women, state and suprastate


Souvenir 1995

The printing of this souvenir coincides with the 3rd UN Conference on Women being held in China. Thousands of women have gathered once again to help UN make a radical statement on women called “Plan of Action”. It follows “Forward Looking Strategies” issued in Nairobi ten years back and “Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women” issued in Mexico two decades ago. The rhetoric of the UN matches the most radical demands of the women’s movement. CEDAW itself is a comprehensive statement. The UN has had a well thought out strategy on the question of environment and human rights as well. It is no coincidence that these concerns were picked up and institutionalized by the UN- these were indeed, and continue to be the three new independent movements with a revolutionary potential except for the peace and the non aligned movement which disintegrated with the collapse of the socialist block.

The UN also picked up and acted on a few other issues, which have consolidated the power of the G7, have taught lessons to the truant boys like Saddam Hussain, have legitimized the blatant use of coercion by the World Bank and the IMF, and have contributed to the military might of the centre of this unipolar world.

Women, environment, and human rights remain issues of intention, while it is in trade and war that action takes place.

The importance of an issue is at any rate reflected in the allocation of funds or status accorded to it. What happens to the UN allocation of funds is no different from what the Indian government does. The UNIFEM is a small office even among the social programs like UNDP, UNFPA and UNICEF. In fact, at the International Conference on Population and Development it was clearly stated that the kitty was not going to grow but would be first apportioned to population activities, then to the Social Summit and the leftovers will go to Beijing. Considering that the expectations of the Social Summit itself could not be met, what will be left for Beijing?

SAP~ ping the Third World

At the very outset one has to understand the link between global processes and the position of women. With trade increasingly favouring the North, the people of the South are getting impoverished. Added to this has been the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes which are being carried out in a large number of countries. Women have been the worst affected and practically in every regional or international meeting the declarations begin with seeking an end to structural adjustment and demanding cancellation of debts.

Globalization has not been possible without first inculcating materialistic aspirations among people and developing a consumerist culture – with this has come massive onslaught to complete the commodification of women. While dreams are sold in the media, women reel under an increasing burden of house work as well as paid work and additional burdens in both spheres to keep life going in the family which is also breaking down. The process of nuclearization and atomization brings new uncertainties and difficulties in the path of women.

Shaky structures in India

The Indian government, over the past two decades has demonstrated a striking similarity in creating structures – a Department for Women and a National Commission for Women in 1991 by drawing up Status Committee reports, a National Perspective Plan for Women in 1988 and by starting special programs for women’s development. And for the last two years, it is the turn of the state governments which have started formulating women’s policies.

The new women’s movement in the West which soon started making connections between patriarchy and capitalism and sustaining itself with alliances with the movement of workers, peasants, and the discriminated minorities, is responsible for evoking this response at the international level. This redefinition became much stronger as the movement spread to the Third World and encompassed the sufferings of women at the hands of imperialism, war and fundamentalism.

The response of the State was immediate. No movement drew such a response and such an orchestration from the State. The elements of the National Perspective Plan for women included the unfulfilled demands of the women’s movement like a ban on injectable contraceptives, ban on sex determination and enactment of a Universal Civil Code, and a lot of demands of the women’s movement which were yet to gain force, like child care and support services, training and employment, gender sensitization etc.

While all this goes on, the status of women in India has taken two wrong steps forward and many steps backwards. Why is this so, in the face of what the benevolent government and international agencies have been doing?

The State, which had taken upon itself the task of looking after the welfare of the people, controlled by an ever narrowing elite, started to relinquish this responsibility. This guided the course of its main policies but not those with respect to women. This is seen most sharply in the response of the Indian State. Beginning in the mid ’70s with agitation on issues such as dowry and rape the women’s movement got quick “rewards” in the nature of amendment to the law. The response was not without its loopholes. Even the other social legislation which came about in the 80s was besotted with the problem of a lack of implementing machinery. And the Indian State which expanded its police and paramilitary forces manifold during this period repeatedly showed inability in implementing social legislation and urged women’s organizations to become the extra-constitutional police.

In the ’80s a separate department was created for “Women, Youth and Sports”, a strange combination indeed. Needless to say that no real changes followed besides that of rechannelizing the welfare programmes meant for women through this new department as and when the Minister was not in a sporty mood.

