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‘Nothing Has Changed For Delhi’s Women Since December 2012’: DCW Chief Swati Maliwal

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From controversies surrounding her appointment to having FIRs registered against her, the RTI and women’s rights activist and Chief of the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) Swati Maliwal has withstood all kinds of opposition that has come her way.

In a candid chat with Youth Ki Awaaz, Maliwal told us why she is perhaps the “angriest person” in the system, her experiences of working inside the government, and why she thinks Delhi is indeed “the rape and stalking capital” of India:

Shikha Sharma (SS): You quit a cushy, corporate job to become a social activist. Can you tell us a bit about this journey and why you made the transition?

Swati Maliwal (SM): During the last year of my engineering, I had become active in social work. I got placed in HCL after my graduation. There is this joining period of 2-3 months where you get leave. One day, I was crossing a school for underprivileged children and saw this really elderly gentleman teaching them. I met him, started sitting in his classes and teaching these children.

There were about 20 children in his class, and it increased to 80 in a month or two. That really inspired me. My interaction with these children also made me feel that there is much more that I need to learn about my country. Somewhere I also felt that if I take up that job, it would just be about more power, more money, more fashionable lifestyle, but I may not ever learn the truth. So, I decided that for one year I will work at the grassroots, and then take up some other corporate job. But then, one year converted into 10 years and here I am.

Delhi Women Commission Chief Swati Maliwal. Photo by Raj K. Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.

SS: You have been a social activist all your life. What has been your experience of working inside a government set-up like DCW? What are the good and the bad parts? What has the Commission done to work on women’s safety?

SM: When I came in (to DCW), I realised none of the computers were working, there were just 20 people working here. Cases were pending from anywhere between 6 months to 3 years, and there was no system to deal with them in an organised manner. The programmes were running without any monitoring. All this was very shocking. This was running like a typical sarkari daftar (government office), and I really wanted to change that.

Listen to Swati Maliwal talk about ‘The Politics of Protest’ with independent MLA Jignesh Mevani and former AUSU President, Richa Singh at the Youth Ki Awaaz Summit – a two-day event that’ll bring together 20+ changemakers from across themes who define the voice of young India. To attend, click here to apply!

So we did a few things. We first got more staff. We ensured each and every programme gets properly designed and monitored. For instance, under our leadership in the past 6 months, the 181 helpline has received over 3.16 lakh calls. The Commission handled 12,000 cases in 2017 while earlier 2,500 cases were handled. The previous chairperson in the last 8 years had handled only one case. That’s the difference that we have brought about. We take action on a case within 72 hours. We have increased empathy, increased resources and are making the Commission work as a non-sarkari place. We also happen to be the only Commission that works Saturdays.

SS: Women in this city, in this country don’t feel safe, and they are very angry that their government doesn’t care. The system doesn’t care. As head of DCW, don’t you feel angry about this sad state of affairs?

SM: I think I am the angriest person right now. I feel real anger. I also feel so sad and troubled because, at the end of the day, I know we can change the system. It is very unfortunate that we are not being able to do it. Look at the conviction rates. 31,446 crimes against women between 2012-14 in Delhi. 146 convictions. Please tell me how are we sending a message across to rapists and to people who abuse women that we take crimes against women seriously? We have people like Abu Azmi and G. Parmeshwar who are going berserk on national television, and bringing national and international shame to the country, and yet no action is taken. There is a lot of talk about women empowerment, a lot of talk – we Indians we are very happy in talking, we will have a lot of conferences and seminars, but where is the action? There is no action and it is very painful that for the past 4 years since Nirbhaya has died, nothing has changed for Delhi. Absolutely nothing.

SS: The law requires that we don’t name the victim/survivor in rape cases. Many, however, argue that there should be no stigma in naming the woman, since she has nothing to be ashamed out. Jyoti Singh’s father has also repeatedly said that he is not ashamed in naming his daughter. What is your view on this?

SM: I think the law is perfectly designed in that aspect. If God forbid, something like this happens to me, I will be able to come out in the open and talk about it because I have that kind of a strength. But that would also require a lot of struggle and fight because there is a stigma attached to this particular act of violence, however much we want to wish it away. Which is completely bizarre because, at the end of the day, the man who has raped should be the one who should be ashamed.

Unfortunately, for our system, it is not like that. So there are women who would feel very very scared of getting their name revealed and would not be able to come out in the open. The law is to protect such women. The law very categorically allows naming in certain instances too. If there’s a case and the girl gives her consent in revealing the name, it is fine. That is why I think that the law in its present state is OK because however much we try to destigmatise rape, absence of provision will really prevent women from coming out and reporting the crime.

SS: It is thought by some that commissions like the Delhi Commission for Women and National Commission for Women don’t have much teeth or powers to affect real change. What would you say to those who say this?

