“India is still confronted with the old issues, as well as the new ones”

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In 2011, CSR hosted India's very first Walk a Mile in Her Shoes to raise funds for survivors of violence in Delhi.

Ranjana Kumari, Director of the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi, is a veteran Indian feminist who has been following the International Women’s Conferences since Nairobi in 1985. She just returned from the March 2015 meeting in New York. We talked with her about women’s rights and gender equity in India.

Q: What is your overall impression of the recent conference in New York?

Dr Kumari:  The Conference started itself on a chaotic note when the specific conference focus that Hilary Clinton was to address got deflected to internal American politics (the ‘email controversy’). Openness and sharing possibilities were compromised – In Beijing, 20 years back, about 30,000 women confidently articulated their issues, against 4,400 in New York now. I was present both at Beijing and Nairobi and I can tell that the ‘spirit’ of dialogue and inclusion was missing this time.

In New York, Indian organizations participated moderately.  We were all in all about 15 women. For a country like India this is not much, especially as none of our Ministers went, no chairperson of the National Commission on Women either. Our Secretary travelled but only for a day. Asians in general were not that prominently present in the meeting, China was very conspicuously absent.

While the Conference is very important for the articulation of a “women’s agenda”, there is disappointment in this respect, too. The same Beijing document of twenty years back was approved in New York even before the conference had even started. On Day One, the countries met, agreed and re-affirmed the same document without re-opening it for any discussion. The fear was of some countries not agreeing and that would create a logjam, as the UN process is a consensus process with every country having veto power.

Another reason for slowing down of the gender activity and process after Beijing has been that the MDG became the mainstream focus. This was where the UN was moving, and it was a completely top-down, non-consultative process, outlining some very impractical goals like ‘eradicate poverty by 2015’.

I personally feel immense disappointment with the Beijing+20 processes. Beijing Conference 1995, was a process where voices of civil society organizations, feminist groups, were heard and agreed for critical areas of concern. But the present process is all inter-governmental. UN Women in India had just one review meeting to discuss Beijing +20. Such a process is not encompassing and rather top-down. Internationally, the UN agencies should have done their own work better than to have merely ‘decadal conferences’.

Beijing on the other hand, was a process where voices of civil society organizations, feminist groups, were heard and agreed for critical areas of concern. But the present process is all inter -governmental. If we think that our governments are thinking the best for their people, we surely should agree with what they say and report. But if we (the civil society) think that our issues are different, then this articulation should find a way into the UN review process.

However my being critical does not mean that the Beijing process is of no use. It has played an important role; today it needs to be better streamlined and be more ambitious. The UN Women and other agencies have to play a stronger role and take responsibility for greater inclusion of women voices from around the world and effectively so. It was heartening to see how well Africa was represented, really visibly present, and the strongest of the women’s’ voices in the meetings emanated from the continent- South Africa, Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi, Nairobi, Kenya, Senegal- all had big vocal delegations.

But my overall experience, barring the disappointments I mentioned, was of a very interesting networking time, meeting and learning from women around the world.

Q: Does India require an international framework to develop national approaches towards gender equity?

Dr Kumari: Well Beijing process is the Global community’s collective pressure on each country, and it certainly pushes countries to make decisions: There are many outcomes I would credit to it, like the law on domestic violence which every country has. Countries reporting to the CEDAW committee have to mention on the instruments they have to protect women. So the ‘global naming and shaming’, the embarrassment of it keeps the momentum on. I certainly think that Global platforms are important mirrors for nations to see where they are.

Q : Have we moved forward in India in the realization of women’s rights?

Dr Kumari: In many areas we have made progress. For example in girls’ education, only 27% of our girls are out of school today, compared to 49% twenty years back. The Government policy of providing universal education through ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan’ has been very successful. Progressive laws have been passed, The Hindu Succession Amendment Act, 2005, and The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, that provide for women’s property rights as well as establish women’s right to live in violence free home. Then we made credible advancements in creating laws and mechanisms to deal with violence against women (VAW). At the time of Beijing conference, there was no law on sexual harassment and the law on dowry also became stronger only afterwards. Rape law amendment is a major milestone that we made. Issues around women and their legal protection have all advanced much in the last 10 years.

As regards the quality of work for women – wages, level of jobs – there are challenges there, but the absolute number of women workers is huge.

Other milestone events include the formation of National Policy for Women, the National Commission for Women being the apex body for the protection and promotion of women’s issues in the country; this in fact came into being in preparation of Beijing Conference 1995. We passed the Local Bodies Amendments Act in the early 1990s, for better representation of women in the Panchayats and Municipalities.  All these institutions have sprung up during the period of the 1990s.

However, reactionary, conservative forces have also been gaining in strength. The ‘Khap Panchayats’ [caste-based councils] have become ever more prominent in the post-Beijing era, and their diktats are severely anti-women: couples are being murdered for inter-caste marriage; there taboos on women on cycles, wearing jeans, and owning mobile phones.

Q: Does the younger generation in India not associate with the Beijing process?

Dr Kumari: I think a large part of the Western feminist agenda has been resolved. The institution of marriage and family has greatly transformed; people have unprecedented freedoms about when and whom to marry. Many women have even attained economic equality with their partners. Issues of violence are there but not for the majority of the society. The younger women are not feeling the pressure of these issues. However, there are other emerging issues they have of their own – parity in employment, wages, and equal representation on corporate boards, un-biased assessment of competence etc.

In Europe and elsewhere in the West, the younger generation is not feeling the kind of gender-related pressure and burden like our generation faced. India, however, is still confronted with the old issues as well as the new ones.

In India gender discrimination continues to be a huge problem and it all starts within the family. The difference between a boy and girl is pervasive in the Indian mindset and it manifests itself adversely, such as sex selection abortion, school drop-out rate, caste marriages, and in disproportionate access to food, nutrition and health.

There are issues of women and girls everywhere, but in the West, these are rather sublime. As a young person one has far more choices and freedoms than 30 years ago. This is not to say that this it is not happening in India – it does. A silent slow revolution is taking place in our cities as well, but of course this constitutes only a fraction.  I am hopeful we will have more of it. I am an optimist.


Interview and transcription by Shalini Yog Shah