National Policy on Women Lacks Political Weightage

“Better if I talk less.” So says superstar Salman Khan. A little late in the day, his public remarks of June 21 that he feels like a “raped woman” in the wake of a grueling shoot, have already done their damage. Before the dust settled down, Infosys techie Swathi has bled to death on a Chennai platform, with a crowd watching the spectacle.

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Add to it the rising trajectory of everyday cyber-crime harassments and we are staring at an India where women’s participation in society has gone up exponentially, yet the social scenario needed to match up to her changing needs and expectations have not. We are facing a nation with deep-rooted gender ideologies and socio-cultural stereotypes and the challenges of globalization. Dramatic shifts are taking place in the very fabric underpinning the country, making women vulnerable to exploitation at every level. The need of the hour are social infrastructures and services, where women will not only feel safe navigating in society, but also feel confident to live life on their own terms.

A National Policy for Women has been in the works for long, but never seen the light of the day. The Union Cabinet Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, has taken the initiative to unveil a draft of National Policy for Women (2016) for comments and consultation. Apart from the safety issues, the draft also seeks to address the emerging challenges confronting Indian women: from high prevalence of Maternal Mortality Ratio (174/100,000 live births), Infant Mortality Rate (38/1000 live births) to 59 per cent anaemia in women. Rural India has a high proportion of women farmers, in stark contrast to lack of gender entitlements in land and asset ownership, leading to an overall decline in labour participation rate in India (22 per cent women). With growing urbanization and mass rural decay, more families in villages have chosen migration, which has seen more women competing for unorganized and unskilled labor in urban India (93 per cent). There has been discrepancy in wages between men and women—for rural and urban India. As per a McKinsey report, by 2025 India could add 60 per cent to the country’s GDP by bridging the gender gap.

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Not only that, the first draft of the year 2000 was a piece of static document on which no action was taken. It is unfortunate that the then Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh could not prioritize the burning need for women’s empowerment, leading to positive social change. Women kept waiting for 15 long years for it even to be picked up. Considering the tendency of policies to stay frozen as documents and jargons, it is imperative that the revised policy is whetted by intra-ministry committee and the power of civil society organisations working on the issue should be leveraged through consultations for fine tuning the policy.

Women are not a homogeneous group across the length and breadth of the country. Therefore when it comes to making developmental plan, to a large extent, many rules have to be plateaued without making far too many exceptions. At the outset, it is a felt need that the policy should address the issues of 70 per cent women who are excluded thus far in the country, who happen to live in rural and semi-urban areas of India.

The most important conceptual shift is from welfare to rights based approach. Also, inclusion of issues pertaining to single women, marital rape, geriatric care etc. are bold steps. Having said that policy lacks in its commitment to political empowerment of women.No time frame is given to passing of Women Reservation Bill which is pending for more than two decades.

Although the education section includes the much needed ‘responsive complaint mechanism’ which targets sexual harassment in schools and colleges and encouragement to girls for participating in recreation, cultural activities and that the policy seeks to create a space to introduce ‘Gender Champions’; it needs to be ensured that the Gender Champions don’t end up with a plight similar to Anganwadi Workers – work overload, poor pay and no accountability.

The economic section proposes to set up crèches for children while parents are at work. And it includes registration of tribal migrants by the Panchayat, to protect tribal rights; yet the policy does not have a focused target on seven decades of backlog in women’s development.

The violence against Dalits, minority and tribal women adversely impact the psychological frame due to socio-cultural and economic crimes committed against them. The women still find themselves at a disadvantage of being sexually exploited; especially in the chaotic mess of unorganized work force in India. No bold statement on ‘Triple Talaq’ leaves minority women at the mercy of those who seek to inflict injustice on the women. Despite the policy introducing concept like ‘Krishi Sakhi’ to utilize the skills and capacities of successful women farmers as last mile extension workers; it creates a parallel structure of governance rather than integrating all the mechanisms for easy administration, monitoring and utilization.

Technology should be utilized and Panchayati Raj Institutions need to be strengthened to ensure women empowerment. The Workplace Sexual Harassment Law as part of the National Policy seeks to protect women in informal sectors by setting up Local Complaints Committee as centres for grievance redressal. However, it reads like a dreamer’s suggestion. It is unrealistic at this stage to set-up a Workplace Sexual Harassment complaints committee for the unorganized sector when the sector itself does not have the much needed systems in place. To begin with, women in the unorganized sector need guaranteed minimum wages, health insurance and decent working conditions. Empowerment of women can be achieved if the women are made stronger and if they are given choices.

In absence of high powered mechanism to develop the plan of action, put together infrastructure and resources which can monitor and implement the scheme in a way that the policy administration is both – central government where necessary and decentralized where important. It is very difficult time ensure that the policy will be converted to achievable action. The government needs to ensure that every year, budget is allocated and spent on the Policy implementation and evaluation of its performance.

The policy document needs to be a vision for all sections of women in the country. It needs to break away from the dominant challenges of cultural, religious, social bondage and slavery. The marginalized women need to be the centerpiece of the National Policy for Women which not only covers up for the historic deprivation but also paves way for futuristic needs of women and society in general.

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