Resistance To Neoliberalism Subhashini

"Some examples of Women's Organised Resistance to Neoliberalism in India"
  Subhashini Ali
Subhashini Ali (IDEAS, India), President, All India Democratic Womens Association (AIDWA).
The women's organization to which I belong, the All India Democratic Womens Association, is the largest women's organization in our country with a membership of a little over 8,000,000 women. Our members belong to all the different regions of the country and belong to all castes and communities. Most of them are poor. They live in the slums in the cities and are, often, landless agricultural workers in the villages. We also have members who are doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, employees, workers, and public representatives in local bodies, in State assemblies and in the national Parliament but the vast majority of our members are very poor women. We describe ourselves as a mass organization with a left orientation and we see the oppression of women as a three-fold one: woman as woman; woman as worker and woman as citizen. Because of this, while we do deal with thousands of individual cases and run dozens of legal aid centers in many parts of the country, we also organize struggles and campaigns against wage discrimination, discriminatory and oppressive government policies etc. As a result, ours was one of the first women's organizations in the country to critique the policies of globalisation or neo-liberal economic policies because of their disastrous impact on every aspect of women's lives. As early as 1991, we had started studying this impact - at that time many others were welcoming these policies as emancipatory and as an alternative to corrupt governmental and bureaucratic insensitivity and oppression.
In the last 15 years, our organization has been campaigning against globalisation and the havoc it has wrought in womens lives in a variety of ways. We have participated in international events like the UN International Conferences of Women in Nairobi and then Beijing; in the World March of Women, 2000 and in various WSF meets. We have tried to place our experiences of the concrete ways in which neo-liberal policies impact on various aspects of womens lives and livelihood in our country on these occasions.
At the same time, our units at the local, district, state and national levels are engaged in constant agitation against various negative effects of these policies. It is impossible to enumerate all these struggles and campaigns or even the issues around which these have been organized. Since one of the main features of globalisation is the retreat of the State from the social sector, it is impossible to describe all the different kinds of response that State actions like increasing school fees, increasing the rates of power and water, cutting municipal/State/national spending on healthcare and education, increased prices of medicine and State health services, dismantling of the public distribution system that provided subsidized rations and essential commodities to millions, reduction of spending on the eradication of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, widespread unemployment due to closure of factories and industries and the ever-increasing violence - communal, gender and caste - that accompanies the processes of globalisation have evinced from our members at different times in different places. In this paper, I will only focus on a few issues that we have organized struggles and campaigns around. I hope that I am able to succeed in my intention of describing what we are doing to link up the problems that women face in their daily lives with the broader macro-economic policies that are responsible; how we try to concretize the issues in a way that links local discontent, anger and frustration with faulty policy-making so that the ensuing campaigns and struggles which elicit tremendous local support and mobilization attack national and international policy-making and give some relief to those who are their victims.
In India, the national census is carried out every ten years. Between 1991 and 2001, the sex ratio of female to male members of the population has steadily worsened. What is causing the most concern is the fact that the ratio in the 0 - 6 age group is even worse than the national average. The 2001 Census findings reveal that in the 0 - 6 age group there is a difference of 6,000,000 between male and female children. This actually means that female fetuses have been aborted and female infants killed at birth, or soon after or, in any case, within a few years of being born to the tune of 6,000,000. When we look at the total population, that there are now about 93 women for every 100 men which means that there nearly 50 million 'missing' women who have been killed due to one or another form of gender violence and discrimination.
Surprisingly for those who have assumed that economic development automatically ensures gender equality, the ratio in the most developed parts of the country like the capital of Delhi, Western U.P., Western Maharashtra and the most prosperous States of Haryana and Punjab is actually the worst in the country. In Delhi, the most prosperous city in India, the sex ratio decline has been from 915 in 1991 to 865 in 2001 - the highest decelaration in the country. In several districts of Haryana and Punjab it is as low as 500 girl children for every 1000 boys.
Within these figures, there are significant variations with very frightening implications. In Haryana, while the overall sex ratio in the 0 - 6 age group is 820 (2001 Census), among literate people it is only 617 (Economic Survey of Haryana, 2003-2004).
