Archive for March 28, 2013

Sexual harassment: Women journos condemn Sun TV’s actions

Sun TV sexual harassment

Women journalists have issued a statement in support of S Akila, Sun TV news anchor who was sacked for filing a sexual harassment charge against her superior V. Raja

By Team FI

The Network of Women in Media (NWMI), India, an independent forum of media professionals have condemned the sacking of a Sun TV journalist, S Akila who was fired by the Chennai based TV channel after she filed a police complaint of sexual harassment against her Editor V. Raja.

As per the press release issued by the NWMI, S Akila had joined Sun TV Chennai in December 2011 as a news anchor/news producer. Allegedly V. Raja, the Chief Editor and Vetrivendhan, the Reporters’ Coordinator indicated that the confirmation of her job and subsequent pay rise depended on the ‘compromises’ she was willing to make. This was, apparently, not the first time they had made such demands, but due to the hostile and intimidating atmosphere at the office, few women had been able to resist. As a result of her refusal to concede to their demands of sexual favours in return for job security and pay hikes, her confirmation remained pending even after completing the six-month probationary period.

Meanwhile, in November 2012, Akila’s Diwali bonus was withheld. When she raised the issue with Raja, he asked her to get in touch with him over the phone after reaching home. Upon phoning him, he told her that she had been confirmed and that she should “take care of him” for the favour. Akila terminated the call, but managed to record the conversation.

Her refusal was retaliated with harassment including verbal abuse in front of her colleagues. On January 21st, he summoned her to his cabin and threatened her with dire consequences if she went public with a complaint of harassment. Soon thereafter, in contravention of the norm of assigning shifts, he put her on morning shifts for several weeks, which required her to leave her residence at 3.30 am in order to be at office at 5 am, since the office did not arrange for morning pick-up.

V Raja

V Raja

When Akila confronted Raja on February 26th and questioned this unusual assigning of a continuous morning shift, she was informed this action was taken because she was not “adjusting” to him. This situation lasted for few weeks, till it became unbearable, upon which Akila filed a complaint of sexual harassment on March 19th. Raja was arrested under Section 4 of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act. Two days later, Vetrivendhan was also arrested on the same charges.

The situation however did not improve for Akila. She received an anonymous phone call threatening to kill her. Her friend and colleague Kannan who was aware of the harassment and supportive of her, was suspended on grounds of a complaint filed by colleagues who refused to work with him or Akila.

When Akila reported to the office on March 25th, she was not assigned any work. As per schedule, she was to anchor the 12.00 noon news bulletin, but she was not allowed to go on air.

In a complete travesty of justice, on March 26th, Raja who was by then out on bail, joined work, and the next day, Akila was handed a suspension order. Thus, a woman who resisted sexual harassment and stood up to demands for sexual favours has been further victimised.

The press release noted that that there is no redressal mechanism at Sun TV for complaints of sexual harassment. This, the release stated, is in contempt of the Guidelines issued in 1997 by the Supreme Court in the Vishakha case, which places an obligation on every establishment in the country to ensure the rights of women workers by creating a conducive workplace free from sexual harassment. These principles of gender equity and labour rights are also enshrined in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, 2012 which was passed by both houses of Parliament and is only awaiting the President’s approval.

NWMI members have also demanded immediate reinstatement of S. Akila, suspension of V. Raja and an independent inquiry into the case.

Meanwhile, J Ravindran, Counsel for Sun TV Network, in an email sent to NWMI, refuted all the allegations and stated that V Raja is still under suspension. The TV Channel legal representative also stated that Akila was “suspended based on complaints from more than 15 women employees and women journalists.” He further stated that an independent enquiry into both the employees will be conducted by a committee headed by a retired judicial officer.

Activists call CLA bill historic but slam tenor of its parliamentary debate

Anti rape protest India

Opinions expressed by many of the members of parliament during the debate have exposed their misogynistic attitudes towards women

By Team FI

Women’s rights activists in India, in a press release issued yesterday, have termed the passing of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013 in Parliament as “historic” and a step forward in the journey for justice for women. Activists, however, stated that the process of its passage in the parliament shows that the degrading attitudes to women persist at the highest levels of legislative decision-making. “With notable and welcome exceptions, the general tenor of debates in Lok Sabha on this Bill has deeply troubled us, as women and as citizens. The nation watched with shame many of our honorable Members of Parliament freely express sentiments that undermined the dignity of all women, unmindful of the gravity of issues of rape and violence,” stated the press release.

Activists felt that the tenor of the parliamentary debates regarding the bill, introduced after the nation witnessed massive protests following the rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi last year, dishonored not only the young woman’s memory but also the public outrage and protests led by the youth of the country.

The activists have acknowledged that there are significant gains for women in the CLA Bill 2013 wrested by the vigorous campaign sustained by women’s rights groups, lawyers and activists from across the country. These include:
• Denting of impunity enjoyed by police and public servants – Section 166A of the CLA Bill fixes a minimum mandatory sentence for dereliction of duty. No prior sanction under 197 (1) CrPC will be required for public servants charged under this Section.

• Expanded definition of rape beyond peno-vaginal penetration.

• Definition of consent and a crucial proviso to Section 375 (Provided that a woman who does not physically resist to the act of penetration shall not be reason only of that fact be regarded as consenting to the sexual activity).

• Inclusion of crimes like forced disrobing, acid attacks and stalking that destroy women’s lives, and can lead to their rape and brutal murders.

• Free, immediate treatment to victims of acid attack and sexual violence to be given by all Health service providers, with penalties for refusal.

