The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 8, 2000
Lead Article

Photo: Kuldip Dhiman/Model: Manu D.

The emergence and growth of women activists as a reaction to socio-economic inequality, political marginalisation and the patriarchal structure, is a striking feature of our contemporary social reality. It is due to women activists and their activities that the women’s movement which otherwise would just be on abstract concept, has become a living reality. If one analyses the role of women activists, it has been observed that they have tasted both success and failure. Though there is no dramatic change in women’s status, inroads have been made into the deeply entrenched inequalities, observes NeeluKang


SUDHA was murdered for not bringing enough dowry. Her parents approached women activists, whose prolonged intervention resulted in a life sentence for the accused. However, the culprit continued to roam around freely because the District Judge had not received, from the Supreme Court, the papers ordering his arrest. It was after three years of the court order that the accused was jailed.That too only after angry demonstrations organised by women activists. However, not everyone is as fortunate as Sudha. This is one of the few cases where activists actually succeeded in bringing the accused to book.

Kismati was poisoned by her husband since she had not borne a male child and he wanted to remarry. The post-mortem report cited the cause of death as 'double pneumonia'. Her husband got away scot-free and is, at present, living happily with his second wife and two sons. On being approached by the dead victim’s brother, activists swung into action. They organised dharnas in front of the hospital, ordering an inquiry to find out if the doctor had been bribed or not. Since the husband had a strong ‘connection’ with the local MLA, the ‘case’ died its own natural death.

A senior male colleague in Natasha’s office made repeated passes at her. When she complained, she was promptly transferred. Women activists took up the case, staged dharnas, went to the Press and demanded the officer’s suspension from public office. They were successful in getting him arrested (only for a few minutes) to be released later on a personal bond/security of Rs 10,000. The activists’ initial enthusiasm dissipated and they backed out.

The emergence and growth of women activists as a reaction to socio-economic inequality, political marginalisation and the patriarchal structure, is a striking feature of our contemporary social reality. It is due to women activists and their activities that the women’s movement which otherwise would just be on abstract concept, has become a living reality. If one analyses the role of women activists, it has been observed that they have tasted both success and failure. Though there is no dramatic change in women’s status, inroads have been made into the deeply entrenched inequalities.

Crime against women in Punjab
From 1999 — July 2000

  (1999) (2000) 
1. Rape  250  175
2 . Kidnapping  270  198
3. Dowry harassment  562  517
4. Sexual harassment  140  190

Putting life back into women’s activism

  • Attitudinal change.
  • Value re-orientation.
  • Reforms in the institution of marriage.
  • Public/Social pressure.
  • Right to inheritance.
  • Legal changes and its implementation.
  • Administrative up-gradation.
  • Using media to create awareness.
  • Monitoring the power given to women action groups.

As regards women activists’ achievements, their activities have led to an increasing awareness and articulation of women’s issues and helped the struggle for equality and justice. Issues hitherto considered personal have become politicised. Their actions and efforts have been recognised and their suggestions or recommendations incorporated in the formulation of policies aimed at enhancing women’s status.So much so, certain laws have even been amended. Similarly, women activists have succeeded in raising the issue of violence against women and have helped victimised women to come out of the closet, share their traumas and seek external support with the objective of empowering them.

Women activism in India in the late 70s and early 80s, like elsewhere in the world, was a direct outcome of the fiery feminist movement which had taken momentum in the USA and led to the emergence of a new academic discipline, i.e., Gender/Women Studies and formation of new bodies like Indian Association of Women Studies (IAWS) and National Commission for Women (NCW). Though the activists admitted that the action points on their agenda were largely unrealised, their efforts did create an awareness, a brouhaha and a curiosity, Societal change too came about with pressure on men and families to give women their rightful share whether it was in matters pertaining to property, marriage, divorce or careers. Their frequent campaigning and consciousness-raising exercise suceeded in motivating women from apathy to action.The process still continues.

Women activists’ strategy to combat women’s problems is no doubt non-violent but it is still militant, agitational and confrontationist. It consists of protest activities, campaigning and organisational intervention, casework, lobbying, legal education and counselling. Social research is another method used to investigate the origin, extent, typology and dimensions of a particular problem.

However, despite the dissenting voice of women activists, atrocities on women are on the increase with each passing day. Action taken to rebuff it in fact, seems to be negligible if one looks at the rising crime rates (See box). They have failed as a watch group as far as violence against women is concerned. The activists have provided piecemeal support to women through various means, particularly, through income-generating activities. However, they are not successful in getting the accused convicted or arrested in most of the cases of rape and dowry deaths taken up by them. If arrested, the accused are released on bail.

In cases of marital discord in which the activists succeed in affecting a reconciliation, their efforts do not seem to have served the purpose for want of follow-up action. Similarly, lack of provision of economic support by the activists (parental or matrimonial property) leaves the separated woman in despair. Activists are barely successful in getting the victim a part of her husband’s property. Negligible efforts have been made to simplify legal procedures to get the victim her share in parental property. Their energies/activities are confined to condemning of dowry taking (not dowry giving) and in retrieving dowry, which they considered a landmark in their struggle.

Organisationally, issues such as equal wages and equal work for women, women agricultural labourers, rural and urban toiling women (domestic servants and construction workers) caste oppression and sexual harassment etc have low priority, even though these are debated upon theoretically.

