Archive for March 12, 2012

NGOisation of the Women’s Movement: Survival vs autonomy

Indian women

NGO-isation has engulfed all of civil society organsing in India, including the women’s movement. While it has strengthened many groups’ institutional position and enabled a wider outreach, feminist solidarity and feminist ideology seem to have taken a back seat

By Vibhuti Patel

NGO-isation clearly represents the growing dominance of a certain organisational form that is different from the early consciousness-raising organisations and also different from the mass organising that women have been very good at. NGO-isation is not particular to women though. The impact of NGO-isation varies depending on the resources, level of operation and the organisational motives behind adopting the NGO model.

Historical Backdrop

When social movements of 1970s and 1980s started fragmenting and losing their mass base due to issue based narrow struggles, formation of special interest groups and cooption of articulate, urbane, English knowing, professionally qualified activists and leaders of peoples’ movement: peasant movement, workers’ movement, Dalit movement, youth movement, women’s movement and tribal movement into power structures, NGO-isation process began. Initially, they were called non-party political formations or voluntary organisations. In course of time they developed into legalised entities as registered societies, public trusts, non-profit or pro-profit trusts supported by local, corporate, state or foreign funding institutions.

There was an understanding that in the non- government organisations level of motivation was high, they were non-corrupt and were free from nepotism and red-tapism.  During 1980s and 1990s, the NGOs were applauded by UN bodies as rooted in ‘the local reality’, ‘full of idealism’ and ‘bottom up’ and ‘participatory’ in their approach. Many liberal and socialist thinkers also declared them as third force for social transformation, first two being Government bodies and political parties.

Beyond Guilt-Tripping

New awareness among the funding institutions about mis-utilisation of funding by government agencies was as a result of intense debate on corruption, leakage and misappropriation of funding in the Asian, Latin American and African countries during 1950-1980. In the early 1990s, there was a fear that the global funding might get diverted to East European countries that was culturally closer to the western world and had faced massive economic and political crisis due to collapse of Soviet Union.

This debate in the development studies circle brought massive changes in the functioning of the social movements in the post colonial countries which were subsidised by the outside funding. Initially, activists and experts from the minority communities and women were forced to accept foreign funding as they were marginalised in their own countries. Rest of the social movements derived benefits of these funding without publicly acknowledging the source.

Structural Adjustment Programme and stabilisation policies resulted into massive reduction in the state funding. Even the mainstream institutions and organisations started turning to foreign funding. New dialogue with the funders based on mutual respect has helped to get rid of the anxiety that the developing world would be left out by the aid agencies.  Induction of highly qualified professionals from developing countries as consultants to screen the proposals for funding is supposed to have reduced wastage and vested interest.

NGO-isation impacts on smaller women’s organisations operating at the local level in terms of an expansion of structure, loss of autonomy, erosion of agenda setting power and a prioritisation of accountability towards donors. However, some national-level women’s organisations have been able to manage the process through strategically mobilising resources and prioritising own agendas, thus retaining their feminist character.

Indian women's movement

Destroy dowry not daughters. A protest in 1986, Photo courtesy: Vibhuti Patel

At a wider level, the NGO-isation process has led to a blurring of the boundaries between the gender and development agenda and feminist discourses. This blurring of boundaries created opportunities for raising women’s rights issues at different levels, but led perhaps to a generational shift in how younger women engage with gender equity issues.

NGO-isation has impacted structure, agenda, autonomy, agency and accountability of different types of women’s/feminist organisations. Adoption of service-delivery models promoted by the NGOs and concerns over losing the feminist political agenda has taken away steam from the women’s liberation movement. Influence of management institutions have changed vocabulary of women’s NGOs who talk in terms of SWOT, OD, skill Development, value for money, value addition, USP, beneficiary and benefactor.

Feminist solidarity and feminist ideology have taken a back seat as in a neoliberal backdrop each one is competing for patronage, travel grant and institutional funding and perpetually insecure about poaching of talented staff and diversion of funding. ‘Contact is capital’, ‘Network for Power’ and ‘Concentration and Centralisation of Resources’ have been the mantra of NGO-isation. In this culture; spontaneity, trust, solidarity, collective efforts have been replaced by calculated moves, secrecy, individualism and atomized existence among women’s groups.

The only positive fall out of NGO-isation process is that, the feminist organisations have been able to strengthen their institutional positions (recognition by the mainstream bodies, consultancy, training centres, building, staff, and financial security) and create a wider reach through the links they have developed through collaboration on NGO projects. Moreover, women’s organizations were forced to rethink their mobilisation strategies and discourses, as a larger number of educationally qualified younger women and men engage with the gender and development projects implemented by NGOs.

Vibhuti Patel is active in the women’s movement in India since 1972 and currently teaching at SNDT women’s University, Mumbai.

Mamata Banerjee: A woman among men


An excerpt from Didi: A Political Biography, a book on Mamata Banerjee, written by Monobina Gupta, examines how being a woman of power is not synonymous with being a feminist

By Monobina Gupta

While she is that rarity, a self-made female leader, Mamata vehemently denies any affinity to feminism. ‘She is not a feminist. Mamata is just Mamata,’ writer Mahasweta Devi told me. Director Arpita Ghosh believes that even though Mamata may deny any connection to feminism, she has indeed ‘lived her life as a feminist’. She had no benevolent male patron (except, for a very brief stint, Rajiv Gandhi), no father, brother, husband, partner prodding from the sidelines. Despite many references in her books to members of her large family—sisters-in-law, brothers, nieces, nephews—the Trinamool president believes that her party is her ‘very own family’.

