This blog is written by a journalist based in Mumbai who writes about cities, the environment, developmental issues, the media, women and many other subjects.The title 'ulti khopdi' is a Hindi phrase referring to someone who likes to look at things from the other side.
The HinduThey know what’s in store. Photo: A. Shaikmohideen
When women choose to protest, they face forms of harassment to break their spirit.
When you enter Idinthakarai village, the epicentre of the storm swirling around the controversial Kundankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district, everything appears calm but also quiet in an unreal way. Where are all the people? It is only when you go a little further that you see the shamiana erected in front of the Lourde Matha church and the hundreds of women and children sitting under it. For more than a year now, these women have made the shamiana their home. They sleep, eat, fast, sing songs, raise slogans and each day renew their commitment to the protest against the KNPP.
Until September 10, they did not think twice about the discomfort and hardship. Many of them are from villages some distance away. How do they bathe? Where is the toilet? Some of them say they eat and drink very little through the day so that they can avoid going to the toilet. But they have to feed their children.
To do this, some of them get up before dawn, prepare the food in their homes, and then come back by sunrise to sit in the tent the rest of the day and the night.
On September 20 and 21, when I met some of these women, their spirits were high but their bodies were wounded. Women were in the front row of the protest on September 9 and 10, on the beach of Idinthakarai, to “lay siege to the plant”. Needless to say, the siege was metaphorical, for no one can go anywhere near this highly guarded plant.
Did these women not expect the police to react and break up the protest, I asked Ritamma, a 43-year-old single woman. They genuinely did not, she says. On the 9th, many of the protestors had felt sorry for the women police who were practically fainting in the heat. They had even offered water.
But on September 10, the story was different. Despite the presence of so many women and children, there was a lathi charge and tear gas shells were thrown into the crowd. Men and women ran into the sea to escape the police. But there was no escape.
As a result, scores of women and men, including old men, have been wounded by the lathi or have burns caused by the explosion of the tear gas shells. With these wounds has come the realisation that in a democracy, even a peaceful protest is not tolerated. The women are puzzled about this. What did we do wrong, they ask? Can we not ask questions? Why does no one listen to our questions and talk to us directly?
No simpletons these
Indeed, why does no one listen? You hear words like “misled”, or “instigated” by representatives of the police, the government and the nuclear power establishment. What they are suggesting is that these women lack intelligence, that they are simpletons who can be “misled”. It is assumed that if people are either poor, or unlettered, they have no ability to understand “complex” issues. But for the women in Idinthakarai there is nothing complex about the problem they are facing. Their future has been tied to a technology that has been proven to have devastating consequences in the event of an accident. And an accident can occur from a natural disaster – like a tsunami about which they are well aware, as they were affected in 2004 – or human error. No one can guarantee that there will never be a human error.
That is one side of the story. The other is the specific impact on women when they join a struggle and risk the wrath of the state law and order machinery. Men are beaten, or locked up. But for women there are specific forms of harassment to break their spirit.
Woman after woman spoke about the sexist and abusive language used by the policemen, virtually suggesting that as they were willing to have sex with the leaders of the movement, they should offer the same to them. Some mentioned actual physical molestation. Lavinia, a 29-year-old woman disabled by childhood polio, narrated that she tried to run to save her five-year-old daughter when the lathi charge began, when a policeman grabbed her arm and began dragging her away. When she resisted, he physically molested her. She fell at his feet and begged and was saved when another policeman intervened. “I feel so sad and angry when I think of it”, she says.
That is what all of us should feel – sad but also angry. Why, if women choose to resist, to protest, should they be sexually targeted? And that too by the very people who are supposed to be our “protectors”?
Despite the events of September 10, and the personal humiliation and taunts that these women heard, they remain resolute. You can “mislead” someone for a day. But will anyone volunteer to go through all this for over a year without understanding what she is resisting?
Two weeks ago I had predicted that the wasted Monsoon session of Parliament would do no work at all. I was wrong. Apparently, it managed to do some work. At the very last minute, before our worthy Members of Parliament headed back to their homes, they passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill 2012.
Two cheers for that. But only two. Because although the Bill was passed, the MPs did not invest any time in discussing or debating a law that will impact the lives of millions of women. If they had, even for a short time, perhaps some of the lacunae in an otherwise good law could have been noticed and perhaps modified — such as excluding women agricultural workers or women in the armed forces and paramilitary forces. Fortunately, women domestic workers are now included, a change made in response to vigorous advocacy by several groups.
Also, if the law had been debated, the media would have paid some attention. When the media joins the debate, people learn about the law — not just its name but what it stands for. Knowledge about a law, what it can and cannot do, what kind of rights it gives the citizen, constitutes more than half the challenge of ensuring that it is implemented.
I saw first hand how such knowledge can truly “empower” women, even the poorest and the unlettered. In the stark, dry and tough terrain of Kutch, India’s second largest district, you need perseverance and resilience to get through the daily travails of life. It rains but rarely. Every other year is a drought year. Cattle die; the one crop that the poor soil could yield fails. And basic services such as health care, education and legal help are as sparsely scattered as the dry-land vegetation.
But then you meet the women. And you stop short. For they are strong, they are beautiful and they know how to fight. Since 1989, the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) has been working with the women of Kutch, listening to their stories, understanding their lives, and working with them to resolve their problems. Water, fodder and land — these were the priorities in an environment where the existence of entire communities is linked to the state of the natural resource base.
