#VAWIP Blog Symposium: India

India:  Strength—And Safety—In Numbers

by Vibhuti Patel

How safe are women activists in the public sphere?

In the public sphere, wherever and whenever, the women activists are backed by organisational strength and are a part of collective, they have been effect in their efforts and have a safety net. But if the women activist is isolated, there is threat of backlash, she is verbally abused, socially boycotted and physically-emotionally-psychologically harmed and faces continuous witch-hunting from the community. Women’s movement’s slogan, “Women United Will Never be defeated” and “There is Strength in Numbers”. Hence we must promote “cluster approach” in fighting for women’s rights.

How significant is the presence of women in formal politics in your country?

If women’s agenda has to be centre-stage, women’s presence is a MUST in formal politics. All important laws, government rulings, policies, programmes, schemes, translations of gender commitments into financial commitments is not possible without formal representations of women who have proved themselves by working for women’s causes. Activists of the women’s movement have just remained foot-soldiers of the formal politics and those with ornamental/token presence are projected as the figure-heads. This is harming women’s concerns. Moreover, one or two women in powerful position can be easily bypassed, silenced and marginalised. Hence we need “critical minimum” of at least 1/3 representation of women in the formal politics, though our goal must be 50: 50 in the long run.

Is the threat of violence against women candidates and voters significant enough to affect women’s participation?

It’s threat of money and muscle power that discourage committed women from participating in the mainstream politics. Historically, women’s voices have been suppressed, women have been confined to domesticity and women’s concerns have been neglected. Most of the women face tremendous opposition from family, community and the male political leaders if they decide to enter electoral politics or public life. The present political leadership of any hue, in spite of its populist rhetoric, wants to keep women out of the political arena. Indian women’s lower educational level, inferior social status and lack of autonomy are reflected in their lower participation in politics. Increasing criminalisation, corruption and compromises required to sustain one’s political career also deter women from entering mainstream politics. To provide level playing field to women against this historical neglect and adverse socio-political and cultural forces, reservation of seats for women in legislature and parliament is a MUST to ensure a more participate and inclusive, a more egalitarian and sensitive citizenship for all.

What about other forms of violence faced by women in the public sphere–for instance, journalists or writers?

Women in public spheres face three types of violence: First and the most prevalent form of psychological violence is character assassination through whisper campaign, blank calls, scary SMSes and MMSes, cyber-stalking and IT-based torture, morphed images used to tarnish her personality. Second type of violence is threatening her family members to pressurize her to withdraw her article, book, film and to stop her from her future work as a writer or journalist or film maker. Third is physical harm- killing or acid attack or maiming her set an example so that fear-psychosis prevents other journalists/writers/film makers not to speak out on sensitive/uncomfortable issues to the political vested interests.

What has been the experience of women human rights defenders in your country?

Women human rights defenders have been at the receiving end of the communities in case of “honour-related crimes”, accused rapists, accused dowry murderers, accused child sexual abusers and accused members of domestic violence in all parts of the country. Individual whistle blowers have been silence using the above mentioned 3 tactics. Women human rights defenders who are part of women’s groups, national and global networks have been able to save themselves as a result of safety nets provided by their colleagues locally and globally and also due to timely media coverage. They do not have to die an anonymous deaths or are not silenced. Hence, the need for women’s rights movement.

Dr. Vibhuti Patel, feminist economist, SNDT University, Mumbai, India, co-authored Political Feminism in India, 2016.

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