However, several of disappointing provisions were also pointed with the demand that the parliament revisit them.
• Widening of the age net for statutory rape to 18 years, when it has stood at 16 years for 3 decades. This it is feared could criminalize young boys, tainting them as rapists for life. Instead, provisions should be made for discussion and education on issues of sexual contact.

• Rape within marriage finds no acknowledgement in the Bill.

• Systemic sexual violence against Dalit and tribal women is not acknowledged as aggravated rape.

• The incomprehensible fact the Bill which clarifies that no sanction for prosecution under 197 (1) CrPC is required for public servants charged with sexual offences, does not have a similar clarification regarding 197 (2) CrPC covering armed forces which has been excluded.

• The Bill defines the victim as ‘woman’. The Parliament needs to recognize the reality and vulnerability of transgenders and men to sexual abuse by other men, and amend the definition of victim to make it ‘person’.

Activists have also demanded that the “Government to take the next step towards comprehensive reforms outlined in the Justice Verma Committee report, and amend the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 and the Representation of People Act, 1951 to erase immunity and instill accountability across all institutions.”

Solidarity campaign for Suja Jones and child

child abuse

Petition by women and human rights organizations calls for support and justice for Suja Jones, who has taken her French husband to court on charges of raping their then 3-year-old daughter

By Team FI

An international group of women and human rights organizations have put together a petition to ensure justice for Indian national Suja Jones who has taken her husband to court on charges of sexually abusing their 3-year-old daughter. Jones, who resides in Bangalore, has been married to a French national for 11 years.

Jones came to know of the alleged abuse in June 2012 after a visit to a gynaecologist, when her daughter complained of pain in her genital areas. It has been a long battle since then what with the French authorities supporting her husband Pascal Mazurier who works for the Ministry of External Affairs and is posted at their consulate in Bangalore. The trial against Mazurier began on Saturday March 23.

Activists allege that the French authorities continue support to the accused leaving the mother to fend for their three minor children who are French citizens. They are demanding a more ethical attitude from French authorities. President Francois Hollande, during his February 2013 visit to New Delhi, was requested to grant equal treatment to both parties.

In a letter dated February 10, 2013, the Minister of Women’s Rights in Paris, France, was made aware of the following actions by senior French officials in India, who
• helped empty the joint account of the couple by cashing cheques issued by the accused from jail in the name of the deputy consul, leaving Suja Jones and the children without means of subsistence;

• retained the passports of the children, upon request of the accused, in blatant disregard of the Indian court’s decision to grant temporary custody to the mother while the case is pending; this also contravenes the obligation under French law for every French citizen to carry identity documents;

• stood by the father in court while ignoring the presence of the mother and her lawyers ;

• pretend that this is a marital dispute and not a rape case, although no divorce case has been filed till date;

• did not respond positively to any of the requests by the mother for financial and legal help.

Meanwhile, the French media, ignoring early medical reports and experts’ testimonies, have presented a one-sided picture of the case, highlighting just the point of view of the accused. Men’s rights groups in India are at the forefront of supporting the accused.

The petition further states that demands for clarification on France’s representatives’ wrong-doings were sent to officials in France. While the Ministry of Women’s Rights and the Ministry of Home Affairs ignored the demands, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs justified the actions of France’s representatives in India and maintained that this was a case of marital dispute.

On February 23, 2013, an ad hoc support committee was formed. It called on French women’s organisations to openly question the role of France in this case. The committee also presented its case to the Special UN Rapporteur on violence against women and to members of the Indian delegation in the Commission on the Status of Women.

Activists have voiced deep concern over news reports that doctors were prevailed upon to revise their original conclusions and witnesses to withdraw their testimonies. Some evidence from the first interrogation of the child is missing.

On Thursday, President Hollande’s Counsellor for Asia-Pacific, Christian Lechervy, in a press release, stated that representatives of the French consulate in Bangalore will not be present with the accused during court hearings.

Sign petition here
Suja Jones’ letter to women’s rights groups at the 57th session of the UN commission on the Status of Women which met at UN Headquarters in New York

Featured illustration courtesy: Sarah Gamea

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013: Facts & Myths

Criminal law bill India

By Team FI

A group of feminist activists and lawyers in India have created a facts and myths sheet to educate the public about the certain aspects of the Criminal law (Amendment) Bill, 2013, which have generated a lot of pro and con discussions. The fact sheet circulated yesterday is published below.

The Justice Verma Committee (JVC) report was a landmark statement, applauded by all citizens, welcomed by all Political Parties. JVC was significant because it showed a mirror to the Constitution of India, and reflected its wise and just guarantees of women’s equality. Today the women and youth of India are looking with hope and expectation towards Parliament, and towards all Political Parties. We urge all Members of Parliament to pass a law upholding the spirit and letter of the Justice Verma Committee; to pass a law that makes a step forward in our collective struggle to end sexual violence in India.

Myth 1: The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2013 is against men.

Fact: The new anti-sexual violence Bill is NOT against men. For our fathers, brothers, husbands, partners, neighbours and colleagues are men too. Are these Men in our lives not committed to seeking an end to the constant threat of sexual violence lurking around every corner? Yes, men must, and men do support this Bill. For this bill is against criminals. It is against the scourge of sexual violence, and seeks to prevent and protect our society from heinous sexual crimes like rape, molestation, disrobing and parading women or stalking.

