HER WORLD Sunday, December 9, 2001, Chandigarh, India

Can women truly change India?
Vimla Patil

"Yes," says experienced social activist Mangala Daithankar, director in charge of administration at the Resource Support Centre for Development, "If they have real political power in their hands, they can show miracle-like changes in the country’s social, political and economic fabric.

Building bridges from afar
HICH one would you subscribe to-distance makes the heart grow fonder or out of sight, out of mind. Both are time-tested sayings. And most of us have found ourselves in one category or another in our lives. If your mate is out of town, those letters phone calls and e-mails are bound to grow in importance. On the other hand, what if a best friend leaves town.

Equality will remain an elusive goal
K.M. Vashisht
NDIAN mythology places women on a very high pedestal. The goddess of learning in India is Saraswati. The goddess of power is Parvati and the goddess of wealth is Lakshmi. Gargi and Maitrye were both great women philosophers and authorities on the Rigveda and Yajurveda of the days of Yagnavalkya.

  • Some pertinent questions





Can women truly change India?
Vimla Patil

"Yes," says experienced social activist Mangala Daithankar, director in charge of administration at the Resource Support Centre for Development, "If they have real political power in their hands, they can show miracle-like changes in the country’s social, political and economic fabric.

Their work is already showing results in rural Maharashtra. Women are networking with each other, with Mahila Mandals and larger NGOs to create effective pressure groups, which can crack the stranglehold of bureaucratic corruption!"

SOMEWHERE in rural Maharashtra, in a village called Pethvadaj in district Nanded, Suman Karkate works single-mindedly for the Mahila Rajsatta Andolan— a movement created by several non-government organisations across Maharashtra to implement laws which give women 33 per cent reservations in local self-government bodies. Suman is educated and has been active in social work through several projects. Like many thousands of rural Maharashtrian women, she too is a member of a Mahila Bachat Gat, where she learnt the importance of economic self-reliance for women. She became the promoter of several Mahila Bachat Gats through her own small NGO called Sahara and represented her members in the first ever Mahila Rajsatta Andolan "human chain" event in Sanganer (see photo) and the following conference in Saygatha, district Chandrapur.

On her return, she set up more Bachat Gats and worked for several causes. Among these were the Niradhar Yojana, the movements to obtain proper certificates for the Scheduled Caste and Backward Class villagers benefits to under-poverty line families, loans for deserving women and fair distribution of food-grains. Naturally, after such a deep involvement in social work, Suman was elected to the gram panchayat without spending a penny on the election or publicity for her candidature, because every woman in the village turned out to vote for her. But Suman and the other two women elected to the Gram panchayat of Pethvadaj did not have an easy time assuming power in the panchayat even after their resounding election victory. They were stunned when the ‘victory procession’ taken out after the election, paraded their husbands as the victors instead of them! The husbands too, accepted the garlands and participated in the celebrations, as if they had won the elections though Suman and her colleagues had worked hard to achieve their success. The women were merely helpless watchers of the celebrations.

When Suman attended the first meeting of the newly-elected gram panchayat, the other two women were absent. Their husbands sat in their place. Boldly, she presented a resolution that only elected members should attend meetings. Her strong objections to the presented a resolution that only elected members should attend meetings. Her strong objections to the presence of the husbands and insistence on the attendance of the elected women worked wonders. Her bold step of stopping all work till this was done, sent a wave of panic in the panchayat office and forced the Sarpanch to conduct the meeting only with elected members. All the women in her village stood by her. In the following meetings of the panchayat, they were able to present their problems and demands for the welfare and correct administration of the village. They could solve many of the problems because of their unity and cooperation with each other as well as the NGOs working for clear adherence to state and Central Government laws.

Such occurrences are clearly a triumph for women who want political power. "Like Suman, there are thousands of women in Maharashtra who are social activists, who are bringing fast social and political change in the state," says Mangala Daithankar, Director, Administration of the Resource Support Centre for Development. The centre works with several non-government organisations in Maharashtra to the run schemes like the Mahila Bachat Gat and the Mahila Rajsatta Andolan, Mangala continues, "Today, out of the 27611 gram panchayats in Maharashtra, 9193 have women sarpanches. Among these are women from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, women from Backward Classes and women from other groups. Powerful chairs and political leadership, which were a male stronghold for decades, are becoming slowly and steadily available to women. The efforts of men to keep women away from power—through proxy politics, unwarranted court cases, no-confidence moves, manipulated loss of important papers, pressures to resign—are defeated through awareness programmes organised by various NGOs, mahila mandals and Government programmes. Earlier, rural folk and their elected representatives had no access to or knowledge of various government circular or papers because of their own ignorance of the governmental procedures and the reluctance of bureaucracy to share power with the local people. The NGOs saw to it that every new government rule was explained to village heads and women activists to make them aware of their rights.

