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The Draft National Policy on Women

Kumudini Pati

The Department of Women and Child Development of the Government of India, under the earlier P.V. Narasimha Rao regime, proposed a National Policy on Gender and Development. Though it is expected that formulation of such a policy would be preceeded by discussion and consultation with various streams of the women's movement, it seems that the policy came as a surprise to many of the women's organisations. Even a hasty perusal of the draft shows clearly that it conforms to the basic framework of the Beijing Draft and subtly ratifies the structural adjustment programme.

The preamble sounds the rhetoric of commitment to securing gender equality, gender justice and elimination of discrimination without going into even a superficial analysis of the basic characteristics of socio-economic system which has led to gender inequality, injustice towards women and discrimination on the basis of sex. It proceeds by talking of sustained economic growth accompanied by eradication of poverty which is supposed to lay the foundation for establishing a 'harmonious society'. The very fact that any discussion on the model of economic growth for the country has been carefully avoided while ambiguously referring to sustained economic growth accompanied by poverty eradication (as though they are two mutually exclusive targets) goes to prove the shaky foundations of the so-called 'harmonious society' sought to be established. As we proceed, we come across the formulation that full participation and 'empowerment' of women will lead to a violence-free society. While none would challenge the theoretical correctness of such an assertion, experience has gone on to prove quite the contrary - be it the struggle for land rights in Bihar, the struggle of the women of the North East for autonomy, the assertion of the women of Uttarakhand for separate statehood, or the fight for self-determination of the women of Kashmir; be it the anti-liquor struggle of Andhra Pradesh or that of the Sathins of Rajasthan. While women have been at the receiving end of the violent state machinery wherever and whenever they have asserted and fought for empowerment, the draft has carefully omitted any mention of this form of violence, creating the facade of a 'harmonious' violence-free society.

Talking of women's legal rights, the preamble targets its concern on the 'wide chasm that exits between women's rights in law' and 'the exercise of those laws'. In this way, the question of inherent patriarchal bias in existing laws has been reduced to the trivial question of lack of infrastructure and methodology for implementation of the same. At a time when there is so much debate on legal reform and even the governmental institutions for women have recognised the need for reform in areas such as child rape, rape in custody, inheritance, marriage and divorce (personal laws) etc., the draft does not even recognise, let alone thinking of changing, that the existing laws hardly conform to the needs of present-day society and are incapable of providing justice to women.

The National Framework reiterates the 'principles of gender equality and gender justice enshrined in the Indian Constitution' but fails to admit that in spite of this the lot of the Indian women has hardly changed - the majority of women are still subject to medieval forms of oppression within the home and outside. Age-old feudal values, religious codes and patriarchal norms are still an intrinsic part of the life of the Indian women. Dowry deaths, child marriage and denial of the basic human rights of women are the order of the day and despite all efforts at educating and employing women in socially productive activities, it is a very small population that has actually benefited, that too at its own risk. The document also boasts of a change in the government policy (earlier) which treated women as 'beneficiaries of development' to that of considering them as 'equal partners in development' and calling for their economic and social empowerment. Although, on the face of it, this may sound rather radical, the fact remains that the government has cut drastically on all expenditures on social development, especially in the area of women's welfare as part of the new economic policy and it has become inevitable for it to fit the huge population of women into the scheme of structural reforms. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and this call for empowerment of women will certainly serve as a weapon in the hands of women to expose the hollowness of government policies and programmes if it is coupled with a conscious effort by democratic and left women's organisations' active intervention through mass movements for implementation of these policies and programmes for women. For example, the 73rd and 74th amendments to the constitution have been said to have brought about a radical change as regards participation of women in the political system. Though 30% of reservation for women in panchayats and corporations (local bodies) created a political awareness among women and have resulted in their assertion at the grassroots level, the scope of this step is quite limited and can ensure only restricted participation while participation in policy-making at the macro level through reservation in the state assemblies and parliament as well as all governmental institutions and government jobs remains a far-off dream. It is important for women's organisations as well as political parties to raise this demand as a step towards empowerment of women. Similar is the claim of setting up National Commission for Women as well as state-level women's commissions. Though the NCW has played some role in taking up issues like that of Rajasthan's Sathins or suggesting reforms on rape laws, especially those related to child rape or helping setting up of family courts, yet there is much scope for equipping it with more rights, e.g. election of members or taking direct action in cases of criminal offence like a criminal court or even setting up state-level women's commissions. Up to now, setting up of state-level women's commissions is not mandatory and in states where oppression of women has crossed all levels, e.g. UP, Delhi and Bihar, women's commissions have not been formed. The NCW is working through an informal team of members in Bihar and is hardly keen on speeding up the process of setting up a commission. Rather, media reports quote the Chairperson having praised the Laloo govt. for its pioneering role in the area of women's development whereas women's organisations of Bihar have been struggling over this issue since the past 2 years with no positive response so far. On the other vital issues such as the government's anti-women population policy or curtailment of maternity leave for women after the 2nd child, the role of the NCW has been only to ratify the government's stand. All in all, the NWC has remained a white elephant erected for international media projection.