The state was not averse to channelizing the energies of women against men. Also, in the women’s decade of 75-85, a lot of funds flowed to create women’s programmes. These programmes had to be developed by administrators who had no clue as to what could be done with these. Probably it did not matter to them if nothing happened in these projects. But women once activated started raising questions that were uncomfortable for the State, by showing that they just did not have an identity as women but as members of their own class. Their questioning was not limited to a patriarchal structure and traditions and would attack other bases of exploitation as well.



The Indian State entered the business of women’s development in a big way in the early 80s, since the Sixth Five Year Plan (1980-85). “Empowerment” became the buzz word, and equality for women the agenda of the Government of India. Rajasthan was the first state to initiate a government sponsored Women’s Development Programme (WDP) in 1984, later followed by Mahila Samakhya in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat, Orissa and now Andhra and Madhya Pradesh. Some of the programmes received funding from foreign donor agencies, such as UNICEF in the case of WDP, NOVIB in the case of Mahila Samakhya. Each State has evolved a slightly modified version of WDP, but the components are basically similar, with ‘grass-roots’ workers, supervisors, co-ordinators, trainers, consultants and bureaucrats, with wide gaps in status, power and salaries between each level.

In contrast to development plans for other sections of the population, government emphasis with respect to women is not on policy measures, resource allocation or redefining development, but on “awareness raising” and “mobilization” or, in other words, on struggle as opposed to development. With such a definition of development, a bizarre situation has been created where the fight is no longer against the establishment, but is State-sponsored struggle. This taking over of women’s organising potential is a clear attempt to depoliticize militancy. The State has consciously used progressive jargon to blur the contradictions between its own interests and those of the people. The class question thus gets subsumed under gender concerns, and it is attempted to direct energies away from major structural contradictions in society. When village-level workers begin raising their voice against forcible tubectomies, or protesting against construction of a big dam which would displace several villages, they are silenced by their higher-ups.

Officials of the WDP in Rajasthan were jolted out of their complacency when rumblings began among the Sathins, the village level functionaries of the programme. The Sathins, who had now empowered themselves in the true sense, began agitating for a raise in their measly monthly honorarium of Rs 200; better service condition;, and protested against arbitrary dismissals and retrenchment. In 1993 the Sathins registered a Union in the face of victimisation and harassment from the authorities. The supervisory level Prachetas had already unionised in ’92, and today, both Unions are taking up issues of these women workers who no longer are willing to be fooled by the mask of progressiveness donned by the State. Sayoginis in Karnataka have also recently unionized, effectively revealing the waves of unrest among the lower rungs of workers in such programmes.

The government has conveniently adopted an organizational form containing all the weaknesses of NGO structures: arbitrariness in the name of flexibility, exploitation of workers in the name of “working for the people”, and paltry salaries in the name of voluntarism. Many activists from the women’s movement have joined these programmes because of the seeming potential of reaching out to large numbers of women. However, the women’s movement needs to be more wary of co-option, and a sophisticated State response to women’s issues, which has tended to take the wind out of our sales. It is time to systematically question the government and its policies for women, and stand firm against all attempts of compromise and take over.


We, as women, as workers, as cultivators, as consumers, as producers, as mothers, as citizens:

-Question the very premise of global attempts to “redress” women’s inequality and bondage through the slogan of “integration of women in mainstream development”. This path of development is development for some and underdevelopment for many, peace for some and violence for many. Just as women’s interests are not being and cannot be served by such development so also the women’s movement cannot be coopted into tacit acceptance of the dominant development model. We reject the theory that the market is the sole democratic arbiter of human existence.

-Assert the right of nations and peoples to choose their own path of development free from the pressures of imperialist dominated agencies and financial institutions, because it is only in the framework of national sovereignty that women can assert their right to be free.

-Demand not structural adjustment but structural transformation. The former leads to feminization of poverty and redistribution of hunger between men and women. The latter is based on redistribution of wealth and property with equal rights for women.

-Discover that the documents being prepared for Beijing Conference are devoid of content since they do not identify the root causes for the deterioration in the status of women. They are thus only statements of good intentions. They do not challenge existing global hierarchies.

It is within this context that we make the following recommendations:

1. The UN should constitute a monitoring body with judicial powers to check the activities of multinational corporations in relation to the exploitation of labour and environment. The present subversion of the UN mandate by dominating powers, principally the US, has to be reversed as also its subordination to financial institutions and funding agencies.