"This fast-growing awareness is changing the face of many states like Maharashtra. Active participation of women in politics and social welfare projects speeds up the process of development. Development means education, opportunity and financial self-reliance for all, including women. Our programmes develop leadership qualities among women and help them to assert their views in governmental bodies and administrative officialdom. They create their own network and become vocal and knowledgeable.

"Today, 35 per cent of women in rural Maharashtra are literate. They can read and write all governmental documents and records. In turn, they guard the interests of their villages through schemes such as adult literacy classes, Mahila Bachat Gats and by participating in the political power structure of the village and the district. Their mutual savings groups (Bachat Gats) have annihilated the traditional village moneylenders’ power and turned women into small entrepreneurs who can handle and save money. Bachat Gat meetings also help women to bring out problems of the rural society in the open and solve them effectively within the group. The Gat teaches its members systems, documentation and the value of unity in solving problems. For instance, the 20 odd women in any Bachat Gat can join up to beat a violent husband, or solve a dowry demand case or take out a morcha or dharna to the collector or tehsildar when they believe the cause to be just. Their network is their power base.

"From the beginning of 2001, the Mahila Rajsatta Andolan has provided the infrastructure for women to come forward and demand their legitimate political rights. The Andolan also campaigns to change laws to strengthen rural administrations. For example, we are fighting for more decision-making powers for the Gram Sabha, which comprises the whole village with 50 per cent women. This will mean that more women participate in the development process. We ask for better rural banking, supply of seeds and fertilizers, education and medical services. We seek money power for the Gram Panchayat and the formation of sub-committees for various projects so that speedy development is achieved."

This networking has been possible through the efforts of many NGOs. The Andolan has covered over one thousand villages. At the helm of this network is the R.S.C.D (Resource Support Centre for Development) headed by its director, Rajesh Kuruvilla. "I started working among slum-dwellers in Mumbai when the Western Express Highway was being constructed," says Kuruvilla, "in the 80s, I came in contact with NGOs from the Netherlands, which wanted to help Indian NGOs. There are four such major Dutch organisations: Icco; Cordaid (which was called Balance or Cebemo earlier); Novvi and Hivos. Out of these, Cordaid is the agency which helped me to start R.S.C.D. in the mid-nineties. "Now, R.S.C.D. has networked with Ayuva from Vidarbha, Abhivritti from Nasik, Paryay from Marathwada and Vikas Sahayog Pratishthan from the Konkan area, which covers Sindhudurg, Thane, Raigad and Ratnagiri districts. These NGOs make a collective, under which 175 collaborators (rural organisations) work towards development. We started with 841 villages, five years ago. we have just that much money. But seeing the results, many villages— and particularly women— are volunteering to raise their own money to join the collaborators and the collectives. Now there are more than 1000 villages in the schemes. Young people from the collectives keep a check on the administrative machinery. Volunteer women sit in schools to check the attendance of teachers and pupils. They supervise bore-well projects, creation of green belts, conservation of forests and environment, fodder and fertilizer distribution, seed choice and guard public property. They campaign for roads, transport, communications and other infrastructural amenities.

"We would like Indian mega-corporations to spearhead such a movement so that foreign funds are not our only source. We have done yeoman service to villages and rural society in Maharashtra and it is time Indian companies joined us to speed up development. This will also mean the development of their markets, and finally the nation."

Mangala heads an energetic team of young workers, who travel extensively to see the projects work. Earlier, she headed the Devdasi project for the Western Maharashtra Development Corporation. She lived for years among Devdasis in Gadhinglaj near Kolhapur and set up many self-help projects for the young women who could get education and work opportunities through the project. The project has now closed for lack of funds and Mangala is looking for sponsors to revitalise it.

Drop by drop, women’s— or more generally people’s participation in politics and administrative procedures is gathering into an awesome torrent. Women are grouping, networking, asserting and negotiating for power and effectiveness in administration,. Their commitment to growth and development is a strong force which will propel India to become a just, equitable and prosperous nations.

The writer, a leading columnist, is former Editor of Femina



Building bridges from afar

WHICH one would you subscribe to-distance makes the heart grow fonder or out of sight, out of mind. Both are time-tested sayings. And most of us have found ourselves in one category or another in our lives. If your mate is out of town, those letters phone calls and e-mails are bound to grow in importance. On the other hand, what if a best friend leaves town. How many of us actually keep pace with long-distance relationships and send out that letter. Or even an e-mail?