We know that men too can be vulnerable to sexual attacks by criminal men. And we welcome the Bill’s recognition that both men and women can be victims of acid attack and provides protection to all ‘persons’ for these offences. But we further ask you, our Parliamentarians, to recognize that men must also be protected against the crime of rape and custodial rape committed by other men, and to change the definition of victim in section 375 and section 376 (2) to ‘person’ and not restrict victimhood in these instances to women alone. Men and women are and must remain partners in this battle against sexual violence.And all‘persons’ deserve protection of the law against rape.

Myth 2: If the age of consent for sexual act is lowered to 16 years, this will encourage child marriage, prostitution and trafficking.

Fact: The age of consent for sexual relations in India has stood at 16 years for the last 30 years, since 1983. The age was increased without adequate public discussion in the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, May 2012, 9 months ago, and later, in the hasty Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance of Feb 4th 2013. The JVC report recommends that it be retained at 16 years as it always has been in the IPC, to prevent criminalization of young persons for consensual sex. Women’s groups are merely asking for it to be retained at 16 years, rather than increase it unthinkingly to 18 years.

Retaining age of consent at 16 years does not mean social or moral endorsement or encouragement of teenage sexual activity. The law is not asking young people to do this or that. This is merely an acknowledgement that if two young people consensually decide to engage in sexual contact, we might want to teach them and educate them but we do not want to treat them instantly as criminals, or consign them to custody. For that is what ‘age of consent’ means – it means that a boy who has sexual contact with someone below the age of consent is committing statutory rape. If that age is now raised to 18, it means that boys of 16-18 years, or slightly older, will be held guilty of committing statutory rape if they have consensual sex with another person who is also between 16-18 years. In such cases, the judge will have no discretion under law and will be forced to place such boys in protection home (if under 18 years) or in jails (18 or above).

Indian society does not wish to treat as criminals and rapists young men and women who might engage in consensual sexual acts. For we must recognize that ‘criminalizing as RAPE’, the consensual acts of young adults, will make most vulnerable our young men, particularly those from marginalized communities. Third party complaints of statutory rape against young boys will force the Courts to condemn them to prison (if over 18) or protection homes for juveniles (if under 18) for committing no crime other than consensual sexual contact.

We must retain the age at 16 because raising the age to 18 years does not provide additional protection to young women against rape or sexual assault. It only serves to increase societal control over the lives and decisions of young persons, both young men and women. To protect their fundamental rights including the right to choice and sexual autonomy and agency, the law must keep 16 years as the age of consent for sexual acts.

Why should the age of marriage be 18 years and consent for sexual acts be retained at 16 years?

The age of marriage must be retained at 18 years. Marriage is a serious commitment and entails many long-term responsibilities of life, and it is appropriate to keep the age of marriage at 18 years. But there is no merit or useful purpose served by keeping one uniform legal age for every act of a human being. Studies, surveys and research conducted across India, including in rural India, all indicate that young people are engaging in consensual sexual activity between the ages of 16-18 years. The anxiety and legitimate concerns of parents on this count is real and valid. However, the answer to that lies outside the law – in education in schools and within families, and communication between the parents, teachers and young persons.

Retaining the age of consent at 16 years is only to ensure that when teenagers engage in consensual sexual activity, it does not lead to young boys being punished and imprisoned. Retaining age of consent for sexual contact at 16 years does not have any bearing or adverse impact on the efforts to prevent child marriage, to which we all stand committed.

In any case, marriage of persons under 18 years is legal and valid under the law. Consequently, sex between spouses, one or both of who may be between 16-18 years is not criminalized. Raising the age of consent to 18 years, treats consensual sex between married persons, one or both of whom may be between 16-18 years, differentially from sex between unmarried persons of the same age group. Tainting an unmarried boy of under or above 18 years with the stigma of criminality for consensual sex is unduly harsh and discriminatory, when compared with the legal status of a married boy of the same age.

Will the age of consent at 16 years lead to more trafficking and forced prostitution of women and children?

It must be emphasized that key to the definition of RAPE is the absence of consent of the woman. Each case where there is such absence of consent must be treated as a crime and punished.

In the case of trafficking and forced prostitution this issue of ‘consent’ whether at 16 or 18 is totally irrelevant. In cases of trafficking or forced prostitution, the consent of the girl or woman at any age is neither free nor voluntary; it is coerced and hence in the eyes of law does not amount to consent. The issue of age is irrelevant in all cases of trafficking and forced prostitution. As pointed out in the Justice Verma Committee Report, the police and other powerful forces are complicit in the crime of trafficking and forcing women and children into exploitative work. The 2013 Bill has special provisions to deal with Trafficking and we must ensure that these are rigorously enforced by the police.

Myth 3: The offences of Voyeurism and Stalking will trap innocent men.

Fact: The offence of Voyeurism as defined in Sec. 354C IPC, is very specific and pointed in scope and has no possibility of misuse or abuse. In villages, towns and cities, we know that the poor do not enjoy the luxury of a private bathroom in their homes. This makes the young girls and women particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse even as they perform routine activities of bathing, attending to the call of nature in fields and open public places. They are always fearful of men who may use this occasion to watch them or take pictures of them as they perform these private activities. The offence of Voyeurism will punish a man who watches or records a woman while she is in any private act where her private body parts may be exposed. This offence seeks to uphold the dignity of women and makes the violation of their fundamental right to privacy a crime.