In fact, viewed through the gender lens, Mamata’s story does indeed stand apart from the narratives of India’s most powerful contemporary women leaders. Says Krishna Bose, ‘Mamata has not been the widow, wife, daughter or companion of somebody.’… Sujato Bhadra, of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), says Mamata, like Medha Patkar, the mass leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, does not challenge social and cultural conventions—or even the ground rules of patriarchy—through her politics or movements. ‘I have worked with Medha Patkar. The one time I was living with some activists in Badwani, I saw a woman activist who was actively engaged with the movement, but still continued with the feudal practices in her family.’ According to him, Medha believed in enlisting the support of the whole family and, therefore, did not risk their hostility by questioning the patriarchal, feudal norms.

In her books, Mamata deals with women’s issues like gender based violence, oppression, economic independence, and so on. As a minister in the Narasimha Rao government, she was briefly in charge of the Department of Women and Children. Her negotiation with gender is conventional and non-radical. In keeping with abstract principles of universal goodness and equality that she holds true, her understanding of women’s issues is unmediated by complexities. She falls prey to nuggets of conventional ‘wisdom’. For instance, she writes: ‘We often find opportunist women from the upper social strata living as they want to. In the name of liberation, they greatly abuse their independence. If such a woman’s family raises objections, she tends to use the law as a weapon of blackmail. Like many women, men too are victims of abuse.’

In another instance, she explains that women play a critical role in building a happy family and, therefore, contributing to the well-being of the society, but they are unfortunately also sometimes responsible for creating unrest in a family. Women often cannot stand other women, resulting in the mutual harassment of daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law. Undoubtedly, these are not the thoughts of a feminist.

Mamata Banerjee: Photo by Subrata Dutta

The issue of domestic violence surfaces repeatedly in Mamata’s books. Characteristically, she relates to these subjects through isolated incidents, personal experiences of the women she knew, her colleagues whose lives ended tragically. In her book Ekante, she narrates the experiences of three victims, Jharna, Anjali and Manju, two of whom took their own lives, while the third was set ablaze by her husband.

Mamata’s narrative does not indicate any effort on her part to contextualize domestic violence within the larger and pervasive phenomenon of patriarchy, control and masculine power. Perhaps this is not surprising given her proclivity to limit the scope of any issue at hand to lived-in experiences, sometimes her own, at other times, of people she knew and cared about.

Mamata, therefore, views domestic violence through the lens of her intense emotions, as a string of terrible tragedies that befell women she had closely worked with and had wanted to protect. Anguished by the repeated occurrence of violence within the four walls of private and intimate space, Mamata’s response, typically, was passionately emotional. ‘Despite their zest for life and their energy, Jharna, Anjali and Manju ended their lives under the shadow of their personal tragedies. Several years have gone by since their deaths. But even today their faces are engraved on my heart, their thoughts I carry with me in my innermost recesses. I am pained each time I remember their faces; I do not know when the agony will end. They have ended their physical lives, but will God ever forgive those responsible for their deaths?’

Mamata’s negotiation with gender has been mediated by the spirit of welfare and social service. For instance, as a Central minister for women and children, she wanted to improve the condition of sex workers, the ‘neglected people’ in society. Unlike many feminists, whose analysis of gender-based violence and exploitation is grounded not in victimhood but ‘agency’, Mamata’s approach is traditional, centred on the notion of women as victims. It is interesting to note here that Mamata’s perception of herself is as a permanent victim of sorts.

Though she has no access to a feminist vocabulary and cannot be ideologically described as one, her emergence as a single-woman leader of lower-middle-class origin fighting with her back to the wall does situate her in a feminist context. Perhaps Mamata’s own perception of herself as a woman leader of Opposition in a state known for its political violence, headed by an essentially male establishment, has given her the image of a feminist; though she herself does not perceive herself as one.

 This article was originally published on FIRSTPOST. Monobina Gupta is a journalist with the Times of India

Feminism’s unfinished business


Grassroot mobilisations, successful cyberspace campaigns, virtual information networks, – there’s more to the Indian Women’s Movement than meets the eye

By Ritu Menon

On any given day the Yahoo group Feminists India carries dozens of postings on dozens of issues, from protesting Vedanta’s “support” of balwadis and anganwadis, to campaigning for tribal activist Soni Sori’s right to a fair trial and demanding accountability from the police for her abuse in custody, to the politics of Slut Walk. The group sends open letters (including to Sri Lankan President Rajapaksha on equal rights for Tamils), invitations to seminars, book and job announcements, information on campaigns, requests for information, statements of solidarity, comments on legal judgments – all in a day’s work. Recently, Shyam Benegal and Gul Panag responded to an Open Letter sent by FeministsIndia by withdrawing from judging a short films competition sponsored by Vedanta.

