Comments on TN Women’s Policy Draft


Tamil Nadu State New Policy for Women 2021 (Draft)


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.


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.’


  • 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?


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.


  • 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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Hate Speech during Election Campaigns: A Petition for Action


March 25, 2021

Chief Election Officer, Tamil Nadu 

Dear Sir,

We, the undersigned, as citizens, professionals and women’s rights advocates in Tamil Nadu are writing to demand that you take action against Mr. Dindigul I. Leoni and candidate Mr. Karthikeya Sivasenapathy for the former’s misogynistic statements in the course of his Assembly election campaign in the course of the latter’s election campaign.

We are appealing to you, Mr. Chief Electoral Officer, in recognition of the fact that political parties will hesitate to withdraw a candidate two weeks ahead of an election.

Candidates who vilify members of any gender, caste or community in the course of an election campaign, including making personal comments on their appearance or lifestyle, are not deserving of the honour of representing any of us. Their tolerance of hate speech by their supporters is an equal offence. This is also true of political parties who tolerate this culture of vilification and hate speech in their self-interest.

While the Model Code of Conduct prohibits caste or communal comments and provocations and it forbids candidates from insulting each other, it carries no such provision with respect to slurs and insults against women and gender minorities. We ask that you set a precedent by penalising this candidate immediately.

It is time that misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic speech were made disqualifications for the honour of serving in our legislatures, along with histories of sexual harassment and violence. Please take action that initiates that change in our election laws.

As the Prajnya Gender Equality Election Checklist states, “Democracy without gender equality is incomplete and imperfect.” As the guardians of India’s electoral democracy, it is up to the Election Commission to introduce and promote a more gender-sensitive and inclusive election culture, by:

1.       Banning misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic speech; and

2.      Barring candidates charge-sheeted or convicted of sexual and gender-based violence and harassment.

This outrageous campaign speech by Mr. Dindigul I. Leoni offers you an opportunity to act in the interest of 3.18 crores women voters in Tamil Nadu—the majority of voters, as you know, in this state. You must act, Mr. Chief Election Officer, because without your action, you know that the political parties that field such obnoxious candidates will not.

We look to you in the hope that you will stand up for the Constitution that sees all of us as equal citizens, equally entitled to dignity. We ask you to penalise the campaigner, the candidate and warn political parties to stop the use of offensive language.

Yours truly,

Swarna Rajagopalan 

Sujata Mody

ACR Sudaroli

Copied to:

  • Chief Election Commissioner, India
  • The Chief Minister, Tamil Nadu
  • Chairperson,Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women 
  • Secretary, Law Ministry, Tamil Nadu
  • Chief Justice, Madras High Court
  • President, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam

This letter is also online here and it will be available for others to view and endorse.

Bad guys don’t harm good girls. #myth


Among the many ridiculous theories patriarchy spins as a disguise for its sanction of male entitlement and violence, is the idea that if girls are good, or in Mr. Kamalahaasan’s words ‘dignified’ and ‘confident,’ men will not harm them. The more old-fashioned version of this is the judgment expressed by luminaries in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape that had the victim prayed or had she addressed the assailants as brother, they would have spared her. There are more things wrong with this thinking than I can digress to point out this morning.

What brings on this observation (and blogpost)? These two tweets: one by @angrybirdu with an old video clip featuring Mr. Kamalahaasan’s views and one by the man himself, as recently as last Saturday.

When celebrities say stupid things about sundry topics, it does not matter. But when their utterances trivialise a deep-rooted systemic problem that has horrendous consequences for people’s lives, it matters because people pay attention to their words and in societies with strong fan cultures, they take those words as gospel. When such a celebrity has also entered the public, political domain, claiming to want to make a change, one must ask: What sort of change? Ending corruption alone is a superficial, even cosmetic, change in a society rife with inequality and discrimination. Just quoting Periyar and Ambedkar without understanding that equality must mean gender equality is, in fact, an actor spouting lines written for a role.

With State Assembly elections imminent, and Mr. Kamalahaasan’s party making a serious bid to contest, we must consider his impact on the election discourse and on the election results. If politicians do not care about gender equality and are happy to wear their misogyny on their sleeve as a marker of masculinity, remember they are a subset of the electorate which does not care and is happy to vote for them regardless.

When and how do we change this? Can we seek a commitment from political parties–understanding that it will be expedient and insincere–to at least make a token endorsement of the recommendations in the Prajnya Gender Equality Election Checklist?

As for voters: Change begins with us. Let us quickly mount the pressure on political parties as they start to prepare nomination lists and manifestos for upcoming elections. Show that you care, and signing this petition is one way to do that.




