Saturday, 21 December 2013

Kanika Datta: Paternalism in women's rights


On the face of it, Finance Minister P Chidambaram is the most feminist minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. As finance minister in the first UPA regime, he introduced "-based " in the 2005-06 Budget, an announcement that was widely praised. In this year's Budget, he announced that the government would set up a bank exclusively to serve plus a Rs 1,000-crore Nirbhaya fund. Taken together with the anti-rape laws that Parliament passed in record time and the notification of the law on sexual harassment on December 9, eight months after it received Presidential assent, the UPA government has been active, if not entirely proactive, about strengthening women's rights.

Certainly, the anti-rape and workplace laws will go some way towards redressing shameful trends in Indian society. But obviously, the degree to which these and other initiatives will improve the unenviable lot of most Indian women depends on how far society in general and men in particular are prepared to embrace the change.

Some cases in point: the dowry Act of 1961 made dowry illegal but has not eliminated the practice in most parts of ; the 33 per cent reservation for women in panchayati raj institutions since 1993 (now 50 per cent) has had no noticeable impact on empowering India's rural womenfolk; and the outlawing of prenatal sex determination tests in 1994 has not righted the skewed male-female ratio (on the contrary, the ratio has worsened).

A good part of the reason for this depressing reality has to do with the levels of embedded in public policy on gender .

Consider the gender budgeting exercise. It is supposed to be an agent of social reform rather than a mere accounting exercise laboriously compiled from 34 departments and ministries.

How far has this objective been achieved in India? Not much, if we go by a splendid article by Bhumika Jhamb, Yamini Mishra and Navanita Sinha in Economic and Political Weekly*. For one, they show that although there has been an increase in the Gender Budget Statement in absolute terms, from Rs 88,143 crore in 2012-13 to Rs 97,134 crore in 2013-14, when seen as a percentage of total expenditure, there has actually been a decline from 5.9 per cent to 5.8 per cent. Overall, they say, this percentage has hovered at 5.5 per cent (barring 2011-12, when it was 6.2 per cent) since 2008-09.

Later in the article, they discuss the allocations for the ministry of women and child development (MWCD) under the 12th Five-Year Plan. Their trend analysis from 2008-09 shows that allocations for the MWCD have indeed increased steadily - from Rs 6,919 crore to Rs 20,440 crore in 2013-14 (the former being Revised Estimates and the latter Budget Estimates). But, as they point out, "…if we isolate the allocations for 'women's welfare' (minus child development), it appears that the allocations did not increase much". They went up from Rs 237.47 crore to Rs 687.48 crore in 2011-12 and actually declined 63 per cent to Rs 250.84 crore in 2012-13.

This is an important point. The expenditure pattern, as indeed the ambit of the MWCD, suggests that women's role in society is defined by their reproductive functions rather than in their own right. This was depressingly illustrated again during the inauguration of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank earlier this year. The first product this bank offered was a "kitchen loan". Chairman and Managing Director Usha Ananthasubramanian, a woman it should be noted, actually said, "Women can borrow loans to redo their kitchen space, the place where most women spend most of their time." The combination of unthinking paternalism and social ignorance in that statement is breathtaking. "Redoing the kitchen" is the last thing for which poor or lower middle-class women - which surely must be among this bank's target customers - will consider borrowing money.

Similarly, the rape laws that were passed this March excluded marital rape from the ambit of the Act. Not only does this suggest that our mostly male lawmakers (but Indian society at large too) think the concept does not exist, it also weakens the position of women within the egregious institution of the Arranged Marriage, itself a reflection of rampant gender inequality (and one reason the dowry system flourishes).

And then, there's the "Nirbhaya fund," with its vaguely well-meaning agenda of "women's safety". Apart from my personal objection to a nauseatingly patronising appellation for a woman who suffered an unimaginable tragedy, the fact is that its announcement was little more than a cynical sop to outraged middle-class opinion. No wonder that a year after the gang rape that led to the fund's creation, it remains unspent, an ample expression of the empty rhetoric surrounding women's rights in India.

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