There is a lack of sustained movement or campaign against family violence. Activists have not taken action against beauty contests, fashion shows, modelling and pornography, which are other forms of subtle sexual exploitation. Staging periodic demonstrations, even if they are on a largescale like the one organised in Bangalore when ABCL was hosting the Miss World pageant, a few years ago, only end up creating a lot of chaos and disruption in public life besides hogging precious column space in the newspapers. Where are those activists? Almost every city and mofussil town is now staging their own beauty contests and fashion shows. Strategically, casework (taking individual cases) is a regular activity, demonstrations are incidental and episodical, whereas other activities are project-based, depending on the flow of funds. When there are no funds, there is no action. What women activism at present lacks is sustenance. It is sporadic and issue-based. Action has become mechanical and lacklustre.

Women activists themselves are also responsible for their failure. Lack of commitment, routinisation of activism, loose networking, interpersonal clashes and their limited reach are some of their limitations. They take up only a few cases of atrocities on women out of the thousands that occur every day. What criteria do they have in picking up one case and ignoring the others is not understandable. Moreover, the cases are not pursued constantly. The organisations lose interest and after some time they back out after the publicity is over. Ultimately it remains the victim’s battle alone.

The activists’ militancy is short-term and there is an absence of constant pressure on the government. When activists lower their voice and withdraw action, the case is hushed up. They do not try to reopen the case and switch over to a new case which too meets the same fate. Absence of zeal among activists has been acknowledged by activists themselves. In the words of an activist: "At present there is a lull and a gap in the movement". Loss of their interest and commitment in activism is also evident from the fact that many organisations and committees formed jointly by different activists are no more in existence.

To mention a few, Delhi-based organisations like Stree Sangharsh, Dahej Virodhi Chetna Manch, Nagrik Ekta Manch, Committee on the Portrayal of Women in Media and Joint Action Committee against Rape and Sexual Harassment, and locally-based organisations like Hamsheera, Shamsheer, Sihani have disappeared without achieving the objectives for which these had been formed.

It will not be out of place to mention here the casual way in which activism is taken today. Funding from foreign and domestic sources has promoted a culture of "occupationalisation" of activism. Educated, enlightened and committed women who formed a coalition on different occasions had probably no plan of establishing formal action groups. Difficulty in carrying out action without money forced them to register their groups. This brought in a flow of funds to execute their work. With the passage of time, it became a routine institutional activity with a fixed salary, leave system, proper timings at least for those who are regular and paid workers.

The tempo built up for an issue is lost when funds stop coming because funding is for a particular project and for a specific period. Besides, funding results in loss of autonomy, forcing activists not to speak/act morally against the funding agencies which may have their own vested interests. In recent times, crores of rupees have been sanctioned by national and international agencies for health-oriented issues like nutrition, fertility control, pregnancy, lactation, birth control, pre and post-natal care, immunisation and sexually transmitted diseases, particularly AIDS. So much so that existing organisations have started working in that direction only, ignoring other important issues. Besides, many new

NGOs of an ad hoc nature have mushroomed all over the country to be at the receiving end of these funds. Many women’s organisations have opened "AIDS' cells" and have "broadbased" their activities.

Being lean and mean set-ups, often manned by people who are not professionally trained, most women activists’ cells are not too strong in networking and coordination. Often, their in-fighting and differences have provided comic relief to their detractors. Their inability to transform intent into action and public opinion further give their image a beating. Also the non-involvement of men in their struggle against gender injustice gives their endeavours a biased and feminist slant. Male participation is important because women are changing with strides in education and employment. After being conscientised, they become assertive which is not acceptable to man, in and outside the family, who is relatively tradition-bound. This results in broken selves and broken families. Besides that, activists have few more limitations. An activist, like any other human being is tied down by her family and occupational responsibilities and is therefore left with little time and energy to work for social change. The activists face paucity of economic and human resources. Moreover, a handful of activists cannot take care of half of the population of the country. Activism is a full time job and cannot achieve much if done half- heartedly.

Male chauvinism of State and its extended patriarchal structure, criminalisation of police, corrupt bureaucracy, immunity of law, indifferent attitude of the State, faulty legislation pertaining to women and victim’s apathy; each one of them contributed in their own way in gradually

paralysing the crusade of the activists. Stumbling blocks at every level, be it the family, office, society or the victim herself diluted the energy and patience of activist groups without which it wasn’t possible to make a dent. Prolonged struggle to help the victim get justice left them with little stamina and hope. Overall apathy has stopped many women organisations from taking individual cases in order to concentrate more on consciousness- raising through campaigning because they believe that subjective change precedes objective change. It was due to meagre possibility of obtaining justice that women activists in the National Conference on Rape (1990) raised the point that legal remedies should be de-emphasised and instead the accent should be more on concentrating energies on mobilising support for the raped women on counselling and rehabilitation which is a more concrete, urgent and necessary form of assistance to the victims.

Does this pessimism then imply that women activism has been a failure? The answer is an emphatic no. It is true that activism has not made an impact on the larger structure. However, its achievements cannot be underrated to create a "precondition" for change by adding knowledge to women’s question, by raising consciousness and by building the issue. It is a step towards social change. Though the change brought about by women activists is only a drop in the ocean yet they do have capability and potential to usher in change more effectively. They can be successful in achieving their aim if they do not look back, channelise their energies regularly and make a dent into male citadels repeatedly. After all, the strength of any movement lies in its sustenance over a period of time.

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