It’s true that an internet presence may not have the same immediacy or visibility as being out on the streets, but the activism is still around and its reach is considerable. To all those who feel the women’s movement in India is on the wane, perhaps a more accurate assessment is that it is more dispersed, has deeper roots, and has shifted from being urban and middle class to more hinterland and, often, even more rural. In major metropolises, for example, the objective is not simply demanding that “eve-teasing” be treated as a crime;rather it’s working with the police, with college students, with planning and civic bodies to ensure safe cities for all – women, children, the elderly, the disabled, the disadvantaged. If the 1980s-1990 s were a time of consciousnessraising (as much for society as for ourselves) with all the exhilaration and energy that this generated, the 2000s may well be about actively working towards change, not just in laws but on the ground, in society.

Of course, one misses the excitement and togetherness of demonstrating on the streets and the sense of accomplishment at having a law amended or an act passed. But the movement is older now, more mature, and the environment has changed – we’re in a globalised, connected India today, and forms of protest and mobilising, of negotiation and intervention, have had to take this into account.

About seven or eight years ago, Akshara, a women’s resource centre in Mumbai that has been in the forefront of the movement since the 1980s, decided they needed to reach out to young people in the city. Not via your usual fete-and-sports events, but through a sustained and continuing engagement with them on gender issues. Today they work with 18 “low-resource ” colleges in the city, and over the years the students have fanned out to district colleges and reached several thousand others. With Xavier’s College and five other institutions in Mumbai, Akshara carried out a safety audit of the city, monitoring 22 locations with the help of 150 students. Their Blow the Whistle Campaign resulted in setting up a police helpline 103, responding to crimes against women, children and senior citizens. “The response from students has been amazing, ” says Nandita Shah of Akshara, “especially from the boys”.

FeministsIndiaResisting and reporting violence against women has, unfortunately, remained a staple of the Indian women’s movement, but its ambit has expanded to address a range of civic issues that encompass unsafe spaces for women in cities, ensuring safe travel in public transport, sexual harassment at the workplace, including the space where women street vendors ply their trade. In 2005, Jagori spearheaded a Safe Cities project in Delhi with (like Akshara) a safety audit, and in 2009, the Delhi government launched the Safe City Campaign in partnership with Jagori and UN Women. Its Awaaz Uthao programme has set up collectives in 15 communities across the city, made up of the police, schools, the municipality, women and other “stakeholders” to identify key concerns regarding safety, and then working to address them.

Meanwhile, Jagori Grameen in Himachal Pradesh works with women farmers in 45 villages, encouraging them to replenish natural resources through organic agriculture. “There is a direct link between the patriarchal exploitation of women and the capitalist exploitation of land”, says Abha Bhaiya of Jagori Grameen, “land and women, both are seen as objects of exploitation. ” SAFAL (Sustainable Agriculture, Forest and Land) recognises women’s work as agriculturists, as well as their role as ecologists.

Closer home, the link between alcoholism and increased levels of domestic violence is inescapable;anyone who has ever come to the aid of abused and battered women knows that in the background there lurks a man who has blown up a good deal of his money on liquor, often illicit. In the mid-1990 s, women in Andhra Pradesh, among them the poorest from the poorest districts, converged to launch the anti-arrack movement, forcing the then government to shut down the liquor vends in the state. A huge victory, but shortlived, because everyone knows the nexus between liquor barons, law enforcement agencies and political henchmen. Prohibition was repealed. In July 1996, Asmita – a women’s organisation in Hyderabad that had campaigned actively and participated in the anti-arrack struggles – and NAWO (the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations) organised a state-wide rally of women, protesting the lifting of prohibition. Twelve thousand rural women showed up in Hyderabad! “The streets were jammed, ” recalls Vasanth Kannabiran of Asmita, “and we had to keep getting food packets for all the women. The meeting went on right through the day, but not a single TV channel or newspaper made even a passing reference to one of the biggest mobilisations in the state. It was a total blackout. ” The 12, 000 women not only spent their own money to attend, they lost a day’s wage as well. There’s a price to be paid for empowerment, as many women know, but once empowered there’s no turning back.

Large-scale mobilisations like this, and many others by dalit women, fish-workers, sex-workers, and even domestic workers, are the result of years of work on the ground, a result of exactly that diffusion and dispersal that, to many, seems to indicate the “decline” of the movement. Just look at the impact of the literally hundreds of trainings of women in panchayats that have been done by women’s groups ever since 33 per cent reservation for women at the district level came into force. There are over a million women in panchayats now and thousands of them have been introduced to gender issues and to the critical importance of women’s political participation. Talk about taking governance to the grassroots! But Asmita (Hyderabad) has gone a step further – they have sent a series of Open Letters to the Maoists in Andhra Pradesh in an attempt to initiate a dialogue with them on gender – and they have gone public with these interventions.

It’s impossible to enumerate the number and variety of initiatives in this space, but in a country as complex and vast as ours there can be no single women’s movement. There are many movements, in many parts of the country, and women will take up those issues that are critical to their region and context. Women in the North-East have intervened directly in political negotiations because of the nature of struggles there, the presence of the armed forces, and protracted militancy. This cannot be compared to, say, the work that Nirantar (Delhi) does with rural women in sundry districts of UP, helping them publish their own newspaper, Khabar Lahariya, or what Pennurimayi Iyakkam, working with the urban poor in Madurai, does on shelter and housing, But they are all, in the final analysis, aimed at empowering women, whichever route they take.

