8 February, 2004 Kiran Moghe
AMONGST the hundreds and thousands of people who thronged the NESCO grounds at Mumbai from January 16 to 21 for the World Social Forum, delegates belonging to the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) stood out in their cream coloured caps, with "AIDWA" embroidered in blue on their front. Learning from the experience at the ASF a year ago, the AIDWA centre began its preparations for its intervention at the WSF almost six months ago, with its president Subhashini Ali representing the organisation in the India Organising Committee and its important Program Sub-Committee. In its last central executive committee, AIDWA had worked out its state wise delegations and conceptualised the workshops it had decided to organise during the WSF. Preparations were made by the Maharashtra state committee to house the delegates for a week in Mumbai. The Maharashtra state committee also printed and distributed 6000 leaflets in English and Marathi that outlined the disastrous effects of globalisation on Indian women. It appealed to women in particular to participate in the WSF and join the struggle against globalisation. The leaflets also gave information about important WSF events in which AIDWA office bearers and activists were speakers, as well as the AIDWA organised workshops. A total of 164 delegates were officially registered, representing West Bengal, Kerela, Tripura, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur, Orissa, Gujarat and Maharashtra, as well as the AIDWA centre.
AIDWA vice-president, Captain Laxmi Sahgal, had a most prominent role to play at the beginning of the World Social Forum, as the chairperson of the Inaugural Plenary Session on January 16, and enthralled the audience with her forceful appeal to fight a "third war of Independence". AIDWA general secretary, Brinda Karat, made a forceful speech at the first major WSF-sponsored conference on January 17 titled 'Food Sovereignty and Natural Resources'. She outlined how the food security of women was affected by policies of structural adjustment that were aimed at cutting food subsidies and resulted in women accepting the most demeaning types of work at less than subsistence wages. By reducing the universal PDS to the targeted one, the government has deliberately created division amongst the poor by introducing categories like APL, BPL and Antyodaya. The parameters to decide these categories are completely flawed and the implementation is arbitrary. Its ridiculous methods elevate a poor woman having three dhotis from Antyodaya to BPL level, denying her access to food grains at Antyodaya price. While the government warehouses are overstocked with food grains the government is refusing to distribute it to severely drought-affected areas. Under these conditions women are not only facing malnutrition but with no guarantee for work to be provided by the government, are forced into sex trade just for survival.
WOMEN AND GLOBALISATION AIDWA president, Subhashini Ali, chaired the conference on 'Women and Globalisation', conceptualised and organised jointly by various women's organisations and held on the afternoon of January 17. The manner in which globalisation impacts on different aspects, such as work, violence, fundamentalist ideologies, the social sector and media found expression in the speeches of women activists and academics drawn from different parts of the world. Dita Sari, the young chairperson of the left-wing National Front of Indonesian Workers, who was jailed for 6 years under the Suharto regime for organising subcontracted workers manufacturing the famous Nike shoes, pointed out that the governments of the Third World countries had become the loyal agents of neo-liberal policies, and that national governments were increasingly responsible for the erosion of women's rights, already historically marginalized in the capitalist process. She correctly pointed out that the struggle against globalisation was a struggle for a political alternative, and expressed confidence that women would provide that alternative, with their mass base and long history of struggle. Sunila Abheysekara from Sri Lanka explored the various dimensions of women's violence. Lilian Celiberti from Uruguay spoke about the relationship between the growth of religious fundamentalism and globalisation. Susannah George from Malaysia, working with ISIS International pointed out the need to examine the role of the corporatised media represented by the newspapers and the television and radio, as well as the Internet and the Information Technology sector. Calling them Weapons of Mass Deception, she gave concrete examples of their nexus with the state in furthering the cause of globalisation. Women had been turned into a market for 'niche' advertising, and the provision of a 100 channels on the TV was posed as the "freedom to choose" when actually the same entertainment formula was applied uniformly across all of them.