At the international level, the National Framework has mentioned the ratification of CEDAW and adaption of the Beijing Declaration as well as the Platform of Action as positive steps in the direction of women's advancement. However, there exits a strong opinion among women activists that there is a wide chasm between the aims and objectives set by the developed countries and the developing ones. Although it is quite natural for some of the concerns of advanced countries to be different, forgetting the fact that it is the women of the developing countries who are the most oppressed and their problems and issues cannot just be drowned, is a grave injustice to the cause of women's emancipation and a major deterrent to the unity of women fighting patriarchy. Worse still is the fact that India has succumbed to US domination in the economic sphere, which is going to have serious political repercussions and is going to try to subordinate the interests of the women's movement in India to the needs of the globalised economy. The 'non-partisan' character of the Indian women's movement has been termed 'one of its most enduring contributions'. Although it is a fact that the women's movement in India has made its presence felt both at home and abroad, its non-partisan approach calls for some debate considering the fact that it has led to a lot of confusion among progressive sections of women and made it most vulnerable to co-option by the establishment or imperialist agencies at a most crucial juncture in Indian politics. The depoliticisation of women due to this is one of the major factors responsible for its disintegration and its shift towards pro-establishment or collaborationist and statusquoist positions. It is no wonder that the autonomous women's movement failed to assert as a united force and adopted anti-left postures, alienating itself from the working class women and other women belonging to the oppressed classes, remaining confined to issues of middle class women or, at the most, some (supplementary to the state) developmental activities among the rural and urban poor. The question that bogs the minds of many progressive forces today is how 'autonomous' is the autonomous women's movement? And can any autonomy be retained without building a strong liaison with the left women's movement (not official left!) and other democratic and revolutionary forces opposing imperialist domination in India?

Despite the fact that the National Framework has enunciated its commitment to international policy declarations at the UN-sponsored summits and has claimed several plans and programmes at home having been formulated in the so-called interests of safeguarding the rights of women, the draft has had to accept the fact that 'women are still bearing the burden of poverty, illiteracy, economic marginalisation, exclusion from decision-making, lack of access to resources, social stereotyping, discrimination and violence at household and societal level'. Yet, no analysis has been made of why and how this condition persists even after nearly 50 years of attainment of freedom and uncountable sacrifices and struggles on the part of women, nor has there been any effort at identifying the major factors responsible for this condition of women. It is also strange that violence at the level of household and society have been given importance whereas state repression and use of violence (rape) as a political weapon, targeted at women as a means of class and caste oppression, has assumed serious and alarming dimension.

This part of the draft ends with the declaration that 'the objective of women's advancement is the advancement of humankind' and clearly fixes the aim of its various policies as ushering in a new generation of women and men working in harmony towards a more humane society. This liberal approach combined with a compromise with patriarchal values is quite conspicuous in the scant respect shown towards the women's movement's own basic objective - attainment of gender equality in all spheres and aspects of life. Rather, stress has been shifted from struggle and challenging the status-quo to building a peaceful humane and harmonious society!

