Women’s Rights as Rights of Free Citizens
37. The Indian State tends to frame women, not as citizens in their own right, but in terms of their familial and reproductive roles. It has tended to adopt a paternalistic attitude towards women, rather than recognize its obligation to safeguard women’s inalienable rights. This tendency can be seen when state governments conduct ‘group marriages’ or ‘marriage schemes for girls’ or distributes money for mangalsutras/thalis. Ostensibly, these schemes offer support to poor families to relieve them of the burden of marriage expenses, but they often have an openly patriarchal subtext. These schemes often demean women by upholding the premium on female ‘virginity’, as has been seen in the ‘virginity’ and pregnancy ‘tests’ conducted for brides by the Madhya Pradesh Government. Instead of adopting policies that enable women to achieve social and economic autonomy, such schemes instead project marriage, as arranged by the state on behalf of parents or community, as sufficient to ensure security and welfare of women. Other examples are schemes (like the Delhi Government’s Ladli scheme or the West Bengal Government’s Kanyashree scheme) ostensibly meant to protect the girl child, by promising a certain cash amount when the girl attains maturity. By providing the amount when the girl attains marriageable age, the government is actually subsidizing dowry in a disguised way!
38. Women have to struggle for a range of rights as citizens: for PDS rations, for health, and for education. Even though women’s rights to ancestral property have been legally recognized, women are seldom able to claim their rightful share without prolonged legal battles, which few women can afford. Women are especially active in struggles for homestead plots in rural areas, since they are the worst affected by the semi-bondage of living on land belonging to employers. Women are also very active in struggles for urban housing; against eviction and corporate land grab; against price rise; and against nuclear and other environmentally destructive projects. While strengthening women’s participation in all these struggles, we must also lay greater emphasis on mobilizing young women around the whole set of demands that are central for women to secure guaranteed access to education, employment, and healthcare (for example, hostels for women students and working women; crèche facilities for women in organized and unorganized sectors; free education for schoolgirls as well as aids to education like books, laptops and bicycles; and longer maternity leave, functional and properly equipped primary health centres providing free, specialized medical care for women, and district and subdivisional level hospitals with women’s wards with adequate seats).
39. Women have also been at the forefront of anti-liquor struggles in many states (most notably Andhra Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and quite recently, Bihar). Alcoholism in men has a grievous impact on the lives of poor women: causing scarce income to be squandered on liquor; deaths due to toxic illegal liquor; and contributing to domestic violence against women and children. In such movements, women have targeted the governments’ policy of promoting alcohol out of consideration for revenues, at the cost of the well-being of women and their families. The consequences for women are similar in the case of drug abuse in states like Punjab, where there is a covert policy of promoting drug dependence among labouring youth in order to extract longer hours of heavy manual labour.
40. One international study shows that when it comes to women’s health and survival, India’s performance is at rock-bottom (at 134th place among 135 countries). India has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world. 57.9% pregnant women and 56.2% married women suffer from anaemia: clearly pointing to poverty, chronic malnutrition, and gender biases that affect the vast majority of Indian women.
41. In the name of family planning, sterilisation campaigns, often funded by foreign institutions, target women and put their bodies at risk. Recently there have been
Women’s Rights as Rights of Free Citizens