This article was originally published in The Times Of India -The Crest Edition. Ritu Menon is a feminist publisher and writer, who has recently edited “Making a Difference: Memoirs from the Women’s Movement in India”.

The Soni Sori Case: A Travesty of Justice

Soni Sori case Feminists India

By Team FI

The Soni Sori case is an unconscionable example of how India, the largest democracy in the world has often failed to check its growing human rights violations record.

For Soni Sori, this International Women’s Day is going to be just another day in Raipur jail, spent in pain and discomfort that constantly reminds her of the custodial torture and injustice meted out to her by the Chhattisgarh Police.

Soni Sori, an adivasi school teacher and the warden of a government-run school for tribal children in Jabeli, Dantewada, was arrested in Delhi on October 4th 2011. She has repeatedly claimed that the Chhattisgarh Police had been harassing her ever since she refused to be an informer against the Maoists, and even attempted to kill her after they arrested her nephew, Lingaram Kodopi, an outspoken journalist in September, 2011.

Charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) among others, Kodopi and Soni have both been accused in several other cases of ‘Maoist violence’ and as alleged go-betweens for a bribe by Essar to the Maoists.

Fearing for her life, Soni Sori fled to Delhi to seek legal help. She spoke of her travails to the media including the news magazine Tehelka, but was arrested before she could take legal action.  She pleaded with the Saket District Court and the Delhi High Court to be kept in custody in Delhi until she could file her petition in the Supreme Court.  However, she was remanded to the custody of Chhattisgarh Police, albeit with explicit directions to ensure her safety and an order that a report be filed before the Delhi High Court, outlining steps taken to keep her safe.

After two days in custody, when Soni Sori had to be produced in front of the Dantewada Magistrate on the 10th October, she was in such a bad condition that she could not get down from the police van and go to the courtroom. A court clerk came to the police van and yet, it is wrongly recorded that she was produced before the Magistrate who remanded her to judicial custody for 14 days.

The police claimed ‘she slipped in the bathroom and had hurt her head’. The examining doctor at the District Hospital said ‘she was brought in unconscious, the X-ray showed injuries on her head and back, and black marks were observed on her fingertips’ – indicating she had received electric shocks. Initially Soni Sori herself said that she had fallen in the bathroom, but later retracted saying she had been threatened by the police that if she spoke of her torture, her brother, the sole caretaker of her three children, would be arrested.

Subsequently, in her statements to relatives and in a letter to the Supreme Court, Soni Sori said, “After repeatedly giving me electric shocks, my clothes were taken off. I was made to stand naked. SP Ankit Garg was watching me; sitting on his chair (…) he abused me in filthy language and humiliated me. After some time, he went out and (…) sent three boys. (They) started molesting me and I fell after they pushed me. Then they put things inside my body in a brutal manner. I couldn’t bear the pain and I was almost unconscious. After a long time, I regained consciousness (…) by then, it was already morning.”

Superintendent of Police, Ankit Garg

In response to a petition filed in the Supreme Court, a three-Judge Bench ordered an independent medical examination in NRS Medical College Hospital in Kolkata. The report, presented in Court on 25th Nov, 2011 states three stones were found inserted deep inside her private parts, which were the primary cause of her abdominal pain. The MRI scan also shows annular tears on her spine. Yet shockingly, none of the three hospitals in Chhattisgarh which ‘examined her’ found inflammation in her private parts, the stones lodged in her vagina and rectum.

Since then Soni has petitioned the Supreme Court for urgent medical attention and to be moved back to Jagdalpur Jail so that her frail body can be spared the torturous travel to Dantewada for every hearing on the numerous cases filed against her. Yet the Supreme Court on December 1, 2011 ordered that she remain in the custody in Chhattisgarh for an additional period of 55 days until the next hearing on 25th January, 2012. She is still lodged there while she waits for a hearing and so-called ‘urgent’ medical attention.

Ever since the evidence of her custodial torture surfaced, women’s groups, civil rights groups, civil society organizations, individuals and many others have been trying to work towards ensure her safety — protesting against the Chhattisgarh Police, demanding justice and action from the Chief Minister, seeking inquiry by the National Human Rights Commission, the National Commission of Women and so on.

Soni Sori Feminists India

Soni Sori: photo by Garima Jain-Tehelka

On December 21st, 2012, an open letter to the Supreme Court was issued urging the court to “give serious attention to the grave violation of the rights of a tribal woman undertrial, the facts and documents regarding which are pending before the Supreme Court in the case.”

The letter was signed by prominent personalities like Aruna Roy,Uma Chakravarti, Brinda Karat, Romila Thapar etc along with scores of other doctors, educationists, academicians, students and individuals.  Joining them were 69 civil society groups and organisations working on women’s issues, health issues, civil and democratic rights, and worker’s issues from across the country.

On the 12th-13th January, 2012 a delegation of women’s groups went to meet Soni Sori in Central Jail, Raipur but were denied permission. They met the Chairpersons of both the State Human Rights Commission and the State Women’s Commission, both of whom said that the denial of permission did not constitute any violation of Soni’s rights. Additionally, the SCW said that since this was a `naxalite‘ case, caution was needed.