Stalking: The crime of stalking takes a serious toll on the life of women. Gripped by fear and anxiety due to being repeatedly followed by a man, girls and women have been forced to drop out of education, quit jobs and even change homes to escape the stalker. The rape and murder of the young law student Priyadarshini Mattoo, is a grim reminder that if the stalker is not stopped, he can rape and kill. Stalkers are also known to throw acid on their victims, as a way to take revenge. By making stalking a crime, the law can actually prevent rape and other forms of aggravated sexual crimes and save innocent women from being brutally sexually assaulted or killed. The codification of this crime will fill an important lacuna in the present law. Only in situations where a man repeatedly follows a woman, either physically or through the Internet and this causes her fear or distress, will the crime of stalking be recognised as such.

Featured illustration by FeministsIndia

UN Commission commits to women’s rights

United Nations Flag

UN Women welcomes the outcome of 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, held in New York, this week

By Team FI

The UN Women today welcomed the Agreed Conclusions of the 57th session of the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which concluded on Friday. In a press release, the UN Women have appreciated the document adopted by the Commission, which not only condemns the pervasive violence against women and girls but also focuses significantly on prevention – “through education and awareness-raising and addressing gender inequalities in the political, economic and social spheres.”

According to the press release, the document has underlined the importance of “multi-sectoral services for survivors of violence, including for health, psychological support and counseling, social support in the short and long term.”

Referring to the outcome as a testimony to the commitment of UN Member States to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls, the UN Women stated that by adopting this document, the respective governments “have made clear that discrimination and violence against women and girls has no place in the 21st century.”

In 2003, when the Commission took up violence against women and human rights, Member States had failed to reach to an agreement.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday had called the proposed document un-Islamic. According to women’s rights activists, the Vatican, Russia and some Muslim nations had formed “an unholy alliance” to weaken a UN statement calling for tough global standards on combating violence against women.

Women’s organizations across the globe had expressed their alarm at the “constant negotiation of the language in the outcome document”. Women’s human rights are not to be negotiated away, said the press release endorsed by over 200 women’s groups and organizations and more than a hundred individuals, insisting that negotiations should not be re-opened “on the already established international agreements on women’s human rights.”

The 57th CSW had also seen the organizations and individuals of Arab Caucus express their concern over the positions taken by some Arab governments on violence against women. They accused their leadership of “increasingly using arguments based on religion, culture, tradition, or nationality to justify violence, discrimination and allow the violations against human rights and continue with impunity.”

The Arab Caucus representatives from non-governmental organizations underlined the fact that “the taboos and politicization of issues around sexuality are major hindrances to gender justice and the elimination and prevention of violence against women and girls in our countries. The denial of the existence of youth and premarital sexuality, extra-marital sexuality, sex work and same sex practices constitutes a dangerous threat to the well-being and public health in our societies.”

AFP news report suggests that western nations, particularly from Scandinavia, toned down demands for references to gay rights and sexual health rights to secure the agreement after two weeks of tense negotiations between the 193 UN member states.

Some 6,000 non-government groups were present in New York for the CSW meeting.

Criminal law bill 2013: one step forward, two steps backward, say activists

India

Women’s groups call for changes in the new Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2013, passed by the Union Government of India

By Team FI

Women’s groups and representatives of democratic and human rights groups, have called the Union Government’s Criminal Law (Amendment) (CLA) Bill 2013, as “taking one step forward and two steps back” in relation to “creating a law which is truly just, progressive and reflects the reality of contemporary India.”

The press release, issued after the Union Government passed the CLA Bill on March 15, 2013 states that though certain points in the CLA Bill are welcome, there are other areas where major lacunae causes serious concern. The issues raised includes the demand for the usage of the term gender-neutral for the victim of sexual violence emphasizing that victims of sexual violence are not only women but also men, and those who do not subscribe to the “normal” gender roles, that marital rape should be recognized as sexual violence, that laws that provide impunity to armed forces in relation to sexual violence must be removed and that the word “forced” to be added to the word prostitution to distinguish it from voluntary sex work.

The press release said that they welcome the fact that “only men may be accused of rape under Section 375 IPC of the Act which reflects the prevalence of the crime and reality of rape as an exercise of power in a deeply patriarchal society.” They also appreciated that stalking and voyeurism would now be non-bailable for repeat offenders. They support reducing the minimum age consent for sexual activity to 16. They also welcome that minimum imprisonment would be provided for public servants who “knowingly disobey the law.” And that “no prior sanction will be required from the government for prosecution of public servants for crimes of sexual violence.”

The following are however the areas where activists have expressed their dissatisfaction and concern. The press releases calls on the members of parliament to discuss these issues and follow the recommendations of the Justice Verma committee in letter and spirit for truly gender-just laws in India.

The press release reads:

Gender neutral victim: Victims of sexual violence are not only women but other men, and those who transgress or don’t fit into so-called “normal” gender roles – like transgender people, hijras, people with intersex variations etc. Repeated sexual offences against hijras are common knowledge and the Khairlanji events show how egregiously men can be sexually humiliated and violated by other men. While perpetrators of sexual violence must be men; the victims should be “persons”, i.e. gender neutral in appropriate sections.

Marital rape: This continues to be legal in India despite controls being proposed to address concerns of abuse. Women separated under judicial decree or otherwise, are the only ones with any protection. Ironically, complaints about marital rape are considered to go against traditional values and pose a threat to the institution of marriage, but the crime itself does not evoke such strong sanction. This is a deep failure in our laws.

Dignity and bodily integrity, not “modesty”: The language of “outraging the modesty of women” remains despite its subjective, patriarchal and moralistic nature – it should be replaced with “dignity and bodily integrity”.

