence they face. Women have to find the courage to fight. The following examples show how women members fought violence against women.
• To prevent large-scale female foeticide/ infanticide and child mortality among girl children in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, the Forum initiated a branch in 1993 spreading awareness to the girl child on their rights to survive. They were made aware that infringing on their rights would be a punishable offence under Human Right Violations.
• In Bellary, Karnataka, through continuous awareness campaigns, the Forum initiated an advocacy initiative to fight the traditional practice of dedicating girl children to temples (devadasis) that ultimately leads to prostitution. The scenario now is that WWF has created conscious cadres within the community who would consciously scrutinise other women on this issue and act as a watch guard to inform on their activities.
• In West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, women artisans could fight against export monopolies and liquor menace.
• To describe the poor women’s struggle as a process to fight injustice in wages, around 5,000 women workers joined hands in 1988 and presented a memorandum to the Prime Minister at Vellore demanding justice towards payment of stipulated wages as per the rules of Minimum Wages Act. The Prime Minister’s intervention benefited beedi rollers - those who until then received only Rs.11 for 1000 beedi rolled were able to get Rs.21 per 1000 beedies.
• Earlier in Kanchipuram, the government’s policy assisted only male silk weavers in its credit and marketing cooperatives but not women weavers, despite them being the real weavers. Today, through the Forum’s intervention these women get the same benefits as their male counterparts.
• In addition women fought against rampant child labour, child bondage in Vellore and Kanchipuram towns in Tamil Nadu.
• In 1988 the fisherwomen of WWF in Adiramapattinam petitioned to the Prime Minister’s office regarding the desilting of a canal that was not repaired for ages, which would help them have easy access to the sea to bring the fish from the sea to the boat yard. Later, these fisherwomen fought and won the battle in the Supreme Court to access the sea for 4 days in a week and the others i.e. rich trawler owners to access only for 3 days.
• In Dindigul, there was an issue pertaining to access of the burial ground where the landlord refused to give his consent, as the path way that lead to the burial ground came under his control. The women took a long procession and gave a petition to the District commissioner who deputed the Revenue authorities to look into the matter.
• Besides these activities the Forum representatives attend /participate in various police committees and conferences. Being one of the members of such committees enables the Forum to bring to the notice of higher police authorities the grievances of grassroots women regarding violence against women.