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The battle for justice

Gender injustice is a problem that is seen all over the world. But unless there are certain attitudinal changes, women will continue to get a raw deal. Professor MADHU DANDAVATE analysed the roots of this problem at the Besant Lecture delivered at the Theosophical Society, Chennai, on December 27. Excerpts from the speech.


An activist from an Indian women's rights organisation holds up a placard depicting the exploitation of women in the workplace.

AS we study the social evolution of human society, the glaring fact that emerges is that in the old feudal system, woman was always given an inferior status. Paradoxically, she was also considered the symbol of the sanctity and purity of the family. But this very aspect of her personality made woman the target as well as the victim in conflict-torn society. In a feudal society there are serious land disputes and conflicts about property rights. These are not always sought to be settled through due processes of law. No weapon of intimidation, torture or humiliation is considered unethical. The most revengeful way to humiliate a family against whom disputes are pending is to subject the womenfolk in that family to crimes that rob them of their honour and dignity and bring them disrepute.

Compounding gender injustice

In our tradition-bound society, structured on old social values, when a woman is subjected to a crime like rape, it becomes a multiple crime. She is raped at home, then in public life, followed by an agonising cross-examination in court, and the climax is reached when sensational reports about the crime appear in the media. The victim of the crime finds the public exposure more agonising than the crime inflicted on her. The most humiliating aspect of crime against a woman is that her status in the hierarchical structure of society also comes in the way of securing justice for her. Thus her social status compounds her gender injustice.

In a well-known rape case, the most obnoxious situation was that the court concerned observed that the alleged rapists were middle-aged and as such were respectable and were not amenable to a crime against a woman. Not satisfied with this, the court made the astounding observation that "since the alleged rapists were higher-caste men, the rape could not have taken place because the alleged victim was from a lower caste". Such observations only give credence to the widely prevalent prejudiced view that men from the higher social echelons of society are paragons of virtue and not likely to commit atrocities on socially deprived women. What a tragedy that woman has to face the compounding of gender as well as social injustice.

The right to be born

In India, with a highly utilitarian approach, poor parents do not aspire for a female child for two selfish reasons. Firstly, because of the fabulous dowry to be paid on the daughter's marriage, parents consider a daughter as a "financial liability". And, secondly, because the daughter has to leave the parents' house after marriage, she is no longer considered useful as an earning member of the family.

The instinctive urge, particularly of poor parents, is to prevent the birth of a female child. The most astounding statistics reveal that in a prominent hospital in Mumbai, the pre-sex determination tests revealed that during 1978-1982, nearly 8,000 pregnant women were expected to give birth to a female child. But to prevent this, 7,999 of them underwent abortions.

Article 21 of India's Constitution on "Protection of life and personal liberty" states: "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law." In the case of female children in the womb of expectant mothers, they are not only denied the right to live, but are robbed of their right even to be born, as revealed by the statistics mentioned earlier. This is the travesty of gender justice!...

Women in Champaran

Gandhiji had sensitivity for the problems of women, the weakest among the weak. He sent a team of workers to study and report on the problems of Champaran district. But the report they gave him did not refer to any problems of the women there. "How can any report be complete without an account of the women's problems?" he asked. The workers told him that the women of Champaran were very shy and would not meet them. Gandhiji then deputed Kasturba Gandhi and Avantikabai Gokhale to visit Champaran to report on the women's agony. At first, the women of Champaran would not meet them or even open their doors.

At sunset, Kasturba Gandhi knocked on one door and told the women inside: "We have been moving round your town from sunrise tosunset. We are now thirsty. Will you not offer us a glass of water?" A door was then slightly opened. A woman's hand appeared with a glass of water on her palm. Kasturba drank the water and then said: "Sister, we have seen your hand. But we want to see the woman behind this hand."

The woman inside broke down. She said, "Three women of our household share only one untorn sari and one woman has gone out with that sari; how could the others open the door for you and expose our half-naked bodies with torn clothes?" Kasturba told the weeping woman: "Close the door. The doors of your heart are opened."

Kasturba and Avantikabai, touched by the reply, returned to Gandhiji with this heart-rending report. The report steeled Gandhiji's determination not to rest till the honour of the women in Champaran was restored.

Global inequality

In these days of globalisation, the global picture of women is most ignoble and inequitable. Women constitute 50 per cent of the world's population, and account for 66 per cent of the work done, but they have only a share of 10 per cent in the world's income and own one per cent of the world's property...

The psychology of industries in India weighs heavily against women. One of the reasons is that women in industry are to be given preferential welfare and social facilities and benefits. To avoid this, in the post-independence era, industries have preferred to reduce the number of women employees... .

The role of social reformers

The battle for gender justice has been a long-drawn struggle. The sustained efforts of several social reformers, even in the face of resistance from social orthodoxy, have given impetus to the cause of gender justice. Constitutional provisions, various laws, and judgements of courts have made their own contribution to the cause of gender justice. However, more fundamental is the work and role of social reformers who sought to change the mind-set of orthodox tradition-bound society and usher in women's reforms in the social, economic and educational fields...

Despite resistance from orthodoxy, women's education gradually acquired greater acceptance. In the old orthodox society the Sati system of widows mounting the funeral pyre of their husbands was an atrocious practice. If this practice was gradually discarded, it was not only because of the Sati Prohibition Act in Bengal in 1829 at the behest of Bentinck, Governor-General, but mainly due to the social reform movement against the Sati system carried on by the eminent social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy. Though the Sati system is banned under law, in isolated cases it is still implemented in a clandestine way due both to remnants of orthodox beliefs, and to machinations by the relatives of the widow to garner her wealth and property by forcing her to mount the funeral pyre of her dead husband. Still, there are efforts to continue to build a halo of sanctity around the Sati system. This only amounts to a glorification of gender injustice and has to be resisted through an awakened public opinion...

Male chauvinism

In different parts of the world, male chauvinism in different degrees has led to gender injustice. In some developed countries too, women were accorded the right to vote very late. They had to launch a determined struggle to secure the right of adult franchise. Even when women secured the right to vote, initially they did not receive in the legislatures the recognition they deserved on the basis of their merit and ability...

If the social-reform programme is to be pursued vigorously, certain attitudinal changes are urgently called for. These comprise change of context, change of relations and change of values. Without such a comprehensive change in the existing value judgements of the present consumerist culture, the battle for gender justice cannot be won.

The writer is a former Finance Minister and former deputy chairman of the Ninth Planning Commission.

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