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Mr PM, plan for women

The need of the hour is to move beyond emotive posturing about women's issues and draw up a road map for accountability and enable 33% representation of women in all elected bodies, writes Indira Jaising.

india Updated: Oct 04, 2014 12:08 IST

Notwithstanding the popular perception that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a "special connect" with women of India, and especially with the record 65.7% turnout, the question that comes up in most minds is: does he have a road map to meet the expectations he has raised?

For the record, for the first time, we saw six out of seven women ministers sworn in with cabinet rank and heading front-line ministries such as External Affairs, and Commerce and Industry. Yet, does this translate into political participation for women in elected bodies? The true test lies in his ability to use the two-thirds majority that he now commands in the Lower House to ensure a swift and decisive passage of the Constitution Amendment Bill providing 33% reservation for women in state Assemblies and Parliament.

This issue is not just about representation of women but of all sections that have hitherto been under-represented. Given the poor presence of key constituencies, the issue of representation has to go far beyond the significant step of inducting women at the highest level.

In his first Independence Day speech from the Red Fort, the Prime Minister dwelt at length on the declining child sex ratio, the plight of the girl child, the need to educate the girl child, give the girl child the right atmosphere, from toilets in schools to making them secure. In an unexpected twist, he asked parents to do their bit to discipline their sons so that they do not harass girls, and wondered what kind of society they were shaping and what kind of citizens they were bringing up. Later, the address to children across the country on Teachers' Day was in a similar vein.

This is an area where we have little to boast about, as India's sex ratio continues to drop at an alarming rate, with little being done to implement the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994, and make governance at every level, including societal level, especially those of the rich and powerful, accountable. The government should ensure that it walks the talk. It must realise that it was sworn into power on May 26, 2014, and till date the apex body - the Central Supervisory Board -- accountable for the issue has not been convened. Should the Prime Minister's actions not speak as loudly and decisively as his words?

Therefore, it is a moot question whether mere emotive posturing can help rid the nation of the deep-seated injustices being meted out to its women. Can we curb the unending cycle of violence against them? With each passing year, we are not only witnessing an increase but also unimaginable perversions and bestiality of crimes against women. It appears as though a new war front has been opened, and all old scores, battles and rivalries are now going to be settled upon women's bodies.

Even more telling is the recent address of the Prime Minister to the Dalit community of Kerala on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Kerala's social reformer Ayyankali, where he stated that since the Constitutional right for equality for Dalits had not been realised, it was all the more vital to strengthen social harmony and social acceptance. Undoubtedly, social harmony is important but more important is the accountability to law. We need to see that prosecutions conducted under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, do not get withdrawn as had happened in Maharashtra at the behest of the Shiv Sena earlier, and the perpetrators do not go scot-free.

We need to see that reservations in employment for Scheduled Tribes are uncompromisingly enforced, and all legal hurdles being mounted on the spurious argument that upper castes are being discriminated against, be rejected in the court by the Attorney General. More specifically, in the light of the recommendations of the Sachar Commission, we need to see the Attorney General strongly defend all commitments made to minorities, including the provision of scholarship schemes instead of opposing them on the flimsy ground that they are anti-Constitutional.

Between Constitutional protections and good governance, there is no choice of either-or. Rather, these go hand in hand, as they must.

Is there recognition of the fact that women from the marginalised castes have long been sexually exploited by both the so-called upper caste men as well as men of their own caste? In the wake of a strong Dalit movement aimed at challenging upper caste hegemony in all spheres, this exploitation became even more pronounced and brutal in many parts of the country, and remains an issue till date. The legal structure to deal with the backlash, such as strong witness protection programmes, simply does not exist.

The survivors of three recent cases I handled of sexual harassment by judges refused to lodge complaints due to complete lack of confidence in the police. The first job of the Prime Minister, therefore, would be to restore the faith in the guardians of law. This can only be done by enforcing accountability. Then, do we realise that women from disadvantaged segments are the first to be affected by the agenda of liberalisation resulting in a massive feminisation of poverty, and reducing women's work to one that economist Dr. Jayati Ghosh aptly stated as "never done and poorly paid"?

Finally, who should be held responsible for the widespread sexual violence that comes in the wake of communal riots and even pogrom-like carnages that break out in such situations? Sexual violence still is - if we look at the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 - a crucial "weapon" used during such communal violence to make polarisation and civil strife irreversible. Women are seen as embodying the "honour and dignity" of their communities, and hence to be massacred and "conquered" by the other so as to dishonour the community. The recent hysteria over "love jihad" has done nothing to build the social harmony that the Prime Minister has been stressing in different ways on different occasions from several platforms.

In the face of all that is happening, some with characteristic impunity, let us return to the issue of political representation of women. Today, though we have many more women in Parliament than earlier, they are nowhere near the 33% representation mark, which is recognised the world over as the very basic representation for a group that comprises 49% of the population. It would not be an exaggeration to state that the entire political system conspired to "legitimise" our state of under-representation while opposing the Reservation Bill. Not even the most shocking and dastardly of crimes against women shook their conscience or emboldened some of them to speak up and admit their own collective failure in building a truly diverse and accountable India. Surely, it is there for everyone to see that such gross under-representation impacts priorities and sensitivities.

It is not surprising that unless a crime of the magnitude of the Delhi gang-rape in December 2012 occurs and unleashes the kind of public fury and protest, the portals and corridors of power do not wake up or see the necessity to deliberate on the issue. We see that the old adage - out of sight, out of mind - works in many unjust ways. We find that not only gender and women's issues get pushed into near invisibility, but more practically are allowed to slide down the pecking order of business, be it legislative or policy setting or review.

Given the kind of skewed representation bordering on hegemony and male domination at all levels, we find that even when women are in positions of decision-making, the sheer institutional bias and patriarchal setup arraigns against them, as in the recent case of the Additional Judge who has accused a High Court Judge of sexual harassment. In her complaint, she asks a fundamental question "whether education necessarily leads to empowerment"?

This leads to another crucial area of concern, that of institutional mechanisms. In 1997, the Supreme Court of India gave the Vishakha guidelines on sexual harassment. We got a law on the subject only in 2013. Following the Delhi gang-rape and murder, we got amendments in criminal law dealing with sexual assault including the death penalty for gang-rape. But are the highest organs of power and authority leading from the front? Is the response truly on track? Are the one stop crisis centres across the 600 and more districts going to provide the speedy relief that women need? Will this generate and demonstrate the concerted will and quality of action that is beyond reproach, and any measure of doubt that the government is serious about the issue?

In January last year, the Justice Verma Committee gave us much hope, leading to the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013. Yet, there exists no system of monitoring and systematically studying the cause of attrition in prosecutions for rape, no attempt to prevent failure of prosecution as a result of fatigue or emotional trauma, no coordination and participation of the affected persons in the case. Moreover, the most significant section relating to the Bill of Rights remains locked up in the Verma Committee Report, with no Bill in sight.

India does not have a law banning discrimination based on gender. It is not enough to have a Constitutional guarantee; a law would add the mechanisms for enforcement and support, and instruments of accountability, both of which are not to be found in the Constitution. Therefore, what we need today from the Prime Minister is to put a National Action Plan in place that systematically affirms the rights of women and works towards ensuring substantive equality for them.

The need of the hour is to move beyond emotive posturing about women's issues and draw up a road map for accountability and enable 33% representation of women in all elected bodies.

(Indira Jaising was the first woman Additional Solicitor General of India. The founder-director of the Lawyers Collective, she represented India on the United Nation's committees on violence against women.)

First Published: Oct 04, 2014 12:06 IST