On International Women’s Day, I addressed a gathering of women government employees. The state government, which organised the meet, had given them a day off — an irony considering that the state has often been in the news thanks to reports about how girls were openly sold there. The reasons for such shocking incidents are many: poverty, greed, and because families don’t want to take up the responsibility of a girl child.
I raised some very basic questions at the seminar and asked the participants to ponder over them: “When we have so many women officers at secretariats today, why is it that corruption has not declined?”
“Can seniors and leaders get away with corruption without the active or passive support of the people who work at the secretariats?” Their answer was an emphatic ‘no’. “So then, how are women today different from the way they worked in the past? Or, should they be different at all? And were they not expected to be different?” I asked. They said: “Yes”.
“Then why has it not substantially changed?” I probed again. There was no answer. “Has the quality of governance changed with more women joining the government? Or, is it the same?” I prodded. Some said: “Same”.
“What are we celebrating then? And, what should we be celebrating? Should we celebrate the fact that we are women? Or should we celebrate the unique and special contribution we are making, or have the potential to make, in our workplaces?” The audience, which was a little passive till now, started to mull over the questions.
I asked them again, “When a file reaches your desk, does the sender’s designation or background influence your decision or do you go by the notings and the rulebook? Do you apply the rule mechanically or sensitively?” “How sensitive are you to others’ suffering and needs?”
After several rounds of throwing such questions at them, it was time for the audience to ask me questions. One of the participants asked: “Madam, what do we do if we don’t have control over our own salaries? What do we do if we have to support our parents? How can we ensure our right over our own money?” I was not a bit surprised to hear this. I faced the same query from the police women I had earlier worked with.
I remember I used to tell them that from the first day of marriage they should ensure that they have full control over their salaries. They must, however, contribute towards household expenses. I used to advise them that even if they opened joint accounts with their family members, they must make sure that they maintain their own personal accounts. They should take their salary only in cheque or ask their employers to directly remit it to their individual bank account. This would enable them to exercise total control over withdrawals from accounts. And, of course, if they are arm-twisted by their families, they must have the courage to say no.
Another participant asked me: “What is the duty of a woman?” “This is a very good question and the answer is also simple,” I said. “You tell me, what is the duty of a man?” I threw the question back at her. She said: “To earn for the family and look after it.” I said, “These days, women have the same duty. Are you all not doing this?”
A few days after the seminar, I got a letter from the president of the forum seeking advice on what kind of training should its members go for? I wrote back saying: “Ask yourselves what you need, and provide for yourselves.”
Kiran Bedi is an IPS officer and winner of the Magsaysay award