No step has been taken against any of the errant police officers – even Constable Mankar, who was recorded by Tehelka admitting that false cases had been registered against Soni and Kodopi. As for SP Ankit Garg, he has been awarded a Gallantry Award by the President on Jan 26, 2012. This news evoked unequivocal condemnation from women’s groups in the country.

On 29 January, activists held a hunger fast in Delhi in order to express solidarity with her plight.

Charges against Soni Sori

Soni Sori has multiple cases against her—from being a participant in a Naxalite raid at a Congress worker’s house, to acting as an intermediary for the Maoists—and each of the charge sheets show her as an “absconder”… this, at a time, when Soni Sori was not only regularly attending to her duties, but had also met with police authorities to complain about her own harassment by the Maoists: her father has been shot by the Maoists, at the time during which she was allegedly working with them.

With all so-called autonomous bodies like the human rights and women’s commissions keeping their hands off the case under the pretext of them being ‘sub-judice’, justice continues to elude Soni Sori. And it will continue to do so as long as the nation continues to delude itself about what constitutes a human rights violation.

From Irom Sharmila to Soni Sori, these are the faces that should haunt the Indian conscience, today.

Women’s Day: Women with disability march for justice

women with disability march India 1

By  Kamayani Bali Mahabal

The city of Mumbai today got together to pay a unique tribute to the spirit of womanhood on the eve of International Women’s Day as it came out in large numbers to support the cause of women with disability.

It was a sight Mumbai had perhaps never seen. Over 100 women on wheelchairs were joined by more than 500 other Mumbaikars – common people, socialites, celebrities, activists etc., in a solidarity protest organised by the ADAPT Rights Group– Able Disable All People Together (formerly Spastics Society of India).

What sparked the protest was the offloading of a teacher and disability activist, Jeeja Ghosh (who has cerebral palsy) on the 20th of February, from a SpiceJet flight. Ironically, she was on her way to attend a conference on inclusion of people with disability into mainstream society. Two days later, another woman, Anjlee Agarwal (with muscular dystrophy) was also thrown off a Jet Airways flight.

“There can be no true independence for women as long as people don’t have the right to travel. Jeeja Ghosh’s case clearly shows the pathetic, apartheid like condition women with disability face in India. How can we celebrate Women’s Day when this is happening to almost 15% Indians who have some or the other form of disability,” said Malini Chib, Chairman, ADAPT Rights Group .

photos by Nicholas

Dr. Mithu Alur, Founder-Chairperson – ADAPT, explained the need for the solidarity protest, “It is shocking that women with disability – be they with hearing, visual or physical impairment – are left out of almost everything, including women’s movements. Hence, a lot of violence goes on with them without anything ever being done against it. So we decided to come out and tell the public how women with disability have been left out.” She added.

Dr. Ketna Mehta, Editor and Associate Dean – Research, Welingkar’s Institute and Founder Trustee of Nina Foundation that works for rehabilitation of people with spinal cord injury believes that this kind of awareness of people is very important for a country like India. “What you see here – all of us in wheelchairs – is only a small microcosm of people with disability. A majority of them are indoors and never come out,” she said.

Filmmaker Shyam Benegal, said, “Everyone has some or the other disability, visible or hidden. Yet why is it that we consider people with a visible disability to be so different from us? Why don’t we realise that the idea of ‘normality’ is an arbitrary and meaningless one as no one is totally normal?”

A resolution passed by the ADAPT Rights Group states that exclusion of Women with Disabilities from any organisation is a discrimination against a section of the population and of Article 15 of the Constitution. It was also resolved that in any reservation for women in any institution in the country a Disabled Woman has proportionate representation. We strongly condemn the inhumane and barbaric way Disabled Women are being treated by the Airlines – We want Justice for them from the Government.

Our Pictures, Our Words: A visual journey through the women’s movement

Our Picture Our Words-

By Geeta Seshu

Our Pictures, Our Words by Laxmi Murthy and Rajashri Dasgupta, is a graphic history of protest, struggle, and solidarity in the women’s movement.

Around 25 years ago, a woman’s rights activist took my hand, more used to banging on a typewriter, and dipped it into a bucket of gum, playfully telling me, “now that you are an activist, you had better learn to stick a poster properly!”

The occasion was a demonstration in Mumbai’s Vile Parle against the sati incident in Deorala. As vividly as I still remember my first demo and Flavia Agnes – the feminist lawyer who started out by fighting her own battle against violence – showing me how to smear the gum on top of the poster so it would soak into the wall and remain there forever, I cannot for the life of me remember the poster I struggled to smear gum on.

The incident came back to me as I feasted on “Our Pictures, Our Words – A visual journey through the women’s movement’, with such a valuable collection of posters and photographs of so many years of struggle. Like Flavia’s simple act of instruction, it is a collection of memories and perspectives that can safely be handed over to a younger audience.

Zubaan’s poster project  – 1200 posters and still counting – is a vital record of the struggles and debates that marked more than a quarter century of the myriad issues and concerns of the contemporary women’s movement in India. There must be literally thousands of posters that just drifted away with the wind but at least we have these painstakingly preserved archives. And now, with this book by Laxmi Murthy and Rajashri Dasgupta, we also have the context in which the posters made their statements.

