Comments on TN Women’s Policy Draft

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Tamil Nadu State New Policy for Women 2021 (Draft)

COMMENTS

Swarna Rajagopalan, Ph.D., January 7, 2022

Managing Trustee, The Prajnya Trust

Link to the policy document

The Government of Tamil Nadu is to be commended on its effort to draft a new policy for the state’s women, and especially, for its effort to do so through a series of consultations. The draft document however, is disappointing. For a state with a radical tradition, a forward-looking government and a rich pool of expertise and experience in civil society, it simply reads like a vague checklist of politically correct terms and commonly known facts, with a few specific measures thrown in here and there.

The most striking substantive omission is the absence of the impact of COVID-19 on the policy. The pandemic was a major disruption in people’s life, setting us back individually and collectively, by a generation. Worse, it held up a mirror to our failures in the last 75 years. A policy that does not take cognizance of these—better social services, better community resilience, a universal basic income as social safety net, anticipation of increased violence levels, the impact of social inequality on service delivery—is doomed to ineffectiveness. We will not just be ‘building back’ but on many counts, be building for the first time, a more gender equal Tamil Nadu.

Comments on opening sections

  • The Vision and Mission statements could be rewritten more clearly:
    • Suggested Vision statement edit: In Tamil Nadu, all women will have equal access to all services and entitlements and equal opportunities for realising their potential and aspirations, without discrimination or the threat of any form of violence.
    • The Mission Statement has two discernible elements:
      1. Providing an enabling environment that is safe, secure, healthy and “aspirational” (It is not clear what “aspirational” means in a policy document. All policies are by definition, aspirational.)

2. Forging an operational convergence among government departments.

In writing both, one must ask what it is that is feasible, under the constitution and practically, for state governments to promise.

  • Guiding Principles are not principles really, and of the four, only one—enabling access–is within the scope of government action. ‘Enabling environments’ and ‘elimination of violence’ are aspirations and ‘empowering women from adolescence’ is really a project. Appropriate inclusions under ‘principle’ might be: equality, equity, gender transformation, intersectionality. These should be the filters that are used through the document to set priorities and suggest action areas.
  • The Core Objectives are a dizzying combination, a mishmash, of good intentions, highly specific projects and broad aspirations.
    • At minimum, might I suggest they are clustered into categories?
      •  Specific clarifications needed:
        • What is ‘graduating from livelihoods’?
      • Bridging the digital gap is a means to an end; is it an end in itself?
      • No.15: Should the state be providing emotional support, and how does it do this? What has been the track record of the state’s intervention in the private sphere? Its entry for violence prevention has been abysmal with even the police seeking to send women back to their abusers. Its tolerance of marital rape is an example of its thinking. It intervenes to police. So really, you want the state to be entering the realm of emotions too? This suggestion boggles the mind.
      • The best sex ratio in India is a really low aspiration. 
    • Across the report, it is clear that livelihoods and health are meant to be priority areas. It would be useful to state this upfront somewhere.
  • The ‘Present Scenario’ section is so brief it need not be there. Your options:
    • Remove it from here, create an appendix with all the data, and point to that from the Preamble section.
    • Expand it in a meaningful way but to no more than one page. Your readers already know this.
  • “Women Empowerment” is not correct just because it is widely used. Can we please make this “Women’s Empowerment”?
  • The TN government might want to consider who it lists as stakeholders. “Stakeholders” means one of these three:
  • 1: a person entrusted with the stakes of bettors (original, gambling)
  • 2: one that has a stake in an enterprise
  • 3: one who is involved in or affected by a course of action

The policy document lists only planners and implementing agencies as stakeholders and lists sections of women as people ‘covered.’ Are citizens not stakeholders in policy? And when we do not recognize this, we reveal a planning philosophy that is anchored in feudal “I will deliver you through my greatness” thinking. This is anathema in a democracy. Therefore, TN women might be designated primary stakeholders and all those presently listed as stakeholders, perhaps can be designated as project or programme stakeholders. Or implementing partners.

  • The State through this policy is committed to adopt a just, humane, and sensitive approach in acknowledging, identifying, and addressing socio-economic vulnerabilities of women in order to protect them from different forms of discrimination and violence.” This is a good sentence that belongs in the preamble.
  • No argument with the categories for special focus except that the only people left out are middle class women in heterosexual marriages.
  • Given that this is a Tamil Nadu document, the omission here of transwomen and other non-binary categories is striking.