In all practicality, it's all very well to subscribe to the 'distance makes the heart grow fonder' theory as far as your mate is concerned. And it's okay to fall in to the latter category where friends are concerned. But what happens if the two are not clearly defined. Where work may keep your spouse away periodically for a considerable amount of time. Does a man or a woman really yearn to get back together? Or does the periodic absence of a mate, coupled with facing life and its challenges alone for the most part, fuel resentment, bitterness and even to finding solace in an extra-marital relationship?

In today's fast-paced life, especially in urban India and its metropolises, several jobs and careers require extensive touring and absence from home. Traditionally, careers in the defence services, journalism, merchant navy, oil companies (which require a section of their employees to work at the oil rigs) and some foreign assignments meant periodic absences from home. But with expanding horizons, most jobs require some amount of travel every now and then.

A banker for example, may have projects countrywide, which require personal supervision. An HRD head may be travelling to recruit employees across the country. Or a corporate manager may be required to attend conferences and seminars in India and abroad. In most cases, the spouse's job or children and even the requirements of the job itself entails travelling solo.

Amita Khanna works as the assistant HRD manager in a travel company while her husband Vikram, works in the financial sector. For the Khanna's its is Amita's job which requires her to travel all over the country.

With around 700 employees in the company countrywide, Amita is often away for three to four days in a week, recruiting, attending seminars or holding workshops.

Says Vikram, "We don't have kids, but I still find it difficult to be on my own on most days. When she first started travelling, I would look at it as breathing space and spending time doing my own thing. But after a while, it wasn't fun any more." According to him, the most difficult part is taking care of the house single-handedly. "I have to leave early everyday so it leaves me little time to even wait for the maid if she's a little later than usual. Also, work around the house piles up," he adds.

Vikram, however, says firmly that he doesn't feel any resentment over his wife's schedule. "Both of us have to work, and if this is what her job entails, there is really nothing one can do," he says. "Those who claim to turn to extramarital affairs to ward off loneliness are just looking for an excuse," he says. But 33-year-old housewife Anjali Rao isn't quite so sure. Anjali, the mother of a six-year-old girl, stays by herself for almost seven of the 12 months in a year. The reason, her husband in the merchant navy is sailing around the world all those times. "Families are allowed to travel on the ship, but it just hasn't been possible for me. My mother-in-law has been ailing for some time and I needed to take care of her since my husband is the only son," she says. Bringing up her child almost by herself hasn't been easy for Anjali either. "I think of all those times that she has been ill. I've had to face it alone most of the time. Also, my daughter is yet to reconcile to the fact that her father is away for such long periods. She throws tantrums and I am afraid I spoil her by giving in to her demands. It's almost like I am compensating for being a single-parent most of time."

Adds Anjali, "At such time, in the absence of family, it would indeed help to have a close friend." Of course I am not advocating an extramarital affair," she hastens to add. "The friend could be of the same sex and offer support in trying times," she says. Anjali too says she is not resentful of her husband's job. "I knew he would be travelling a lot when we married, but that doesn't make it any easier," she says. No one advocates extramarital affairs. In all probability no one would like to indulge in one either. But sometimes, just sometimes, 'out of sight out of mind' may be easier to adhere to than 'distance makes the heart grow fonder.' Unfortunately. What could the solution be? As those who do the travelling would say, 'A job is a job.' It must be done. It's not like they have an easy time either. As Amita says, "I dislike travelling so much. But there is really nothing I can do. Though Vikram is very understanding, I cannot help feeling guilty for leaving him to cope most of the time." Adds Anjali, "Of course my husband worries about leaving us alone. Especially our daughter, because he knows how much she misses him. But what can he do? I am really waiting for the day when I can travel with him atleast for a few months," she says hopefully. May be that is the answer. To face another one of life's challenges-with a little bit of hope.— INFS



Equality will remain an elusive goal
K.M. Vashisht

INDIAN mythology places women on a very high pedestal. The goddess of learning in India is Saraswati. The goddess of power is Parvati and the goddess of wealth is Lakshmi. Gargi and Maitrye were both great women philosophers and authorities on the Rigveda and Yajurveda of the days of Yagnavalkya.

Yet, the Manu Smriti not only shows contempt for women but goes on to degrade them as slaves. Women were considered to be devoid of intellect and consciously denied any learning. They were denied right to property and were forbidden from performing sacrifices. Religion also contributed in substantial measure to aggravate these inequalities.

It was only later during the time of Vijnanesvara that the archaic Smriti law was freed from religious fetters and changed for the benefit of women. Thereafter social reformers like Lokmanya Tilak, Mahatma Phule, Agarkar and Mahatma Gandhi take up the cause of women and took a lead in the promotion of female education, re-marriage of widows, elimination of child marriage etc. The concept of a widow's estate was developed in respect of property inherited by her from her husband only in 1937.