Democracy without gender equality is incomplete and imperfect.

Political parties, election officials and voters must all demonstrate
a commitment to inclusivity and a concern for gender-related issues
from survival to violence to access to participation.


Make Gender Parity a Guiding Principle for Selection

  1. Encourage members to nominate women.
  2. Short-list an equal number of men and women for each seat before making a decision.
  3. Actively seek to nominate a roughly equal number of men and women to contest elections.

DO NOT, we repeat,

  1. Do NOT nominate those facing charges relating to sexual and gender-based violence
    unless and until a court absolves them.
  2. Do NOT nominate those guilty of sexist and misogynistic speech.

Make Place for Gender Equality in the Party Manifesto

  1. Expressly commit to gender equality.
  2. Clarify party positions on issues relating to gender equality—violence, access to justice, access to opportunity and services and property rights, for instance.
  3. Expressly commit to gender parity in key party and government positions.


Vote for a party that shows

  1. Zero-tolerance for violence in speech or action.
  2. Commitment to gender parity (or something close to it) in nominations.
  3. Evidence of equal party support to male and other candidates.
  4. Strong and clear positions in favour of gender equality.
  5. Genuine concern about gender-related issues in speeches and interviews.


January 2019



Swarna Rajagopalan

A talk written for Stella Maris College, Chennai,
on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018.

What is International Women’s Day? If you were to believe Panagal Park, it is a day to offer discounts and special prizes to women customers. If you were to believe corporates, it is a day for roses and special gifts and possibly some awards. For some clubs it is an occasion to have a cultural programme, maybe even with a stand-up comic or MC whose jokes centre on hapless husbands and ridiculously aggressive women in their life.

Yesterday, I was speaking with post-graduate students, asking them how they would observe the day, and one of them said, she would help her mother with housework. Very nice. But just think. That she can only associate her mother, the most important female figure in her life, with housework. That she does not know her mother beyond her service delivery role in the household. That she thinks this is a special, noble thing to do and that sharing work in a household is not just normal.

Clara Zetkin would have been shocked at how Indian patriarchy has subverted her idea that a single day should be adopted around the world for the advocacy and lobbying for women’s rights. This proposal was accepted at the International Conference on Working Women in 1910. At that time, women were active campaigners in their own countries and transnationally on issues as vital as the vote, citizenship, equal pay, better working conditions and world peace. They were citizens in fact, if not in law, and this observance date was to be a mirror and a rallying point for their work.

What is citizenship? Instead of spending all my 20 minutes on a review of the academic literature, I refer you to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which defines citizenship as the “relationship between an individual and a state in which an individual owes allegiance to that state and in turn is entitled to its protection.” The second sentence of the definitional paragraph states that “Citizenship implies the status of freedom with accompanying responsibilities.”

Citizens enjoy all the rights a state can offer, along with its protection. What does this mean?

This Women’s Day, let us do something like a quick rights survey for Indian women. I will just list the rights and ask you a question about each of them. I want you to scribble down your answers in your notebook or notes app.

The Right to Equality:  On a scale of 1-10 where ten is the maximum, what is the equality score you would give women in India?

The Right to Freedom includes

  • Freedom of speech and expression
  • Freedom of assembly without arms
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of movement throughout India
  • Freedom to reside and settle in any part of India
  • Freedom to practice any profession

Which freedom is most available to Indian women, and which one most imperilled?

Right against Exploitation: In which spheres have we most successfully eradicated exploitation of women?

Right to Freedom of Religion What does freedom of religion mean in the context of gender justice in India?

Cultural and Educational Rights Do these rights even matter for gender equality, and how?

Right to Constitutional Remedies Do most Indian women have access to justice?

And let us also briefly think about political and civil rights. How do women fare in electoral politics? How many women are nominated? How do the women manage to fund their campaign? Who is going door to door for them?

During the last election, a gynaecologist contested from our Assembly constituency. She did not campaign in our neighbourhood, no one saw, no one knew anything about her, so we voted in a guy who ended up at that resort with the other Sasikala supporters. And there are marvellous women who have come up from the Panchayats where there is reservation but no one wants to give them a ticket and let them rise to the top leadership levels.

Being a citizen also comes with certain obligations. The ones that the state is interested in are loyalty, obedience, taxation and military service. But citizenship is a relationship and a relationship takes two parties at least, so what about citizens? What else comes with citizenship and what should be the bare minimum we expect from each other?