No impunity under AFSPA: Laws like AFSPA, which provide total impunity to the armed forces, must go, as said by the Justice Verma Committee. We know that rape and sexual assault in areas under army control are widespread. Such offences are almost never adequately prosecuted by the institutions involved. We demand the all such cases be tried under normal criminal law in criminal courts.

Command responsibility: In cases of sexual assault committed by state personnel, authorities higher up in the hierarchy should be held liable for dereliction of duty by those under their command if they knew or should have known of the lapse.

Aggravated assault: Sexual violence committed in the context of communal or sectarian violence, or across caste-lines, is of an aggravated nature and must be treated as such.

No death penalty: Awarding death penalty in cases of sexual assault will have serious negative consequences. It is not the severity of punishment but the certainty of it that will act has a real deterrent. In fact the death penalty could increase instances of murder by rapists to keep the victim out of the witness box.

Trafficking, not voluntary sex work: We strongly agree with the prohibition of trafficking but at the same time it’s important that the government distinguishes “forced prostitution” from voluntary sex work. We propose adding the word “forced” to Article 370 to make this distinction clear.

Medical treatment and reparations: For the victim of an acid attack, sexual assault or rape, there is an immediate need from the time of injury of medical treatment, access to a safe place, surgeries, and on-going rehabilitation-related expenses. These must be borne by the State, whether it draws from a State fund, or recovers from the accused or from any other source.

The irony of iconhood: The life and times of Bhanwari Devi

Bhanwari Devi 2013

In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, then a Sathin, grassroots worker, with the state-run women’s development project in Rajasthan, was raped, by a group of men belonging to an influential community, for campaigning against child marriage. Twenty years hence, the sathin whose case catalysed women’s mobilization in the country against sexual violence and whose legal battle played a crucial role in the making of Visakha Guidelines, is still seeking justice

By Laxmi Murthy

“Only justice can fill my belly, not awards,” said Bhanwari Devi in response to a question from the audience about whether or not she had been recognised by international awards. She was speaking on 9th March at a meeting organised by the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore. The previous day, along with other leaders, Bhanwari had roused a massive rally in Mangalore with her fiery calls for solidarity and action against violence against women.

On March 8th, Mangalore saw an unprecedented coalition of women’s and progressive groups (almost a hundred) raising their voice against the saffronization of Karnataka’s coastal belt and the increasing attacks on women by right-wing forces. This was the outcome of dedicated work by the Forum Against Atrocities on Women (the Mahila Dourjnya Virodi Vedike, Karnataka). With delicious irony, Bhanwari Devi, veteran Dalit writer Urmila Pawar and other invited activists were accommodated at ‘Morning Mist’, the home-stay that was ransacked by right-wing goons who broke up a private celebration there last June. That none of the events, which saw the mobilization of more than 5000 women, made it to even the Bangalore editions of the dailies is a matter of dismay.

Many of the questions, particularly from the press kept pushing Bhanwari back into the victim mode and somehow managed to zero in on her vulnerabilities. It is no surprise then that she broke down on stage even 20 years after she was gang raped. When some activists steered the discussion to the context in which she worked – the context in which women’s safety as workers led to the Vishaka Guidelines – it was realised that nothing much has changed for Sathins on the ground.

As the lowest rung of the Women’s Development Program (WDP) in Rajasthan, a Sathin’s job is to act as a bridge between the government and the masses, essentially implementing and making any number of government schemes palatable. They continue to work in precarious conditions for a monthly pittance of Rs 1600 (raised from Rs 200 in the 1990s, after determined work – an uphill battle by the Mahila Vikas Abhikaran Sathin Karamchari Sangh, and the many women’s groups in Delhi which at the time were part of the support group), as described in a Saheli newsletter in 1997.

The task of “consciousness raising” or stopping “social evils” like dowry, sex selection, child marriage etc can be extremely precarious, especially at the village level with its deeply entrenched feudal, caste and patriarchal structures. Shyama Narang, a member of the audience put the question that ‘How many of us could enter people’s houses in one’s own neighbourhood and demand that they stop child marriage or refuse to take dowry?’ Bhanwari was raped while attempting to overturn exactly such practices. For Sathins like Bhanwari there is still no job security, no transport facilities and no support at all from the government for doing this risky work. This is only part of the larger critique of the WDP .

For someone who has worked in the government-run Women’s Development Program, it was somewhat ironic that Bhanwari’s focus was on individual effort, collective action and non-government efforts if any change was to come about. She spoke of her efforts to educate her daughter Raneswhari (who had accompanied her) – she is now an M.A B.ed and teaches in a school. She spoke of the support she had received from her husband, activists in Jaipur and women’s solidarity in general.

As for the rape case, Bhanwari does not talk much about it, frustrated by the legal process and the appeal by her rapists pending in the High Court. It is deeply ironical that the icon of the Vishakha Guidelines to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace finds the whole effort of law reform utterly futile. Her response to deal with perpetrators of violence against women is to round them up and beat them. She was also in favour of death penalty for rapists.

Bhanwari’s anguished response underlines once more why the best opportunity to undertake law reform might not be during times of trauma, emotional distress or mass mobilisation, despite popular or even progressive understanding of “striking while the iron is hot”. The job of reviewing or making laws has to be done when one is somewhat removed from the situation.

As for Bhanwari Devi, her life goes on, and that’s the wonderful part. True grit, impassioned activist, flame of hope – all the clichés in the lexicon can’t even begin to describe her.

Laxmi Murthy is a journalist based in Bangalore. She has spent more than 25 years in the autonomous women’s movement.

