Subhashini Ali's Speech On Onternational Women's day, University of Mumbai, 2007
SPEECH BY SUBHASHINI ALI, PRESIDENT AIDWA
INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY, UNIVERSITY OF MUMBAI
8 March 2007
I would like to talk about some of the trends that I see in the course of our work and the changes between 1975 and now. I think the basic change is, if we look at the Status of Women Committee Report, it is addressed directly to the State. It is the state’s responsibility that is central to change in the status of women as far as the Report is concerned and I personally believe that is the correct approach that it is the State’s and of course it is the responsibility of everybody else, concerned citizens, organizations, democratic organizations, women’s organizations to engaged in the kinds of activities that will impact on the State to change State policy.
I think this is something very central to the recommendations of the Report and to the era in which the Report was put together and I think the greatest change that has taken place between then and now is that more responsibilities are being removed from the State and the State is able to function in a kind of a vacuum where it now seems that its only responsibility is to get rich people richer. It no longer has the responsibility towards ensuring any kind of justice in any field to those who are under privileged, to those who are poor, those who are marginalized and those who are the weaker sections of our society.
I think this is possibly the single greatest thing that has changed between 1975 and now and therefore it is very important that we look at not just 1975 and 2007, which is coming up next year, but we also see that what has happened that is responsible for this change.
And certainly it now widely held that it is the process of globalization, it is the policies that have been imposed by institutions like IMF and World Bank which have been responsible for this shift- from the shift in focus from the State being seen responsible for fulfilling at least the basic and minimum needs of its citizens to shifting the responsibility to all kinds of amorphous and totally undefined groups like civil society. Now what is civil society? We went to Gujarat during the riots and we found a very uncivil society. Can that be trusted to deliver any kind of justice?
So this concept of civil societies, NGOs and so on and so forth, religious organizations, religious heads, spiritual heads and these amorphous and undefined groups are supposed to be taking on the responsibility of the State in providing justice, in rectifying wrongs and injustice. So this is a very huge shift that is taking place and we have to examine what this shift has led to.
Now after the Report, you know we had the first International Conference of Women in Nairobi, than Beijing and in Beijing I happened to go their in 1995 and it was very interesting- I do belong to an organization AIDWA and that time in 1995 there were many organizations and groups that were very sincere, that were parts of the Women’s Movement in India, who were actually welcoming globalization. They were seeing it as a very liberating force that was going to end bureaucratization, red tapism, insensitivity and callousness of the State and many of its organs. And they were taken in completely by this promise that now women were going to become visible and now women would occupy their rightful place. So at that time when Beijing happened actually there were a lot of people who were not critiquing globalization in the way I think is being critiqued all around- as far as women’s movement, as far as most NGOs working on different issues are concerned.
But what happened in Beijing was that from all over the World the many Women’s Organisations and groups that came there were two things that everybody was talking about: One was the negative impact of globalization on women’s status and women’s lives and second was the rise of religious fundamentalism and how this was impacting on women. I mean there were people from Iran who were talking about it there were people from Latin America, there were people from South East Asia and all over the place. And I am very happy to say that from AIDWA at least and from a large number of Women’s Organizations they have also prepared a document called Women’s Speak in which we also addressed these problems. Even though in 1995 many of the things that are now very clear had started happening like Babri Masjid had happened and other things.
So these were twin process that seemed to be independent of each other and seemed contradictory and also that people were experiencing in different parts of the world and in different ways and especially women were experiencing. And what was felt was how is this happening – I mean here is globalization which is supposed to be modernizing, was supposed to be taking us forward, was supposed to a movement towards progress, towards affluence for all etc. etc. and especially it is supposed to liberating for women. And the other hand it is also rise of, I’m using religious fundamentalism for want of a better name – I haven’t really found a name - I think we all know what I’m talking about. So this rise of religious fundamentalist forces or political religious organizations – what ever you want to call it – These twin process people were seeing as something very contradictory to each other and it was difficult to understand how they are both emerging and both becoming more and more powerful in society at the same time.
