Inclusive Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights: A Roundtable with Orinam || @chennaipride @Archytypes @Fred_Rogerss


On the 2nd of September, 2022, Prajnya and Orinam organised a Roundtable on Inclusive Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. The roundtable was a part of a research internship undertaken by the author, Meghna, a postgraduate student of Sustainable Development Practice at TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi. Through the research project, Meghna aims to explore concepts of accessibility and inclusivity to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Tamil Nadu. Through this, the roundtable not only shed light on the structural violence and discrimination in the healthcare sector against individuals who do not conform to the binary sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions, but also helped provide critical points in order to reimagine gender-affirmative healthcare. The session was moderated by Dr. L. Ramakrishnan and had on the panel – Fred, Dr. Prabha Swaminathan and Archanaa Seker, who gave us their insights on the theme of the roundtable

1. Fred works as an LGBTQIAP+ affirmative counsellor.

2. Dr. Prabha Swaminathan is a gynaecologist associated with Dr. Rela Institute & Medical Centre, Chennai and Chettinad Hospitals, Chennai. She is committed to providing gender-inclusive healthcare, as well as healthcare and support services for survivors of domestic violence. She has been working with NGOs for domestic violence and intimate partner violence and is also trained and certified as a workplace sexual harassment Internal Committee member.

3. Archanaa Seker is a writer, researcher and feminist rights activist based in Chennai. She works with the queer community and independently works on enabling access to Emergency Contraceptive Pills and abortions to those who need it and reach out. She also engages with state agencies to fill the gaps in SRHR. 

4. The session was moderated by Dr. L. Ramakrishnan who is a public health professional, associated with Solidarity and Action Against The HIV Infection in India (SAATHII). He works towards inclusive access to healthcare, justice and social protection for communities marginalized on account of gender, sexuality and/or HIV status.

The roundtable began with the panellists being asked what it means to them to be an inclusive SRHR provider. Archanaa began by answering that she has been working on enabling access to Emergency Contraceptive Pills for anyone who needs them for around a decade. “If access to contraception was inclusive and it could be accessed by everybody, there wouldn’t be a need for somebody like me. If you ask me what it is to have inclusive and accessible SRHR, I would say, the dream is I become redundant, or what I do becomes redundant.”, she said. Archanaa also added that despite ECPs not being illegal for sale or purchase in Tamil Nadu, the fact that they are not easily available is a result of confusion in the state, particularly one that involves Government agencies, pharmaceutical associations and pharmacies. 

“While I want ECP to be available at pharmacies just like we can buy a crocin or a Dolo-650 just off the counter, and I want every pharmacist to be able to give it without asking any questions, I do realise, they can’t stop at just making the pill available without looking at usage, over usage or misusage. And from a feminist point of view, I think we must think and talk about it,” she said.

Moving beyond assumptions of the cis-binary heterosexual contexts, there are barriers that are persistent for community members. Giving insights into this, Fred mentioned that organisations like Orinam that offer resources for gender-affirmative healthcare are essential for community members. Inclusivity, Fred said, to him, meant that “people in medical professions must be aware of gender identities, gender expressions and sexual orientations for the LGBTQ+ community to visit them when there is a need”. This makes it imperative to note that healthcare providers must take cognisance of the fact that bodies can come in many configurations which may or may not align with the individual’s gender identity. Dr Prabha Swaminathan added to the discussion by saying that she, an OB-GYN, recognises that medical professionals have to be mindful and considerate if there are vulnerable individuals seeking support. She said, no one should be left behind as far as health is concerned so that everyone has equal access and ability to get help.”

Furthermore, during the roundtable, discussing the barriers to accessing SRHR, Archanaa mentioned that the society is still stuck with very strict gender norms, including those that limit, prohibit or silence any discussion of  ‘pleasurable sex’. Accessing SRHR can be destigmatised only if the shame is taken away from bodies, body parts and sex itself. 

Archanaa also spoke about the reaction in India to the Roe v/s Wade judgement being overturned in the United States. While many people contrasted India’s seemingly progressive abortion laws with the rollback of reproductive rights in the US, Archanaa pointed out that the ground reality in terms of access to safe abortion services is fraught in the country. She directed the audience to the Guardian article, Feminists in India applaud their abortion rights – but they don’t extend to Dalit women by Shreeja Rao.