In an extremely lucid intervention in the conference, Professor Jayati Ghosh pointed out that the fiscal crisis facing many national governments was a matter of policy choice, and while proclaiming that they did not have the funds, they were in fact abdicating their responsibility to provide the basic economic rights of the people, such as food, clean water, housing, sanitation, etc. For example, per capita health expenditure declined by 20 per cent in sub-Saharan African countries, 15 per cent in India and 24 per cent in Latin America. It was necessary for the women's movement to demand that governments exerted control over the forces of capital and raised the requisite taxes to generate the necessary revenue to provide for these rights. While there is a general outcry about the need to downsize the public sector in developing countries, it is a fact that the ratio of public employees to the total population is actually the lowest (around 1-2 per cent) in these countries, while it is as high as 5-6 per cent in Western Europe and the United States of America. While opportunities for paid labour were declining for women, their unpaid work burdens in terms of services such as child care, care of the aged, etc. that should actually be provided by the state were actually declining. Women were coping in a myriad of ways with these situations, one of the most significant changes being the tremendous migration of women across borders. However, there was a wafer thin line between voluntary migration and trafficking, and many migrant women ended up being exploited, often living in illegal and insecure conditions. The burgeoning of casual, part-time, subsidiary, secondary activities meant that women scrambled for insecure and volatile employment, but also had fewer opportunities to organise and mobilise for better working conditions. But, she said, it was also remarkable that women were resisting, that they were much more visible in public life across the world, perhaps as a response to the forces of globalisation. The women's movement was one of the most vibrant social movements, which had gone beyond the specific examples of women's oppression to look at the macro issues that were responsible for this oppression. Women were redefining forms of struggle, and fighting to transform society. AIDWA president Subhashini Ali aptly summed up the discussion while Kamla Bhasin from Jagori introduced the speakers.
AIDWA also collaborated with the International Development Economics Associates (IDEAS) in a workshop titled 'Resisting Imperialism - Women and Economic Rights'. It was chaired by Diane Elson, Professor of Economics at the University of Essex, UK while Professor K S Jomo of Ideas introduced the speakers. The main speakers were Radhika Balakrishnan who teaches Economics in New York, Hemlata, secretary of CITU and convenor of the AICCWW, S Sudha, state president, AIDWA Tamil Nadu, Mariam Dhawale, state president, AIDWA Maharashtra and Anita Nair, a researcher in Gender Studies based in the US.
In her intervention Radhika Balakrishnan said that the macro economic policies under the SAP have no concern for every day problems faced by the masses of people. The concept of rights for ALL people does not exist. It is therefore necessary to evolve new definition of development which will make a frank critique of market, raise concrete demands emerging from peoples' everyday experience, focus on the needs of the marginalised sections of the society and above all respect democratic processes and the sovereignty of national governments.
Hemlata spoke about the main issues that the CITU working women's cell had addressed regarding women's employment in India over the past 12 to 13 years of globalisation. The export orientation of agriculture had led to huge job losses for women agricultural labourers. In paddy growing regions, workdays had declined from 120 to less than 60 and in the absence of alternative employment, women were reduced to back-breaking work like collecting snails and pests in the fields of farmers. The distress resulting in migration to construction sites had made women doubly vulnerable. The shrinkage in organised sector jobs had hit the small share of women's workforce in this sector. In banks and PSUs women were specially targeted for early retirement through VRS schemes and transfer policies. The alternatives were extremely insecure and unprotected jobs, such as in export processing zones (EPZs) or outsourced work to home based workers. The targeting of basic social services meant that ICDS, nursing were up for privatisation. As a response there was growing resistance and newer sections of women, especially white-collar workers were getting mobilised. The struggle for minimum wages against employers was also organised to resist these policies. The need was to integrate the local and national actions with the struggles against imperialist globalisation.
Sudha described the several struggles waged in Tamil Nadu against the unequal wages and potent social and cultural discrimination faced by dalit women and their families. Belonging to families that lacked assets and were facing extreme economic distress and degradation, the dalit woman labourer earned just one-fourth of the minimum wage. The approach had been to interlink the fight against class exploitation and oppressive caste practices. For instance the struggle against the illegal practice of two-glass system; the fight for justice and compensation in attacks on dalits in Trichy who resisted when forced to beat the drums at funerals; enforcing the rights of dalits to the use of public spaces in Tirivayoor and getting their electricity and water connections restored which had been cut off by the landed upper caste employers; enforcing the giving of land pattas and ensuring that dalit girls could cycle through the village to school. Sudha observed that the West Bengal government had distributed 66 per cent of the land to the SC/ST families with the result that dalits were not degraded as in Tamil Nadu. Strong pressure against oppressive caste practices and making them visible was required and these struggles could be strengthened by wider alliances.
Mariam Dhawale detailed the declining resources of land, forest, food and water available to the adivasis of Thane in the last 10 years. Land was the most basic survival resource and 80 per cent of agricultural work was carried out by adivasi women. Therefore women have been in the forefront of the struggles to protect their right to the land. However they lack legal rights and cannot oppose their husbands selling off the land. Along with this, the drought conditions have pushed women to migrate for work in brick kilns etc. They have also waged an intense struggle against eviction from the forests by the government and to protect their forest plots. However, even this small land is not enough and they need to buy food. Targeting in the PDS has excluded them from cheap food and forced them to return to a past form of searching for wild roots in the forests. At the same time water table is declining and water rights are being given away to companies, causing great burden to women who have to spend hours to collect water.
