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It’s just a kitty party

india Updated: Feb 29, 2012 23:00 IST
Lalita Panicker
National Commission for Women

Here is the signal contribution to gender justice made by the National Commission for Women (NCW)chairperson Mamata Sharma. She says, “Nowadays boys are very enthusiastic. If a group of boys eve teases you by calling you sexy, you should not get provoked and instead you should take it positively.” She goes on, “Sexy means excitingly beautiful and charming. You should take it sportingly…If you take it otherwise and get offended, it leads to fights.”

Naturally, her remarks have attracted the ire of women's groups. And the banal debate continues.

With the chairperson having delivered herself of her interpretation of ‘sexy’, the NCW has taken one more step on its road to irrelevance and mediocrity. When was the last time that the chairperson of this body made any positive contribution to the empowerment of women? Which brings us to the question of what Ms Sharma's credentials are for this job. To the best of our knowledge, she was a local politician in Rajasthan and was involved in some of the social movements. Not exactly what one would expect in a person supposed to be a prime arbitrator of women’s rights in the country.

Is the definition of ‘sexy’ of such earth-shattering importance in a country where women are killed before birth, murdered in infancy, burnt to death for dowry, molested at will and cast off after being widowed? If someone wants to be considered ‘sexy’, let them feel free to do so. It’s a free country. You and I would probably put ‘being sexy’ somewhere way at the bottom of the list when it comes to women’s rights, but clearly the NCW chairperson is made of sterner stuff.

The NCW as it stands today should be scrapped. It serves no purpose other than provide comfortable sinecures for out-of-work politicians. No doubt, many on its rolls have their heart in the right place but they are rarely heard. Barring a few exceptions, it has never had a chairperson who commanded enough respect or authority for the government to take the commission’s recommendations seriously.

It is conspicuous by its absence or its insensitivity when women are at real risk or have suffered grave violations. Ten years after the Gujarat riots, it would have been appropriate of the NCW to look into the condition of women molested or otherwise harmed during those fateful days. Or it could have directed its energies to the plight of women in Kashmir. Instead, we get Ms Sharma warning against marrying NRI grooms.

In a sweeping condemnation she says, “Don’t get fooled if some NRI tries to sell you a dream of taking you to beautiful places like Switzerland, France or England.” Glad we have our priorities right Ms Sharma.

In recent times, we have seen the utterly insensitive behaviour of the police and some politicians towards victims of rape. The NCW should have been all over these people like a rash, instead of dispensing homilies on matrimony. The root cause seems to lie in the fact that the NCW is headed by people who have no knowledge or understanding of women’s issues. It is a statutory body which has the powers to summon offenders before it and its recommendations are meant to be taken up by Parliament if the government deems fit.

That it is routinely ignored suggests that the very government which set it up in 1992 through the National Commission for Women Act 1990 does not take it seriously. The last chairperson was so low-key that we almost forgot that such a body existed. This does not mean that the members were not diligently scouring the globe in search of best practices where women are concerned. Nothing like a little fact-finding in, say, Caracas or Copenhagen to add teeth to the fight for women’s rights at home.

An earlier chairperson was so exercised by the lack of values and cultural erosion among Indian women that the brave lady decided to adopt a hands-on approach. Appalled by the rave parties she had heard about in Goa, she popped in incognito to one or two such events. Shocked by the scanty clothing and general debauchery, she took the state chief minister to task. The fact that the women revelers were there of their own consent was of little consequence to her.

Instead of pussyfooting around, the NCW should have taken on the West Bengal chief minister who spotted a political conspiracy in the charges made by a woman recently that she had been raped on a night out. It should have come down like a tonne of bricks on the Noida police for their inhuman conduct towards the minor victim of an alleged rape.

The NCW should be commissioning research that looks at the status of women of different communities and social strata. It should be addressing the deeply ingrained prejudices against women across caste and class. It should take a leaf out of the manner in which the Election Commission (EC) has conducted itself. Despite all efforts to hobble it, the EC has made itself so relevant and respected that it has come to be synonymous with clean elections. The NCW, instead, is seen as the equivalent of a glorified kitty party, at that.

The women’s groups would do well not to get involved in a battle with Sharma on the rights and wrongs of her statement. It is too banal to merit any reasoned argument. Instead, all right-thinking women’s groups should press to wind up this commission in name and perhaps set up a new one with a credible person at its head, comprising women who have made a difference in the field of empowerment. If this is beyond the ken of the government, let us not have any commission at all and be content with making the laws for women more effective.

Perhaps, having a gender-specific commission is an idea whose time has passed, or perhaps, as the chairperson would put it, it is too ‘sexy’ for our own good.