2. UN programmes suggested for raising the economic status of women should be based on land reforms and granting and rights to women. It should draw up special international conventions to protect the rights of women agricultural workers and women in the unorganized sector including home-based workers to be implemented on a time-bound basis. This would include legislation by member countries which would redefine women’s work in agriculture to eliminate the notion of women’s work being light work and guarantee equal minimum wages to women and provide working women with facilities such as crèches and maternity benefits.

3. Recognizing that economic independence is a prerequisite for gender equality, the Indian government should prevent retrenchment and displacement of women workers due to modernization without alternative employment opportunities and upgradation of skills through training.

4. We oppose the end in food subsidy since the government should have the responsibility for providing food security. In order to ensure essential commodities at affordable prices to all consumers, the Public Distribution system should be strengthened expanded and the anomalies in the present system should be removed. Land under cultivation should not be indiscriminately diverted for commercial or industrial uses as a part of government policy. Cash crops and food exports have to be curtailed to favour production for Indians.

5. Increasingly women are being denied access to common property resources like forests and grazing lands under the pretext of environmental protection even as these lands are leased out for commercial purposes, this should stop and women should continue to have access to common property resources which are an important source of livelihood.

6. The government should move beyond these basic resources and take responsibility to provide other basic needs such as potable drinking water, sanitation facilities, clothing and shelter to all.

7. Fertility and the number of children should not be criteria in eligibility to contest an election. Women’s political participation needs to be encouraged by reservations of at least 33% at all levels including State Assemblies and the Parliament.

8. The government should take steps to effectively delink religion from politics in order to curtail communal violence and rising fundamentalism. Communal propaganda should be made a ground for disqualification for contesting and holding electoral or public office.

9. The government must enact special legislation for women who are becoming victims of organized sexual violence at the hands of the police, para-military forces, employers, politicians, communal forces and on account of caste and class oppression. The government should provide shelter and living accommodation to women who are victims of violence or are at risk.

10. The government should start enacting laws which give women an equal status in the family and recognize their contribution to its upkeep by giving women rights in inheritance, matrimonial property, joint ownership of productive and other assets, adoption of children, custody and guardianship of young children, so as to move towards an egalitarian and democratic family structure. Wife battering in particular needs to be recognized as a crime.

11. The government must view women’s education in the context of free and compulsory education for all up to the secondary level, by apportioning a minimum of 10% of the budget with enabling provisions such as meals, uniforms and text books to be provided free. Higher education should not be curtailed and definitely not left at the mercy of private/industrial funding so that centres for generating a new body of knowledge such as the women’s studies are not subordinated to vested interests.

12. Women’s health should not be subordinated to population goals, nor restricted to reproductive matters. The government must retain its commitment to provide comprehensive and universal health care to all citizens and not leave them at the mercy of private practitioners and multinational pharmaceutical companies and at the same time should end gender bias in service provision.

13. Support services such as crèches, care of the old or chronically sick and for deserted women must be widely available so as to enable women’s participation in the political sphere, in the community and in productive labour.

Declaration of the National Convention of Women on Beijing

[March 7, 1995]

Meaningless Gestures

Another noteworthy issue is that these so called women’s development programmes have been void of financial outlays and concrete action plans. This was also the case with the 12 year National Perspective Plan and is as true for the policy on women being formulated in 1995 by the MP government. This goes to prove conclusively that these plans are mere statements of pious intentions, not instruments of action.

One of the key structures created by the government, supposedly in response to the demands of the women’s movement is the National Commission for Women. But this was subordinated to the need to accommodate women from the ruling party who could not be given any other office.

The allocations for the Commission remain pathetic and the importance it wields with the government is clear from the fact that posts were lying vacant for more than three months after the expiry of the term of the last set of members.

Meanwhile, it is important to understand what happened to the autonomous women’s movement which stirred everyone into action. As we said, most of it is busy unbracketing the brackets (or at least attempting to do so) sitting in Beijing. It is surprising that twenty years of inaction by the UN and the member states has not left them disenchanted with the process in which they have no say.

