Sunday Magazine ~ September 2 2012
THE OTHER HALF
The way ahead for women
By Kalpana Sharma
Moving on: But, does the law make a difference? (The Hindu: S. Subramanium)
However imperfect, the NCW needs to be debated, not disbanded.
The monsoon has failed in large parts of India. But so has Parliament, in its monsoon session. With the political gridlock between the government and the opposition, all work has come to a standstill. One of the casualties of this is the inability of the government to pass the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Bill. Similarly, although the Sexual Assault Bill has received Cabinet approval, it is unlikely to become law just yet. And of course, the Women’s Reservation Bill, despite being passed by the Rajya Sabha is likely to remain in limbo forever.
Even if Parliament were to work as it should, and all such laws were passed, would this make a difference to the rising graph of all kinds of crimes against women? Can stronger laws stop these crimes unless the machinery to implement them works?
In the aftermath of the Guwahati incident [scroll down to read] and more recently the attack on a group of young people in Mangalore by the Hindu Jagaran Vedike, these questions have been asked. Additionally, the effectiveness of the National Commission for Women (NCW) has been questioned. Like the proposed laws, the NCW was instituted to intervene on issues that affect women. Yet, the kind of statements made by NCW members, including its chairperson, after these incidents, makes you wonder whose interests they represent. When you have members who reveal the name of a sexual assault victim, or you have a chairperson who tells young women not to get offended by sexist remarks, and still others in the State women’s commissions, instructing women how to dress if they want to be safe, you have to seriously ask whether the NCW can do anything for women.
And yet, the NCW is needed. Its future should certainly be debated, but will disbanding it — as demanded by some in the wake of the Guwahati incident — really help? Or is it more important to remind ourselves, and the members of the NCW, of its real mandate and hold it accountable?
Slow systemic change
In her moving book, They Hang (Women Unlimited, 2006), Syeda S. Hameed, currently a member of the Planning Commission, recorded some of the stories of the women she encountered during her three-year term in the NCW, from 1997-2000. She writes, “Our mandate was to make systemic changes so that violence could be killed at its roots, but we ended up fighting individual cases. My own instinct was to bring immediate relief to the sufferers because systemic change is a slow process.”
Yet, she says that even this, bringing immediate relief to a few, was difficult and asks, “During my three years as a member, was I able to deliver justice to the women who appeared at my door? Did any State functionary click to attention at my call? I can count on the fingers of one hand the cases which came to a successful conclusion.”
Things today are not that different from the times Syeda Hameed describes. If anything they are worse. According to data used by NDTV in its discussion on the NCW, out of 6,700 cases that came before it by May 2012, only 60 had been heard. Apart from failing individuals, there is little evidence of the NCW initiating legal changes. Its members rush off to the site of an atrocity, and after that nothing more is heard about what followed.
The NCW was set up as a statutory body in January 1992, in response to a recommendation first made by the Committee on the Status of Women in India. It was mandated to review legal and constitutional safeguards for women, recommend laws and be an advisory body to the government on all policy issues relating to women.
Two decades later, has the NCW fulfilled this expectation? If people believe it has not, it is in large measure due to the kind of women selected to serve on it, and particularly to head it. The latter is always a political appointment. While political allegiance need not necessarily be a minus point, when it takes precedence over other qualities, then there is a problem.
Before the NCW’s credibility is further corroded, by its own actions and the attitudes of its members, the government should set in place a process that ensures that the person chosen to head it is someone with stature who is also independent and competent. It is not difficult to locate such women. This would go a long way to convince ordinary women that the NCW can make a difference to their lives. The second step is to ensure that at least half its members have grass-roots experience of dealing with women’s problems. If these two steps are taken, then there is hope of the NCW becoming an effective body looking out for women’s rights, instead of one that sometimes undermines them.
Sunday Magazine ~ July 22 2012
THE OTHER HALF
Calling a crime by its name
By Kalpana Sharma
How safe are our public spaces for women? (Arunangsu Roy)
The sexual assault on a girl in Guwahati earlier this month raises several questions about women, the media and society.
Can we stop talking about the horrific incident in Guwahati on the night of July 9 as the “Guwahati molestation”? To molest, according to the dictionary, means “to pester or harass, typically in an aggressive or persistent manner.” What happened that night on Guwahati’s busy G.S. Road was a “sexual assault” on a young girl. So before we even begin talking about it, let us call a crime by its real name.
The full story of what happened that night is still unspooling. But enough is known to raise several crucial questions; ones that relate to women, to our society, to the media and to the law enforcing agencies. The incident might have occurred in what is usually considered a remote part of India. But its fallout affects all of us, including those who live in what people in the Northeast call the “mainland”.