Divert grasslands that have supported cattle stocks for generations to other uses, such as industry, and you destroy the lives of millions of people. Set up thermal power stations and industries along the coast, and you force people who have lived off the fish they catch from these waters into penury. This “developmental” reality is destroying not just the natural environment of Kutch but with it the lives of those who depend upon it.
An equally tough environment is the social one, something the women must face. Here some women are not permitted to step out beyond their villages, girls are still not educated, and alcohol — in a state where it is officially banned — wreaks havoc on the lives of many families.
How do you teach the women who live in this environment about their rights, as citizens, as women? Is it even possible for women who have rarely stepped beyond the boundaries of their villages to have the courage to step into a police station?
One of the many interesting interventions of KMVS is to give women para-legal training. They learn about the law, especially those concerning women, they understand the structure of the police and of the judiciary, and they are taught the steps that any person can take in the process of enforcing the law of the land. At the end of the training, they receive a certificate from the Indian Institute of Paralegal Studies and an identity card.
For many of these women, the card has made a world of a difference. Where earlier the police would have paid no attention to them, now they are able to go to police stations with confidence to register an FIR and read the Riot Act if the police resist or drag their feet.
“Sometimes we have to sit in the police station till 10 at night to get the FIR registered,” says Devalben, a Ghadvi woman from a village near the port of Mundra, who was denied an education but has managed to educate both her daughters. Another woman says, “Now the police call us. Earlier they made fun of us.”
Says Devalben, “In a rape case, we didn’t know what to do. Police would say, ‘Where’s the proof this is a rape, take the woman to the doctor.’ The doctor would say, ‘This is a police case.’ The police would make us run around. Now this does not happen.”
It is a small beginning but holds out an important lesson. Teach a woman how to use the law, and the law might just protect her. Leave her ignorant, and you might as well not have a law.
The HinduMoving on: But, does the law make a difference? Photo: S. Subramanium
However imperfect, the NCW needs to be debated, not disbanded.
The monsoon has failed in large parts of India. But so has Parliament, in its monsoon session. With the political gridlock between the government and the opposition, all work has come to a standstill. One of the casualties of this is the inability of the government to pass the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Bill. Similarly, although the Sexual Assault Bill has received Cabinet approval, it is unlikely to become law just yet. And of course, the Women’s Reservation Bill, despite being passed by the Rajya Sabha is likely to remain in limbo forever.
Even if Parliament were to work as it should, and all such laws were passed, would this make a difference to the rising graph of all kinds of crimes against women? Can stronger laws stop these crimes unless the machinery to implement them works?
In the aftermath of the Guwahati incident and more recently the attack on a group of young people in Mangalore by the Hindu Jagaran Vedike, these questions have been asked. Additionally, the effectiveness of the National Commission for Women (NCW) has been questioned. Like the proposed laws, the NCW was instituted to intervene on issues that affect women. Yet, the kind of statements made by NCW members, including its chairperson, after these incidents, makes you wonder whose interests they represent. When you have members who reveal the name of a sexual assault victim, or you have a chairperson who tells young women not to get offended by sexist remarks, and still others in the State women’s commissions, instructing women how to dress if they want to be safe, you have to seriously ask whether the NCW can do anything for women.
And yet, the NCW is needed. Its future should certainly be debated, but will disbanding it — as demanded by some in the wake of the Guwahati incident — really help? Or is it more important to remind ourselves, and the members of the NCW, of its real mandate and hold it accountable?
Slow systemic change
In her moving book, They Hang (Women Unlimited, 2006), Syeda S. Hameed, currently a member of the Planning Commission, recorded some of the stories of the women she encountered during her three-year term in the NCW, from 1997-2000. She writes, “Our mandate was to make systemic changes so that violence could be killed at its roots, but we ended up fighting individual cases. My own instinct was to bring immediate relief to the sufferers because systemic change is a slow process.”
Yet, she says that even this, bringing immediate relief to a few, was difficult and asks, “During my three years as a member, was I able to deliver justice to the women who appeared at my door? Did any State functionary click to attention at my call? I can count on the fingers of one hand the cases which came to a successful conclusion.”
Things today are not that different from the times Syeda Hameed describes. If anything they are worse. According to data used by NDTV in its discussion on the NCW, out of 6,700 cases that came before it by May 2012, only 60 had been heard. Apart from failing individuals, there is little evidence of the NCW initiating legal changes. Its members rush off to the site of an atrocity, and after that nothing more is heard about what followed.
The NCW was set up as a statutory body in January 1992, in response to a recommendation first made by the Committee on the Status of Women in India. It was mandated to review legal and constitutional safeguards for women, recommend laws and be an advisory body to the government on all policy issues relating to women.
Two decades later, has the NCW fulfilled this expectation? If people believe it has not, it is in large measure due to the kind of women selected to serve on it, and particularly to head it. The latter is always a political appointment. While political allegiance need not necessarily be a minus point, when it takes precedence over other qualities, then there is a problem.
Before the NCW’s credibility is further corroded, by its own actions and the attitudes of its members, the government should set in place a process that ensures that the person chosen to head it is someone with stature who is also independent and competent. It is not difficult to locate such women. This would go a long way to convince ordinary women that the NCW can make a difference to their lives. The second step is to ensure that at least half its members have grass-roots experience of dealing with women’s problems. If these two steps are taken, then there is hope of the NCW becoming an effective body looking out for women’s rights, instead of one that sometimes undermines them.