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Patriarchal Nature of Indian State

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By P. V. Swati:

Women’s subordination is not only due to male domination but also due to the basic economic and political structures of society which again are reinforced by the same male domination. The essentially patriarchal state structure in the Indian context and in fact in most Third world countries was to some extent influenced by their colonial past which shaped the nature of the independent states they eventually culminated into. But in this context, neither male domination nor imperialism alone accounts for women’s subordination, but both act upon the gender division, and are linked in perpetuating women’s oppression. The impact of foreign domination is an important factor in women’s subordination, historically and in the present. Adding on to this, women who participated in the national struggle were conditioned to subsume all their concerns under the national issues and it was not easy for them to raise their issues when the task of new nation-building with comprehensive planning was undertaken.

But, as it is evident even in the independent India, challenging the patriarchal ethos of the society has never been the agenda of the state itself. The gap between Nehru’s vision of modern and just India, and the reality of women’s continuing subordination could possibly have been explained if the planners, along with Nehru, had no access to any systematic information on the position of women in the social and economic system. However, this was not the case. Even before independence, there had been serious efforts to collate the available information on women’s position in India to recommend some measures for rapid change. Various studies were available documenting the same. Their invisibility was clearly more an outcome of the ideology governing public policy relating to women. Hence, women were noticeably absent from the discussions of development theory.

The recommendations of the document entitled ‘Women’s Role in Planned Economy’ had been prepared for the Congress Party in late 1930s were well in purview of Nehru. The WRPE report clearly indicated that women’s main oppressors were the patriarchal powers within the household, the society and the economy.

In 1940 the National Planning Commission (NCP) however significantly diluted the stance WPRE had taken in their report in its influence on policy formulation regarding women in independent India. Thus, pre-independence stirrings of a demand for women’s economic independence were effectively silenced. The WRPE had envisioned women being recognised as workers in their own rights, earning their own independent incomes; but the initial legislative policies as well as actual trends in the economy indicated that they were being further pressurised into becoming subservient creatures of the households. Thus, as Ritu Dhawan states, from its very inception the mainstream Indian political economy has been essentially abstract and insensitive to gender inequality.

The official policies vis-a-vis women in India’s plans for development continued to follow the unproblematic tradition of regarding them merely as targets for household and motherhood-oriented welfare services. The lack of concern on the part of the planners no doubt contributed to the further deterioration in women’s economic position. Even the few changes that took place in specifics sections of the economy mainly went to re-affirm women’s continued subordination.

One of the elements that led to the continued subordination of women was that in the early decades of planning in independent India they were only looked at as components of development. It was simply assumed that the development process with enable the tricking down the benefits of growth and it will eventually benefit women. Thus, there was no effort to address these continued inequalities of gender. The inadequate presence of women at the decision-making levels and in the political bodies was a result of it.

There was a singular lack of appreciation of women’s special needs in governmental policies. In the First Five-Year Plan, it was under social welfare that ‘women welfare’ has been specially discussed but was left to voluntary organisations. Following this in the Second Five-Year Plan women did not even figure under social welfare programmes, but figure only under Central Social Welfare Board Schemes/Services. The Third Five-Year Plan went only as far as to promote education for girl child and Maternal and Child Health (MCH).

On the whole, in the social sector there are allocations and programmes in which women are either presumed to be beneficiaries or there is a reference to their problems but no attempt to deal with women’s issues and concerns. Instead, there is only inclusion of some services and programmes catering to certain identified problems. Five-Year Plans thus, laid emphasis on providing services for women which would protect them as a weaker section of society and the services constituted mainly health, education and related welfare activities. The welfare approach ensured that the policy-makers and planners felt safe as this did not threaten patriarchal, feudal structures and at the same time enabled them to say that they were looking after all weaker sections including women.

