India women activists remind Modi of promises

Activists and feminists seek implementation of law to check violence against women as new government is sworn in.

Women's safety became an election issue for the first time in the wake of the Delhi gang rape in 2012 [AFP]

New Delhi – Two days after Narendra Modi emerged victorious in India’s national elections, Kiran battled the heat and crowd to see the man she had voted for in the ancient city of Varanasi.

Modi, a leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, who took oath as the prime minister of India on Monday in New Delhi. He will head the first government with a clear majority since 1984.

Kiran, 30, was stopped by the security personnel, guarding the check points on the way to the banks of the Ganges river, where Modi attended a prayer ceremony on May 18.

“If I could meet him then I would ask him how will he make India safe for women,” she told Al Jazeera.

Kiran said that she was harassed everyday by a man in her neighbourhood, who bothers her with lewd gestures and remarks. Instead of informing the police, the 30-year-old has decided to move out.

“He has influence over the police so they won’t harm him. Only I will get into trouble,” she said.

Harassment of women in public places is one of the biggest problems in the country of 1.2 billion, as policing remains a concern. Women face a daily ordeal while traveling in city transports.

Sushmita, a manager with a multinational company, was molested by a group of men in a bus in New Delhi nearly 13 years ago, but she never went to the police.

“There were hands touching me all over. I could not push them away, there were just too many of them,” 34-year-old said. “And it still makes me shiver to think what it felt like.”

Sexual violence

Sushmita, who voted for the BJP, said, “Of all the changes he (Modi) promised, women safety should be on the top of his list. After all nearly half the people in this country are women.”

Since the New Delhi gang rape in December 2012, tough laws against sexual violence were enacted, and women’s safety became an election issue for the first time.

The death penalty has been handed down in cases of gang rape, and a powerful magazine editor is on trial for allegedly raping a reporter in an elevator, while complaints against sexual offenses have more than doubled in New Delhi from 2012 to 2013.

So much work has already been done but never implemented.

by - Indu Agnihotri, Head of the Delhi-based Centre for Women's Development Studies

But women’s rights activist are concerned that the implementation of law to protect women against sexual offenses, domestic violence and dowry deaths will be inadequate unless the incoming government pursues long pending police and judicial reforms, which include increasing the manpower, recruiting more female judges and police, and unfolding an intensive gender sensitisation programme.

The 2011 census revealed a child sex ratio of 914 females against 1000 males, the lowest since India gained independence in 1947. Outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the practices of female feticide and infanticide a “national shame”.

Economic empowerment of Indian women who have joined the workforce in droves over the past decade has not countered the crimes against them. For years, women’s rights activists have been saying that gender inequality is at the heart of the pervasive violence against women.

The challenge of making India safe for women is arguably the most difficult for any government, and the country’s patriarchal society makes the work even more difficult.

While the rhetoric around women issues is now on the campaign checklist, practical solutions are rarely offered.

In his speech, Modi dedicated his government to the “safety and security of the mothers and sisters, those in the rural areas, oppressed and the deprived”.

Reflecting on Modi’s promise, Sushmita said, “I do not know where he should be begin, but in my list of priorities, he should address safety of women in public places.”

Al Jazeera spoke to women’s rights activists on how the new government can tackle the challenges ahead. They have also demanded that 33 percent of seats in the lower House of parliament and state assemblies be reserved for women.

The new elected lower House or Lok Sabha has 61 women out of 545 seats, a slight increase from the 58 elected five years ago.

Here are some of the demands and suggestions from prominent women rights activists:

Indu Agnihotri, head of the Delhi-based Centre for Women’s Development Studies suggested that Modi should begin by studying the wide range of recommendations, which have been submitted to successive governments, and use these to build a national policy for women empowerment.

“So much work has already been done but never implemented,” she said.

Meera Velayudhan, a senior policy analyst at the Ahmedabad-based Centre for Environment and Social Concerns gave examples of such work as the “Policy for Gender Equity,” which was adopted in 2006 by the government of Gujarat, and the Draft National Policy for Women in Agriculture, which was prepared in 2008.

Velayudhan said that the Gujarat policy was never fully implemented during the years that Modi was chief minister of the state.

“Proactive bureaucrats behind a strong leader are needed to take action,” she said.

BJP Manifesto: Provisions for Women
  • BJP is committed to 33 percent reservation in parliamentary and state assemblies through a constitutional amendment.
  • Launch a national campaign for saving the girl child and educating her.
  • Structure a comprehensive scheme to encourage positive attitude among families towards the girl child.
  • Strict implementation of laws related to women, particularly those related to rape.
  • BJP will prioritise a fund for relief and rehabilitation of rape victims.
  • Government will create an acid attack victims’ welfare fund to take care of the medical costs related to treatment and cosmetic reconstructive surgeries of such victims.
  • Make police stations women friendly, and increase the number of women in police at different levels.
  • Expand and improve upon the network of women or working women hostels.
  • Introduce self-defence classes as a part of the school curriculum.
  • Set up an “All Women Mobile Bank” to cater to women.
  • Remove any remaining gender disparities in property rights, marital rights and cohabitation rights.

Nilanjana Sengupta, who teaches at the School of Women’s Studies in Kolkata, said that government authorities needed to ensure that anti-sexual harassment cells worked effectively across college campuses in the country.

Sengupta, however, expressed concern that Modi’s background in the Hindu right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) group would make him box women into their roles as mothers and wives.

The RSS, which has a history of moral policing, opposes live-in relationships and gay sex.

Sengupta asked Modi whether women will have the freedom to choose a life that did not fit into their traditional roles.

Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, advised against more women-related legislation, while suggesting budgetary allocation to enforce existing laws and policies.

Raja pointed out that no money has been expensed from about $170m (Rs 1,000 crore) Nirbhaya Fund, which was created for the empowerment of women after the New Delhi gang rape.

Meenakshi Ganguly, head of Human Rights Watch in South Asia, suggested that Modi should ensure that all institutional barriers to women approaching the police should be removed.

One step, she said, was backing police personnel with support team of lawyers, medical service providers and mental health counselors.

“The police are faced with situations where wives will ask them not to arrest their husbands for beating them, but tell them not to drink,” she said. “They don’t know how to handle these situations.”

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Ranjana Kumari, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, suggested that Modi’s first move should be to set up one-step crisis intervention centres in every district of the country. Each centre, Kumari said, would offer mental, psychological and legal services as well as compensation.

“Bangladesh has done this,” she said. “So the woman doesn’t have to run from pillar to post looking for justice and relief.”

Ruchira Gupta, head of Delhi-based Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an organisation that combats sex trafficking, said that Modi needed to ensure increased recruitment of women in all government departments, and ensure that they were equally represented in the top jobs.

Gupta expressed concern that Modi’s handling of a surveillance incident of a woman by the Gujarat authorities, reportedly on the request of her father, revealed a patronising attitude towards women.

“There was no proper investigation in the end,” she said. “It seemed as if the men were making all the decisions for her, which makes one wonder if our issues will be trivialised or will he take us seriously.”

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Source: Al Jazeera