Break the silence
Violence against women is a brutal reality in many parts of India. ADITI KAPOOR writes about grassroots campaigns in Bundelkhand and stresses the need for politicians to wake up to this issue.
Women need a life of dignity, free from violence.
THE hanging of Dhananjoy Chatterjee had activists up in arms about "human rights" and capital punishment but no one bothered to raise the issue of women's human rights a right to a life free from violence.
The media focused on Dhananjoy's fate but not on the fate of lakhs of women who live in the shadow of death every minute of the day, every day. Remember the recent Tehelka expose on husbands who procure false medical certificates to prove their young wives are insane and relegate them to a life full of sorrow and humiliation?
Sanctioned by society
Violence meted out to women in the country is widespread and inhuman; worse, is sanctioned by society. Politicians are as much responsible for this shame as each of us.
Whether it is the Shah Bano case, the cohesiveness across parties on opposing reservation of women in Parliament or lifting the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act following women's rapes, murders and humiliation, politicians hold the key in upholding the rights of women.
And, as the poor women of Chhattarpur district in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh will tell you, they have found one rare politician who realises this.
In Chhattarpur, violence against women is not only rampant but is also brutal. Women are shot, burnt, raped and thrown in front of running trains. Mental torture seems to be almost universal and incessant.
Social indicators are abysmal and female education (about 80 per cent are illiterate) is almost non-existent. Child marriage is still prevalent. So are illegal second and third marriages, "formalised" on stamp paper by the many lawyers who make a business out of this.
The reputed private law college at Chhattarpur produces at least 20 lawyers every year, many of whom take up court cases pertaining to crimes against women dowry deaths, rape and maintenance. A 2003 study by Oxfam GB and Sahyogini Trust reveals that between 1989 and 1998, registered court cases alone went up by a whopping 70 per cent! Most of them pertained to rape, and then, suicide.
Interestingly, one of the biggest change agents in the district is a politician Gayatri Devi, now 75 years of age, lawyer and elected MLA from Bijawar in Chhattarpur during the first assembly elections in 1957.
Her political affiliation and family background gave her the confidence and protection to deal with sensitive issues like violence against women (VAW) in the feudal district. Yet, more than politics, it was her own convictions as an individual that helped her hold steadfast to the contentious issue.
Initiating public action
After all, the fiery Uma Bharti's maiden victory to Lok Sabha in 1989 was from the Khajurao constituency in Chhattarpur. She won from the same seat in successive Parliamentary elections in 1991, 1996 and 1998. Yet, the horrifying violence on women in this region was not raised as a major issue in Parliament in all these years.
It has not been easy to take grassroots action in the feudal and backward region.
When Gayatri Devi first spoke against the local police in her maiden public speech, she was reprimanded by former President, Shankar Dayal Sharma, then a State Minister.
Yet, she continued to commit the same "mistake" and has today motivated a second line of women leaders who not only speak out strongly against VAW but also initiate public action to break the silence. New grassroots institutions today take up different kinds of cases and have even influenced the police department by working closely with it.
More recently, several NGOs from across 14 districts in the Bundelkhand region have come together under a network called Samaan (meaning "equal") to mobilise public support on VAW.
Indeed, both at the national and international level, our politicians continue to shirk their responsibility with regard to domestic violence. When India agreed to ratify the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) back in 1993, it had filled violated women with hope.
Yet, the politicians absolved themselves of obligations by not agreeing to two critical articles of CEDAW.
India has registered reservations on article 5 (a), which obliges the government to intervene in private life and eliminate "prejudices and other customary practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women".
It also has reservations on article 16 (1), which requires the state to guarantee relations of equality within marriage and family relations.
Recognised by law
Ironically, women's equality rights are recognised and even respected in many of India's laws affecting public life.
However, CEDAW clearly brings out the integral connection between equality in private life and equality in public life. CEDAW requires that the state steered by politicians should ensure conditions of equality in all aspects of women's lives.
Even the Supreme Court, in 1997, had based its guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace on the provisions of the Indian Constitution and those of CEDAW's to define sexual harassment and give further meaning to this constitutional guarantee.
The going, however, continues to be rough. Political parties, even where they reserve seats for women, are wary of taking up this issue.
Government institutions like the Family Counselling Centres, for instance, are set up in various States by the Central Social Welfare Board to empower women but focuses more on counselling and reconciliation because they are not mandated to give legal aid for divorce or maintenance.
Every woman wants a life of dignity, free from violence. And India can "shine" only when the politics of the mind changes. The coming and going of political parties, or politicians, is incidental. Only spirited politicians can make that real difference. The electorate is still waiting.
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