The set of policies begins with a commitment towards ensuring equal rights, equal access and equal opportunity. This stands in sharp contrast and contradiction to the basis of the policy framework. The policy of 'ensuring that the laws, regulations, rules and policies do not discriminate against women even in their outcomes', is not at all a positive statement in the given set up. Not 'discriminating against women, is certainly not enough; we need laws that will positively discriminate in favour of women in order to even give a fair chance to women to assert in a male-dominated society. For example, in a rape case, the onus of proving innocence must fall on the shoulders of the accused and the previous history of the victim must not be any consideration in deciding the guilt of the rapist. Factors such as arousing sexual passions of a male or consent of the victim are also, more often than not, used by the accused to gain an edge over the accuser.

The policies on development, poverty alleviation and focus on special groups of women again leave a lot to be added. The objective of 'ensuring that women and men benefit equally from development efforts' too shows a total lack of understanding of the patriarchal bias of almost all development polices. Development effort must be oriented with a positive bias towards the development and upliftment of women, for women are still the worst victims of underdevelopment in all spheres right from industrialisation to the spread of educational access to employment, health and civic amenities or the character of work in the unorganised sector including agriculture, where the most tiring and low-paid levels of work under the worst working conditions shall fall on women's shoulders.

Similarly, it is necessary to analyse why women have to fall back on such work, even to the extent of accepting contract labour or home-based work with little or no benefits and rights or facing the worst kind of sexual harassment and abuse much to the ire of advocates of petty bourgeois standards of morality and idealism. Most important of all is that while focusing on special groups of women, special attention and assistance should be directed towards divorced women, victims of social oppression, e.g. rape, or mentally retarded women and orphan girls. A majority of such women are forced into the flesh trade or are even sold off to Middle East countries as slaves. Another important policy declaration is 'ensuring progressively full and equal participation of women in all fora and processes of decision-making both at the level of policy-making and implementation in all sectors. Though, as mentioned above, the 73rd and 74th amendments to the constitution have provided for women reservation at panchayat level, participation of women at higher levels of policy-making is quite unsatisfactory. The number of women parliamentarians has not, surprisingly, decreased and the Department of Women and Child Development still falls under the Ministry of Human Resources and Development. The policy of forming central and state-level committees to work in tandem with other ministries and oversee the implementation of the national policy for women, is surely a positive step but is chaired by the PM and CM at central and state levels respectively. How far such committees are going to serve the interest of women independently remains a question. Developing specific policies which will be 'gender sensitive and allow analysis of all policies and programmes on a gender disaggregated basis may go to the extent of study of gender biasness in different spheres of life and provide more statistics on the deteriorating status of women, but unless a consistent basis is evolved on which all these piecemeal efforts will be based, not much change seems possible.

Without this positive space, all talks of'positive portrayal of women and elimination of stereotyped and degrading images of women, realisation of the full potential of girl children and adolescent girls is reduced to empty phrasemongering. It has been seen, through the years, that modern, democratic values which would provide progressive atmosphere for women's development have hardly been nurtured.

The recent case of Bhateri, women's assertion in the anti-liquor movement in A.P., or the assertion of Uttarakhandi women activists etc. have amply proved that the state has sided with the feudal, male-dominated social system. An anti-climax to the whole draft is provided in the policy for development which reiterates its commitment to 'sustaining social and community institutions including the family', whereas the struggle for abolishing all social and community institutions which perpetrate patriarchal values and are oppressive towards women is a basic precondition for achieving gender equality and gender justice. So also, the needs of present-day society do not conform to the traditional basis of the family and a demand for democratisation of the institution of family is much called for, e.g. the demand for a common civil code.

To sum up, the whole process of gender sensitisation and formulation of policies on a gender disaggregated basis to achieve gender quality remains a desperate effort at absorbing the female populace into the globalised economy as active producers and consumers.

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