It was in the southern state of Tamil Nadu that the practice of female infanticide became an issue of national interest and concern a few decades ago. In several districts like Salem, the absence of girl children was so acute that it was immediately visible and apparent. The AIDWA unit of the state took up the issue in a big way - organizing protests, street plays, awareness campaigns etc. The State Government responded with some positive programmes for girl children, their education and their future marriages and also with the introduction of punitive legislation. Unfortunately, only the mothers of the murdered babies were faced with prosecution and punishment. This was patently unfair in a society as patriarchal as India where son-preference is an all-consuming desire and where husbands and in-laws are usually the ones responsible for both female foeticide and infanticide. After much agitation and struggle, the law was amended and now fathers also face punitive action.
As information on falling sex ratios started becoming available and, accompanied as it was with the raging epidemic of 'sex-determination' tests and clinics that spread to every nook and corner of the country, even to remote villages, it became apparent that the causes for this had to be looked for not only in our social conditions, in our 'traditions' but also in the way in which certain processes of globalisation were taking over, re-interpreting and then utilizing certain 'traditions', widely held beliefs and cultural practices.
As an immediate intervention, AIDWA along with other women's organizations and also NGOS and groups working in the area of women's health and population-related issues started agitating for a Law to restrict 'sex determination' tests. Finally, the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act was passed in 1994. It was, however, found to be inadequate and was re-named the Pre-Conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act". Because of continuous technological innovations, the Act has had several amendments but, because of the pressure of strong medical lobbies who actually defend sex selection and subsequent abortions of female fetuses in the name of population control State and the Central Governments have not exhibited the necessary will to implement it. As a result, no one has been punished for conducting such a test and only faulty registrations of clinics etc. have been brought under scrutiny.
AIDWA has been conducting agitations and campaigns on this issue. Struggles against identified clinics have also been held. It has been decided to intensify this and also to make efforts to see that the Monitoring Committees at different levels that have been set up under the Act include activists and honest medical practitioners so that they can function effectively.
It is, however, only too true that legislation and punitive methods can help to restore the sex ratio to some extent only. Unless the roots of the problem are properly identified and then tackled in several kinds of ways, a looming social disaster cannot be averted.
Many activists, academics and women's movements and organizations have made the connection between the falling sex ratio, son preference and the pernicious social institution of dowry. AIDWA is possibly unique, however, in having taken the analysis further into the domain of the impact of the policies of globalisation itself.
Son preference, dowry giving and taking and neglect of daughters are not new phenomena in our country. It is therefore significant that it should be precisely this decade - 1991 to 2001 - which is synonymous with the introduction of Structural Adjustment Policies and the so-called Reforms Process that followed that has witnessed the sharpest fall in the sex ratio ever witnessed. While the availability of diagnostic techniques and sex-determination tests have helped the process they cannot be held responsible for the phenomenon. After all their popularity and the one-sided use to which their results have been put are themselves the consequences of social causes.
This decade has also witnessed a sharp rise in dowry demands, in expenses incurred at the time of a daughter's marriage and in dowry-related violence. These have not been confined to the strata of upper-caste Hindus as was traditional but have rapidly spread during this time to members of all communities, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh, and to many castes and communities like Dalits (the former Untouchables) and tribals, even those living in the remotest forests and mountains. Burning to death for dowry; abandonment of wives within a few days/month/years of marriage for the same reason; shameless blackmail at the time of marriage in the name of dowry demands and repeated demands for gifts and money throughout the married life of the woman - at the time of childbirth, at the time of marriages in her marital family, at the time of celebrations and festivals in her marital family etc. etc. - have assumed epidemic proportions and dealing with all these problems has become a major part of our everyday activity. To try and understand what was going on, AIDWA undertook a Dowry survey in 18 States of the country, interviewing more than 10,000 households. The interviews were carried out by AIDWA activists none of whom were trained academics. But they more than made up for this shortcoming by the trust that they inspired in those that they were questioning and also the wide range of households that they could contact because of the work they had been doing over the years.
The findings of our Survey were made public during a National Workshop on the Expanding Dimensions of Dowry organized jointly by AIDWA and its affiliate the Indian School of Women's Studies and Development in New Delhi on September 1st and 2nd, 2002. Several papers were also presented at this workshop where dowry victims and activists from several states also spoke. The findings and papers were published by AIDWA in a book 'The Expanding Dimensions of Dowry'.