Anita Nayar spoke about the adivasis from Kerala who posses wealth of knowledge of indigenous medicines for centuries. She explained how with the entry of MNCs and pharmaceutical companies in commercialising these medicines the adivasis have lost control over the terms of sale and trade. The contractors and middlemen have reduced their status from traditional healers to merely captive labour whose job is to collect medicinal herbs from forests and hand it over to the contractors. The adivasis have lost control over the intellectual property rights as well. Diane Elson made concluding remarks.
Another workshop that was organised by AIDWA was on 'Honour Killings', referring to the barbaric practice of killing, lynching and rapes of women in the name of saving the honour of the community, caste group or family. A growing phenomenon in India, the workshop held on January 20, discussed the India experiences and concerns in the context of South Asia, particularly Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Introducing the topic, the chairperson and AIDWA president Subhashini Ali pointed out that honour killings are a phenomenon not confined to one region or caste alone. While a woman is otherwise treated as if she does not have any honour herself, she is considered to be the repository of honour of her community, and so when the community is to be dishonoured, women become the first target and her honour comes under attack. She also pointed out that the growth of caste based politics and political parties utilising caste groups for votes was actually strengthening caste divisions, and resulting in a growing intolerance of inter caste marriages.
One of the speakers at the workshop was Sahar Sahba from the Revolutionary Association of Women from Afghanistan, who described incidents of women being killed to maintain the honour of the community. How do we stop this, asked Sahar, and how do we make people understand the real meaning of "honour" she asked. For some men, 'honour' meant having more and more wives! But the real meaning of honour was reposing trust in one's sister, wife, in women. While cultural and religious issues are sensitive in nature, it was necessary to eliminate the brutal and disquieting parts of our culture and tradition and oppose them.
Kishwar Nahid from Pakistan said that the feudal system had not been abolished in Pakistan, and the law of the Pakistani state had no influence on the laws of the tribal lords; in fact the state refused to intervene in the name of tradition. Every month there are anything between three to seven cases of honour killing in the province of Sind alone, similarly in Baluchistan and Sarhadd, but many of them were not reported in the press. She recounted several cases from different parts of Pakistan. Despite the fact that the Provincial and National Assemblies have around 20 per cent women, these legislative bodies have passed a resolution that there should be no interference with local traditions.
Gita Sahgal from Amnesty International said that honour killings were equally a problem in Europe, and that women's groups organising Arab and South Asian women also had to deal with other forms of community control, including abduction, forced marriages, etc. However, it was necessary to examine the response of the state in Western Europe to the demands of women's organisations, who have had to fight the veiled silence of these governments, since social workers, the police and politicians have failed to squarely address these issues and help affected women in the name of multiculturalism. In the current context of the US's so-called War against Terror, honour killings are being used to demonise the Muslim community and show them as barbarians, when this is a phenomenon that is actually present amongst all communities, she pointed out.
AIDWA state president of Haryana, Jagmati Sangwan, presented the findings of a survey done by AIDWA of the families who were involved in such incidents of Honour Killings. She pointed out that those who engaged in 'choice' marriages were mostly from the lower middle class or poor families, with some exposure to education. Despite the fact that they were aware of the terrible consequences of their actions, not only on themselves but also on their families and future generations, it was their desire for equality and democratic rights that made them take the step.
The violence they face is justified in the name of 'honour' when actually they are weapons to mobilise social support and sanction to maintain class, caste and patriarchal hegemony. Such couples threaten this social hegemony, and must therefore be eliminated in case they become examples for others to follow. Recounting the experience of AIDWA's intervention with the 'Khap Panchayats' she pointed out that it was necessary to challenge their authority, but that the central government, the SC-ST commission, the National Commision of Women and the NHRC had responded in a lukewarm manner because they did not want to antagonise the mandarins of these bodies. UP state secretary of Uttar Pradesh Zarina Khursheed described the findings of their survey in one district of western UP, namely Muzzafarnagar, and stated that caste panchayats played a major role in such incidents.
This was followed by several interventions and questions from the audience, which numbered more that 200. Subhashini Ali summed up the proceedings and she thanked the speakers for making the workshop a success.
AIDWA also utilised the events in the WSF to sell its publications; the book on Dowry, and the Report of the 6th National Conference at Vishakhapatnam were sold out. Samya, the Hindi quarterly was also bought by many people.