THE DRAFT NATIONAL POLICY FOR WOMEN: A TAMIL NADU PERSPECTIVE
Swarna Rajagopalan and Ragamalika Karthikeyan
One of the shortcomings of the Draft National Policy for Women 2016 is that it does not reflect regional concerns. Perhaps the expectation is that each state will come up with its own Policy guidelines but given the weakness of State Commissions for Women, there is no institutional advocate in most states that could push for such a document, leave alone engineer the consultations and debates that should precede the drafting of this document. Moreover, in the absence of truly wide-ranging consultations that reach beyond the usual suspects, the recommendations or guidelines as they stand are silent on a lot of key concerns for women.
Based on the experiences of women in Tamil Nadu in the last few years, we at Prajnya drew up a short list of concerns that they would be well-served to have included in the National Draft Policy.
I. Sexual and gender based inter-caste violence (‘Honour’ crimes): Since June 2013, civil society estimates 88 ‘honour’ killings in Tamil Nadu, with caste-mobs murdering young inter-caste couples, and sometimes even their families. Falling in love or marrying outside of caste boundaries is often threatened with sexual violence and murder. With no official estimates of such crimes, justice is often delayed or denied.
The Draft National Policy as it stands does not consider the gendered consequences of the overlap of vulnerabilities—when caste or socio-economic status or minority or ethnic status already place you at a disadvantage, both women and men are even more vulnerable to human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence.
II. The challenges faced by women refugees living in and out of camps in Tamil Nadu: There are over one lakh Sri Lankan refugees living in Tamil Nadu, close to 65,000 of them in refugee camps. Many of them live in cramped spaces without basic amenities like access to water and sanitation. Women and girls in these camps face sexual and gender based violence which goes frequently unreported. While life as refugees in India is difficult, going back to an unstable home in Sri Lanka is not an option for many.
Displacement is a reality across India—both refugees and internally displaced persons. Women make up at least half of these numbers and yet, the Draft National Policy does not acknowledge or address their problems.
III. Women and disasters: There is just one paragraph that mentions women’s needs in disaster contexts. Given the present frequency of climate change and human-made disasters, a gender-sensitive disaster risk reduction and mitigation policy is an urgent need that needs to be emphasised strongly.
In states like Tamil Nadu, women are vulnerable to both natural (and climate change) disasters like last year’s floods as well as the slow disasters that might result from human-planned development and industrial projects gone awry. The National Policy should mandate their inclusion with voice in consultations and decision-making at every turn–from project planning, to land acquisition negotiations, to resettlement planning and to safety planning.
IV. Workplace-related guidelines: While the Draft National Policy does address livelihood issues at length and emphasise the importance of workplace protections, we would like to draw attention to three situations where Tamil Nadu women would benefit from stronger national guidelines to protect their rights.
a. Forced and bonded labour of women and girls in spinning mills: A study conducted by civil society organisations says about 100,000 girls and women are being exploited as bonded labour in the textile industry in the state, and frequently face sexual violence at the workplace. Following the suspicious death of a teenager in Tirupur in March, investigations have revealed poor living conditions, and exploitative ‘schemes’ endangering the safety and health of young women.
b. Minimum wage for domestic workers in Tamil Nadu: Domestic workers are not covered under the Minimum Wages Act, and while some states have fixed a minimum wage, Tamil Nadu is not among them. There is also little awareness about their rights among domestic workers. Workplace sexual harassment, health insurance, decent working conditions are other areas of concern.
c. Enumeration of manual scavengers, abolition of manual scavenging: While the TN Govt has claimed there are only 210 manual scavengers in the state, both the National Commission for Scheduled Castes as well as civil society organisations have rejected this number. The state has over 2 lakh unsanitary toilets, and as many as 27,659 households are serviced manually, with another 26,020 households serviced by animals. Night soil is usually collected by Dalit women, and this inhuman practice, while officially abolished, still persists.
V. Single women living in poverty: Destitute, deserted and never married women (especially those over 35 years) living in urban slums and rural areas deserve social support. The National Policy should acknowledge their special needs.*
VI. Enabling Environment: The TN State Women’s Commission has been less and less active in the last decade, chaired by political appointees who have rarely reached out to women’s groups and other parts of civil society. The State and National Commissions are uniquely placed to serve as a bridge between government and civil society, and when they are more or less moribund, they are a wasted opportunity for a strong partnership between the two for social change. Civil society loses and institutional ally and the government loses the ability to genuinely connect with the public.
The National Policy for Women should re-imagine the Women’s Commissions in a stronger form and mandate their constitution as an independent, well-resourced and pro-active body.
*Point V is the contribution of Ms. Renuka Bala of the Centre for Women’s Development Research.