The doc teeters from project description to universal principle. There should be consistency. And in a policy document, there should be a combination of vision, guiding values that suggest what priorities will determine what we do and HOW we do, a clear listing of priority areas, and there should be a few things we clearly say we will do this.

COMMENTS ON ‘IMPLEMENTATION STRATEGIES’

As it reads, this section suggests that the wish to make everyone feel heard overtook the more challenging policy imperative of setting state priorities.

  • The core focus areas of empowerment would be based on the guiding principles stated above thus optimizing opportunities, leveraging on current strengths, and hinging on collaboration between key stakeholders.” But the Guiding Principles do not really direct, and the rest of the sentence means very little.
  • Should a policy document dwell so long on theoretical statements?
  • “Four pillars of empowerment” sounds really nice, but the fourth particularly begs the question, posed earlier: How does a state empower its citizens, and should it even try to do so?
    • Moreover, there is a great deal of overlap between the four pillars, so is there a more rational way to categorise whatever it is that follows?
  • The primary preoccupation of the policy is with improving and securing work for women. The secondary concern is health. It might be most useful to abandon the pillars and simply write about these first and then others. That will allow you to orient the whole policy towards these priorities.
  • This means this section is not ‘Implementation Strategies’ (and strictly speaking, there not many strategies here) but ‘Priority Action Areas.’

SOCIAL

  • Women’s empowerment and their ability to hold others to account, is strongly influenced by their individual assets (such as land, housing, livestock, savings) and capabilities of all types: human (such as good health and education), social (such as social belonging, a sense of identity, leadership relations) and psychological (self-esteem, self-confidence, the ability to imagine and aspire to a better future).” The listing of social and psychological assets is excellent!
  • Why are voice, representation and identity just collective assets? Does the individual not matter?

Education

From this point on, where things should get more specific and organized, the report starts sounding like a college essay answer: full of high-sounding truisms that one cannot mark wrong and lacking in specifics that would in fact indicate knowledge and excellence.

  • What is a ‘gender segregation cycle’?
  • Reducing dropouts of girl children in secondary education by 10% every year and increasing enrolment by 5% in tertiary education. Incentives shall be provided to girls from poor economic backgrounds to pursue higher education in any field of their choice.” What here is a target, what is a policy and what is a project?

This is one of the most cogent sections of the report. It could still be organized into a better flow and with sub-headings. Since education-related measures and ideas are scattered all over, it might useful to aggregate them in one place.

Health, sanitation and nutrition

  • Would ‘health, nutrition and sanitation’ be a more logical ordering?
  • The opening ‘background’ para is redundant. This section should lead with the text in 1.2.2. Every section should have a statement like that in the opening that would serve as an orientation and filter for what is to follow.
  • The mention of hooks for dupattas is heartwarming. Someone on this committee has read the feminist literature on public spaces!
  • Again, the section would be better if organized to group issue areas more clearly: SRHR, nutrition, access to sanitation, health care workers, etc. Geriatric health care can be brought in here too.
  • 1.2.15: Will the TN policy take cognizance of the concerns of the women who are primary/ last mile health care providers?

Written during the pandemic, the draft barely touches on the improvements needed in the public health system.

Intersectionality

  • The affirmation of a commitment to intersectionality is excellent and consistent with the Periyarist-Ambedkarite legacy of social movements in the state. However, the relegation of intersectionality to one hotchpotch section as an ‘implementation strategy’ takes us back to the suspicion that this was an item on a checklist of political correctness. Intersectionality is actually a guiding principle.
  • What is included under this section is also either revealing or puzzling:
    • All vulnerable, destitute and women belonging to minorities, differently abled, transgender, women headed households, deserted, widows, unattended elderly women shall be accorded priority”
    • “Differently abled young women and girls shall be given similar sex and relationships education in schools so that they are not vulnerable to exploitation” Are we suggesting that it is their lack of knowledge that makes them vulnerable, rather than the will to exert power?
    • This section is primarily about women with disabilities but could some of this not be integrated into the main discussions? Why marginalise them under a mysterious sub-heading that makes no sense?
    • The point about social protection for women-headed households does not belong here.
    • Much of this is about sex and sexuality education. Can it be moved to the education section? Can we hope for some candour from the TN govt?