The findings were significant. In spite of tremendous regional, caste, community, lingual and class variations in India, the same sentiment was voiced wherever our activists went - Something has happened in the last 10-15 years that has made the marriage of our daughters a financial burden, a source of humiliation and a lifelong source of worry and tension. As Dr. Indu Agnihotri says in her Report on the Convention
"The survey captured the rich and complex pattern of the co-existence of a variation in forms of family organization and marriage. Yet the tension visible in the process seemed to arise from a process of change both in the terms on which marriages are arranged as well as the context within which these are being negotiated today. Reports from nearly all the states pointed to a steady, though not slow, process of erosion of these varied patterns and abandonment or a shift from previous customary practices. The shift is in favour of a more or less monolithic and homogenous model which succeeds in bolstering capitalism on the basis of a reconfigured patriarchy even as it re- inforces retrogressive ideological beliefs…. The plurality of traditions in the family form and the terms as well as forms of exchange of sons and daughters, which was a result of differing and uneven patterns of social evolution over previous centuries, was facing erasure. The rich variation in patterns, that could be identified even as late as the beginning of the decade of the 90s, particularly in regions such as Uttaranchal (mountainous), Tripura (tribal-dominated) and Kerala (home to many matrilinear communities), was now being replaced by a more homogenous, 'mainstream' model. It is in this process of 'mainstreaming' that 'dowry-free' states or regions today report a shift towards the practice of dowry. Thus ga-dhan in Assam, jamai khatan in Tripura, where the groom had to lieterally 'work his way' into a matrimonial alliance and bride-price appear to be fading out…Thus Muslims, adivasis and dalits, all of who had not earlier identified with dowry as a custom now seem to be adopting and, perhaps, inventing one."
The impact of the processes of globalisation on social norms and practices, on the status of women and on dominant ideologies has been the subject of many studies all over the world. The fact that they strengthen patriarchal norms, that they reduce the status of women and they also tend to homogenize social behaviour and practices not only within countries but, to an extent, internationally have all been well-documented. We in AIDWA had to combine these findings with the results of our Dowry Survey and come to important conclusions.
The practice of dowry giving and taking which has actually become a set of conditions attached to the marriage of a girl without fulfilling which the marriage cannot take place is directly linked to the neo-liberal policies being followed by the Indian State. As a result of these, women have been severely devalued, the work that they do and the contribution that they make to the economy have become more and more invisible in direct proportion to the amount that these have actually increased. The intensification of capitalist and imperialist exploitation have strengthened patriarchy. If globalisation is recognized for what it really is - a strengthening of every kind of inequality and exploitation - then it becomes quite easy to understand why it tireless promotes gender inequality and exploitation and the promotion of all regressive ideologies that not only increase inequality but also make its acceptance by those oppressed and kept unequal more pronounced. While female subjugation and acceptance of a subordinate status along with a domestic and submissive role has become more essential to the very existence of modern day imperialist globalisation, this does not sufficiently explain the phenomenon of dowry oppression. We also have to look at what the Market is doing.
The Market has come into its own in this period. It has become a powerful arbiter between not only classes and interests but within families and the most intimate relationships. In their insatiable greed to control markets everywhere, the MNCs (modern day storm troopers of imperialism) use and control media, especially electronic media and, as part of marketing strategy, study, adapt, re-interpret and recycle the traditions, beliefs, cultural norms, rituals and superstitions of local societies.
Even a very cursory look at programmes and commercials being aired on various t.v. channels in India would confirm that a there is a completely disproportionate amount of time spent on various rituals, beliefs and observances that promote son preference, that women are portrayed in the most stereotypical and also most derogatory fashion, that ostentatious weddings, gift-giving on the part of the bride's family, extravagant ceremonies and rituals associated with marriages are featured prominently in both the programmes and the commercials and that most of the goods that are displayed or promoted in the commercials are connected in some way or the other with 'making a good match', leading to a happy marriage, earning status in the marital home. Added to this is the fact that the sale of every commodity from air conditioners to pressure cookers is promoted through the use of a female body.
From this it is not difficult to surmise that it is in the interest of the market to devalue women in every way as compared to men because only then is it possible to insist on the intrinsic lesser value of the bride in comparison to the groom being compensated with expensive marriages, expensive gifts especially for the groom and his family, and an assurance that throughout her married life, her family will continue this supply of gifts, cash etc. to her marital home. Nothing else can explain the fact that even in the case of a woman doctor marrying a male doctor, her family is expected to incur huge expenses including, in many cases, expensive instruments and gadgets that the successful practise of his speciality requires.