You have rights, you have duties, you have agency. Citizenship is maximum entitlement, but it is also maximum agency. If you emigrate to the US or Dubai or Australia, you will have all rights as a citizen, but for the first generation immigrant, there is always an invisible limit to agency, I think. In this country, where you were born, agency is your birthright. And I am not talking about personal choices or free enterprise, or even the charitable edition of social work—I am going to talk about political activism.

This is your country, and you get to write the script as you want. You have a right to shape this country and change it. You have the right to change the world.

You are one of the most privileged groups of citizens I will address this year—you study in English at one of Chennai’s elite institutions and forevermore, when you step out, people will say, “Oh, you are from Stella Maris?” But frankly what does that really mean? Your dress is more stylish? Your English accent is better? You come with a nice social network? What difference does it make to the world? And let me not mince words: Nothing, unless you make that commitment now.

What does citizenship mean today for educated, privileged Indian women? So remember your answers to the survey questions now, and think about what they mean for you.

  • The duty to learn: You have access to learning and to information. You carry smartphones which can be libraries in your purse. You are learning how to learn. So, stay informed. Read the newspaper. Learn more about issues you care about.
  • The duty to listen: You have access to a cross-section of people in college and your circles, starting from Stella Maris, will only grow. Listen carefully to both what people say and what they leave unsaid. Consider that what they choose not to say may be what they think you should already know (so look it up and learn) or, more important, what they are afraid to say in front of you. Education should be opening your mind; only you can open your heart.
  • The duty to communicate and teach: You have words, in more than one language, and wherever life takes you, there will be people who listen to you. Share what you know, where you can, while also listening to what others know.
  • The duty to think critically: This is actually the point of higher education, and if you have been lucky enough to get some, you should be asking questions all the time—to learn and to hold accountable.
  • The duty to vote: This is the bare minimum exercise of citizenship. If you do not vote, quite honestly, I think you should not complain. If you don’t like the options, do something about it.
  • The duty to speak up: Speak your truth. Speak up when others need support. Speak up with something wrong happens. Speak up when you see injustice.
  • The duty to take action: Around you, countless small problems need solutions. Garbage is not collected. Someone is not able to send their child to college. Someone is looking for a full-time care-giver. Someone is lonely. Someone is being gaslighted. Are you the person who says, “Damn tough, man?” and moves away, shaking their head with temporary sympathy? Or are you the person who calls EXNORA or sets up a crowd-funding appeal or looks up and calls service agencies? Who are you? Find the thing you can do and do it, without expectation of reward.
  • The duty to resist: Do you obey unconditionally? Or do you try to understand before you comply? And if the regulation makes no sense or its problems outweigh its purported solutions, do you resist? Or at least rail? Being a citizen is also to take turns at the sentry post, to protect our rights and everyone else’s.

If you speak about your rights without doing your duty to society, consider that you might be exercising your privilege and not your citizenship. You are consuming what citizenship entitles you to, and giving nothing back in return.

So as I close today I want to remind you that citizenship is like everything else in life: Use it or lose it. If you are not a pro-active, engaged, thoughtful, critical citizen and you are willing to leave the tedious, troublesome work of citizenship to others, then you are complicit in the erosion of your own rights, whether it is equality, freedom of speech or privacy.

On International Women’s Day 2018, sitting in the elite surroundings of Stella Maris College, the choice is yours. Will you be a consumer or a citizen?

March 8, 2018

#GenderEqualityElectionWatch: Manifest(o) Misogyny: The INC Manifesto for the Himachal Pradesh 2017 Assembly election


Election Manifesto 2017

In Himachal Pradesh, the Congress is seeking re-election so their manifesto opens by asking: Why the Congress again in 2017? The answers are not very persuasive, the content repetitive and the language weak. But never mind, because this is a gender audit and what we really want to know is what the Congress is promising to women and what its approach is to gender issues. On that note, in the introduction we are told that with the UPA, schemes have been introduced and implemented for the welfare of every section of society including women. They have gone, we are told, beyond the promises of their last manifesto. The introduction reassures us that women will be provided with respect and safety.

The Congress manifesto has a section “For Women” in which it promises:

  • Academic support to meritorious girl students.
  • Hostels for working women in cities.
  • Pension schemes for orphaned girls, girls and women with disabilities and widows.
  • Appropriate justice and administrative measures to fast track cases of harassment and misdemeanours against women.
  • Access to credit for self-employed women.
  • Self-defence training centres in every district to train women.
  • Women’s police stations in every district.
  • Anganwadi Centres in every village to take care of women and children.
  • Expansion of the free ambulance service for pregnant women.
  • A ‘Woman Safety Application’ will be operationalised for women’s safety.
  • Women’s organisations will be strengthened in every way.
  • The grant given for the marriages of the daughters of widowed women will be expanded.