But I think there were many in the Women’s movement, especially in India, who did make the connection and said that no, it is not contradictory. And I want to just give you an example why it is not contradictory and are very much a part of each other. They both feed into and strengthen each other. As I was coming down to Kalina today and I saw some wonderful posters on the road. The posters had – and please don’t take it personally – if any body is a devotee I’m not criticizing there devotion – but Shri Shri Ravi Kumar – Ravi Shankar is going to have a prayer session for the farmers of Vidharbha who are committing suicides. Now this I don’t think would have happened in 1975. We could have had a prayer session but I don’t think any body at that time could have believed that a prayer session could address the problems of farmers who are driven to suicide in Vidharbha. But this is, I think, a very good example of what globalization has done to all of us – that we are passing these posters and not wanting to tear them down. We are not saying this is vulgar, disgusting, this is an insult, the worst kind of callousness because this is what globalization has done to all of us. That is going on coming out with a new anodyne, with a new prescription to deal with very very serious problem. These prescriptions have nothing to do with the problems. But everyday they are presented in a very powerful way as solution to the problems. So we also keep lurching from one so called solution to another so called solution so by the time we realize that it is all nonsense we are probably crippled, in wheel chairs and then its too late to do anything about it so this is something that we have to be very aware of that by removing or trying to remove central responsibility of the State and therefore by removing a focus for our agitations, our struggle and for our demands - a huge disservice has been done to the poor people all over the world and especially to women. What has actually happened is, as we all know and as we all realized, globalization has been nothing but a new form of colonialism, a new form of imperialism and certainly its only interest is in increasing inequalities – inequalities between nations, within nations, between rich and poor, men and women, between social groups that are disadvantaged etc. etc.
Since religion has always been a force and as we know, it has been sigh of the oppressed, a sahara of people who are besahara. But basically religion has been always used throughout ages to enforce acceptance of hierarchy, to internalize acceptance of hierarchy and therefore inequality. So I think it is very natural that religious fundamentalism is assuming that kind of strength and force that it has today while the process of globalization has done everything to increase inequalities to increase exploitation.
So that’s were I’m starting from and I’d like to say that today we really have to look at what’s happening to women in India and from this point of view, this removal of responsibility from the State to provide for women, provide for the poor- what has it meant for the women’s lives ?
Of course there are success stories and it is very interesting – you know Kshama was saying – where is the women’s movement? Well the women’s movement has no space any more because we have no space in the media. What is – the media today is so powerful that you can have a dharna or a morcha of 50,000 women but its not going to be reported unless someone dies or unless someone is burnt to death or unless police fires or unless you go down and burn Crawford Market or Commissioners of Police’s Office. Then you might get a little space. Otherwise what’s happening to Angelina Jolie at Anjuman-E-Islam is much more important.
The whole trivialization of important issues, of important process and of important social struggles that has been achieved in 20 years of globalization is something incredible and of course this has created a lot of problem for people who are trying to organize movements. But thats not the end of it. Its also true that this shifting of responsibility from the State to the so called civil society has also meant that there are many many women sitting in NGO offices doing very good work. I’m not knocking it but who could have been on the streets otherwise because the real tragedy is those who want and those who are striving for change and improvement in peoples lives the most, unfortunately many of them have been totally conned by this specious argument that the state is bad, the state is dirty, politics is dirty, the state is inefficient, state is corrupt and therefore the state is enable to deal with the people’s problems and so who is going to deal with them?
Well, all the Swamis, all the Matas and all the Fathers, all NGO’s and civil society including the Supreme Court, I mean the way in which our whole society, I said, we lurch – we lurch from some bhagwan to somebody who produces watches out of thin air to somebody else who is coming out with a magic solution and when everything else fails, then we say, the Supreme Court – we all have faith in Supreme Court. This is the most wonderful refrain I keep hearing as if, these people who are Judges in the Supreme Court, as if they have come from somewhere else. Arrebaba they are as bad and may be even worst than most of us and to completely jisko kehte hain – girvi rakhho our rights and responsibilities – bhai Judge sab theek kar dega. This is absolutely ridiculous but this, I think a very big problem. That the whole concerted and huge effort that is needed to change state policy, to change govt. policy has been considerably weakened by the fact that many of us who sincerely want to make change, want to bring about change have been taken in by the argument that politics is dirty, govt. is corrupt and therefore to do anything meaningful we have to stay away from politics and not ask the State to do anything. Because what the State does – nothing is going to be meaningful. I mean every bureaucrat in India – you know when he or she opens his or her mouth is going to say – don’t you remember what Rajiv Gandhi said – Every rupee sent to the poor only 15 paise reach but the problem is that at 15 paise reach na – 15 paise to a poor man or women is better than nothing. So what I’m saying is that we all, I mean a huge section of society has been conned by this absolutely dangerous argument that to do something worthwhile, to make a difference you have to stay away from politics, and that we don’t have to ask the state to do anything.