The more women are devalued, the more expensive their marriages become, the more the market benefits - and the fewer girl children are allowed to live.
This AIDWA understanding of the context in which female foeticide and infanticide are growing has led to its adopting a multi-pronged strategy to combat this and the cruelly increasing incidence of dowry-related violence. Anti-dowry campaigns and conventions have been organized in many of the States and districts. Couples who have entered into self-choice marriages, usually facing opposition from their families and from their communities are felicitated on these occasions and also asked to speak about their experiences. Young men and women also make public oaths not to give or accept dowry. Brave young women who have refused to get married when their bridegrooms raised dowry demands have also been helped by our organization. Special efforts are being made to associate youth and student organizations with such conventions and meetings. Strategies are being worked out to oppose ostentatious wedding celebrations organized by prominent people who are often aped as role models. Within our organization also, the practice of demanding dowry at the time of sons' marriages is not just being condemned but it has been decided that such conduct will invite disciplinary action.
Another initiative that AIDWA has taken is to form a Media Monitoring Committee. This Committee which is still in its teething stages, has listed objectionable advertisements that adversely impact upon the status of women and encourage dowry demands and other expenses connected with a daughter's marriage. One example is an advertisement for a Fairness cream which portrayed a dark-skinned girl who was the despair of her family because no one was prepared to marry her. When she started using the fairness cream, she also became very 'smart', started wearing mini-skirts, got a glamorous job - and - landed an eligible bridegroom. There are other advertisements which portray the most humiliating ritual in which the girl is 'seen' by the boy's family. In these advertisements, either the girl's house has shabby, peeling walls or else it does not have good ceiling fans and, on this basis, she is rejected as a suitable bride.
The AIDWA Media Monitoring Committee, has complained about several such advertisements to the manufacturers of the product, to the Press Council of India and to organizations that are supposed to monitor the content of advertisements. In a few cases, the objectionable advertisements have been withdrawn. The Committee has also been involved in discussions with the Ministry for Information & Broadcasting, Government of India so that guidelines and policies to monitor the content of the electronic media including Music Videos, Serials and advertisements can be designed, framed and implemented. There has been some progress on this front.
While objectionable advertisements, serials and other programmes are relatively easy to identify, the continuous, insidious depiction of son-preference rituals and practices is a difficult task. But the importance of these in continuously devaluing the status of women and, therefore, in fuelling dowry demands cannot be over-emphasized. Their contribution to the ever-increasing practice of female foeticide and infanticide is also considerable. Since most of these rituals and practices have some sort of traditional or religious sanction, it is difficult also to oppose them. For example, there are many fasts undertaken by Hindu women for the longevity of their husbands and sons just as there are various forms of worship that are resorted to or special temples that are visited in order to bear sons. It is almost impossible to try and have their depiction banned or removed. It is therefore necessary to have campaigns to increase awareness about them, to bring out popular literature about them and to create a feeling of rejection of the values that they project.
AIDWA has been trying to do all of these things in a number of different ways with varying degrees of success. In our publications, we feature articles analyzing anti-women rituals and also the anti-woman content of many recitations made during ceremonies like marriage etc. But our efforts so far have not measured up to the enormity of the problem.
It is difficult to bring home the linkages between falling sex ratio - dowry demands - consumerism - globalisation to the vast mass of Indian women but it is also true that AIDWA's efforts in this direction have been widely appreciated and, at least, a very large proportion of its own membership has grasped the essence of the problem and is trying to disseminate this understanding as widely as possible.