Displays of insensitivity
Much has already been written about the July 9 sexual assault. Not without reason has the representative of the National Commission for Women, Alka Lamba, been asked to step down. In an astounding display of insensitivity, she revealed the identity of the young woman to the media. The Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, outdid her by getting his office to send photographs of himself with the girl to the entire media, and retracting after the pictures had already been circulated. So much for protecting the survivor’s identity.
The question of the media’s role is the subject of much debate. The Assam government has conveniently blamed the journalist who claimed credit for making the story public. It is possible that this journalist is culpable. Or he might have followed the example of many others, journalists who stood by and recorded horrific events without making any effort to intervene.
But journalists are also citizens. Even if there were only two of them against a mob, they had no business to go on filming for a full half hour without doing anything to stop the participants. In fact, when you watch the video, you realise that the attackers are enjoying being filmed. At the same time, the Assam government cannot absolve itself of all responsibility by blaming the journalist.
No one is surprised at the actions, or rather lack of them, of the Guwahati police. Why did they take so long to respond? Why did they not arrest many more on the spot? Did they have to wait to see the footage to identify the attackers? If they had acted with alacrity, would the main assaulter, seen grinning at the camera, have escaped? We end up asking these same questions repeatedly. When poor people demonstrate for their rights, hundreds of them are rounded up and taken to the lock-up. But if members of a political party go around vandalising and beating up helpless people as they do with regularity in Mumbai, for instance or when such incidents of sexual assault occur in a public place, the police sit on their hands and wait. Not just women but everyone has to be worried at this mockery of what is called “the law and order machinery”.
And what can we say about the “aam janata”? Anyone who has been to Guwahati will tell you that G.S. Road, or Guwahati Shillong Road, is a main arterial road. The pub where the girl was attacked is not in some isolated part of the city. Hundreds of vehicles ply on that road, as they did that night. Hence her ability to find an autorickshaw which she was about to take to go home. One of the most chilling sequences in the video is watching the girl running on the road, begging people to stop and help her. No one did until one man, another journalist, came to her rescue and stayed with her until she was handed over to the police. Why did no one help? Why do people not care, not want to be involved, to extend themselves for another person? This is one more example of the callous indifference that has infected urban life in India.
As for what this means for women, not just in Guwahati but all over India, particularly urban India, the message is clear. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Women might believe that they now have more rights, that they have access to public space, that they can make choices. The reality is that a patriarchal society will not accept that women should have these rights, that it will try and teach those who make choices “a lesson” and that violence is the currency that will be used to teach these lessons.
Depressing, I know, but sadly true. As a young reader from Guwahati wrote to me after this incident: “Some of us have the tendency to break things or bash up some objects when we were furious or angry. But nowadays we find that women have become potential objects capable of replacing inanimate objects to suit the whims and fancies of the diehard chauvinists of the country.”
July 14, 2012
The depths of depravity
Just what is this awful sickness that lies within us? What malodorous disease could lead a random mob of men to molest a minor schoolgirl, stripping her and beating her by turns in the middle of a busy downtown street, as if they were engaged in some casual sport? Surely, this appalling crime — which took place barely a kilometre from Assam’s State secretariat and in full view of many — is more than just a reflection on a criminal mob of some 20 or more young men and the deteriorating law and order situation in Guwahati. Surely, it should hold up a mirror to all of us and lead us to ask what has gone so horribly wrong in our society. The sheer savagery of the gang molestation, the video of which went viral on the Internet, has fuelled outrage across the country even as it has triggered a sense of national shame. The Assam police, which took a full 30 minutes to arrive at the crime scene, should lose no time in arresting all those involved in the bestiality, many of who have been already identified because of the video. It is debatable whether or not the onlookers who passively watched the mortification of the schoolgirl are legally culpable. But their moral complicity in the crime is beyond question.
We live in a time when crimes against women — which climbed over 2.25 lakh in 2011 according to the National Crime Records Bureau — are growing alarmingly. The data also clearly reveals that over the last couple of decades, the (reported) incidents of rape have increased at a far steeper rate than other serious crimes such as murder and theft. Even so, we assiduously cultivate the patriarchal lie that women are fundamentally responsible for many of the crimes against them. The panchayat in Uttar Pradesh’s Bagpat region which recently issued a diktat against unescorted women visiting the marketplace, entering into love marriages or even carrying mobile phones, was guided by the same warped mindset. The stated objective was to protect women from being teased and harassed by men. But rather than take steps to punish those responsible for such harassment, the panchayat chose illegitimately to restrict the freedom of women and infringe on their rights. Sadly, it is not uncommon to find police officers and politicians subscribing to such a regressive belief system. Justice is rarely done in the face of such attitudes. This is why organisations such as the National Commission of Women, which is sending a team to Guwahati, must track the molestation case closely and work towards seeing that the guilty are severely punished.