A more effective measure would have required penetrating analysis into the household asymmetrical division of labour and power, overcrowding of women in low skill jobs, roots of difference in the educational background and working experience between the sexes and continued different socialisation of boys and girls. And this is what the polity-makers did not want. They clearly accepted the existing unequal economic and social relations without questioning the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of these relations. The planners and policy-makers were reluctant to question them though these were contrary to the very constitutional guarantee of social, economic and political justice in the Preamble and the Directive Principle of State Policy. They dealt with the specific problems of women only through provisions of welfare service. But, even in this arrangement in times of financial crisis welfare services were the first to face cutbacks thus effecting women the most. Thus, the welfare policy approach and this low priority to women’s programmes had their origin in the basic ideology which treated women as only a weaker section, a housewife and a mother and hence with the lowest claim on public resources.

The development plans did not take into account women and their concerns till the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI) report. But, the report could go only as far as to enable public policy to marginally incorporate women’s concerns.

Public policy addressing women’s concerns must take note of the need to challenge the old tenets of patriarchal society and also address fundamental questions about the nature of their inequality, of exploitation and subordination and of the type of social change necessary to eliminate them. But, the welfare policy as reflected in the Five-Year Plans till date continue to be based on classifying and treating women as a weaker group needing special material assistance to bring them up to level of others.

By 1970s, it was evident that the state was in crisis. It had failed to integrate a large section of the Indian population into the political process and to the benefits of economic development, and it seemed unlikely in the near future. It set stage for rapid growth of the movements. In the context, the CSWI report helped in the formulation of the voice and the revival of a new and assertive movement.

The spur of the moment did lead to new legislation regarding matters concerning women workers, adverse social practices, women’s equal rights and property rights, etc. But these were seen followed by ineffectual enforcement and inadequate administrative support. New programmes were introduced but these always had inadequate resource allocation.

Starting from early 1990s the government of India adopted the structural adjustment programme in the backdrop of growing financial crisis. The liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation of the economy undoubtedly led to new openings in the economy for women. But, at the same time there was severe unemployment in certain sectors which were now mechanised. The expansion in the employment of women in other sections of the economy was due to feminisation of work force. The nature of organisation of their work was still unfavourable. Due to the increased informalisation of labour most of the women were concentrated in unorganized sectors in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs. The casualisation of their work led to low wages, unstable environment of work place and absence of job security. Thus, the state policies still did not take account of the structural inequality in which women were already placed before they enter the wage market.

Besides, the entrance of women into work place has not radically altered women’s domestic responsibilities, nor has it generated major changes in family support systems. Even when women are employed outside the confines of household, they are essentially considered secondary workers. The process of informalisation and casualisation of employment are further oppressive to women.

Work Participation Rate (WPR) on its own cannot be an indication of women’s progress. A whole range of other factors have to be considered in determining women’s socio-economic position apart from their statistical work participation.

Another trend of employment women are involved in large numbers are part-time piece rate work. Not only is this pattern of employment is extremely low paid and unstable, the very existence of part-time paid work is premised on women’s primary role within the family, and therefore reinforces the sexual division of labour that makes women primarily responsible for the home and the children. The drawback is that state too has been increasingly prescribing this line of labour for women. In the recent inauguration of 44th session of Indian Labour Conference, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated that he regretted that women work force in India is extremely low and called for ‘understanding the constraints they faced balancing family and work responsibilities’. Hence, he emphasised on making provisions for pat-time. Such continued presumption of women as essentially household creature and the attitude of state legitimising it are highly detrimental.

The continued differential curricula for boys and girls in schools are an example of the design of state policy shaping women’s jobs and earning, and reinforcing the sexual division of labour. Besides, governmental legislations like the Minimum Wages Act or the Equal Remuneration with all short-comings do not touch the bulk of the unorganised sector where the majority of the women are employed.

The gap between acceptance of women’s needs and concerns and the policy, programme and resource support continues even today. The state through its policies appears to be constantly aggravating and creating female subordination. Hence, it is important to examine the ways in which the state contributes to women’s subordination. The examination of the nature of policies affecting various aspects of women’s lives lays bare the mechanism by which policies reproduce sexual divisions, the way in which the issue of equality for women has been defined by policy makers and the effect of measures designed to achieve greater equality between the sexes.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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