Now I think what has resulted in is we are not even beginning to understand the absolute pauperization and miserisation of women which is taking place in our country for the last ten years. Its true that we see many more educated women – its true we see many more teachers, many more women doctors – women doing all kinds of things. But the point is what is actually happening ? The withdrawal of the State in every sphere – whether its education, whether its health, it is not only the matter of jobs being lost – its not only the issue that there is no security there is no tenure. Teachers are being paid 150 Rupees in Hour to teach in Universities and Colleges. Thats one aspect of its but the other aspect is that today literally we are forcing young women and young girls into a total state of illiteracy.
We are seeing that while registration of girl’s students that enrolment is going up but their daily attendance is going down. That is what the NSS is telling us. So thats really serious. Because the moment State withdraws from education then primary education and education for younger kids just completely becomes unavailable to low income people and even lower middle class people. e.g. I come from a place called Kanpur and I’m horrified – every single private school is doing something for the last 5 years that we never experienced. Which is every year the children have to be readmitted and every year the child’s parents – apart from the books and teachers day and madams day, founders day – apart from all that every year in the most matlab ghatiya schools have to shell out 2000 rupees per child. So for 3 children it is 6,000 rupees. So they withdraw the girls from school. Her education is stopped. Chauthi padh li, Panchvi padh li. So the withdrawal of the State from education is really creating havoc.
The same thing goes for health, what are we talking about – one little .00, some improvement in infant mortality rate and we all get excited about it and e-mails are sent all over and this that and the other. And what is it to do with a State like Uttar Pradesh where 40,000 – 50,000 women every year die while they are producing a child and that’s more than earthquakes and wars and everything else. It is just totally horrendous and unacceptable and that is because even the most primary health care today is just not available. And then we come to food – what are we saying – today if we go to a slum or to a village no women wants anything other than a people ration card and if she thinks she is really lucky she may be able to have an access to an Antyodaya ration card. I mean cheap ration – we all used to fight ke when we were in Bombay we were fighting latna morcha to get ghaslet on the ration card, to get sakhar on the ration card and to get this that and the other. Today, everything is gone and the ration card is also gone. Why ? because we were first conned into believing the FCI is corrupt, the whole supply department if very corrupt, the whole rationing department is very corrupt – ha bhai they were very corrupt but people were getting ration and whenever we fought, whenever we protested, whenever we had dharnas, whenever we had morchas etc. – we got kerosene, we got sugar, we got everything. And everybody had one kind of ration card. So therefore, when there is a universal access that means people are going to get it. The moment you start limiting access, the moment people, who are articulate or denied access, then at the end of the day everyone is going to be denied access. So what has happened in the field of food security is truly criminal.
What successive govt. have done to deprive poor women of their basic nutritional needs – with the result that 80% of women are anaemic. Thats definitely got to do with policies thats to do with – you know to talk to people like Montek Singh and he says, you know you don’t understand that food habits have changed, I say yes instead of eating they are not eating – thats the habit thats changed. I mean these are the kind of people who are policy makers in the country. So these – all these changes in policies – all this privatization – the whole sabotage of the public distribution system, all these things have obviously impacted terribly on women. Now we know that there is a raging debate about whether women are getting more work today or less work. I am sure Ritu can tell you more about it and in a more intelligent manner. But, I mean if you hear debates on the NSS, you would really wonder seeing that it’s the most hottest topic you know. What’s happening with NSS ? but the fact of the matter is that if you looked at it carefully what is it telling you – Yes women are doing more work but why are they doing more work ? because they have to. They are doing more work for less money.
They say that there is this great shift – you know from agriculture to non-agriculture work. You know thats a sign of progress. Maybe they are heading for an industrial revolution after all. But what does it mean ? It means she is doing some kind of work in the morning, she is doing some another kind of work in the afternoon and doing a third kind of work in the evening. And whets happening in the agrarian sector ? it is totally terrifying. There is a complete crisis and no amount of Shree Shrees and all these people is going to make a jot of difference because the agrarian crisis is deepening by the minute because of the policies that successive governments have adopted as far as agriculture is concerned. I won’t go into the details. But I want to give you a small e.g. In Andhra Pradesh a certain area where there were good paddy fields the women, you know they fought, they joined unions and they were getting about 70 rupees per day for transplantation and paddy cultivation. Then what happened Mr. Chandrababu Naidu came along and he gave a large amount of that land to multinational corporations – what were they doing – anyway some shrimp or some thing – maybe I don’t know – maybe orchids. Anyway 1000 acres of the paddy lands given to the multinational corporation. So the women, what work were they doing after that ? Now obviously you would say they are doing more work. But what is the work they were doing ? The women had to run around in the fields catching rats and for each rat they caught they were given 10 paise. And we met these women they said that they were just so tired after running after these rats that we just cant do anything. We just cannot do a thing when we come home. So that is employment generation.