The roundtable also brought forth the question of how the medical sciences traditionally does not maintain any distinction between biological sex and gender, and thereby fails to address the issues of transmasculine individuals. Here, Fred mentioned that there is apprehension about opening up about one’s gender identity, especially to medical practitioners. Added to this is the toxic masculinity that is prevalent in the LGBTQIA+ community. These notions and stereotypes about the sexual orientations of transmasculine individuals is also reflected by medical practitioners who are supposedly gender-affirmative.

The concluding thoughts of the roundtable had Dr. Prabha Swaminathan talk about the aspects of abortion in the medical fraternity where one is always taught to deny abortion the first time, and to be pro-life. Concepts of gender beyond the binary, and identities on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum are also not considered normal in the medical profession. She mentions that very little time is given to develop a proper understanding of sexuality in the medical curriculum. It is the lack of this that has made most gynaecologists not understand sex and sexuality. For this, children must be taught from a very young age about sex and sexuality through sex education in schools. This thought was echoed by Fred as well. Fred also brought to light that legislation and policies must focus on making use of language that is inclusive of all identities. A brilliant Twitter thread was also suggested by Archanaa on the same which can be found here. Additionally, Archanaa supplemented this discussion by adding that it is essential for both medical professionals and institutions such as the state to move towards approaching sexual and reproductive health from a feminist and rights-based perspective.

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.

Tamil Nadu Perspective: Draft National Policy for Women



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. 

Why the State Women’s Commission matters


Normally, when asked about whether the government should do this or that to respond to an incident of violence or a gender equality violation, we are given to talking about the three fingers that point back. This is not because we think governments act perfectly all the time (no one does) but because we believe in the importance of proactive citizenship and in the role of civil society. Governments cannot do everything on their own; even when we delegate authority, a good part of the burden of social change remains with us–we are the ‘social’ in social change, after all.

Having said that, we created this petition for a strong Women’s Commission in Tamil Nadu along with several civil society colleagues because such a body can be important to our work.

The Commissions for Women at the National and State level occupy something of a hybrid and therefore, link, position between government and civil society. The Commission Chair and members are usually from civil society but appointed by the government of the day. They have the authorisation of government officials, giving them better access than most civil society advocates have. The Commission is a platform from which they can speak to contemporary issues and also the crisis of a given day. The secretariat and the resources of the Commission derive directly from government, giving them the advantage of both institutional memory and better resources.

A strong, dynamic Commission is an asset to civil society because its members can draw on their old networks to anchor their work, and because Commissioners afford civil society quick access to government. So, if there is an incident in the districts, and local NGOs cannot get help, the Commission potentially can intervene to facilitate and make help available. A pro-active Chair and Commission could fashion an important role for itself in the journey towards social change. A retrogressive Chair and Commission could drag us down just as well.

This is why it is important to us and to our colleagues to see that when the newly re-elected Tamil Nadu Chief Minister makes that appointment, she appoints the right person, someone we defined in our petition as “sensitive to gender issues, and has concretely contributed towards women’s empowerment.” Those engaged in the work of social change–and gender equality–in civil society need an institutional ally who will bring together the resources of government and the reach of civil society.

This is why we urge you to sign our petition today:

If you care about gender equality, this should be important to you as well.





Your gender equality election assessment: Resources


For those who will vote in Tamil Nadu, and would like to arrive at their own Gender Equality Election assessment (as you should!), we are compiling the resources we have found. We will keep updating this as we go.

Nomination information:

TN State Election Commission, Nominations and Affidavits

Lists of candidates from all parties


Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam

Pattali Makkal Katchi

Namma Thamizhar Katchi

All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam  (no content yet)


Do send us links to other manifestos (full-text, not reports or summaries):


Gender Equality Report Card: Tamil Nadu Election 2016



How do Tamil Nadu parties fare
according to the
Prajnya Gender Equality Election Checklist?

The Prajnya Gender Equality Election Checklist released two weeks ago offers voters five criteria to determine a candidate or party’s commitment to gender equality:

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.

Now that nominations have been filed, many manifestos published and campaigns are underway, how do Tamil Nadu parties fare? In the absence of party-generated data that is up-to-date, comprehensive and gender-disaggregated, the following commentary is based on media accounts.