Under the category of health care, it is promised that more women will be trained as nurses.

Overall, there is less text devoted in this manifesto to women (as compared to the BJP) but women for the Congress are students, workers and entrepreneurs. They are professionals—police and nurses. Their health-care needs, at least as mothers, are addressed. Self-defence and safety are addressed here, rather than the patriarchal attitudes that lead to violence, but the tone is less paternalistic.

Talking gender equality at election time (1)

Going by the Prajnya Gender Equality Election Checklist however:

  • Again, the numbers of candidates are low.
  • It is not clear how much support they are getting.
  • Misogynistic speech is a non-issue.
  • There is no promise to end impunity or to bar those who are charge-sheeted for crimes against women.

#GenderEqualityElectionWatch: Manifest(o) Misogyny (1): The BJP manifesto for Himachal Pradesh 2017


What does the BJP manifesto for Himachal Pradesh‘s 2017 Assembly election promise? More importantly, what does it reveal about the BJP’s gender politics?

Called the “Golden Himachal Vision Document 2017,” the document opens with a listing of ten ways in which the Modi government has strengthened the foundations of Himachal Pradesh; sixth and seventh on this list are the Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana under which 1,80,829 accounts have been opened and the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign for which Rs. 49 lakhs have been mobilised for this state. The seven health developments listed do not include women’s health measures.

In the list of promises, women follow youth and farmers and precede senior citizens, government workers, army veterans and weaker sections. This tells us that women are considered an important vote-bank, though not as vital as youth or farmers.

The section on women is titled “Empowered woman, equal rights” (Sashakt Nari, Samaan Adhikaar). The BJP states that it is necessary to take steps to ensure that women are equal partners in development, and that respect and safety for women is their highest priority. Development programmes should be gender-sensitive and they would take measures to improve women’s health and livelihoods.

The Empowered Woman Yojana will have a special allocation which will enable the setting up of an ‘Empowered Woman Centre’ (Sashakt Stree Kendra) in every gram panchayat, which will fully empower women and make them independent. The word ‘empowered’ is repeated throughout this document but we do not know what ‘empowerment’ means. Today in India, it is as if repeating ‘women empowerment’ (forget the ‘apostrophe s’) will transform society. In fact, it acts as a smoke-screen that protects patriarchy.

The Empowered Women Centres will generate new job opportunities for women, and support women entrepreneurs, farmers and self-help groups. Women will be offered legal help in the centres and an ‘Empowered Woman Official’ (Sashakt Stree Adhikari) will be appointed for the implementation of the 2005 Domestic Violence Act. (Twelve years later, should this even be a promise?) The Centre will allow women to be a part of decisions made at the Panchayat—a right that the Constitution gives them. The Centre will host (Sashakt Stree Sabha) Empowered Women Assemblies where elected women Panchayat representatives will meet other women and take forward issues, demands and recommendations to the state government level.  Funds will also be allocated towards building the capacity of elected women representatives. The Centres will also be responsible for administering nutritional schemes.

Considering cleanliness to be a fundamental right, the regular cleaning and maintenance of public toilets will be undertaken, the BJP promises. Facilities essential to women’s health and reproductive care will be provided for in public bathrooms—presumably, this refers to sanitary napkins. Allocations will be increased for prenatal and postnatal health care.

The next category of promises relates to women’s safety. The accent here is on protection and the paternalism is underscored by the name of the redressal mechanism to be launched: “Gudiya Yojana” or “Doll Scheme.” Every district will have a 24×7 Women’s Police Station. There will be a 24×7 Gudiya Helpline. Every mobile phone will have a Shakti (Power) button which used, will report the user’s location, name and phone number to the police control room, the nearest mobile police van and station. To increase the percentage of women police recruits to make 33% of the force, is another promise, as are self-defence classes organised in government schools.

To refer to women and girls as ‘gudiya’ may be intended to demonstrate filial affection but dolls are lifeless, lacking in intelligence, unable to think and act and must be acted for and upon. What does this tell us about the thinking of the BJP in this state (or elsewhere)? That women and girls are less than human?

The next subheading is ‘Women-Centred Laws.’ Immediate investigation and strict implementation of laws against rape, dowry, sexual harassment and domestic violence are promised. It is shameful that this should even be a promise; it should be a given.

Women farmers will be given equal rights, and a Women Farmers’ Bill will be introduced to recognise their debts, agricultural inputs and land rights. This last suggestion is the only one that recognises women as agents and contributors to society.

