Power to resist
The Maharashtra experience is that more women in positions of power
will make the system gender-sensitive.
The landmark Women's Reservation Bill got passed in the Rajya Sabha
after a long battle. While it has been a huge triumph in the face of
overwhelming odds, there are still many hurdles, put up by intraparty
and interparty politics and vested interests, to be overcome.
Amidst all the opposition and hullabaloo, one needs to think seriously
about the fact that passing of the Bill in Parliament will be a
historic and momentous decision that will pave the way for a
gender-just society. Women's active participation in politics will
have ripple effects in the social arena as well, changing gender
dynamics for the better. Every issue, whether developmental, social or
economic, will be seen from the gender perspective. Moreover, it will
mean that there will be stringent action by the state against
discrimination and violence against women.
The track record of the state in preventing violence against women has
been dubious. In one incident in Maharashtra, a 16-year-old tribal
girl was allegedly raped by two policemen on the premises of the
police station in Chandrapur district. In this case, Tukaram and
Another vs State of Maharashtra (1978), the Sessions Court acquitted
the defendants stating that the girl was "habituated to sexual
intercourse" and her consent was voluntary, and under the
circumstances only sexual intercourse could be proved and not rape.
The Bombay High Court set aside this judgment and sentenced the
accused, but unfortunately this verdict was reversed by the Supreme
Court, which acquitted the policemen.
The Delhi High Court infamously stated in Harvinder Kaur vs Harmander
Singh (1983) thus: "Introduction of constitutional law in the home is
the most inappropriate. It is like introducing a bull in a china
shop…. In the privacy of the home and the married life neither Article
21 nor Article 14 has any place." Of course, the state's response to
violence against women has come a long way from that. While more women
in positions of power will not necessarily ensure prompt
responsiveness on the part of the state towards violence, it will
definitely open the doors for more dialogue with women's groups and
organisations to bring in the gender perspective into all areas of
Many argue that the Bill will be misused as women will be mere puppets
in the hands of men. It is not true. Similar concerns were raised
during the discussions on the 73rd and 74th amendments, which reserved
seats for women in panchayati raj institutions and urban local
self-governments. While the first few years following the amendments
were rocky because it was difficult for women to cope with the
structure, functioning and planning process of panchayati raj, many
organisations in Maharashtra, such as the Resource and Support Centre
for Development, the P.V. Mandlik Trust, and Manavlok, came together
to train women in overcoming these hurdles. This resulted in women
making positive changes on the socio-political scene. The panchayats
are churning out able women leaders. The same trend will be observed
in Parliament as well.
Maharashtra has always been considered a progressive State
economically, socially and politically. It was the first State to come
out with a policy supporting reservation for women in politics. It was
also the first State where the police force took a major step towards
empowering women by opening all mainstream duties to them, in 1994.
Apart from these, Maharashtra is considered one of the safest States
for women in India. The State passed the Pre-Natal Diagnostic
Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act in 1988 as a
result of work done by various groups. It was subsequent to this, in
1994, that the Central Act was passed.
Despite this history of progressive attitude towards women,
Maharashtra has been in the news for the wrong reasons in the past few
years. According to the report "Crime in Maharashtra 2008", brought
out by the Maharashtra State Crimes Record Bureau, compared with 2007,
crimes against women have increased by 5.42 per cent. A specific
increase of 900 cases was reported at the State level in 2008. Cases
of cruelty by the husband and his relatives increased by 6.4 per cent
and molestation cases increased by 9.47 per cent. As many as 1,558
cases of rape were registered, a 7.37 per cent increase. Mumbai alone
accounted for 9.3 per cent of all crimes committed against women, the
highest share in the State. Of all cases charged under the Indian
Penal Code, 8.31 per cent were crimes against women. A recent report
states that Maharashtra has a higher crime rate against women than
So, is Maharashtra steadily losing its status of being the safest
State for women? No, on the contrary, it is safer for women here than
elsewhere because the high rate at which crimes are reported indicates
the confidence of women here in state agencies such as the police.
More and more women, be they from rural or urban areas, are breaking
their silence and reporting violence against them to the police. Even
domestic violence cases, which were the least reported, have shown a
consistent increase in the number of cases reported, reflecting the
changing mindset of women and their determination to end such
The participation of civil society in fighting discrimination and
violence against women is also tremendous in Maharashtra.
