ByÂ Dr Amrit Patel:
Women in India enjoy the right to elect and get elected. A bill seeking women’s reservation in Parliament and State Legislative Assemblies to strengthen the foundation of democracy and governance has yet to see the light of the day. In this context, there is need for concern, commitment and accountability of publicly elected women representatives to empower rural women in particular in the background of international women’s movement, Government of India’s initiatives to guarantee and protect women’s rights and status and ineffective and inefficient law enforcement machinery in India.
Women’s Rights: It was 1869, when a British MP John Stuart Mill in Parliament emphatically pleaded for women’s right to vote and it was the New Zealand, the first country in the world, to give women the right to vote on 19 September 1893. Women in other countries continued to campaign for their equality for years till they got it. In 1910 Ms Clara Zetkin of Germany, in the Copenhagen International Conference of Working Women, proposed celebration of Women’s Day every year in every country to press for their demands. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries resolved to celebrate the International Women’s Day [IWD]. While the news for the celebration of the first IWD on 19 March 1911 in Germany was spread throughout the world, two journals viz “The Vote for Women” in Germany and “Women’s Day” in Austria carried articles, “Women and Parliament”, “The Working Women and Municipal Affairs”, “What has the housewife got to do with politics”?, etc which analyzed the question of the equality of women in the Government and society and concluded the absolute necessity to make parliament more democratic by extending the franchise to women. From 1913, the IWD is celebrated on 8 March and the United Nations during the International Women’s Year in 1975, officially recognized the IWD to sharply focus on this day serious concerns and achievements of women in fields of Politics, social, economic etc and reflect local and global gender issues. Subsequently women in many countries got the right to get elected too to specifically voice the concern of women.
Women in India: According to studies, women in ancient India enjoyed equal status and rights with men in all fields of life; they were educated; they married at a mature age and were probably free to choose their husbands. European scholars observed in the 19th century Hindu women as “naturally chaste” and “more virtuous” than other women. During the medieval period, the Indian woman’s position in the society deteriorated however. During the British rule many reformers fought for the social and economic upliftment of the women. Traditions such as Sati, Jauhar and Devadasis have been banned. In 1917, the first women’s delegation, supported by the Indian National Congress, presented the Secretary of State the charter of demand of women’s political rights. The All India Women’s Education Conference was held in Pune in 1927. Women played an important part in India’s struggle for independence. Women now freely participate in all activities of politics, education, art, culture, media, entertainment, service sector, science and technology etc.
Constitutional Guarantee: The Constitution of India guarantees to all women equality [Article 14]; no discrimination by the State [Article 15 (1)]; equality of opportunity [Article 16]; equal pay for equal work [Article 39(d)]; renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women [Article 51 (a) (c)] The Constitution also allows the State to make special provision in favor of women and children [Article 15(3)]; and securing just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief [Article 42]. The Government of India declared 2001 as the “Year of Women’s Empowerment” and the National Policy for the Empowerment of Women came into force from 2001.
Women-farmer & Agriculture: India has been an agrarian country. Women constitute about 66% of the agricultural work force. Around 48% self-employed farmers are women and 64% of the informal sector work force depending on agriculture is women. Rural women have, since many centuries, been putting in unfathomable, unbearable and inadequately paid joyless drudgery to earn for their families’ livelihood and provide food security to country’s 1.13 billion people. The plight of most rural women has been pathetic since they have to collect firewood, fetch drinking water, search fodder to feed cattle, work on their meager land to raise crops and as laborers on other farms, take care of children etc. Hunger and deprivation affect about 260 million people in the country. India is a home to 40% of the world’s underweight children and ranks 126 out of 177 countries in the UNDP Human Development Index. The country is also the home of the largest number of poor and malnourished people in the world and finding difficult to reduce hunger and poverty by half by 2015 as expected under U.N. MDGs. As many as 40% of the farmers interviewed by the National Sample Survey Organization said “they wanted to quit farming if there was another option”. The average total income of farm households with up to two hectares was less than 80% of their consumption expenditure. Annual average farmer suicides increased from 15,747 [1997-2001] to 17,366 [2002-07]. A report on UN World Food Day released on 16 October 2009 praised China for reducing the number of hungry by 58 million in 10 years through strong State support for small holder farmers but criticized economically liberal India where 30 million people have been added to the ranks of the hungry since mid-1990s. Agricultural policies failed to build capacity among small farmers to grow more and respond to market needs, as a result of which hard hit and sufferers are women-farmer and their children.
Self-Help-Groups: It was only after mid 1990s that most rural women slowly and steadily found opportunity to access credit through efforts of NGOs to form and nurture Self-Help-Groups and then link them to financing banks. Self-Help-Group Linkage Bank program has covered 3.47 million SHGs and 45.1 million households. More than 90% SHGs comprised women borrowers. Women, despite their unbearable hardships and commitments to their children for food, health and education, have beyond doubt demonstrated their loyalty to financing banks through above 95% repayment of loans. Despite this they have difficulties to get long-term loans and adequate loan of high value.
Savings by SHGs: As many as 41,60,584 SHGs saved sum of Rs.35.127 billion with banks, showing Rs8,443 per SHG. In fact, the actual savings of the groups would be higher as the amounts saved with banks do not reflect the amount of savings of members of SHGs used for internal lending within groups as per the practice currently in vogue. Government and banks should gratefully acknowledge their hard earned savings deposited for nation’s economic development
Elected Women-Representatives: The developed economies of USA and Europe have already demonstrated strict compliance with laws concerning women’s rights and status through most effective Law and Order enforcing machinery and efficient judicial system. Since India is expected to emerge as a super economic power the publicly elected women representatives [existing and future] in PRIs, State Legislative Assemblies, Parliament and Rajya Sabha may need to demonstrate serious concern and commitment to strengthen Law and Order enforcing machinery at all levels, make it effective and accountable specifically in respect of following aspects in which cases it has proved to be grossly ineffective.
