“I have brought the Indian women out of the kitchen; it is up to you (the women activists) to see that they don’t go back”. -Gandhiji on women empowerment
The above lines of Gandhiji to social activist Mridula Sarabai was as much relevant during the freedom struggle as it is today. The women – centric movement may have succeeded to bring a section of women out of the kitchen into main stream society, but the question to be asked is, if it has empowered them in real sense. The concept of ‘women empowerment’ which itself includes the world power may have different manifestations but broadly an empowered person is free to make his/her choices freely and also to fully realize his/her potential. A Woman who is already considered the ‘second sex’ in mainstream society has been always denied political, socio-economic and cultural rights. Even the progressive waves of globalization have not been successful in freeing women from the chains of patriarchal orthodoxy translating into conservation and over-protection for women.
In modern Indian history, the reform movements of early 19th century represent the pioneering efforts to address women specific issues. The reform movements of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Keshava Chandra Sen and others were representative of the Indian response to the Western Challenge to orthodoxy present in Indian culture. Although they largely succeeded in highlighting and correcting evils relating to women, yet they remained focused to middle and upper class women. Only Jyotirao Phule was to some extent responsible for highlighting the poor plight of lower castes women.
During the Indian freedom struggle the image of the women changed from a recipient of justice in the nineteenth century, to an ardent supporter of nationalist men in the early twentieth, to a comrade in the 1930s and 1940s. The Indian National movement gave representation to women in mainstream politics. However the compulsion of national leaders to separate the social question from the political question (especially related to women) put women related issues on a back foot. The fundamentalists vigorously opposed women empowerment reforms citing religious sanctions, as witnessed during their opposition to the Age of Consent bill in 1890s. The Indian National Congress (INC) also ignored the women question and believed that independence would automatically usher in an era of women reforms.
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Gandhian movement definitely provided a sense of unity to women’s question, but Gandhiji himself adhering to Varnashrama dharma never dared to question the inherent contradictions within Indian culture on the foundation of religious dogmas. However some independent efforts continued to address women centric issues like the formation of all India women’ conference in 1927 and the Nehru report (1929) which vouched for equal political rights for women. However the social question was conspicuously absent from all these ventures.
Communist accepted women in their mass movements and consequently like Tebhaga movement in 1940s and Naxalite movement from the late 1960s saw an increasing participation of women in their movements. This upto some extent promoted women empowerment.
However the Communist model accepted women only as comrades and never attempted to integrate them into their leadership structure. Further women volunteers in these movements complained that they were expected to be blind followers of instructions and were also forced to marry their male counterparts. One of the primary reasons to the increasing trend of surrender by women Naxals is also that they have reported of ‘rapes’ by Naxal leaders and have been instructed to consider it is a service for a greater cause.
After a period of consolidation post independence, 1960s and 1970s again witnessed the increasing participation of women in a number of movements – JP movement, the Chipko movements and the anti-price movement. Special mention is to be made of the anti-price movement which spread from Maharashtra to Gujarat where it meshed into the Nav Nirman movement influenced by the JPs ‘Total Revolution’. Other important women empowerment related development was the formation of SEWA (Self Employed women’s Association) which for the first time took over the issue of women in unorganized sector who worked as vendors and hawkers. It was a significant initiative which organized them into a union which along with collective bargaining provided training, credit and technical help.
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The issues of ‘gender violence’ was raised through the anti-liquor protests demanding prohibition with the successful one being in Andhra Pradesh in mid 1990s. The phenomenon of ‘wife-beating’ although considered normal in present middle and upper class families, found zero-acceptances among working class women. As recent as in Bihar in 2016 the prohibition law was enacted mainly due to the pressing demands of women. Another dimension of gender-violence is ‘dowry’ which has even resulted in immolating women by their in laws or they themselves committing suicide due to constant pestering(recently wife of Kabaddi super star committed suicide) by their in laws or husband to bring in more dowry. The genesis of dowry can be attributed to two factors – the culture of Patrilocal residence due to which a married women has to leave her father’s property and also due to the fact that succession laws, inheritance laws have only remained on paper. The All India Democratic Women’s Association set up in 1981 conducted a door-to-door campaign on the issue and consequently amendments to the 1961 dowry prohibition act were passed in 1984. However dowries continue to be demanded and also given in Hindi speaking belts as the causative factors have not been addressed.
The heart wrenching form of gender violence is ‘rape’ which ruins the bodily integrity of women. Women have always been associated with sexuality and thus have been viewed primarily as ‘objects for satisfying carnal pleasure. The disapproval of the political class to criminalize mental rape points to a grim reality that women despite their progression in the education and economic hierarchy continue to be regarded as a man’s possession who has no independent identity after marriage. Further the concept of purity and pollution when juxtaposed with Sanskritisation has further reduced the concept of sexuality for a woman. Thus events like falling child sex-ratio, honour killing even in economically prosperous regions points to a cultural drag which continue to stifle women’s freedom.
The increasing incidences of rape especially in urban areas is due to the backlash effect according to which certain sections of society have reacted violently to the socio-economic and cultural advancement of women. The furor of over Rameeza Bi case in 1970s and the Mathura case in 1980s led to the passage of a bill in 1983 which made custodial rape a more heinous crime than forms of rape and shifted the burden of proof on the accused.
The close relation between women empowerment and environment let to rise of ecological movements spearheaded by women. As a part of the new social movement, the eco-feminist movement likes the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand and the recent Narmada Bachao Andolan has drawn wide support of the NGOs and often forced government to adopt a conciliatory stance w.r.t. genuine women issues.
In the recent women centric schemes, the government seeks to provide women with reproductive rights. The Medical Terminancy of Pregnancy Bill and schemes like Janani Suraksha Yojana and Matritva Sahayog Yojana are commendable steps in this regard. A recent report studying the impacts of these initiatives found falling infant and maternal mortality rates and also closing gaps between urban and rural women in terms of institutional deliveries. Initiatives like Kudumbshree, Mahila samakhya yojana and SHG Bank linkage programme seek to achieve the objectives of financial inclusion for women empowerment. However issues like lack of technological exposure, poor awareness and poor accessibility to credit continue to obstruct the entrepreneurial spirit in them.
Despite the commendable efforts by the government with the active support of NGOs to empower women, certain factors continue to be a drag in these ventures. While cultural and psychological factors are certainly the predominant causes, other events are undoing the women empowerment drive. In the recent Rajbaala vs State of Haryana Case it was found that with the passage of the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015 only 57 per cent of this population will be eligible to contest in Panchayati elections Of Haryana. Similar legislations have impaired the prospect for Women representation in executive bodies. Further the reluctance of the Parliament to pass the women reservation bill (granting them 33 per cent reservations in Parliament) also points to reluctance to share power with women. Until Women are themselves positioned to make policy decisions for themselves the goal of women empowerment shall always remain elusive.