Thanks to the donor agencies from the first world these women are now being ably assisted by participants from a large number of NGOs who got drawn into working with women as funds for such work flooded the country in the decade of 75-85. Any work the people chose to do with women got funding. With funding came networking and mirror-imaging of ideas and development programmes through the globe. Some funds were set aside from development activities to do the so-called “movement”- one could do a street play saying just what one pleased and could get funds from foreign agencies. Such freedom and resources made many women’s groups join the network unwittingly. Of course some activities received marginal funds whereas some in the first world such as the International Women’s Health Coalition etc. received large amounts, so that as the first world continued to dominate over the Third World, the women of the First World started influencing others through these networks.

At various international conferences, the women’s caucus which never raises the question of the poor and oppressed of the Third World, grew stronger and stronger and resonated through the media via the cocktail circuits of five star hotels. The first stray taste of this bitter medicine came into the Cairo Conference with an attempt of some of the women from the US subordinating the agenda of development to their threatened right of abortion. In the Social Summit of 1995, they talked of poverty and discrimination without questioning unequal trade terms or aid fatigue of the North, which has also been growing richer with these trade terms and interest payments. In Beijing too they are back to the abortion issue as opposed to “Health for All”.

In the Beijing preparations, the manifest motive of this process of networking became clear. The entire process of preparation in India was coordinated by Unit set up by donor agencies, involving primarily the NGOs which were being funded by these agencies. This co-ordination was not just to facilitate travel but to fashion ideas as well. The problem is that the process of running the women’s movement with foreign funds has been so legitimized in the past 15 years, that those who tayed away from this exercise were few in number.

It will not be out of place to mention the role of political parties. Today, every party has a women’s wing and includes in its election manifesto a few lollypops for women according to its own understanding of women’s issues. While a right wing party like the BJP promises Hindu women cheaper kumkum and bindi, the Janata Dal got its manifesto written by a feminist journalist. Reservation for women is limited to the lowest unit of democracy, namely, Panchayat Raj institution. But party posts remain elusive for women and their representation in the elected bodies. In addition, there is no code of conduct to weed out men known to participate in and perpetuate crimes against women.


As a non funded organization we are often asked why we do not choose an easier option. Many are unable to understand why, when funds are available for doing practically anything, we are so particular about maintaining our autonomy.

Keeping away from government and foreign institutional funding has enabled us to take stands on the strength of our convictions.

In ’88 and now in ’95, we have organised fund raising ventures through collecting advertisements and bringing out of such souvenirs. However, we have sustained our regular work through individual donations from people who share our concerns. Sale of our publications is another important source of sustenance.

Not for a day has our organizational work been hindered due to lack of funds. Nor have we hesitated to pool in our personal resources to keep Saheli going. Groups in Delhi and elsewhere, with whom we share our convictions extend their solidarity in many ways, giving us strength to carry on together.

Moving On….

The stagnation in the women’s movement due to these confusions is no laughing matter. This assumed different forms. Women desirous of being active in the movement join NGOs which seem like a dream, combining women’s movement with wages thrown in. And then they are left to fashion the priorities for women as per fundable projects – the present trend being of running token credit schemes for single women of this country who are probably, as deeply in debt as the government. While the women’s movement realised that work was going on at a gigantic scale, it started linking up the NGOs through the national conferences. The inter-agency coordination unit for Beijing actively hampered this process.

Left party response to the new wave of feminism was one of open hostility in the beginning. This situation has changed substantially in the last two decades. Beginning roughly around 1989, the first link-up started with the Patna Conference. The extreme Left and the CPI women’s wing have made their alliances with the autonomous women’s movement open, followed later by the CPM. But blaming everything on the State including wife-battering is a limitation of the Left parties. The autonomous movement was compelled by the events of the country and has been taking a position on issues relating to civil liberties, communalism, economic policies, workers’ rights and the Dunkel draft. A new unity is thus being forged across organizations. An example of this is was the independent women’s initiative in the form of a convention in February ’95 to make a joint declaration on Beijing.

For the women’s movement it is important to debate on these issues and to combat the subtle forms of cooption through funding, ‘dialogue’ and networking. It is necessary that we reclaim our own analysis of these struggles. The role of the autonomous women’s movement is not over, with everyone having noticed women. We have been and have to be the leading edge, the link between various agencies working for change. We have to keep in focus the patriarchal and anti-people bias of the State without relinquishing our struggle to broaden the definition of politics and attacking the patriarchy inherent in the family as well as other structures.