118 years of Trust Interview THE TRIBUNE
sunday reading
Sunday, August 16, 1998
Bollywood Bhelpuri

Living Space

"To safeguard women we have to change the mindset of men"

THE term of Mohini Giri as a chairperson of the National Commission for Women came to an end this month. In her three years, she travelled around country and established contact with women at the grassroots. She is disappointed that not a single one out of the 213 recommendations which the commission made to the government has been implemented. Is this apex body of women only a paper tiger? Usha Rai talks to Mohini Giri of her successes and failures, her frustrations and hopes.

How would you assess your term in the Commission? Are you satisfied that you have been able to change the lives of Indian women?

I’ll be leaving the commission fairly satisfied. But I have not changed the lives of women. I don’t have a magic wand. Change will have to come slowly and steadily. Instead of working with women and for women, a time has come when we have to work with men and for men. In my three years with the commission I have discovered that women are totally in the clutches of men. They can’t walk, talk or think on their own. I am talking of those 80 per cent of women living in rural and tribal India, pavement and slum dwellers who are totally subjugated.

To help women the commission ran massive legal literacy programmes. They were taught to file an FIR, fight for property rights and obtain the custody of children. We touched the lives of 80,000 women. After the orientation, women became aware, were rebelling and some even fighting for their rights. To safeguard women’s interest, we have to change the mindset of men. If I had another term I would concentrate on changing the male psyche.

Some people have described the NCW as a fire-fighting brigade with you as chief fire officer. You are charged with not doing enough on macro policies that affect the life of women.

I agree we are fire-fighting. I made it a policy to help every woman who came to me. Madhavrao Scindia, the then Minister of Human Resources Development had made a commitment at the Beijing conference on women that the NCW would have a strong, investigative arm in the form of a Commissioner for Women’s Rights. That promise has not been honoured. Policies are needed but they have a long-term effect. They do not redress the immediate problems of women. The Marriage Registration Bill and 24 other bills drawn up to safeguard the interests of women are lying in the cold storage for close to three years. I have written to 10 ministers, including L.K Advani to push them through, but to no effect.

Why are bills not being pushed through?

Because bills dealing with women are low priority for governments.We have not even got the status of a proper commission because a secretary in the Department of Women and Child Welfare did not want the NCW to be more powerful than the department. Look at their pettiness! The commission has been working systematically against prostitution and trafficking. But when the secretary, Women and Child Welfare held a meeting with experts of SAARC on the subject, no member of the commission was invited. Only the adviser to the NCW was called.

Why do you sound so frustrated?

I have a good reason to feel so. A study on the status of the widows of Vrindavan had pointed out that a lot of them are being molested on the streets and ashrams. Based on that, the NCW had suggested the setting up of a short-stay home with provision for vocational training in Vrindavan. Women would then not have to cringe in for succour. My term is coming to an end. I don’t know the fate of the project.

The NCW had asked for 5 per cent reservation for children of prostitutes in Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathans and Navodaya Schools. The recommendation was made to the Department of Women and Child a year ago but no action has been taken.I know that 80 per cent of the sons and daughters of those in the sex trade will end up in the same trade. The boys will pimp for their mother and the little girls will get dragged into flesh trade because they are not qualified to work elsewhere.

To stop 8000 children being trafficked into India every month from Nepal and Bangladesh the NCW had suggested the setting up a bureau like the Narcotic Board to arrest traffickers and check the entry of children from 14 identified points along our border. There has been no action by the government. I feel cheated.

Would you then, still, say that there have been some achievements in your tenure?

These are issues where policies would have helped. In their absence, cooperatives of prostitutes have been set up in Calcutta, Chennai and Tirupati.These report the entry of every new child into the red-light area. Effort is then launched to rescue the child. The women have mobilised as a group to counter police harassment. They pool in Rs 5 to Rs 10 a month and requisition the services of a doctor and a lawyer. If a client uses chilli powder or electric shocks to get his kicks, the women work as a group to debar such men entry into their areas. In Chitoor we were able to get an acre of land for 10 women so that they can start a business in floriculture and get out of the flesh trade.

Would you say that it is due to your personal style of functioning that you have not been able to get along with the bureaucracy?

Those in the bureaucracy have a set mind and you cannot change that. They think they are superior people and everyone should be subordinate to them. I cannot change them because I represent a statutory autonomous body whose status demands that I don’t kow tow to them. Let me clarify that it is not the fault of the individual bureaucrat but of the system.

Despite the hurdles in the functioning of the NCW, we started a complaint cell. For us no one is big or small. I can’t sit on a pedestal and say that ours is only a policy-making body. We received 7500 complaints in my three-year tenure and 6052 have been dealt with. This means the NCW has assisted as many families. Even if the bureaucrats were not helpful, I had the support of NGOs and friends. With the help of the university Vice-Chancellor, the commission was able to evolve a code of conduct to check sexual harassment at work. The UGC is now circulating this code to all universities.

Did you have a good team?

I had good team but not necessarily a competent one. This has increased the burden on those who are competent and can deliver. Even if political appointments are made they should be of people who can work at a national forum. I am satisfied with my tenure. The NCW has learnt to stand on its feet, now it must learn to walk. (Unnati Features)

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