If you look at a place called Tirupuram in South India – in the seventies there were composite textiles mills. There were lot of women working in these mills. And a lot of women working as contract labour but for these mills. I mean they had some connection with the organized sector. So you know there was some point in struggling and forming a union. Some kind of benefit they could get. You know kabhi provident fund mil gaya, kabhi ESI benefit mil gaya, kabhi kuch mil gaya. Then of course all the mills and every thing else collapse and now in Tirupur you have huge big compounds where literally women are kept under lock and key. There are young girls who come from Kerala and other places because they want to earn for their dowry. And they come there and work there after giving a written undertaking that they will not leave that place for 3 years. They are not paid anything also. If some one is dying in the village or some thing that like maybe they are allowed to go for a day or two. But they are given khana and a place to sleep but they have no limit on their working hours. At the end of three years they are given some 30,000 – 40,000 rupees and they are quite happy because they feel that now we can get married. Without this we couldn’t have got married.
So when we are talking about women’s work, we are talking about SEZs, or call centres – we must understand what is the kind of work women are doing and I said this whole point about the agrarian crisis – I went of to Tirupur in the middle - but the way its impacting and we have to look at migration. You see of course the men are migrated so that creates a lot of trouble, problem for the women – they become more vulnerable etc. But now the women also are migrating. And they are migrating in many different ways. e.g. around Yawatmal and Buldhana and places like that what they do is – they try to bring vegetables and all that and they try to get on some local train or passenger train and then they go some 2 hours to Nagpur or some near by town and sell the vegetables. So they have to get up very early in the morning and then have to walk with this whole burden on their heads. They have to deal with the TTs and all that for obviously they can’t afford to buy the ticket for if they buy the ticket then its not worthwhile for them to go and sell the vegetables. So they have all the problems that the TTs could create including sexual harassment. Then there has been a rape in the toilet also and so on and so forth. And then they go there and sit there for the whole day and sell their vegetables. Then they have to come back in the same train, then walk back to the villages in the night.
So for the woman who is doing this every single day – you can imagine what happens to her health. What happens to her sense of security, what happens to so many things. And of course trafficking is another whole area. I don’t have to go into that but that is also being helped, promoted by this agrarian crisis and collapse of social services and by the fact that trafficking has become a very big international business. And therefore there is a very big lobby. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers but there is a huge lobby. Some of the well meaning people who want to legalize it – people who are involved in trafficking also – it becomes a legal activity, a kind of commercial activity. So the numbers there are also huge, so when we talk about more job opportunities or more work opportunities for women – we must understand that in what context is it happening and what kind of work is available to them.
And I think the best reflection on that is you know is the NRE – is my time have I finished my time ? – ok REGA you know the Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Is being implemented and we all fought a lot and we got 30% of the jobs on a priority basis given to women. Now the figure is, according to the Ministry of Rural Development that a total of 2 Crores 75,000, nearly 3 Crore job cards have been issued of which 42% are women.
Now what is the work that women are queuing up and trying to get ? It is all digging work. – it is all digging work that means standing in the sun and digging for 7-8 hours a day – digging mud, stone, clay and not only digging but the deeper the ditch or pit becomes the longer the distance that they have to carry the baskets on their heads and go and throw it. It has been calculated that it must be that these women are carrying and throwing something like 600 Kgs of mud a day. And what are they earning ? in no state is the minimum wage being accessed by these women. The wage they are accessing because of corruption and more than that due to faulty time rate – time motion study – the wage they are accessing ranges from 15 rupees to 25 rupees per day. In some states they manage to get 34 rupees. But these are the number of women already engaged in this work and let me tell you in every district where this scheme is being implemented there are thousands and thousands and thousands of women from 17 yrs to 83 who are queuing up. The old women are coming in pairs and saying we both will work together and get 10 rupees each.
So this I think is an indication of what the kind of a problem it is. The problem of existence that is staring at millions and millions women in the rural areas.