Elimination of Violence

  • The opening paragraph instrumentalises the elimination of violence. What we are saying is: These are the consequences of violence, so it must be eliminated. If there were no consequences, violence would be okay. This is the wrong message.
    States should care about the elimination of violence for two more fundamental reasons. First, violence is a violation of the fundamental social contract between citizens and the state where the citizens submit to the authority of a state in return for its protection from violence. This is the first job of any government. Second, sexual and gender-based violence are violations of human rights and fundamental rights. Guaranteeing these is also the job of the state.
    If you must list instrumental reasons for eliminating violence, then let those be secondary.
  • The point about convergence of state efforts is very important. It is also one of the few things that reads like a policy choice in this document.
  • 1.4.1 Nice to recognize the denial of education—that is, structural violence—as violence. But instead of the dubious intersectionality section that is, we could have actually had a discussion about the structures that amount to violence in the preamble, in the context, etc.
  • Also in 1.4.1— “It shall identify and combat violence and abuse through a combination of laws, programs, and services with the support of diverse stakeholders.” This is what a policy does.
  • 1.4.1: “A common platform integrating the existing helplines, One stop centers, shelters, legal forums, counselling and support mechanisms available and every single case shall be tracked till its logical conclusion.” The policy document does not acknowledge the many shortcomings of these systems—delayed appointments, lack of training, lack of resources—suggesting that the consultations did not involve service providers who actually work in this area.
  • 1.4.2 sounds wonderful but boycott from what?
  • 1.4.3: What will each of them consider a “gender-friendly environment”? Will the state sponsor gender sensitisation of school principals, administrators and teachers?
    • The Internal Committee is not the solution, cannot be the gender sensitivity police and if it is, what is the function of the taskforce mentioned in 1.4.4?
    • Further, while Balar Panchayats (What? Where? How?) sound good, is this how policing will go: Balar Panchayats > task force > Internal Committee > school?
  • 1.4.5: Can we cut to the chase and say something about forums to engage men and boys?
  • Why is 1.4.6 in the section on violence? Should it not be in the section on Education?
  • 1.4.7 is good. It is relevant, specific and actionable.
  • 1.4.8: The problem is not that counselors and women police are not there but that they are not sensitized.
  • 1.4.9: The Mahalir volunteer will not be part of the police, I gather. How will they be selected? Will they be trained? How much support will they have? What is the quality control with a volunteer?
    • Also, pasting the name and contact details of the volunteer is a bad practice unless it is an official line. Posting personal details is a violation of privacy and jeopardises the safety of the person.
  • 1.4.10 is also about the helpline. It could be added to the first point which is about coordination and convergence.
  • 1.4.10 “Gender based Violence will not be tolerated and strict action taken against the offenders.” Good and can go in the section opening.
    • Might be good to have consistent usage: violence against women, gender violence, gender-based violence.
  • 1.4.12 This suggests that alcohol consumption causes violence. Be that as it may, can anyone be forced to attend de-addiction programmes or counselling? Is there legal support for it?
  • 1.4.13 This is a pointless point. The law already says this. What would be more useful is for the policy to commit to setting up Local Committees and clarifying procedures at the district level for complaining and reporting. This is where the lacunae are right now.
  • 1.4.14 Technology is not a solution. And the private sector is doing this. There is also already the Kavalan app.
  • 1.4.15 The repeated reference in this section to alcohol suggests that it is the main cause for violence. It is not. The state profits from alcohol consumption and that is a problem in its own right, but to keep returning to this is to miss the big picture—patriarchy, impunity and other intersecting realities.

The problem with this section is that it is full of platitudes and good intentions. Where does the state actually need to intervene to eliminate gender-based violence, and where can it feasibly do so? This is the question that should be answered. But there is nothing in here that will move us in any direction in ten years.