Featured photo courtesy: R. Eswarraj, The Hindu

Make breast cancer drug affordable, activists urge minister on women’s day

Breast cancer drugs

By Team FI

Health rights activists, cancer survivors and women’s groups in India have called on the Commerce Minister to mark International Women’s Day 2013 with an announcement of compulsory licensing for Trastuzumab, a life-saving drug for women with HER2+ breast cancer.

Trastuzumab, the patent for which is held by Swiss pharma giant Roche, is currently priced at Rs.6-8 lakhs (approx. 10,000 – 15,000 USD) for a full course of 12 injections, and is out of reach for all but the most privileged. An estimated 25,000 new cases of HER2+ breast cancer are recorded in India every year, with younger women in the majority among patients.

Trastuzumab has been recommended for compulsory licensing by an expert committee set up by the Health Ministry. The recommendation is currently under the consideration of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion in the Ministry of Commerce.

The Campaign for Affordable Trastuzumab has urged the Minister to issue a notification under Sections 92 and 100 of the Indian Patents Act, which will end Roche’s monopoly and open the door for local manufacturers to enter the market with affordable biosimilar versions that can compete with Roche’s product.

According to the activists, Roche’s pricing policy is irrational and unethical, and reflects its strategy of pushing the pricing envelope to the maximum extent possible.

The Campaign has also cited compelling evidence to show that measures such as negotiated price reductions and voluntary licensing floated by the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers are weak in comparison to the option of compulsory licensing, which can bring prices down four times more than price negotiations. Moreover, while negotiated prices will apply only in India, Indian generics/biosimilars have the potential of increasing access across the developing world.

The letter expresses concern at the Government of India’s apparent reluctance to use the compulsory licensing option to ensure access, even though this measure is available under the Indian Patents Act which was amended in 2005 to make it TRIPS-compliant. The first compulsory licence awarded in India – for production of a generic competitor to the liver cancer drug Sorafenib – has been recently upheld by the Intellectual Property Appellate Board.

The full text of the letter is given below:

To the Hon’ble Minister for Commerce, Government of India
Compulsory licensing for breast cancer drug Trastuzumab

Respected Minister,
Greetings from the Campaign for Affordable Trastuzumab on International Women’s Day.
We are writing to you to enquire about actions taken by your Ministry on the recommendation from the Expert Committee set up by the Ministry of Health to explore the possibility of issuing compulsory licences (CLs) for encouraging the entry of low-cost generic/biosimilar versions of cancer drugs in cases where patents and predatory pricing policies of multinational pharma companies continue to block access to these medicines for the vast majority of patients in India.

Breast cancer drug Trastuzumab on short list for compulsory licensing
Trastuzumab, a patented drug that can save the lives of women suffering from HER2+ breast cancer, has been recommended for compulsory licensing by the Expert Committee set up by the Health Ministry. The patent for the drug is held by Roche and is valid for another seven years. This patent, weak though it is, is discouraging local manufacturers from investing in the development of biosimilars of Trastuzumab that can provide affordable alternatives to Roche’s product.

The recommendation for compulsory licensing of Trastuzumab was welcomed by us as a huge relief to the thousands of women with HER2+ breast cancer whose lives can be saved by Trastuzumab, but who are unable to access this drug because of predatory pricing by Roche.

We surely do not need to remind you that breast cancer is now the second most common form of cancer in the country, and that young women constitute the majority of those affected by the aggressive HER2+ variant of the disease. An estimated 25,000 new cases of HER2+ breast cancer are reported each year.
Trastuzumab, often called a miracle drug for its efficacy in preventing recurrence and extending life in cases HER2+ breast cancer, is currently priced at between Rs.55,000/- and Rs 75,000/- per 440 mg dose, and is therefore out of reach for all but the wealthiest. An oncologist at the Tata Memorial Cancer Centre has been quoted as saying that less than 10% of the patients he sees are able to afford Trastuzumab at all, and even fewer are able to complete the recommended course of 12 injections. This is borne out by the testimonies of other survivors and their families.

The recommendations of the Expert Committee were under consideration by the Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion (DIPP) under your Ministry. Since then, we – and thousands of women who are battling HER2+ breast cancer – have been waiting for a notification from DIPP that will open the door for domestic manufacturers to invest in the development, testing and marketing of biosimilars of Trastuzumab.

We are mystified by the delay in the issuance of a notification under Section 92 of the Patents Act to initiate the process of compulsory licensing for Trastuzumab. The case for compulsory licensing presented by us in our letter to the Prime Minister in November 2012 (see attachment) have been endorsed by over 150 organisations and citizens including cancer survivors, women’s groups, human rights organisations, health NGOs and treatment activists from around the world and eminent jurists. Our argument has now been validated by the recommendations of the Expert Committee of the Ministry of Health.

Discount schemes are no match for generic competition

There is plenty of evidence to show that Roche’s pricing and marketing policy is completely arbitrary and unethical. The so-called “voluntary price reductions” announced by Roche – from Rs.1.2 lakhs to Rs.92,000/- and then to Rs.75,000/- – each time the issue of over-pricing is raised, are merely pre-emptive measures to ward off competition and retain their control of the market. Roche is also using market segmentation to protect its monopoly. Trastuzumab is being sold under two different brand names – Herceptin (Roche) at Rs.1.2 lakhs for 440 mg, and Herclon (Emcure) for Rs.75,000/-.