Billed as an educational tool, the book examines patriarchy and the violence of subordination. Divided into four sections, it looks at the politics of the body – of rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment; health and desire; at the domination of the community – of religion and personal laws, honour killing and religious extremism; at societal politics – the denial of political participation and citizenship and governance and lastly, at the politics of access to the environment and land and the ‘invisibilisation’ and exploitation of women’s labour.

A poster by Aalochana, Pune

To cram in all of this in an ‘educational’ book is a tall order indeed and the book seems to groan under the weight of all that text. Other books (A history of doing by Radha Kumar; The Issues At Stake: theory and practice in the contemporary women’s movement in India, Nandita Gandhi and Nandita Shah; Fields of protest, Raka Ray – to name just a few) have tried to grapple with the myriad issues raised by the women’s movement. To make the issues more accessible and comprehensible to a younger audience is a challenge indeed.

Taking the visual route is a wonderful way to do so. Throughout, the posters and pictures illustrate and bring to graphic life what may seem like a grim tale of the control and subordination of women and the violence and denial of women’s rights. What the posters and pictures do is provide a face to the anger. Look closely at the powerful “Indian Army Rape Us” picture of the ‘nude’ protest of the Meira Paibas in Manipur;  the brown and black poster of a woman breaking off her shackles (Shramjeevee Mahila Samity, Kolkata), or the scream of the woman strangled by religion (Sheba Chhachi and Jogi Panghaal for Saheli).

The visuals also do what the songs of the women’s movement did – uplift and celebrate the unity and solidarity of women, their strength and spirit. So even as Laxmi Murthy and Rajashri Dasgupta examine the posters and how they depict the issue at hand (for example, the opening passage in the section on domestic violence is a gentle reminder that the early years of the women’s movement emphasized the ‘victim’ status of the woman with depictions of the drops of tears and blood and the downcast look ), they also pick up posters that celebrate – from the earlier posters of women streaming out of factories and fields to the later posters on sexuality and diversity.

The book does, alas too briefly, examine the image itself. Why were the women drawn in the way they were – ‘as sari-clad, long-haired, buxom and fair’ women  and as dark-skinned, barefoot rural counterparts? Why were such few ‘urban’ women depicted in the posters – the short-haired women who were the bane of Janata Dal leader Sharad Yadav? How did posters from the NGOs with their development agendas depict women and women’s issues?

It also does not discuss the manner in which these posters came to life, the discussions and ideas of women’s groups or individual artists and illustrators who were roped in, often making posters even as the protest was underway, cutting out or retaining something and even the ownership or copyright issues that have cropped up with some posters or the fact that in so many of the posters, ‘ownership’ simply didn’t matter. That does tell you another tale of the women’s movement and one hopes another edition will redress these gaps.

Geeta Seshu is a Mumbai-based independent journalist who obsesses about media representation of women, freedom of expression, media literacy, the women’s movement and all else besides!

Kerala: Women who caught eve-teasers red-handed arrested by police

penkoottu 1

By Team FI

Members of Penkoottu, a collective of women workers in the unorganised sector in Kozhikode, Kerala, held a demonstration in the city today as part of their ongoing campaign against sexual harassment on the streets.

The group was protesting the arrests of six of its members on 3rd March following a skirmish with a group of men when the women attempted to catch some eve-teasers at a bus stand.

The women were part of a 10-women squad formed by Penkoottu in order to put an end to sexual harassment on the streets of the city. This was organised as a part of the International Women’s Day this year.

On 3rd March, the squad comprising of women from an age group of 19 to 45, while confronting some molesters, were attacked by a group of men intending to protect the alleged molesters. A verbal brawl ensued with the men shouting that they would not let these men be humiliated in public by a group of women. Several of the men began to hurl abuses at the activists. The police intervened and arrested the activists. However, they were released after few hours.

A group of men argue with the Penkoottu activists at the bus stand: Photo by Satheesh

“It is absurd that the police arrests us instead of arresting those men who don’t let our women walk freely on the streets” says Ambika P who is part of the squad. “We will be doing this squad work till March 8th but if we get more support we will make it part of our regular activities,” she said.

The previous day, on 2nd March, the squad had caught two molesters red-handed at the Kozhikode bus stand and one of them was handed over to the police. The activists alleged that the other molester was taken to a corner by the traffic police under the pretext of arresting him and then allowed to escape.

“It is time we start a collective campaign against these street criminals in Kerala. We need put an end to this ongoing harassment. Not even single political party has ever taken up a campaign against these perverts,” says Viji P, a member of Penkoottu.

Kerala is notorious for street sexual harassment against women. Women get groped even in broad day light in public places. According to the data available with the State Crime Records Bureau (2009- 2010) Kozhikode topped in the number of reported street harassment cases (eve-teasing) in Kerala.

Those who wish to be part of the squad can contact Penkoottu at

Domestic Violence Act: A milestone for India and Pakistan

By Oxfam International

By  Indira Jaising

The recently passed Domestic Violence Act in Pakistan is a classic example of the cross pollination between countries of the SAARC region and of the best of our respective laws.

