More Power To Women

March 11, 2013 7:54 am by

Normally Women’s Day follows a predictably cheesy routine. There’s the usual flurry of celebratory offers for women such as free sangria, discounted spa treatments, special menus, new lines of clothing and similar goodies that women are purportedly partial to. Celebrities are mined for quotes on “woman power”. This year, Shah Rukh Khan went a step further to pledge that starting from Chennai Express, in which he stars opposite Deepika Padukone, every film he does will show the heroine’s name before his in the credits. That’s very nice SRK. Now how about pressuring producers to pay actresses as much they pay actors?

Aside from the usual rigmarole, Women’s Day this year, which was celebrated on Friday, March 8, was particularly significant. Sadly for that we have to thank the 23-year-old girl who was gang-raped and killed in Delhi in December 2012—and who even Justice J.S. Verma, P. Chidambaram and American secretary of state John Kerry refer to as “Nirbhaya”, the name The Times of India bestowed on her. On Friday, the government announced a bumper crop of policies that if implemented will go a long way in empowering women. Had the outpouring public rage after the girl was raped not whipped the government into placatory action, these measures would probably have been a long time coming.

The Maharashtra government unveiled a draft of its policy on women, which includes loans at lower interest rates for women, extra steps to correct the sex ratio in 14 districts where it’s particularly skewed, allowing children of single mothers to take their mothers’ surnames in official documents and shelter for retired sex workers. The draft, which has been made public, is open to suggestions from people. Typically of the Maharashtra government, however, the draft is in Marathi, excluding all those women unfamiliar with the language.

The Mumbai police started a special crime against women cell that will investigate cases of rape, molestation, dowry and other wrongdoings against women. Hopefully this will encourage more women to report sexual harassment. Very often they choose not to as cops are notoriously averse to recording sexual harassment cases and insensitive when they do. Similarly the Bombay High Court has ordered that all crimes against women be tried in courts manned entirely by women to make it easier for victims to give evidence. This means that trial courts, where evidence is presented, will be staffed by women right from the judge to the stenographer. And the BEST has for the first time recruited three women conductors into a force of 11,000 male conductors. All three are widows whose husbands were BEST employees.

On the downside, the state government blew up some of its brownie points by rejecting one of the key recommendations of the Justice J.S. Verma committee report while formulating the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2012 aka the anti-rape law. It refused to accept marital rape as a legitimate sexual offence on the premise that it would devastate the institution of marriage. In doing so, the authorities revealed their own deeply patriarchal mindsets. They are, in effect, saying that a woman has rights over her own body only before marriage after which, she gives up those rights to her husband who can do what he will with her. So what would count as sexual abuse before marriage becomes legitimate behaviour after a couple ties the knot. It’s strange and counterintuitive that dowry, while a punishable crime, is not considered ruinous to the institution of marriage in the way rape is.

There’s a lot more that needs to be done by the government to empower women. For instance, giving rights to women in live-in relationships equal to married women. While the judiciary has often ruled in favour of women embroiled in disputes with their long-term partners, the state is yet to put together a law. But that will take place only once it sheds its conservatism. The measures that the state has “gifted” to its citizens, as newspapers like to say, are a much needed, if belated step in this direction. But as with all policies, the proof of intent lies in implementation. Recently it was revealed that the UPA’s ambitious farm loan waiver scheme was a partial failure because loans were badly disbursed and money meant for farmers on the verge of suicide was pilfered. So if the state fails to follow through on all the goodies it dished up, then March 8, 2013 will have been no more special than the average stereotypical freebie-filled Women’s Day.