1. On the question of gender-based violence, parties are inclined to focus on protection of women and other gender minorities rather than creating the conditions for eliminating the threat of violence. Some striking expressions of patriarchal thinking:
• The DMK will introduce (yet another) mobile app.
• The PWF will ensure that law enforcement prioritises women’s safety, but they would also like to keep women protected, such as prohibiting overtime work for them.

2. Where nomination of women goes, virtually no party approaches parity. This shows that political institutions are blind to women’s work and leadership.

Party Women Candidates Total Candidates Percentage
AIADMK 31 227 13.7
BJP 15 168 7.1
Congress 3 41 7.3
CPI 1 25 4
CPM 3 25 12
DMDK 1? 104 NA
DMK 19 173 11
MDMK 4 29 13.8
NTK 5 75 6.7
PMK 15 234 6.4
TMC 1 26 3.8
VCK 2 25 8
Total 323

(+ 2 Third Gender)

3785 8.5
  1. It is hard to know whether parties are supporting male and female candidates equally, but three questions that enable us to read between the lines of their behaviour are as follows:
  • To which seats have women candidates been nominated? Are these prominent seats or either marginal seats or seats where the incumbent is a prominent woman?
  • When those vehicles with megaphones come by, which names do you hear more often? Without party support, it would be hard to pay for autos, banners and handouts.
  • Which parties’ candidates are campaigning door-to-door? Without party support, there would not be volunteers to walk the streets.
  1. Looking at the manifestos released, we do not see strong evidence of a concern about gender issues. By and large, three concerns define the gender perspective of the political parties: safety, motherhood and livelihoods. As important as they are, they reveal the patriarchal thinking at the core of even the parties that make claims to being progressive. How do the parties line up on other key issues?

Political and government reservations:

  • PMK backs 50% reservation for women in local bodies and 33% in the police.
  • DMK will push for the Women’s Reservation Bill at the Centre.

Workplace safety:

  • DMK will push for workplace sexual harassment committees in places like spinning mills.
  • PWF will enforce universal compliance with the provisions of the law against workplace sexual harassment, BUT, they also plan to penalise those who employ women overtime.


  • The PWF foresees a role for an invigorated and accountable Women’s Commission.

Self-Help Groups remain the instrument of choice for grassroots change, and the DMK proposes to introduce SHGs for transgender persons.

  1. Gender has hardly featured in any of the speeches we have heard so far.

The media has raised questions about gender in the manifestos and about the nomination of non-male candidates, but this commentary has remained marginal. Most disconcerting, but unsurprising, was the recent survey by the NGO, Association for Democratic Reforms, that showed that gender equality is not a priority concern for either urban or rural voters in Tamil Nadu. The challenge then is to make it an issue, and it is a challenge we hope civil society and media will take up by posing relevant questions repeatedly.

Tamil Nadu’s parties attempt to address transgender rights although their performance is strictly hit or miss. Where the PMK, for instance, proposes to set up hostels for transgender women which may be useful, the DMDK wants to set up separate schools and colleges.

It is clear that manifestos are written in isolation and without an attempt to understand what communities actually want. It is in society’s interest to break that isolation and initiate dialogue with parties, and smart parties will seek that dialogue so that they can genuinely claim to represent the people. In this election, it must be acknowledged that some sections of the media have attempted to evaluate gender sensitivity among political parties and candidates, but the poor Prajnya Gender Equality Election Checklist showing of parties across the board shows there is much work to be done. A good starting point would be gender-disaggregated data and the demand for such data may well be where we begin our campaigns for gender equality in the election process.

Prajnya Gender Equality Election Checklist




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 for the 2016 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.


Notes from a roundtable on gender and disasters, December 23, 2014


Gender and Disaster Reconstruction: Insights and Lessons

December 23rd, 2014

Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

This roundtable session on how gender awareness has the potential to play a role in disaster management took place in the offices of the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission. It centered around presentations by speakers from The Prajnya Trust, the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, Swayam Shikshan Prayog, and the State Planning Commission. The other participants came from related state government departments. The focus of this session was primarily on formulation of policy on disaster management, based on the assumption that gender influences how people experience disasters as well as relief.

The session opened with a brief statement of purpose by Mr Sugato Dutt, Member-Secretary of the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission (TNSPC). It proceeded with a round of introductions, and a statement of welcome by the Vice Chairperson TNSPC, Ms Santha Sheela Nair.

