Fighting for their rights
The 10th State Conference of the All India Democratic Women's Association earlier this month deliberated on a wide range of subjects from food security to female infanticide. MYTHILI SIVARAMAN reports.
TWELVE-year-old Thamizharasi overheard talk that she was to be married off due to a financial crisis. She ran to the police station for help. The marriage was stopped and she now continues with her studies. Two teenaged sisters in Nagercoil, disfigured by the acid thrown at them by eve-teasing hooligans, and still threatened by them, continue to brave it out in the same neighbourhood, pursuing their education. Govindamma of Omalur, Salem, the worst district for female infanticide in Tamil Nadu stood her ground and stoutly resisted family pressures to kill her baby girl.
All four of them stood on the stage to be honoured and to receive thunderous support from the 450 delegates at the 10th State Conference of the Tamil Nadu branch of the All India Democratic Women's Association held, in its 28th year, on August 10-12 at Virudhunagar the place where, in 1931, E.V. Ramasami Periyar had held the first women's conference on self-respect.
The delegates to the AIDWA Conference came from all parts of the State with 80 per cent from the rural and urban working class background. The 453 delegates representing a total membership of more than 3.4 lakhs showed an interesting facet of the society: 12 per cent had married of their own choice, while four per cent disapproved of inter-caste marriages and 15 per cent had paid dowry; 19 per cent had been jailed and 10 per cent had been assaulted by the police or anti-socials; a good 73 per cent knew what their blood group was; 30 per cent were believers, 37 per cent had bank accounts in their own names and 59 per cent claimed to share house-work with their spouses.
The subjects they deliberated on were wide-ranging. Food security was at the top of the list. The theme paper on the subject pointed to the several changes in agriculture under the guise of globalisation, such as diversion of land from food grain cultivation to cash crops for the benefit of the developed countries. Delegates expressed concern that if this trend was not checked, it would lead to a much worse food crisis. The poor were bearing the brunt of this policy as production of coarse and cheaper grains like ragi and corn had shrunk, making them dependent on the more expensive rice. The rotting food grains in the warehouses while starvation deaths become a routine news item was possible only by streamlining the eligibility criterion for the Public Distribution System. Although a strengthened PDS was the core of a woman's subsistence need, the international funding agencies and the Indian Government were emasculating it in the name of Structural Adjustment Policies.
The ground realities of the functioning of Self Help Groups (SHG), the subject of another group discussion, where some of them had been brought under the direct patronage and control of the district administration was discussed, with many questioning the "empowerment" they are credited with. The flaunting of SHGs all over the world as a magic mantra for poverty alleviation was demystified by the delegates' queries "In a world dominated by corporate power what are the chances of survival of our small trades? We spend a lot of time going around persuading members to pay off the earlier loans taken by their families from banks. Are we the banks' unpaid staff? We pay off the loan but have no say in how to spend it." The more astute delegates commented that in an economic scenario, where bank loans to rural small industries and agriculture have been diminishing and banks are strictly guided by the profit criterion, SHG schemes are like "treating cancer with bandages".
A theme paper on legal issues came down heavily on the Bill on Domestic Violence, brought in by the Minister for Human Resources Development, Murali Manohar Joshi, for its provisions that made violence punishable only if the husband was a habitual offender and exonerated him if the violence was used in defence of himself or his property. Such an attitude betrayed abysmal ignorance of the UN declarations and conventions stating that the "state is obligated to condemn violence and cannot invoke custom, tradition or religion to avoid the obligation", as the Minister has implicitly done. The Conference resolved to fight the adoption of this Bill and lobby for an alternative.
The increasing incidence of female infanticide and foeticide in Tamil Nadu and the unhealthy gender relations that would emerge in about 20 years from now, given the falling sex ratios in the juvenile population in the 2001 census were given major attention in the Conference. More than 40 men and women were serving sentences for infanticide, two women for life, the suicide of a young mother on bail and the consequent ruin of the families and many children orphaned these were issues that had failed to move the State to any action. It was urged that infanticide should not be seen as a common criminal offence but as a social offence and punishment needed to be reduced by effecting appropriate changes in Sec.302 of the IPC. A ban on the sex pre-selection technologies was called for, along with amendments to the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Technology Act to make disclosure of the sex of the foetus more difficult.
"The Politics of the Media", another theme paper, projected the globalised media as the sales agents of the multinational corporations by spreading the market economy-based ideology and news. The Sanskritisation process in the mega serials which project predominantly the language, dialect and customs of the Brahmin community that form just three per cent of the population and show women, if at all, as peripheral characters was critically noted. The participants agreed that although women were given a key role in the serials, it was to mainly reinforce the stereotyped, conservative perception of the woman with no individual identity of her own.
Concluding the conference, Brinda Karat, the all India General Secretary pointed out that often micro-level welfare schemes for women failed for the simple reason that the macro policies of the Government, like the retreat of the State from essential social sectors like health and education negates and even works in contradiction to the micro policy objectives. Hence it was essential to fight both specific short-term schemes and long-term policies.
The writer is a well known activist and working President of the All India Democratic Women's Association, Tamil Nadu.
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