Independence brought in its wake a great consciousness in our society for human dignity and it was realised that gender equality is necessary to ensure such dignity. It ushered in a new era of economic, social and political equality for women. By the time our Constitution came to be framed and adopted, a sea change had taken place though not in adequate proportion. To fulfill the pledge for egalitarian society, equality had to be ensured and discrimination and derogatory practices against women eliminated. Thus several articles which guarantee equality and special protection for women were enshrined in the Constitution.

In spite of these provisions, equality between men and women continues to be an elusive goal not only in our country but all over the world. There is an attitude of inferiority—nay bondage—towards women and an atmosphere in which women are deprived of all basic freedoms starting with that of education. They are, thereby, vulnerable to easy exploitation. Disparity between man and women stares us in the face and thus several of the following questions still do not have an adequate and satisfactory answer.

Organised religion is one of the main obstacles in the way of liberation of women. Leaders of faith have stood firm against reform which would improve the status of women in the social, economic or political field. To that extent religion has been more selfish than sublime. The urgent necessity is for bringing about a radical change in the attitude of society towards women.

Some pertinent questions

  • How is it that in public life—profession, business and services—women are not adequately represented?

  • How is that women put in longer hours of work as compared to men and yet do not enjoy equal status or opportunities?

  • Why is it that property owned by women constitutes a very small fraction of the property owned by men?

  • Why is it that maternity is not recognised as an essential social function?

  • Why is the rate of suicide so high among women?

  • Why is it that fairness vanishes when it comes to giving a fair deal to the fair sex?



Should the burqa be worn?

THIS has reference to Anjum Sayed’s article "Should the burqa be worn or not?" (Nov. 4). Men have kept their women-folk under suppression since time immemorial. Brandishing their chauvinism brazenly, they have set up several ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ for them, conveniently keeping themselves above everything. Amidst all the scientific development, that propensity for upsetting women still exists. That is why under the name of Islam religious zealots in Kashmir, a secular and integral part of India, have thrust the burqa upon Muslim women much against their wishes. Such narrowminded protagonists of Islam and pseudo-saviours of women have no compunction in committing a plethora of crimes against women in the darkness of night as well as the broad daylight. So they don’t have any right to corner women by imposing their whimsical diktats upon the fair sex. All codes are meant for women and none for men as the codes are enacted by men. So it should be left to women to decide whether they are to wear burqa or not. There should be no external pressure exerted upon them in this regard.

Once there arose a dispute between a man and a lion on the issue who was stronger and greater—the man or the beast? To prove his dominance and strength, the man pointed to a statue of a defeated lion with a man standing on it. The lion argued that if that sculpture had been carved by one of its own kind, it would have shown the lion as the victor and the man as the vanquished. Similarly, if women are given the right to make rules and codes, then the men, who consider themselves all conquering, would have the taste of their own medicine. So the choice of wearing burqa should be the sole prerogative of the women alone and it should not be preposterously enforced upon them.

Tarsem S. Bumrah, Batala

Why the blaming game?

This is with reference to the response of Rakesh Sood (Nov. 18) to Nandita’s views on "The male viewpoint by Nirmal Sandhu (Oct. 7).

He has said that the female has a hidden desire to present herself as "superior. The plight of Indian woman is very clear from his statement. Why does she have to desire? Can’t she get anything without desiring? Being a medical practitioner, he is well-acquainted with the psychological problems of women. Who is responsible for such problems? Are women born with such problems?

In Indian homes, it is observed that a man has the full right to live his life the way he likes to. At the same time, if a woman is also engaged in a job, why does she alone have to keep in mind the interests of her family and children? She too can live her life on her terms.

Do you think there is any need to teach the children as to who works harder; mom or pop? Children under such conditions are obviously bound to be inclined towards their mother. Why, then, is the mother always blamed for trying to attract children towards her? If children give more priority to the mother keeping in view the others’ neglect towards them, then what is mother’s fault in it?

Sumit Sabharwal, Hoshiarpur.

Fighting the demon of depression

"How women can fight the demon of depression," by Mohinder Singh (November 18), was a thought-provoking article. Indeed, it is a matter of grave concern that women have to suffer from depression. Depression can result due to a variety of reasons. If one loses a very close member of the family, is deceived in love or has an alcoholic husband who creates problems at home and beats the children. Affected persons should not lose heart and face problems with determination.

One has to take a decision and lead one’s life with courage and preserve one’s self because one owes it to one’s self.

Subhash. C. Taneja, Rohtak