Dr Swarna Rajagopalan, Managing Trustee of The Prajnya Trust, made the first presentation. She gave the audience a comprehensive overview of the topic, and also pointed out that while we talk about gender awareness in policy making at length, we also need to consider the everyday impact of gender on the ground in a disaster situation. We need to examine the gendered consequences of disasters, and look for a way to address them. She added that there are varying guises of gender politics at play in disasters, including labour, safety, and the case of marginalized groups.

Dr Rajagopalan drew attention to the shortcomings of a generalized policy of reconstruction rather than a context-specific one that takes advantages of existing systems of economic/political activity to create policies for relief. The main problem with generalized policies is the important observations they miss in their one-size-fits-all type of solution. For example, they often reinforce normative gender roles and ignore any possible existing subversion of them – women often engage in economic activity that promotes reconstruction, but this work is not recognized by relief organizations, let alone co-opted into their policy. Above all, there is a failure to recognize that there needs to be equal representation at all levels of reconstruction, from policy planning to the fieldwork. Gender awareness is not a little box on a checklist that needs to be checked, but a fuller understanding of any situation.

Dr Rajagopalan stressed the need to look beyond the axioms of gender and disaster (such as the idea that women are always the most victimized class of people in a disaster; or even the idea that gender is only about women). In order to do this, she suggested we re-examine individual needs and contexts through three lenses: vulnerability, visibility and voice. The most important question to ask ourselves while going into a disaster situation is this: whose voice is seen as the default one? Whose is the most visible perspective? Very often, the answer to this question leaves us in no doubt that individuals experience a gendered reality. Thus, we need to reconsider assumptions about who are the most vulnerable populations in a disaster, and turn this around to reveal their potential for action and reconstruction.

photo 39Mr Mihir Bhatt, Director of the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, gave the second presentation. Speaking about Women in the Emergency Response Phase, Mr Bhatt looked at the results of a comprehensive study undertaken in 2014 to examine the impact of the response to tsunami relief in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, with a specific focus on Tamil Nadu. The study used various methodologies, including appreciative inquiry, group interviews, and some quantitative methods. Data was collected in 15 locations along the coast from Chennai to Kanyakumari, from over 1500 families. The focus of the study was to study the impact of two main measures of relief: shelter and livelihood. Mr Bhatt shared a few observations about the positive impact of relief measures in these two, and other (allied), areas. Firstly, he noted that the number of families that were counted as being below the poverty line (BPL) had decreased in the past ten years. Secondly, all children of school-going age were enrolled in and attended school regularly. Thirdly, the overall investment in houses (built by the government as part of the relief measures) had increased, improving the asset by addition of rooms, etc. Finally, though income from coastal fisheries had decreased, an increase was observed in inland fishing. Mr Bhatt suggested that these observations demonstrated that tsunami relief work has created social and economic opportunity in the affected regions. He also noted that there was a rising awareness of green energy at all levels, and this would have to be studied further.

A question was raised about the role of Self Help Groups (SHG) in the affected regions. Mr Bhatt responded that the history of SHGs in the region meant that there was some familiarity with concepts like financial discipline and financial literacy, which was helpful for the recovery process. Another commenter shared a number of stories about women taking on leadership roles in situations arising from relief work, and the challenged these women face.

photo 32

Ms Vandana Chauhan gave the third presentation of the day, speaking about Lessons from the Post-Tsunami Decade on Women’s Agency and Leadership. She examined the findings of a comparative study undertaken in India, Indonesia and Japan. The study stressed the importance of action oriented emergency plans that were concise and readable.

Ms Chauhan examined the requirements for capacity-building among women, and suggested that the following factors were most important: confidence, decision making power, setting up of a standard operating procedure in case of disasters.

In her assessment of the impact of relief measures on affected areas, Ms Chauhan noted that relief measures related to livelihood, asset creation, access to primary healthcare centres (PHCs), education, and governance have been largely positive. In terms of livelihood, measures intended to augment income generation are still in effect today and continue to promote the independence of women. Asset creation can be observed in the form of developing opportunities for housing. Education in particular shows a positive trend: the demand for women’s education. All these situations present an opportunity for leadership, especially by women.

