Fight for gender equality as India votes

Al Jazeera profiles four activists working across the country for gender equality and political representation.

India’s political parties have been heading high-voltage campaigns in the ongoing parliamentary elections to lure voters. But one issue has been drowned in the din of election speeches – the political under-representation of women.

Even though political parties of all kinds have supported the reservation of seats for women in the legislature, they have not given enough tickets to women this year.

In fact, only 62 women are currently sitting parliamentarians in the Lok Sabha or Lower House and constitute 11.4 percent of the total 545 MPs, bringing India’s global ranking to 111th and behind countries like Pakistan and Nepal

The issue of women’s safety has only been cursorily touched upon by leaders in the wake of the gang-rape of a medical student in the capital, New Delhi, in December 2012, but very few have put forward a concrete plan of action.

Away from the rhetoric of the campaigns, activists across the country have been pushing parties to address the gender issue in their manifestos.

Until December 15, 2012, activists and feminists who had relentlessly been advocating gender equality in parliament and on the streets, felt they were grappling in the dark to get the attention of policymakers and citizens.

On December 16, their cause experienced an unexpected momentum after the horrific and fatal gang-rape the student, referred to as “Nirbhaya”.

Millions took to the streets across the country protesting the incident and demanding more effective laws to protect the country’s women. The rape and the ensuing movement grabbed international headlines.

Ahead of the polls, rights groups across the country formulated the Womanifesto 2014 – a six-point agenda that aims to create greater equality for women in all spheres – and have called upon all political parties to endorse this platform.

While championing reform in laws and political processes, they have also been implementing local programmes to change the status quo for women in their communities.

Al Jazeera profiles four such activists working at international, national, state and community levels to propagate legal, political, and social equity and equality for the women of India.

Karuna Nundy, Supreme Court Lawyer

A Supreme Court lawyer, Karuna Nundy co-authored the Womanifesto 2014, a document that has helped propel women’s rights as a clinching factor in the Indian elections.

Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nundy [Preethi Nallu/ Al Jazeera]

The six-point document calls for legally-protected freedoms, equal access to education and political representation, better policing methods, economic opportunities and laws that can effectively curb the high rates of sexual and domestic violence in the country.

Seventy civil society activists from across the country have endorsed it as a “minimum common ground” that all political parties need to agree upon to build and implement laws that will help women advance in these key areas.

Nundy and her peers have put forth the agenda while emphasising “constitutionally protected rights” over “patriarchal promises of protection”.

The document also initiates the process of accountability from those who will be elected in these polls. Nundy told Al Jazeera that the lasting change will only arrive once “structured reforms” take place in legal, political and social spheres.

“When we say concerted action, we mean changes from a social and political lens – workshops in schools at every level that include sex education that deconstruct ideas of what it is to be a boy or a girl and what it is not,” Nundy said.

The other side of the coin, she explains, is “making the laws count”.

“We need to see what exactly is needed to implement the laws. Do you need more infrastructure, do you need more female staff, do you need more training?”

Rukmini Rao, Gramya Resource Centre for Women, Andhra Pradesh

Southern Andhra Pradesh state has seen poverty rates slashed by half in the last two years, but if social indicators are taken into consideration, the stark rise in the violence, especially against women, points towards inequity in development.

AP also has the highest number of child marriages and among the highest for female infanticide. The troubling statistics have made Rukmini Rao and her peers working on gender equality in the region for the past 20 years question the correlation between economic advancement and increased disenfranchisement of women.

Rao told Al Jazeera that women often do not reap the same economic benefits as their male counterparts because “of early marriage, motherhood and their jobs often being deemed voluntary”.

Rao has battled the entrenched impunity that the legal system and socio-political climate afford to perpetrators of violence against women.

Indian activist Rukmini Rao [Preethi Nallu/ Al Jazeera]

“We found impunity at every stage here in AP. First, the community wants to cover up. If a husband has killed his wife they will say, what about the children? They will become fatherless,” Rao said.

“The second level is the police. When they are recording crimes, often false witnesses come forward. So, they do not do their homework. In our area, in cases of domestic violence, we often have politicians intervening and saying, ‘This man is a good man,’ and finding means of getting them out on bail.”

Her organisation has been working with women to develop their capacity to voice their needs and demands. They have also worked with local governments or panchayats for initiatives such as “Save the Girl Child”.

Kamla Bhasin, Sangat, a South Asian Feminist Network and Prabhleen Tuteja, Jagori, New Delhi

Kamla Bhasin and Prabhleen Tuteja belong to different generations of gender activism. While one started her work when “gender norms” was not a common phrase in discourse related to politics or society, the second is grappling with the impact of mixed messages on a “media feeding generation”.

But it is evident from the camaraderie and exchange between Bhasin and Tuteja that both are tackling similar obstacles that have persisted despite socio-economic advancement in India.

A veteran figure in India’s women’s rights movement, Bhasin’s work as a feminist took root when she found that nursery rhymes for her children were either “stupid or sexist”. So she decided to write her own. UN children’s fund (UNICEF) published the rhymes in five Indian languages.

“One has to begin with childhood as that is when the seeds of patriarchy are sown. We [feminists] have looked critically at textbooks to weed out sexism,” Bhasin told Al Jazeera.

Kamla Bhasin and Prabhleen Tuteja [Preethi Nallu/ Al Jazeera]

The veteran feminist, also the regional lead for Canadian playwright Eve Ensler’s global movement, One Billion Rising, still writes poetry and music that speaks to women and men mobilising to change gender roles and male-female interaction in India’s highly stratified society.

“I am realistic. I don’t think that by next year patriarchy will be dead and gone. If patriarchy was only traditional, one could have taken care of it, but today we have modern capitalistic patriarchy that is so much more powerful – billion dollar industries recreating images of stereotypes for boys and girls and they come into our homes through the idiot box (TV),” she said.

Bhasin has worked extensively in the public sector, from gender sensitive trainings for the police in the neighbouring Bangladesh to parliamentarians in the Himalayan nation of Nepal. She has carried out similar activities in Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and other countries in South and Southeast Asia.

Tuteja of Jagori vividly remembers the hours, days and weeks after the Nirbhaya gang-rape when women’s safety became a national emergency issue.

“After December 16, we had especially men coming out on streets and questioning themselves and the entire struggle that women faced not just on the hierarchy of violence that had been established but also forms that were normalised such as staring, stalking and acid attacks. These were not even recognised where men and definitely women could raise their voice,” she said.

Although New Delhi suddenly gained international notoriety as the “rape capital”, Tuteja and her colleagues had already launched the Safe Delhi Campaign in 2004 to counter frequent sexual harassment and related violence that working women in the capital had been experiencing.

Since the “Nirbhaya Effect” took over the country, particularly New Delhi, her organisation’s mission has received a monumental push. Jagori has advocated the Safe Cities Initiative across the country.

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Source: Al Jazeera