AIDWA, which completed its silver jubilee celebrations in March, has come a long way since its first conference in Chennai in 1981. At that time, delegates from 12 States representing 5.9 lakh members participated in the proceedings. Twenty-five years later, 951 delegates from 23 States, representing a membership of around 1.86 crore, came to Kolkata.
Addressing the inaugural session, former West Bengal Chief Minister and Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Jyoti Basu said that he was happy that AIDWA had emerged as a “leading women’s organisation” in the country representing the interests of even the poorest and most marginalised women in society. “We have to ask ourselves why it is that 60 years after our independence, we have been unable to address the issue of gender inequality.” he said.
Vice-president of AIDWA Brinda Karat, who represents West Bengal in the Rajya Sabha and is a Polit Bureau member, in her inaugural speech, stated that the emancipation of women was intrinsically linked to the freedom of nations. Globalisation and reactionary trends in economic and social life were affecting women adversely. “In social life, violence against women has increased globally. The most shocking trend is the huge increase in the trafficking of women both for labour and sexual exploitation. Indeed, trafficking is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world,” she said.
The Draft Report on International and National Issues, placed for consideration by the delegates by Sudha Sundararaman, general secretary, AIDWA, took note of the “unabated miseries” inflicted by the U.S. in its efforts to establish hegemony over world resources and markets and the increased use of armed might in Afghanistan and Iraq. The report expressed concern over the signing of the Indo-U.S. Nuclear Agreement by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which, AIDWA feels, will have an adverse impact on India’s sovereignty and independent foreign policy. In a resolution passed at the conference, AIDWA stated: “Women played a critical role in the Indian freedom struggle… This Conference firmly resolves to defend this hard-won freedom and our anti-imperialist traditions.”
On the national scene, according to AIDWA, the greatest single cause of distress for women in the past three years had been the steep rise in the prices of essential commodities, particularly foodgrains. In a statement, it said: “The serious problem of inflation is being totally ignored by the government. This conference strongly condemns the insensitive remark of the Minister for Agriculture that people should learn to live and cope with high prices.” In its findings AIDWA has shown that as of January 2007, food prices were 10 per cent higher than a year ago. AIDWA also reinforced its demand for a ban on the forward trading of essential commodities, which has fuelled inflation. The conference came down heavily on the Centre’s recent reductions in food subsidy.
Referring to the agrarian crisis, AIDWA pointed out that 1.32 lakh peasants had committed suicide in the past nine years across the country. It said that though around 8.8 crore women were directly or indirectly associated with agriculture as their primary source of livelihood, they were not recognised as farmers by the government since they were not owners of agricultural land and hence their families were not eligible for compensation in cases of “farmers’ suicides”.
Addressing the problems of Dalit women was identified as a priority task. A resolution was passed in order to unite all women to advance the struggle for the elimination of caste oppression, address the specific problems Dalit women faced and ensure that the state fulfilled its constitutional obligation to protect equal citizenship rights. The National Family Health Survey–3 shows that more than half of Dalit women are victims of domestic violence. Subhashini Ali, president of AIDWA, said: “In Uttar Pradesh, the midday meals for Dalit children are thrown to them, and Dalit teachers are not allowed to make food for children of higher castes. Even in health centres, they are discriminated against.”
AIDWA further stated that the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which had been put in place to prevent violence against Dalits, was rarely invoked mainly on account of the prejudice of the authorities. It spoke out against globalisation policies that were aggravating inequalities and accelerating the growth of the upper-caste ideology of Hindutva forces, which had affected the rights of Dalit women. The Draft Report states: “In an era of neoliberal reforms, shrinking economic opportunities increase competition between members of the same class who belong to different castes. The ruling parties that are responsible for this state of affairs utilise caste identities to win elections.”
Caste panchayats are still important in various parts of the country, such as in Haryana and Rajasthan. There has also been an alarming increase in “honour killings”, where death is the price for defying social codes based on caste and community. AIDWA has found that these cases are not confined to the rural areas and occur in metropolitan cities also. In fact, Subhashini Ali pointed out that in Haryana alone, there were 103 cases of honour killings in the past four months.
AIDWA expressed disappointment with the way the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act was being enforced. It pointed out that in 13 years, there had been only one case of conviction for violation of the Act, and even as late as last July, 150 polythene packets containing the remains of more than 50 female foetuses were discovered in Orissa and female foetuses in 22 plastic bags were found in Bangalore. AIDWA has called for a greater struggle, with emphasis on social reforms, to combat this evil.
On the recent Tehelka exposes on the Gujarat genocide, AIDWA demanded the resignation of Chief Minister Narendra Modi and a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into all cases relating to the massacre. The conference called for the immediate implementation of the recommendations of the Sachar Committee but expressed dissatisfaction that the committee did not have a single woman member; it also felt that adequate attention had not been paid to the problems of Muslim women and their special needs. AIDWA has made several recommendations, including allocation of 15 per cent of the annual budget for Muslims and a sub plan to address their needs with specific allocation for women as announced by the West Bengal government.
AIDWA feels betrayed by the UPA government for its failure to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill. According to AIDWA, the UPA government’s attitude on the issue is no different from that of its predecessor’s, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. India has the highest number of self-help groups (SHGs) of women in the world, numbering over 25 lakh, and though SHGs have conferred enormous benefits on poor women, access to bank loans still remains a far cry. AIDWA has demanded that the interest rates for bank loans given to SHGs be reduced to 4 per cent and that 50 per cent of the goods produced by SHGs be procured and marketed by the Centre.
“Instead, the government is planning a most anti-SHG law in the name of micro-financing, which would actually privatise the thrift savings of women and help micro-finance companies make a profit out of those savings,” said Brinda Karat.
The conference saw the setting up of seven commissions – on dowry, single women, water management, panchayats, SHGs, health, and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). It noted with concern the alarming increase in the practice of dowry and the way it was expanding to different communities, including Muslim and tribal people. In its deliberations on the problems faced by single women, the conference noted the necessity to prioritise their needs in government programmes and end discrimination against single women, especially widows, in the matter of social practices and property rights.
As far as the NREGA is concerned, according to Kiran Moghe, all-India secretary of AIDWA, the productivity norm should be revised for the benefit of women. “The high productivity norm prevents women from getting even minimum wages,” she told Frontline. Growing privatisation in the health sector and inadequate child care and health care services for women were a cause of concern, she added.
The conference also took note of the fact that unlike in West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala, where the presence of women in local bodies is up to 40 per cent, in many other parts of the country women members are not given due importance.
On the final day of the conference, a new 98-member central executive committee was elected with Subhashini Ali as president, Shyamali Gupta as working president and Sudha Sundararaman as secretary.
Addressing the concluding session, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, surveying the current economic situation of the country, pointed out the irony of the Centre’s announcement of a progressive decline in the rate of inflation when the market prices of essential commodities were going up daily. He warned the Centre about the consequences of this continuous assault on the lives and livelihoods of the toiling masses, particularly women. “They must realise that the market is not almighty,” he said. •
Pubhisd in FrontLine magazine (Delhi)