Ms Chauhan closed with some lessons for the future. She advocated an increased awareness of the local context while enacting relief measures, as well as the use of traditional mechanisms and channels in incorporating the local community in relief programs. Ms Chauhan was of the opinion that this was important to ensure sustainable recovery.

photo 33 photo 36

A commenter demonstrated how far relief work has come in the past couple of decades by comparing work in 1990 in Orissa and current relief work. It was noted that a key aspect of this improvement was better preparation. Some concern was also expressed about the position of children in disasters, especially with the increased risk of communicable diseases. An audience member also advocated a more streamlined bureaucracy to prevent doubling up of activities in relief work.

photo 29

Ms Prema Gopalan made the fourth presentation of the day, about Engaging Women in the Post-Disaster Reconstruction Process. She drew attention to the potential of disaster relief work as an opportunity for the empowerment of women. Looking at the activities and organization of women’s groups, Ms Gopalan also noted that gender affects men and women differently – and that it is particularly important to remember this while formulating policy on relief work. It is important to ensure that women are facilitators of recovery. It is also essential to recognize women’s role in mobilizing the community. In this regard, disasters create situations in which traditional social and cultural norms are broken, allowing for the participation and leadership of non-traditional classes – such as women.

Pointing to case studies in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, Ms Gopalan demonstrated the success of local women as mobilizers and trainers in the community. Advocating for self-help, she recommended that communities should map their own vulnerabilities and capacities in planning disaster relief. Aid should be given directly to the affected communities rather than through bureaucratic channels. Investment by the government needs to be protected by community leadership, and women play a key role in monitoring this. In Ms Gopalan’s own experience, she found that infrastructure and services are protected in the long run if women are involved in the management of them. She also drew attention to the success of women-led preparedness task forces, where women wrote their own manuals for preparedness (against disasters). By viewing women as active agents in their communities, a new perspective emerges.

photo 30

The Vice-Chairperson of TNSPC asked if there was any resistance from men to the leadership of women. Ms Gopalan responded that there was some resistance at first, but in disaster sites, men did not object to women taking responsibility, and women themselves were eager to change the status quo. She reiterated the importance of disasters as an opportunity for women to change the status quo of gender relations.

A question was raised about specific ways to encourage women’s leadership in disaster management. Ms Gopalan suggested that we need to have less specialization in NGOs, and that NGOs need to work in conversation with each other and the government.

A question was raised about the increased participation of women in politics as a measure of women’s empowerment. Ms Gopalan felt that this doesn’t really promote women’s empowerment for various reasons. However, Dr Rajagopalan pointed out that the presence of women in politics is more of an intrinsic good since it represents more women in decision-making processes.

Members of the TNSPC pointed out that NGOs need to function through the year rather than only in disaster situations. A commenter also raised the importance of educating boys at the school level to ensure gender sensitization. The Vice Chairperson noted the relief work done by religious organizations in Tamil Nadu.

Ms Gopalan agreed that NGOs need to work together, with the facilitation of the government. She also reiterated the need to ensure that women are stakeholders in their own communities.

A question was raised about the possibility of community monitoring of funds, given the controversial history of this initiative. Ms Gopalan was of the opinion that the success of this would depend on the government officers to a certain extent, and how responsive they are to the idea. Mr Bhatt also pointed to an example of community responsibility in Assam. Schoolteachers took responsibility in conducting safety audits in schools. He also emphasized the role of women schoolteachers in formulating safety codes for schools.

photo 21

The final presentation of the day was made by a Consultant in disaster management and training in the TN State Disaster Management Agency on behalf of the Revenue Administration and Disaster Management Department. He drew attention to the common perception that one shouldn’t raise the cry of gender in a disaster situation. This perception is problematic, since women and men experience disaster in different ways. He stressed the need to have equal respect for male and female survivors. Speaking of some of the main features of TN Disaster Management, he spoke of the presence of planning at various levels, and various time frames. He also advocated the importance of increased participation of women at decision making levels, the importance of education about disaster management in schools, and incorporating SHGs in capacity building.