An impact of globalisation on womens lives that has been much more easily comprehensible has been growing food insecurity and acute unemployment, especially in the rural areas. It is not possible to describe all the dimensions of this problem in this paper. In any case, most aspects of it are familiar to students of the subject all over the world. In India, neo-liberal reforms designed at the behest of the World Bank and IMF have ensured the dismantling of a fairly effective Public Distribution System (PDS) under which all families had a ration card and could access subsidized rations and some other essential commodities like cooking oil, sugar, kerosene etc. While the PDS was never a perfect system, it did work exceedingly well in a state like Kerala, quite well in large states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, fairly well in West Bengal. Even where it was least effective, it did protect large numbers of poor families from starvation. After l995, however, a system of targeted-PDS was introduced which sounded the death-knell of the system. Today, income tax payers are denied ration cards altogether while the rest of the population has been divided into BPL (Below the Poverty Line), APL (Above the poverty line), and destitute with different coloured cards and rations at different rates for each segment. As it this was not enough to completely destroy the system, not only are the criteria employed for defining 'poverty' quite senseless (anyone with more than 3 sarees or a cycle is not 'poor') but within each segment, there is a quota. This means that the Central Govt. decides how many cards of each colour will be distributed in every State of the country irrespective of how many people there are that make up that segment. All this ensures that most poor families have no ration cards and, therefore, no access to subsidized rations. Also, only rice, wheat and kerosene are now available in the ration shops and issue prices far in excess of what prevailed at the time of the universal PDS.
Reduced rural infrastructure spending, retreat of the State from purchase of farmers' output, changing crop patterns, increased mechanization of agricultural operations etc. have all ensured a drop in rural employment. Govt.-sponsored employment generating schemes have also had their budgets cut in this period.
All these factors have ensured that hunger, distress and desperation have become commonplace for a very large section of the rural poor families and their women members have actually borne the brunt of these.
Over the years, our organization in different parts of the country has organized numerous agitations and struggles for universalisation of the PDS and guaranteed work for the poor. There have been massive mobilizations of women on these demands not only in districts and at State capitals but in 2002, AIDWA organized a huge convention on Hunger and Work in the capital of Delhi. More than 7000 women participated in this and spoke about their experiences. After the convention, the women marched towards Parliament and blocked the road leading to it for hours together. The major left mass organizations and political parties also added these demands to their various agitational programmes and political manifestoes.
The ruling NDA alliance was routed at the polls in 2004 and a new UPA Govt. could replace it only after getting the support of the Left Parties. The Left Parties insisted on the NPA formulating its Common Minimum Programme (CMP) promising some relief to the poor before its support could be given. The result was that the CMP contained an assurance that an Employment Guarantee Act would be passed that would give 100 days of work to one member of every poor family.
Unfortunately, the Bill that was placed in Parliament earlier this year was most unsatisfactory and was severely criticized by our organization and many others. It was, therefore, referred to the Standing Committee on Rural Development. It is important to mention here, that as a stop-gap measure before the Bill is enacted, as a response to pressure built up by many like our organization, the Government had started a Food For Work Programme (FFWP) in 150 of the poorest districts of the country. Here work - mostly back-breaking earthwork - was made available to poor rural people for which they were paid the statutory minimum wage of the State, partly in cash and partly with rice or wheat. Given below is a very brief description of some work-sites that were visited by members of our organization.
As a result of some of the first-hand information that we had collected, we were able to make an effective presentation of our suggestions and amendments to the Standing Committee when we deposed before it. Our first object to the proposed Bill was that it restricted access to the work to be provided to one member of a 'poor' family and defined family in a way that would actually mean not one but several families. As I have mentioned earlier, the official definition of 'poor' is also very anti-poor and in a country where droughts or floods or family illnesses etc. can hurl a family below the poverty line at any point of time, this restriction becomes even more unfair. We also insisted that 40% of the work to be provided should be given to women who were the worst affected by globalisation policies and the rural crisis that they had generated. We also wanted the scope of the kinds of work envisaged to be extended beyond earthworks and suggested that the elected local bodies be given an important role in designing and prioritizing the works to be undertaken. The Committee gave us a positive and patient hearing and most of our suggestions were accepted by them when they, in turn, made their submissions to the Union Cabinet. As a write this paper, the Bill has been tabled for discussion and voting in the Parliament and should, hopefully, be enacted soon.
While this Act is no solution to rural immiserization and unemployment and forced migrations, it will give some relief to many many poor rural homes. What is going to crucial is the intervention of organizations like ours in the monitoring of its implementation, in mobilizing women to demand access, in organizing the workers to demand payment of their dues on time and, most importantly, in ultimately extending the scheme to the entire country.
Through this paper, I have tried to give an overview of the way in which our organization tries to link local problems with the implementation of globalisation-driven policies by various governments and organizes campaigns and struggles around them. I have also attempted to describe our interventions at demanding policy changes, trying to make the more effective, fighting for their enactment and implementation and then trying to see that they are implemented in a way that the lives of poor, rural women can in some way be touched and even improved.