And finally I would like to end by saying that when we talk about globalization and what its doing to women, then there is this whole thing that, but then women are visible – there is this glamorous sector of women. But if we look at whets happening to the sex ratio – I know there is going to be a talk to tomorrow. So I’m not going to tell you that its falling, its appalling and we all know that its people like us, who are all getting rid of their daughters. - well to do people, educated people, people living in the cities, people living in the most prosperous parts of India. But its also necessary to reflect on why its happening. Its happening because technology is there which tells you. But I think its more than that. I think that globalization, of course I’m repeating some clichés also – there is a whole new culture of consumerism coming etc. etc. But there is something else that we have to look at when we say that globalization is increasing inequalities then obviously globalization is also strengthening patriarchy. So not just in the areas of work or education is this happening but I think the most visible face of globalization is the media and specially the electronic media. And I think if we look at what the media is feeding us, its very interesting that what the media does is that reinterpret tradition – use traditions which are promoting son preference, which are lowering the status of women. The media is constantly projecting the truth that the women are the worst enemies of women. And its doing every thing to demean and lower the status of women. And I am not even talking of showing women in bikinis. I’m not talking about those aspects. I am talking about those bahuranis who are nicely covered and everything else.
But the point is why is the media doing it ? Why is this being done ? Its definitely being done because all these intelligent people who get MBA degrees, and all that. The first thing they are taught is where ever you go you have to sell. So very often you are selling things to people who cannot afford to buy and do not want to. So of course you have to create needs etc. etc. but you have to create a very strong motivation which drives them to buy. So you have to find things in these local societies which will help to make people by things that they would have otherwise not dreamt of buying. Now in India what they have done is they have picked on one sanskar which is very important to people across religion across caste and across region. Which is ladki ki shaadi to karni hi hai. And today this has become possibly the most important sanskar jiske samne baki sab sanskar bilkul peeche rah gaye hain.
Now how does the market use this ? The market uses this to say – well since you have to get your daughter married – unless you do such and such and so and so, your daughter will not get married. So every object, the purchase of every object is linked to making your daughter more marriageable – I am finishing now, making daughter more marriageable, to ensure her happiness in her marital home – every single tradition that is linked with son preference that is linked with inequality of women is rigorously and vigorously promoted by the media. So this inequality, this gender inequality increases every day. So therefore at the time of marriage if the women is sitting in one part of the tarazu that is the bride and the groom is on the other part, the girl’s palada is somewhere there and the boy’s somewhere there. And unless you put in that TV, Fridge or Washing Machine – unless you put in that tube of fair and lovely and all the rest of it the paladas will not be equal and the marriage cannot take place. Otherwise who can you explain to doctors getting married and boy’s parents daring to say to the girl’s parents that bhai nursing home aap nahi de sakte to X-Ray Machine to de hi dijiye. And what is it that convinces the girl, the lady doctor’s parents that they have to do it – make this presentation – see that this marriage takes place. This is probably the most insidious anti-woman process that is running amuck, in this period of globalization which is of course directly connected with the sex ratio. And every body who is getting rid of their daughter is saying that they are doing it to avoid her marriage expenses, to avoid dowry etc. It is directly linked with the ever growing expense of a daughter’s marriage. It is being promoted by the market along with every single retrograde tradition that exists in our entire society.
When I was a young woman only Punjabi women used to keep the dreadful Karva Chauth Vrat. Now I go to Kerala and women say – hum bhi Karwa Chauth rakhte hai. Bhai Karwa Chauth – what is it ? They say we stay hungry the whole day till the mooh becomes kadwa. They don’t even know what it is – why ? Because it is picked up and promoted. That this is the sign of virtuous Indian women. This is what you have to do in order to be the norm – you know the norm so that you get a tezz tarar mantra, you know to come and sit there with a ghoonghat and thali, all this business. And talking coyly – pata nahi pehle chanda dikhega ki woh dikhenge, and every woman who is watching – bhai agar yeh rakhti hai to agale saal hamko bhi rakhana hoga.
So this I think, this insidious strengthening of patriarchy promotes the market to promote consumerism, that is going on as very much apart of globalization – is some thing that we often miss when we talk about privatization of education or privatization of health or the media glorifying women as a commodity and commodifying their bodies. All that we are very much aware of but what they are doing to the status of women and to perpetuate inequality between men and women, impacting directly to the falling sex ratio. This something that also needs attention.
I would like to end by saying – please let us not divide into activists and academicians. It we are to be activists we have to know something and if we have to be good academicians you have to know something also. So we have to use our eyes, our feet along with our computers and our heads. So let us all get together use our hands, our feet and let’s start fighting where we need to fight – which is to change the policies of the State. Don’t think the State is bad or State is good. State is State and it has to deliver and it will only deliver when we have the strength to force it to deliver. That’s all I have to say thank you very much.