Weak Enforcement: Although child marriage has been banned since 1860 and the Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed in 1929, it is still a common practice. The worst feature of the child marriage has been the child widows are condemned to a life of great agony, shaving heads, living in isolation and shunned by the society. According to UNICEF’s “State of World Children, 2009” report 47% of India’s women aged 20 to 24 were married before the prescribed legal age of 18 years, with 56% in rural areas. About 40% of world’s child marriages occur in India. The Immoral Traffic [Prevention] Act was passed in 1956, yet cases of immoral trafficking of young girls and women have been increasing. In 1961, Government of India passed the Dowry Prohibition Act. According to a 1997 report, at least 5000 women die each year because of dowry demand. Though all medical tests determining the sex of the child have been banned, India has a high masculine sex ratio. The chief reason is that many girls die before being born or reaching to adulthood. This is attributed to the female infanticide and sex selective abortions. The dowry tradition has been one of the main reasons for sex selective abortion and female infanticide. The Indecent Representation of Women [Prohibition] Act was passed in 1987. However, several incidences of its violation do occur off and on. The Protection of Women Domestic Violence Act  came into force on 26, October 2006. Yet the incidence of domestic violence is higher in lower socio-economic classes. Police records show high incidence of crimes against women. The National Crime Research Bureau in 1998 reported that the growth rate of crimes against women would be higher than population growth rate by 2010. Many cases are not registered with police due to the social stigma attached to rape and molestation cases or inaction on the part of police. Official statistics  showed a dramatic increase in the number of crimes against women related to molestation and sexual harassment at work place. The Supreme Court in 1997 while delivering a landmark judgment against sexual harassment of women in the work place laid down detailed guidelines for prevention and redressal of grievances. The National Commission for Women subsequently elaborated them in to a code of conduct for employers.
Areas of Serious Concern: Women’s elected representatives must accord priority to following issues, which have yet not been resolved.
Female-headed Households: According to 1992-93 year data, while only 9.2% of households in India were female-headed, about 35% of the households below poverty line were female-headed.
Land and Property Rights: In most Indian families, women do not own any property in their own names and do not get a share of parental property. Some of the laws discriminate against women, when it comes to land and property rights. Married daughters, when faced with marital harassment, have no residential rights in the ancestral home. Christian women have yet not received equal rights of divorce and succession.
Education: Studies confirm that female literacy has a significant influence in improving social and economic status of women. The female literacy rate is woefully lower than that of male. Compared to boys, far fewer girls are enrolled in schools and many of them are drop out. According to the National Sample Survey data of 1997, only Kerala and Mizoram have approached universal female literacy rate. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the chief barriers to female education in India are inadequate school and sanitary facilities, shortage of female teachers and gender bias in curriculum.
Health and Family planning: The average female life expectancy in India is low compared to many countries. In many families, particularly in rural areas the girls and women and mothers face nutritional discrimination within the family and are anaemic and malnourished. The maternal mortality in India is the second highest in the world. The health professionals supervise only 42% of births in the country. Most women deliver with the help from woman in the family who often lack the skills and resources to save mother’s life if she is in danger. According to UNDP Human Development Report 1997, 88% of pregnant women [age 15-49 years] were suffering from anaemia. The average woman in rural areas has little or no control over her potential for reproductivity. Women do not have access to safe and self-controlled methods of contraception. The public health system emphasizes permanent methods like sterilization or long-term methods like IUD that do not need follow-up. Sterilization accounts for over 75% of total contraception, with female sterilization accounting for 95% of sterilizations.
Work participation: Though the country has a large percentage of women workers, there is a serious underestimation of women’s contribution as workers to nation’s economy. There are, however, fewer women in the paid work force than those of men. In rural areas, agriculture and allied sector employed as many as 89.5% of total female labor. Women’s average contribution, in overall farm output, is estimated at 55% to 66% of the total labor. According to 1991 World Bank report, women accounted for 94% of total employment in dairy sector. Women contributed 51% of total employment in forest-based small-scale enterprises.
Talaq System: Many Muslim women have questioned the Fundamentalist Leaders’ interpretation of women’s rights under the Shariat Law and have criticized the Triple Talaq System.
Enabling environment: Enabling environment should be created in rural areas that can facilitate all rural women easy access to fuel, safe drinking water, sanitation, education, insurance, health care, public distribution system. While women-farmers should be enabled to have hassle-free access to credit, inputs, technology and marketing and their non-institutional debt should be redeemed by institutional credit, rural women need to be relieved from joyless drudgery of agricultural task through adequate and planned mechanization of agriculture and assisted to take up non-farm sector income generating activities under the purview of K&VIC, handloom, handicraft, sericulture, coir boards, NABARD, SIDBI, lead bank, DRDA, DIC and service-oriented micro enterprises for which a plethora of schemes and financial assistance are available. What is required is creating awareness among women, improving their technical, managerial and financial skill, capacity building, knowledge management through required training and provision of modern tools and equipment and easy access to credit, technology and marketing services.
Decision-making Process and Position: As per 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Acts, all local bodies should reserve one-third of their seats for women. Through PRIs over a million women have enrolled in political life. Women are still under represented in governance as well as decision-making process and positions. Elected women representatives in PRIs need to be intensively trained to develop skill, capacity building and knowledge management that can help them generate adequate confidence to participate effectively in decision-making process as well as occupy decision-making positions.
Nodal Office of NCW: The nodal office of National Commission for Women should be established in each block and district to protect the rights of women, girls and children, voice their issues and concerns and pay undivided attention to monitor the compliance with the existing Laws and establish effective coordination with other related offices.