For the rest, they remain mothers and otherwise infantile objects to be protected, provided for and empowered. Government—mostly men, given the nomination statistics—will take care of women and girls, don’t worry. Moreover, many of the promises are tantamount to simply stating that the government will do its job—from safety and health care to recruiting women into the police, these are old policies.

Talking gender equality at election time (1)

It is laughable to apply the Prajnya Gender Equality Election Checklist here but when one does so just as an academic exercise, the omissions and silences in the manifesto are underscored:

  • The number of nominated women is pathetic.
  • It is not clear how well-supported those women are.
  • There is no censure of misogynistic speech.
  • While the BJP promises to protect women, it says nothing about penalising men who have been charged with hurting women.

Tomorrow: The Congress manifesto for HP. 

(Translations mine, with occasional help from Google.)



Again, this is getting written on election day in Uttarakhand. What that means is that it will largely end up being an account of numbers–how many women and how many mentions in a manifesto. The lack of consistent, everyday monitoring means that we do not get to track campaign speeches for misogyny. This election watch project has also missed out on checking out criminal charges of candidates. Notwithstanding these shortcomings, I would say it is worth finishing what we started so here is a gender analysis of the election in Uttarakhand.

How many women? 

Last update: Feb 15, 2017
Assembly size: 70
Seats contested Women nominees
Samajwadi Party 51 NA
Uttarakhand Kranti Dal 70 NA
BJP 70 5
Congress 70 9
BSP 24 1
Rashtriya Lok Dal 3 0

What is left to say about the low percentage of women nominees?

Gender in the manifestos

As hard as it is to find gender sensitivity in party manifestos, it is hard to find the manifestos themselves. What is the point of a manifesto that cannot be easily found in the public domain? It must be to minimises traces of promises made and the opportunity cost of accountability.

Based on a news report, the Congress manifesto promises 33% reservation for women in government jobs. The other promise with gender transformational potential is to set up five aapda mitra (in every village?) or disaster relief workers. If 2-3 of them were women, that would alter the face of disaster mitigation, relief and rehabilitation in Uttarakhand. However, we have no way of knowing more.

The BJP manifesto, also culled from a newsreport, includes a cash gift to girls: “Rs. 5,000 for every girl child born in poor families” and a removal of the age bar for widow pensions at Rs 1000. Very interestingly, it promises that, “The opinion of all women on triple talaq will be taken and placed in front of Supreme Court.”

For the other parties, there did not even seem to be reports on the manifesto release. Did they not bother?

#GenderEqualityElectionWatch: Goa


It’s voting day today in Punjab and Goa. The one-person team doing this election watch exercise has proven inadequate to the task of genuinely monitoring the election season.

Nevertheless, here is a post on the Goa election season.

Last update: Feb 4, 2017
Assembly size: 40
Seats contested Women nominees
INC 27 3
BJP 29 1
NCP 5 1
AAP 36 4
Shiv Sena 4 0

Manifestos for Goa were released rather late, going by press reports. Is that because they were considered irrelevant to the outcome? That would also account for how hard it has been to locate them (full-text) online. If manifestos don’t matter, why draft them? Finding the full-text version is important to a gender equality audit because gender provisions and promises are usually platitudes and do not merit mention in press releases and reports.

The BJP’s Goa manifesto could not be located online after a careful search that included the Goa BJP website and Twitter account. The search for the Congress manifesto yielded this tweet, the first explicit reference to safety I have seen. Nothing shows up for the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party.

The Aam Aadmi Party had begun announcing its candidates as early as August and they have the only easily-located manifesto of the lot. It looks like the manifesto is the product of a dialogue process (the cover says “Contributed by 350+ Goa Dialogues”).

The AAP Goa manifesto opens with a listing of four social welfare schemes to benefit women–Saksham Asturi, Rs. 2500 a month for skill development; Ladli Laxmi, 2 lakhs for young women; Mamta Scheme, 50,000 for girl children; and Grih Aaadhaar for families. Each of these is described in greater detail in the text.

The AAP manifesto specifically calls out misogynistic speech by Goa politicians and for this, receives full marks from this Gender Equality Election Watch: “Women in Goa are known for their entrepreneurial spirit which the past Governments have absolutely overlooked. It is high time that women here are provided the right environment to flourish financially and socially. Their resolve and vigour is almost unparalleled across the country but instead politicians have not left a stone unturned to verbally and physically insult women [emphasis added].

Check out their other promises which show breadth in their thinking: Women are workers, need access to health and justice  at all life-stages and social safety nets. They are not imagined just as mothers or as economic actors.


Goa is voting as I write this post. Let’s see what happens.