What would I have liked to see? Some examples:

  • Not just an improvement of the child sex ratio but a concerted effort to secure the girl child, and all children, by addressing patriarchal preferences for boys:
    • An awareness campaign to address daughter discrimination
    • Closer checks at the ground level to monitor prenatal health and infant care, across genders, including nutrition
    • Stringent application of the PCPNDT Act
    • Anganwadis, nurseries, mobile creches with nutritious meals
    • CSA awareness and POCSO training for child-care workers
    • Strict monitoring to prevent child marriages
    • Swift trials and punishment for traffickers
    • Better training, resourcing and oversight of children’s homes
  • From childhood to adolescence, some of what the policy suggests is good but I would like to see an explicit commitment on the following:
    • Introducing SRHR/ sex education in schools, and training teachers properly to deliver this. Not moralistic advice on relationships.
    • The emphasis on sports and on building confidence is very important.
    • But can the government commit to making it easier to seek help and redressal for street sexual harassment, acid attacks? Young people are afraid to complain and that is a gap that must be bridged by building confidence and not installing cameras everywhere.
    • The measures on public transport are very important too.
    • The policy mentions Internal Committees, but those do not apply to school-based abuse. The government needs that clarity first.
    • Forced and early marriage, cyber-bullying, are also issues that concern teenagers. We need awareness for both prevention and redressal.
  • There is a network of domestic violence services—probation officers, social welfare offices, shelters—and we know they work ineffectively. Between government and NGO services, women in distress (and this is one in three women) are very poorly served. Can the policy make concrete commitments?
    • To review the functioning of the existing facilities critically—staffing, competence, service quality, resources, sensitization?
    • To set up better systems at each point, and integrate them (the emphasis on convergence is very good)
    • To create a cadre of social workers specializing in violence-related counseling, support, law and rehabilitation
    • To draw on the expertise in civil society to strike the balance between creating standards and policing?
  • The same is true of the One-Stop Centres. Also can we have greater transparency on the Nirbhaya Funds and a way to put them to use for violence prevention itself?
  • The policy mentions Internal Committees, but the government has failed in its part to set up Local Committees, to make them accessible, and to make them known. It would be better placed to address its own omissions and committing to fixing that.
  • The police are a state responsibility, and that means sensitization is a state responsibility:
    • Gender sensitization should be ongoing and it should be feminist—meaning the individual citizen and her needs are more important than preserving the family or community.

There are references to violence across the report that could be brought together (1.5.1, 1.5.2). Also, usage could be standardized: gender violence, gender-based violence, violence against women.

Social Protection

A common problem across the draft is that it conflates what should be with state policy. Example (1.5.4) “Compulsory registration of all marriages. Those marriages held in religious sites shall also be duly registered by the concerned authorities.” Yes, but a policy should say how the state is going to make this happen. This is already a rule but what is new about it in this policy? What is the state now adding to the mix?

The draft ends up sounding like it took a little bit from everyone and tried to make them happy rather than think rigorously about what should be Tamil Nadu’s policy.

Social protection actually should be about insurance, social benefits like rations and allowances, etc. Instead it is an extension of the education and violence sections.

Social security

What would be the difference between this and the previous section?

Legal: No comments

Media

Again there are a lot of shalls and should that belong more in a rhetorical essay. How is TN going to “encourage the entry of women in the media industry through promotion of journalism and mass media courses and ensuring adherence to equitable work conditions,” for instance? How is the state going to ensure 50% women in editorial positions? It is not the place of a policy draft to paint the picture of a utopia but tell us which stretch of the journey the state is going to cover and how.

Even with content: where is the line between freedom of expression and ensuring sensitive portrayal and regulating content? The state must tread this line very sensitively as should we when we impose these expectations in a policy. There is also the question of what a state government has the power to do legally and what can it do practically? If a media organisation is in violation of any of this, but registered and operating from another state, and sending electronic data across, what can the state government do? The Censor Board is central. The drafting committee, time and again, pays no heed to jurisdiction or authority.

Infrastructure

The attention to infrastructure is welcome and important. There are elements elsewhere in the report that could be brought together with these points.

1.9.2 De-addiction probably belongs with health.

ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT

This is probably the best thought through parts in the policy draft.

This section makes it clear that livelihoods and work are a priority in this policy document. The major edit I would make in the opening section is to draw out and minimize any background sentences. At this point in the document you don’t need to be preaching to anyone.  The actual plans could be better categorized as work conditions, benefits and leave, bringing together what is scattered.