We often do not realize it but laws acquire a trans-border life on their own, as there is no stopping a good idea.

India enacted its Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) in 2005; brought into force on 26th October 2006. It is one of the most progressive acts relating to violence against women in India. It enables direct access to courts; cutting out role of the police in filing a FIR. This was a conscious decision to enable direct access to court and to reduce one level of intermediaries. Jurisdiction was vested in criminal courts to underscore the importance of the law, to gain access to the police for enforcement of court orders and to make the law accessible at the territorial level to women in their own neighborhood.

Criminal courts were empowered to give civil relief, breaking down the belief that civil and criminal law systems can never meet and build expertise in criminal courts on civil law of injunctions.

The right of the woman to reside in the shared household was declared by law to exist as a protected right for the first time in Indian legal history.

Recognizing that women need state mandated infrastructure to access the law, the institution of Protection Officers was created to record all reported instances of domestic violence, to enable the woman to access the courts by assisting in drafting applications and to assist the courts in collecting evidence and in enforcing the orders.

Over five years of functioning of the PWDVA has shown that it has been a success and is one of the primary tools being used by women facing domestic violence in India.

Ever since the law came in existence, the Lawyers Collective has been doing Monitoring and Evaluation of the law in coordination with International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) and other civil society organizations.

The latest of the reports- “Staying Alive, 5th Monitoring and Evaluation Report on the Protection of Women From Domestic Violence Act 2005” (2012) was released on 30th January 2012 at the hands of Hon’ble Supreme Court Judge, Justice Altamas Kabir. As the report shows, there are many problems with its implementation, mainly because of the inaction of the State in appointing Protection officers with full time charge yet statistics of court orders indicate that the Act is being widely used.

However, one major problem identified by the Monitoring and Evaluation Report is that Protection Officers have been found to be doing extensive pre litigation counselling going to the extent of calling the respondents and attempting a settlement or compromise. This is completely against the requirement of the Act and compromises their position as officers of the court and can put them in conflict of interest situations.

The recommendations of the Monitoring and Evaluation Report are that Protection Officers must stop pre litigation counselling and must refer matters to Service Providers on the request of the aggrieved woman and if she wants no such counselling assist her to file an application in court.

Domestic Violence Act – Pakistan

The news that our neighbour Pakistan has enacted the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2012 is highly welcoming. It is a well drafted Act, showing a commitment to protect women from domestic violence. The very fact that it comes from an Islamic country, should silence many in our country who argue that the India DV Act does not apply to Muslim woman and that is goes against Islamic jurisprudence.

Some of the similarities and differences may be noticed. Like our Act, it can be activated only by woman and children but unlike our Act it can also be activated by “vulnerable persons” of either gender that is vulnerable due to old age, mental or physical disability or for any other reason. This is a welcome recognition of the need to protect the disabled and provide remedies for the violence which they face.

It explicitly states that an application can be filed against a person of any gender who has caused the violence, meaning thereby that women can also be respondents. This is also the law in India now; with the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Sandhya Manoj Wankhade v. Manoj Bhimrao Wankhade clarifying that woman can be respondents in an application under the PWDVA.

Domestic violence is defined in the broadest possible terms to include physical, psychological and emotional violence. Insults, ridicule, blaming a woman of infidelity are all acts of emotional violence while stalking and harassment come under the definition of psychological and emotional violence.

Civic remedies are provided for criminal acts such as using criminal force and wrongful confinement, making it at the same time clear that the law is in addition to and not in derogation of any other law, including all criminal laws.

The right to reside in the shared household is declared to exist and unlawful eviction is prevented.

Protection orders and custody orders can all be passed by the courts in one single application for preventing domestic violence, making it unnecessary to approach multiple courts.

An interesting addition is the creation of the “Protection Committee” a multi agency body consisting of a medical doctor, a psychologist /psycho-social worker and an official appointed by the Court, a female police officer not below the rank of Sub-Inspector and two women members of civil society and the Protection Officer to respond to every case of domestic violence. The Protection officer is a full time government servant. Whereas the Indian Act visualizes a similar structure, this is being done by administrative guidelines and there is no compulsion on the State to appoint full time government servants as Protection officers.

This is significant advance over the Indian Act and shows commitment to the cause of ending violence against women. A government wanting to end violence must put its money where its mouth is and cannot be heard to say it has no money to create a cadre of Protection officers. The power and functions of the Protection Committee and the Protection officers are well laid out, much like the Indian Act, the difference being they are set out in the Act and not in the rules as in the Indian law giving them an unmistakable statutory basis.

The Pakistan Act borrows much from the Indian Act and it is time for the Indian Act to borrow from the Pakistan Act.

As we move into the Sixth year of the implementation of the PWDVA in India, it is time to ensure that all Protection officers are full-fledged government servants and gazetted officers with full time charge under the law to prevent and protect from domestic violence. Every individual woman has a right to get relief from domestic violence and that requires state mandated infrastructure to access the law.

The State must also commit itself to monitor and evaluate the law on an annual basis to ensure implementation and to learn from the process what needs to change. The Monitoring and Evaluation exercise is also a very valuable toll of mapping patterns of violence against women with a view of addressing the cause.

