Have autonomous political movements in India come of age? They have indeed - according to Saheli, an autonomous women's group (AWG) currently celebrating its 25th birthday. The group called a meeting on August 12, 2006 at the Mekhala Jha auditorium, New Delhi, with the overall goal of 'strengthening autonomous politics'. It was a well-attended meeting, stretching from 9 am to 7 pm. Nearly 150 participants shared memories and journeys in the morning hours, and discussed issues of democratic politics, wider mobilization, sexuality politics and relations between State and gender rights, in the afternoon and evening.
Professor Uma Chakravarty, feminist historian from Delhi University, spoke of contradictions as well as joint achievements of the women's movement and civil liberties and democratic rights movement, over the past 30 years.
Strong women's organizations in India have fought influential battles on extremely significant issues. Even before national independence in1947, the All India Women's Conference, National Federation of Indian Women, Women's India Association and a host of regional and local organizations waged struggles for female education, voting rights, widow remarriage, rights of women workers and equity in personal laws. They were rather successful on several fronts.
The 1970s saw women organize around issues of ecological, food and livelihood security. The Chipko movement of Uttaranchal is known worldwide because grassroots women raised environmental issues recognized as globally significant. The Self-Employed Women's Association, a group with Gandhian roots, spearheaded struggles by women workers in the informal sector, beginning in Gujarat and spreading to other parts of the country. In Maharashtra, women from different parties got together to fight a pitched battle against price rise. The 1974 release of the 'Status of Women in India' by a government-appointed committee alerted the country about declining sex ratios, and low indices in health, education and political participation.
In the 1980s, there was a spurt of new women's groups. Many were AWGs, although some others, like All India Democratic Women's Association (associated with the Communist Part of India-Marxist), were wings of political parties.
What distinguishes AWGs is their refusal to be subject to any political party or other institution. They argue that women need to create separate spaces in which to take initiatives, speak their minds, and define an independent politics. Saheli, Manushi, Vimochana, Asmita, Forum Against Oppression of Women, Anveshi, Awaaz-e-Niswaan, Sama and Sampurna are some of the contemporary AWGs.
AWGs have led campaigns on issues hitherto considered too personal to discuss publicly - including sexual abuse, domestic violence and marginalized sexualities. These issues festered for long within the confines of patriarchal family and civil society institutions. AWGs declare that democracy must not stop at the threshold of the family. In sync with the international women's movement slogan 'the personal is political', women and civil liberties groups came together to bring these skeletons out of the cupboard. Over the years, shocking evidence of high rates of wife-battering, dowry-related wife-murders, rape, child sexual abuse and other forms of domestic violence kept piling up. Women have also begun to challenge homophobia publicly. Chayanika Shah of LABIA (Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action), Mumbai, spoke at the Saheli meet, expressing relief that some space has finally opened for such issues.
AWGs have been instrumental in politicising issues that were earlier swept under the carpet. We now have wider awareness and laws on domestic violence, pre-natal sex determination (PNDT) and women's property rights. As important as the passage of such legislation is the process leading up to them - a collective process of formulation and reformulation, based on inputs by a large number of groups and organizations. In the case of the PNDT and domestic violence laws, women's groups are actively organizing to ensure that these laws are actually implemented. Whereas three decades ago, an issue like rape was unmentionable, today the media cannot afford to ignore issues like sexual abuse, harassment at the workplace, personal laws and even marital rape.
Despite these achievements, the women's movement still faces enormous challenges. As we take stock, it is important to balance celebration and euphoria against the desperation that still lurks in the lives of the majority of Indian women. An anniversary is a time to be honest, to introspect and engage in serious soul-searching. Success must be measured against limitations, as well as downright failures.
Several news items over the past few weeks illustrate the challenges ahead. Women's organizations - AWGs as well as Left-party-based - got together to protest lack of political will regarding the bill for women's reservation in Parliament. First mooted in 1997, the bill has been shelved year after year. This is despite the success of the earlier legislation (1993-94), under which 33 per cent representation of women is ensured in local self-governance (panchayati raj institutions).
'Anganwadi' workers of the Integrated Child Development Services, touted as the biggest child welfare programme in the world, have been agitating in New Delhi for formal recognition as 'workers'. Agananwadi workers receive a paltry 'honorarium' for the long list of duties they are obliged to carry out - meeting nutrition, care and pre-school education needs of children below six years in all the villages and slums of the country, as well as providing inputs for women's health and contraceptive needs. At the Saheli meet, Arti Sawhney and Kiran Dubey of the Sathin Karamchari Sangh spoke of the struggles of sathins - 'sathins' being government-appointed functionaries of the Women's Development Programme (Rajasthan). Sathins work for women's empowerment, but are frequently not allowed to raise their own issues as women and as workers.
Other crucial areas where autonomous politics must intervene systematically include education, health and social security. Rising levels of poverty have actually led to an erosion of the quality of life of large numbers of Indian women. Autonomous women's politics, to be relevant, needs to build bridges across class and caste. At the Saheli meet, Saraswati, an organizer of Dalit women in Karnataka, described her experiences as a Maddiga - vulnerable to exploitation both as a woman and as a Dalit. Shamim, from the Shramik Adivasi Sanghathan, Madhya Pradesh, spoke on the imperative need for mass organizing and political mobilization.
The meet confirmed the relevance and vibrancy of an autonomous women's politics, as also the many currents and enormous dilemmas confronting it. Sheer survival is often a big challenge for small AWGs, yet not only have many survived, they continue to raise their voices, engage in vibrant debate and strategize collectively for a better future.
(Dr Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a political scientist as well as activist and journalist. Her publications include 'Home Truths: Stories of Single Mothers'; Penguin, 2003.)