Historically, Maharashtra has witnessed the rise of women such as
Pandita Ramabai, Tarabai Shinde, Savitribai Phule, Anandibai Joshi and
Durgabai Deshmukh who were at the forefront of reformist movements in
the country and fought for the rights of women. For any women's
movement to be successful, the participation of men is equally
important. People such as Acharya Balshastri Jambhekar, who fought
actively against the practice of sati and female infanticide; Dhondo
Keshav Karve, who dedicated his life to the cause of women's
education; and Jyotiba Phule, who revolted against the caste system
and upheld the cause of untouchables and education of women of the
lower castes, were champions of women's causes.
Even today, various groups, along with non-governmental organisations
and community-based organisations, are in the forefront of the battle
against discrimination and violence against women. Their services
include providing counselling, legal aid and medical help; forming
women's groups and empowering them; and lobbying and advocacy. More
and more interventions are made in collaboration with state agencies
such as the police and the Department of Women and Child Development
On the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti on April 14, 2009, activists of
the Savitribai Mahila Mandal in Belgaum re-emphasising the need for
continuing the movement initiated by the 19th century social reformer
Savitribai Phule for the empowerment of women.
The State government is taking initiatives to make the system more
gender-sensitive. It has recognised the need for collaborating with
civil society organisations to deliver meaningful service to women.
The result is institutionalised services. The Special Cell for Women
and Children is one such institutionalised service. It was established
in 1984 by the Mumbai Police and the Tata Institute of Social
Sciences, Mumbai, to provide professional support services to women
facing violence. In the past two and a half decades, the Special Cell
has provided services to countless women and has shown that a
strategic alliance with the police can make a significant impact on
women's search for support and justice. "Recognising her pain and the
reality of the violence she faces, social workers at the Special Cell
are trained to bolster a woman's sense of self as she takes the first
step towards ending such violence," said Trupti Panchal, coordinator
of the Special Cell.
The project was taken over by the Government of Maharashtra under the
ambit of the DWCD in 2005. From just one cell in 1984 at the Police
Commissionerate in Mumbai, it has now grown to 20 cells across
Maharashtra. The Haryana, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh governments, too,
have adopted the model. In fact, in a 2003 report, Radhika
Coomaraswamy, former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against
Women, said the Special Cell model was considered one of the most
effective strategies to deal with violence against women worldwide.
The 103 helpline of the Mumbai Police, too, reflects the State's
proactive role in ending violence against women. In December 2007,
when two women were molested outside a five-star hotel on New Year's
Eve, Akshara and 12 other women's organisations, along with [actor and
political activist] Shabana Azmi, approached the Mumbai Police
Commissioner demanding stringent action against acts of violence
against women. This concerted campaign resulted in the launch of the
toll-free 103 police helpline to report crimes against women, children
and senior citizens, on February 28, 2008, by the Mumbai Police in
collaboration with the Campaign against Violence against Women and
Girls (VAW Campaign).
Akshara took up the initiative in 2008 to ensure the smooth
functioning of the helpline by training the police staff, and launched
a media campaign in collaboration with the advertising agency Leo
Burnett to spread awareness about the helpline. "Over the past two
years, the helpline has taken action in 2,810 cases, out of which
1,623 were of domestic violence and 516 were of eve-teasing. It has
helped in a way that women who face any kind of harassment, either at
home or in colleges or in workplaces, feel confident about approaching
the authorities to complain about their problems and seek justice,"
said Police Commissioner D. Sivanandan at the recent launch of the new
media campaign of 103.
Whenever a woman calls the helpline, a police van arrives at the scene
within 10 minutes. The fear of prompt action by the police has
deterred many habitual offenders from committing crimes against women.
Focussing on the importance of such a number, Chandra Iyengar,
Additional Chief Secretary (Home) in the State, has announced that the
103 helpline, which is currently functional only in Mumbai and Thane,
will become a State-wide toll free number from April.
There have been many progressive decisions with respect to women in
public space this year in Maharashtra. For instance, on March 8, the
government declared that one police station in every district and five
police stations in Mumbai would be headed by women police officers.
This was done to break the glass ceiling within the force and also to
make the force more sensitive to women who approach it.
For a long time, the State had a skewed gender ratio within the
forces. In the police force, only 7 per cent are women. To counter
this, the State Home Ministry also announced the recruitment of more
women into the force as police drivers. This shows the State's
increasing acknowledgement of gender justice across all spheres of
public and private life. May 1 will mark the Golden Jubilee of
Maharashtra as a State. With the Women's Bill almost on the threshold
of being passed, this year could be the golden year for women in India
Anisha Padhee is an activist with Akshara, a women's resource centre
working on issues of gender and social justice. The article has inputs
from Nandita Shah, co-director of Akshara.
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