Years of working with the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 and now the Pre- Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques Act, 1994 have shown that the giving and taking of dowry has not ended and the birth of a girl child is prevented. The reason is we address the symptoms not the cause. It is time to cut at the root of the cause, an unequal society, where property and position resulting in power is in the hands of men. Vulnerability, not biological but social, economic and political vulnerability of women has not been addressed.

Meanwhile we can celebrate our successes. The success of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 has been that it has completely bypassed the police as gateways to justice and has empowered the affected woman to take control of her life without the help of the police as mediators of social crime.

No amount of police reform will result in a sensitized police accustomed to the “law and order” role of policing. One solution that we found in the Act is to bypass the police and make them redundant to access to justice, leaving them to enter when their “enforcement” function is required.

Indira Jaising is the Additional Solicitor General of India and the Executive Director of Lawyers Collective.

Sex Work: Speaking up for human rights

sex workers


Sex workers in a small town in Maharashtra, India, march for change on 3rd March, International Sex Workers Rights Day.

Either reviled or pitied by the state, society and social workers, sex workers – female, male and transgender – have now dared to break out of the victim mode and demand that they be seen as real human beings with rights, needs, fears, hopes and aspirations, just like anyone else. After decades of struggle, they are now slowly beginning to be recognized as persons and citizens.

Till date, for feminism, prostitution has symbolized oppression, victimization and the exploitation of womanhood. Feminism looks at prostitution through the framework of a rigid understanding of patriarchy, viewing it as objectifying women’s bodies, and as the commercialization of sex. Hence, for feminists, prostitutes are victims of unequal power relations between the sexes. No ‘real’ woman will agree to do sex work because if she does so she is living under the illusion of ‘false consciousness’. We hear activists talk of prostitution as ‘female sexual slavery’ and ‘sexual victim-hood’. These perceptions echo the early reformist discourse, which views women as needing to be protected, preferably by laws, from lustful men.

A complex issue that has troubled feminists is the question of consent. The women’s movement has raised the issue of consent in sexual relations mainly within the domestic / marital sphere. In prostitution, adult women consent to exchange sexual services for money, but this is disputed and the ability to consent is contested.

This is because feminism posits prostitution as violence, which forecloses any discussion over whether women can actively choose sex work as a livelihood option. Many women report entering sex work because of ‘majboori’ or difficult circumstances, mainly poverty, and this leads them

Sex workers Pride march India

Sex workers pride march : Photo courtesy VAMP

to think of sex work as a way of livelihood and thus work. But, without finding out the multiplicity of experiences, feminists have held that women are trafficked into sex work because of their vulnerability as women. Here, exchanging sexual services for money [sex work] is conflated with selling of a body to another [trafficking].

The basic tenet of anti-trafficking rhetoric is that bodies are unwillingly ‘sold’ and transported across borders. This dovetails perfectly with the feminist argument that prostitution involves no choice and is the major cause for trafficking. Trafficking is not viewed as an issue of poverty that causes many women to willingly enter into agreements with traffickers because they desperately seek livelihoods, escape from home-grown violence, poverty, conflict, or displacement – in short, a better life.

The movement to stop trafficking, by feminist and other groups favoring abolition, is therefore framed as the necessity to stop prostitution.The debates around trafficking also bolster the idea of sex work as violence. Violence against women (VAW) has focused on domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, acid throwing etc. When VAW is conflated with sex work, it becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees.

For example, most sex workers report that they experience violence and exploitation by and large at the hands of police and petty local thugs, rather than in sexual relations with clients. It is conveniently forgotten that a greater incidence of VAW occurs in marriages than between sex workers and their clients. Violence that does occur within the field of sex work is used to justify severe action against the sex work industry such as closure of brothels and ‘clean ups’.

The casting of the prostitute as the victim has engendered several positions on prostitution. Because women are conceptualized as ‘slaves’, one approach is to put a stop to prostitution in the literal sense – by demolishing it. The State and other establishments, such as NGOs, often use this abolitionist approach.

Sex workers pride march: Photo courtesy VAMP

Reformism, another feminist position, posits that women in prostitution need reforming because, as women who do sex work, they have no ‘character’. Rescue and rehabilitation strategies are used here. The assumption is that women need saving from sex work and then rehabilitation by giving them alternate jobs.

A third strategy, the regulatory approach, relies on laws. This does not take the stand of banning prostitution but rather accepts that prostitution is here to stay and needs regulation. Laws like the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act 1956 (ITPA) in India is a reflection of this approach.

Yet another approach is the rights-based approach – which is silent on the merits or morality of sex work, per se, but contends that women in sex work should have the same rights and entitlements as any other citizen, and the State must act as the duty bearer of these rights.

In India, prostitution is neither legal nor illegal. It has no status. We consider sex work as work, as a business, and do not consider ourselves as either criminals or victims.

In order for the stigma of discrimination to end, and fundamental rights extended to us to carry out our livelihood, societal perception must be transformed. To make the big change happen, small steps must be taken. To speak, to stand up and be counted is a step forward in the campaign for rights – the right to dignity, to work, to earn a livelihood, to education, to health and leisure – rights that are available to all citizens.

VAMP ( (Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad) based in Sangli, Maharashtra is an organisation for sex workers.