SM: I feel we have a lot of teeth. The only problem is we don’t exercise it and then we blame the acts. If you look at DCW, in a short span of one and a half years, we have made ourselves so powerful that the entire establishment is right now attacking the Commission to silence it. We have a lot of power, we can summon, we can issue arrest warrants, we even summoned the police commissioner when he failed to give us data on crimes against women for 6 months. The entire data came soon after, and he even allowed us to research in 3 police stations. So when you want to exercise your power, you get your power, you are able to draw it. It is also why we are under so much attack. Because we are powerful. However, what is required is protection. We are right now faced with rapists, molesters, we are faced with vested interests who are very high up in the entire system and we are all alone fighting it out, and there is absolutely no protection. I think we need protection, powers we have quite a bit.

SS: In your tenure as the head of DCW, you have really gone after brothels in GB road. Has anything come of it? What is the Commission doing there?

SM: Even in GB road, we were under a lot of attack. Why? Because it is a multi-million dollar industry running three kilometres from the parliament. There are 5000 women. Each woman is being forced to sleep with 30 odd men, and women are being sold like food tokens. And there are these tehkhanas (dungeons) where there are stocking up 15 women. It’s a horrible and horrifying situation happening three kilometres from Parliament, but no action has been taken.

The Commission has started work on 2-3 aspects. One, we are trying to identify who own these brothels, because it is very interesting that the entire system is telling us that we don’t know who the owners are, That cannot be true. And the ITPA categorically states that if a minor is recovered, the owner of the brothel has to be behind bars. Never has that happened in the history of GB road. I am of the opinion that such a huge racket cannot run without the complicity of the system and authorities.

The other thing we are trying to do is to demolish these tehkhanas, because it is inhumane. We issued notices to MCD asking them why these illegal structures haven’t been demolished and instantly they said we are setting up a survey team. The third and most important thing is that we want these women to be rehabilitated, because until you work towards rehabilitation- when this whole thing finishes, where will these women go? So we have issued notices to the Women and Child Development Secretary of Delhi Government to find out if a rehabilitation policy has been developed because we have been raising this issue for the past one year. And we want to know what exactly has happened.

SS: You have also taken on the racket of placement agencies running in Delhi. What has been happening there?

SM: Placement agencies are running a huge nexus in Delhi. They need to be immediately regulated for which we had issued a notice to the labour department asking them how many placement agencies are there, and how many are licensed. They told there are 100 odd placement agencies, and only one is licensed. We had issued a notice to them, and they had assured us that all will be licensed. Now enough time has passed, so we will be sending out another notice. We have also asked them on the status of the bill that is meant to regulate placement agencies. We will be working on these two aspects. It is extremely important that these placement agencies be regulated, not just for the workers, but also for the employers.

SS: Do you really think Delhi is the country’s rape capital? Or is just an exaggerated claim like some people say?

SM: We are now the stalking capital also. The fact is that there is no doubt we are the rape capital of the country because almost six rapes are committed every day. It means one rape every four hours. An 11-month-old girl was raped in Delhi recently, there was a four-year-old girl who was raped and murdered, the very next day a three-and-a-half-year-old girl was raped and murdered. The number of cases are just staggering. Like when you had asked me are you angry, I am really very angry because the Commission is visiting each and every place, and all these little girls who are being raped, I am going and visiting them in hospitals. And their pain is becoming our pain, and entire Delhi is reverberating with this pain.

SS: What is the problem? And why are the governments not able to work out a practical solution to this problem?

SM: In Delhi, there is a very strange problem of conflict of interest with lots of stakeholders. We have requested the Centre to set up a high-level committee with Rajnath Singhji, Arvind Kejriwal, the police commissioner, LG and DCW, and we have requested them to meet two times in a month, because the fact is that there is no decision making happening at the top. Being a special state, the blame just gets passed on and no work is being done. I just feel very sad that not a single women’s safety meeting has happened in the capital in the last one year.

This problem does have solutions. We need to increase convictions. but how will they increase? One, you need to have proper investigation. There are two aspects to that – increasing police resources and accountability. Presently, the police commissioner doesn’t even have a software to assess how many chargesheets are pending in each police station. When we asked for data, he told us that 50% cases of crimes against women in 2014 had not been investigated until Feb 2016. Jab investigation nai karoge, toh kya saza hogi? (If you won’t conduct the investigation, how will you punish the culprit?)

The second thing is forensic labs. We issued a notice to the forensics lab and were informed that 7500 samples are pending, out of which 1500 samples have putrefied. These could be gangrape victims, these could be any kind of victim, just because their name doesn’t appear in the media doesn’t mean they have no life. We need to work on this. And the third is the number of Courts. These things can be changed. I am sure convictions can be increased if we all set up a system. And Delhi being the national capital, we need to bring out a model. However, what is happening? Nothing.

Listen to Swati Maliwal talk about ‘The Politics of Protest’ with independent MLA Jignesh Mevani and former AUSU President, Richa Singh at the Youth Ki Awaaz Summit – a two-day event that’ll bring together 20+ changemakers from across themes who define the voice of young India. To attend, click here to apply!

Image source: K Asif/India Today Group/Getty Images
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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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