2.4.3 again takes unto moralizing/ policing territory and proposes a very implausible scheme: “The households with men addicted to alcohol may be considered for insurance under a special scheme which is proportional to the amount of alcohol consumed (can be tracked from the bottles) so that the insurance payout may benefit households and help them move out of their impoverished state due to continuous alcohol consumption.” The state government is going to march around counting alcohol bottles? This is also a classist idea—I cannot imagine the police wandering around five star bars and pubs tracking consumption.

2.2.5 “Compulsory off for 2 days per week for women.” And this will be enforced how? At a time when ‘work’ itself is getting redefined, it may make more sense to talk about flexibility and remote work than to assume people are working in an office or factory.

2.2.6 “Women entrepreneurs find it difficult to get things done when it comes to every aspect of building a company. A women specific district wise help center/portal to be established preferably with an accountable call center.” Sentences like the first one are unnecessary. We want to know what the state plans to do.

Also, even as the government at every level, speaks of the ease of doing business, the paperwork around bank accounts, etc. are just getting more complicated. Can simplification or paperwork assistance be part of the government’s help?

“’2.2.10 There are very few women founders in high profile scalable businesses. A study to be done on this phenomenon and appropriate action items to be implemented.” What can the state government do about the private sector? Can the policy go beyond these nice sounding statement?

2.2.15 “Women focused Think Tank conclaves with the objective of bringing out issues, ideas and connections to work in a collaborative manner would be set up.” We must always be wary of state patronage of civil society or academic initiatives.

Climate change

At a time when countries (Chile) are rewriting the constitution to integrate climate protection, we are relegating climate change to the economics section. But climate change is not just an economic issue. It is also about displacement, broken communities, increased gender violence and rights.

POLITICAL

While I agree with the sentiments in the opening paragraph, I am more concerned with the specific provisions in this section.

3.1.1 33.3% reservation for women (NOT women reservation) “horizontally and vertically.” What do “horizontally and vertically” mean? And will there be a state act governing parties in the state or state elections? How will this rule be enacted or implemented? Does the state even have this jurisdiction?

3.1.2 The same questions apply. By what authority will the state government enforce this? Will the ruling party adopt this?

3.1.2 (misnumbered) Will the graduates of this course be considered for tickets? Otherwise it will just be another certificate.

3.1.4 “Women political representatives shall be provided an enabling environment for women elected representatives to discharge their functions effectively.” What is that enabling environment and what will the state do?

3.1.5 “Women political representatives especially those belonging to the disadvantaged sections whenever they get affected by physical, psychological and social discrimination will be given due protection by the District Administration immediately as top priority.” Are we talking about caste and political violence? Are we talking about violence against women in politics? Are we talking about violence against Women Human Rights Defenders? Whatever it is, if the policy document does not name the problem, its intention to solve it can hardly be taken seriously.

And what is the protection from violence by the state’s own officials? Harassment by enforcement department, police?

3.1.6 Repeats the point about training and can be merged.

3.1.7 means nothing in a policy document. The question is not what the policy wants someone else to do but what the state will do.

This is a very antiseptic, apolitical list of political measures. One reads it thinking that the drafting committee does not think politics matters—when in policy, it is everything.

I would like to suggest a very feasible step that I would like Tamil Nadu to pioneer: An all-party agreement of TN parties that they will not give tickets to those:

  1. Charge-sheeted for gender-based violence
  2. Guilty of misogynistic speech

I link the Prajnya Gender Equality Election Checklist for your reference.

EMOTIONAL

I reiterate: I do not think the state government has any business or authority to be telling me how to feel. The points under this are all related to mental health and may perfectly logically be integrated with the health section. 4.3 can go under education.

General Support: No comments

Monitoring, Research and Evaluation          I would be greatly obliged if the proposed High Level Women Empowerment Committee would restore the missing apostrophe to Women’s Empowerment. Having said that, where is the provision that at least half if not the majority of members will be women or at least, not men. We will again end up with a mostly male panel of bureaucrats making policy for men.


In conclusion, I want to say that while I applaud the idea, the initiative and all the work that has gone into this policy draft, I am deeply disappointed that the state of Periyar and Ambedkar, of vibrant social movements and so many bright writers and intellectuals could only come up with such a draft.

The draft policy favours the vague over the focused, pleasing all ‘stakeholders’ over actually telling us what the state will prioritise, what its concrete goals are and how it might get there.

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