There is also evidence of a nexus between Roche and doctors in private hospitals – patients are being pressurised to buy the drug from the hospital pharmacy at the official price of Rs.75,000/- per dose, rather than from retailers and agents who offer the drug at prices as much as 25% lower than the MRP.
The Indian Railways has been procuring Trastuzumab for the last three year at Rs.86,957/- per dose2. This is also the amount reimbursed under the CGHS3.

These figures leave little doubt that Roche’s pricing policy is determined primarily by their assessment of how much they can push the price envelope rather than by the idea of an ethical profit margin.
Perhaps the Honourable Minister for Chemicals & Fertilisers was not aware of these details when he stated in the Lok Sabha that Roche would be bringing the price of Trastuzumab down to Rs.75,000/- per dose4 under an upcoming deal with Emcure for local manufacture. Considering that the present MRP of the drug is Rs.75,000/-, and it is already being offered by retailers for 55,000/- per dose, we fail to see anything to cheer about in the Roche-Emcure deal. In fact, there are reports that Roche has imposed anti-competitive terms such as a ceiling on volume of sales and a mandatory minimum price.

Negotiated prices do not expand access

Respected Minister, you are no doubt aware that the Department of Pharmaceuticals, Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers has recently released a report by a committee set up to examine the issue of price negotiations for patented drugs. We are concerned about the fact that this report being released at a time when a compulsory licence for Trastuzumab is under active consideration by both the Health Ministry and your Ministry.

While Roche’s actions in blocking any attempts at competition are understandable even if not justifiable, we are shocked that a government entity should seriously propose to negotiate with pharma majors without any reference to other concerned Ministries, and in complete disregard of global experience, which confirms that measures such as negotiated price reductions do not result in any significant expansion of access, since prices continue to remain beyond the reach of most citizens. Generic competition on the other hand can bring prices down to four times lower than negotiated prices 5.

Apart from yielding only limited benefits, time-consuming price negotiations with pharma companies can delay action on more rational options such as compulsory licensing, thereby putting thousands of lives at risk. The Government of Thailand, which began issuing compulsory licences in 2007, noted that “Prior negotiation with the patent holders is not an effective measure and only delays the improvement in access to patented essential medicines and puts more lives in less healthy or even dangerous situations.”

What is more, negotiated price reductions will be applicable only in India – a biosimilar of Trastuzumab from Indian manufacturers on the other hand have the potential for a global impact and can expand access to this life-saving drug across the developing world. India’s scientific and technical capacity in this sector is well recognised. The announcement of a compulsory licence for Trastuzumab will encourage local pharma firms to step up their investments in ongoing research projects for biosimilar development, and will facilitate the speedy entry of biosimilars into the market.

We have been greatly encouraged by the recent decisions of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB) in revoking the patent for the Hepatitis-C drug pegylated interferon Alpha 2A, and now in upholding the compulsory licence for a generic competitor to Sorafenib. These decisions have been applauded and welcomed by health rights groups and public interest groups around the world, for whom they are an assurance of India’s political will to resist arm-twisting by pharma companies.

When India amended its patent laws in 2005 to make them TRIPS-compliant, there was widespread concern about the possible adverse impacts of this move on access to treatment. The then Union Minister of Commerce & Industry, Shri Kamal Nath had said at the time that “the government has built in enough safeguards in the Patents (Third Amendment) Act 2005 passed by Parliament to protect the interests of consumers by ensuring availability of medicines at affordable prices6. We are disappointed that eight years later, despite sharp increases in the number and prices of patented drugs, the Government of India is so reluctant to use the provision of compulsory licensing under Sections 92 and 100 of the Patent Act to expand generic competition, bring down prices and expand access.

We urge you to mark Women’s Day 2013 with the announcement of a compulsory licence for Trastuzumab – a progressive and principled step that will bring relief to thousands of Indian women and their families who are struggling to deal with HER2+ breast cancer and its economic, social and personal costs.
Thousands of lives are at stake – we look forward to your immediate and decisive action.

India budget 2013-14: Women let down again

India budget women

A look at the Union Budget of India this fiscal year through the gender lens reflects its gross inadequacies on most fronts. The government has done nothing to change its shameful track record on gender budgeting

By Vibhuti Patel

The Union Budget 2013-2014 has allocated Rs. 97134 crores for addressing gender concerns in the budget (less than 6 % of the total budget) and Rs. 77236 crores for children. This budget needs to be understood in the historical context of the social parameters of the country. India’s record for achieving the Millennium Development Goals has been extremely poor as compared to several African, Latin American and Asian Countries. In the international arena despite the attempt to portray a ‘Shining India’, the country has been named and shamed continuously for not being able to reduce its maternal and child mortality rates, wide spread anaemia and malnutrition among women and children, starvation deaths in certain pockets, sky rocketing prices of essential goods, namely food, water and cooking fuel.

It’s in this context one must examine the Union Budget 2013-14. Last year the allocation for gender in the budget was Rs. 18,878.5 crore. Due to sustained pressure from the women’s groups and gender economists, separate budget allocations for women and children were made in 2012 budget.

Budget for women in difficult circumstances
The financial allocation of Rs. 200 crore for the ‘most vulnerable’ groups including single women and widows is an eye wash. Such a paltry amount cannot support schemes like Swadhar, working women’s hostels, one-stop crisis centres, a national helpline and the effective implementation of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act and the recently passed Sexual Harassment at Work Place Act.

Multi-sectoral Programme for reducing maternal and child malnutrition
This programme announced last year is to be implemented in 100 districts during 2013-14. It has been allocated Rs. 300 crores to scale up to cover 200 districts the year after. This is a grossly inadequate fund allocation which seeks to address 40% of children and 55% women in India who are malnourished.

Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS)

The ICDS gets Rs. 17,700 crore for this fiscal year. In response to galloping inflation, the amount is quite inadequate. A successful implementation of ICDS requires nearly Rs. 3 lakh crore over the 12th plan period as per an estimate made by nutrition experts while allocation has been for Rs. 1.23 lakh crore. Besides this, financial provisions for social security and additional remuneration for Anganwadi Workers and ASHAs, the principal carriers of the flagship schemes have not been made.

Anti poverty programmes and National Health Mission

The budget has enhanced the allocation for anti-poverty programmes such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (Rs. 33000 crores) and the flagship centrally sponsored scheme for public health-National Health Mission (Rs. 21239) whose principal beneficiaries are women as they are the poorest of the poor. The allocation for women specific schemes for economics services, welfare services and social defense have been increased up to 8500 crores.

Public sector bank for women
The budget has also announced an allocation of Rs. 1000 for an all-women public sector bank in which both the management and clients are expected to be women. The state owned Women’s Bank will work for financial inclusion and empowerment of self help groups, women entrepreneurs, self employed women and support livelihood needs of women. At last, the state finds women bankable!

The Reserve Bank of India will have to complete all formalities of license of the women’s bank by October, 2013. Bitter experience with private micro finance institutions (MFIs) who behaved like financial sharks charging 24%to 48% interest, used Self Help Group’s as foot soldiers and drove poor women borrowers to commit suicide due to harassment, has made rural and urban community based organizations disenchanted with the private MFIs. In this context, the announcement of a public sector women’s bank has given new hope to community-based women groups.

Nirbhaya Fund for empowerment of women

The sustained agitation by Indian youth and women after the gang rape of the 23-year-old (who was named by media as Nirbhaya) physiotherapist in a moving bus on 16th Dec. 2013 shook the whole world. To appease the angry youth, the budget has announced Rs. 1000 crore as seed money for a ‘Nirbhaya Fund’. However, there is no clear mandate for this Fund – that it will be used for rehabilitation of survivors of sexual violence and acid attacks.

Inadequate funds for education
There is no increase in allocation to education as suggested by the Kothari Commission in 1966. The focus on Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is not enough. Aspirations for higher education have enhanced exponentially among Indian Youth. Government aided higher education and vocationalisation of education is the need of the hour. The Union Budget 2013-14, has failed in its duty towards the masses by leaving higher education to the private sector.

No fund for housing for women

In spite of repeated demands from the women’s movement for over 30 years, specific allocations for safe houses and shelters for women who face domestic violence, incest, and for homeless women has not been made. Girls and women facing incest are forced to stay in the same house as their molester for want of a safe shelter. Homeless women remain ever-vulnerable to violence on the streets.

To win over middle and upper class women, the budget has offered an incentive of raising the duty free baggage limit for jewellery for women passengers to Rs 100,000, subject to some conditions.

From 2004 to 2013, 56 ministries have set up Gender Budget cells. But to make their fiscal policy gender responsive has been an uphill task. Galloping inflation has affected the toiling poor women of India adversely whose real wages have declined sharply. Due to the withdrawal of the state from the social sector, women’s work burden in the unpaid care economy (cooking, cleaning, nursing, collecting fuel, fodder, water, etc) has increased many-fold. The subordinate status of women manifests in declining child sex ratio i.e. ‘missing girls phenomenon’, deteriorating reproductive and child health, feminization of poverty, increased violence against women, enhanced mortality and morbidity among girls and women and deplorable condition of elderly women.

Suggestions

1. Efficient utilization of funds
The Ministry of Women and Child Development suffers from under-utilization of funds therefore there is need of increasing public awareness of all women specific schemes by effective communication through community radio/ FM channels, electronic and print media in all regional languages. Leaflets on each scheme with a simple format explaining the procedure should be provided to be distributed at the Gram Sabha, the District councils and the Public Relations Department of State Governments. A Central Help Desk for women must be established at Shastri Bhavan, Delhi to look into redressals’ in cases of apathy by the state government.

2. State government participation
In Centrally Sponsored Schemes, where the Centre gives 50% or 60 % or 75 % share of the funds and the state government is expected to give 25 %, the ministry should pressurize the state government to contribute its share of fund, land, building etc. so that schemes can be implemented.

3. Reduce processing days
Political decentralization must be supported by financial decentralization. Once the fund is parked in the ministry, schemes and programmes must be immediately clocked so that fund flow is made available to the local self government bodies within a month. Processing of proposals by women’s groups, SHGs and elected women representatives must be done within 15 days of submission.

Checks and balances that need to be in place make gender budgeting more effective

a. Provide for people’s participation in both budget making and its utilization to make expenditure process transparent.
b. Women’s groups and citizen’s organizations should use Right to Information to deal with bureaucratic apathy/antipathy, bungling, corruption and leakages.
c. The Ministry must clearly spell out various components of funds, functions and functionaries in a particular scheme/programme.
d. The government must build capacity of elected women representative with regards to budget making, proposal writing and proposal defending, maintenance of accounts, and RTI.
e. Evaluation Studies need to be commissioned to highlight the gap between plan outlay and outcome, local and global implications of pro-poor and pro-women budgeting, alternative macro scenarios emerging out of alternative budgets and inter-linkages between gender-sensitive budgeting and women’s empowerment.
f. Government departments must be sensitized about the visibility of women in statistics and indicators by holding conceptually and technically sound training workshops by gender economists.

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