The Vice Chairperson asked if women were really in a position of authority to make decisions rather than just filling up quotas on committees. The Consultant answered that they were part of committees, but lacked real power. A commenter pointed out that out of 5-6 lakh SHGs, 50% of them had real leadership by women, but not in the area of disaster management. Interestingly, a commenter pointed out that 70% of the people who attend disaster management workshops are women. Are they including in decision making processes? Not really. However, there has been a growing change in this trend in recent times, especially at the community level, where there is more participation by women. The space has been created for women to make decisions, and this is a hopeful development.

Ms Gopalan said that this needs to be taken to the higher levels od decision making too. Empowerment can be seen at the village level, but not at the Taluk and District levels.

An audience member also pointed to the need to select attendees to training programs more carefully based on their capacities. There is also a need for training about disaster management in villages. A suggestion was made to include Panchayat Level Federations in this initiative.

Mr Bhatt asked if there was a difference in the way disaster management policy was formulated in rural and urban parts of Tamil Nadu. The Vice Chairperson asked if codes were in place for Chennai City. Members of the City Corporation answered that they were. The Revenue Department representative added that the Anna Institute of Management (AIM) was consulting with the TNSPC in the creation of a State Disaster Management Plan. Members of the AIM were also present. Dr Rajagopalan suggested that members of civil society should also be consulted in the formulation of this plan, in order to conduct a gender audit of disaster management policies.

The Director of AIM pointed out that it had been useful to have AIM step in, since the formulation of this plan had been shunted from department to department earlier.

Ms Gopalan noted the cyclone shelters lying empty in Andhra Pradesh because there was no community ownership of the shelters. The Director of AIM pointed out that specialized shelters were unlikely to work effectively. Rather, the creation of multipurpose centres would be recommended.

Members of the TN Disaster Management Agency gave an overview of their plan to increase community ownership of shelters by transforming schools, community halls and training centres into shelters. The Revenue Department and the Public Works Department would maintain these shelters, with committees at the community level.

Dr Rajagopalan closed the discussion with a quick highlight of the main questions.

photo 18

In the news: Honour killings in Tamil Nadu


The Times of India, Chennai, carried several stories last week on honour killings in Tamil Nadu. One of our Prajnya volunteers, Shalini Umachandran, has contributed.

Shalini Umachandran and Padmini Sivarajah/TNN, Honour killings haunt women in TN too: Deepa, Times of India, July 7, 2010.

“Chennai/Madurai: Megala decided to follow her heart. And paid a heavy price for it, losing her lover and being attacked and ostracised by her family and community in Manamadurai.

“The latest in a series of such attacks on women in the state, the Megala case dispels the popular notion that ‘honour killings’ are confined to Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in the north; southern states such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh too witness similar incidents periodically. Many of them are sparked off when educated single women walk out of their homes and choose their own partners, sometimes from another community or caste.

“Honour crimes and killings take place when young people challenge accepted norms of marriage, according to a study commissioned by the National Commission for Women (NCW). Megala, 20, and Sivakumar, 24, were told they couldn’t marry as they were related. Her family married her off in June. Ten days after the wedding, she ran away with Sivakumar. Her family tracked the couple down and attacked Sivakumar with ‘aruvaals’. Sivakumar died on the spot, and his killers, who included her father and brother, have been arrested. Megala, now in hospital, says that everyone in her village, including her mother, feels that the punishment is justified as she brought shame to her village and the Thevar community to which she belongs.

“The accusation against her are virtually the same as those made against victims in north India. The NCW study, still underway, shows that of the 326 cases of conflict surveyed so far nationwide, 72% were because the couple crossed caste barriers and only 3% were because the couple were from the same gotra. “Women are making their own choices and in a patriarchal set-up this causes problems,” says Ravi Kant, Supreme Court advocate and president of Shakti Vahini, the organisation that is conducting the study for NCW.

“Activists in Tamil Nadu endorse this view. “Honour killings are not unheard of in TN. The basis is usually caste, more often than not a Dalit boy marrying an upper caste girl,” says U Vasuki, general secretary, All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).

“But there is no data available to indicate the extent of the problem, primarily because cases are registered as murder under the IPC without charges to indicate that it may be an honour killing. If the case involves a Dalit and a non-Dalit, it is registered under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.”

Shalini Umachandran, Victim count in honour crimes stays hidden, Times of India, July 7, 2010.

“Chennai: The lack of a specific law to tackle honour crimes, coupled with the reluctance of police to register cases, leads to difficulties in counting the number of victims, say lawyers and activists. “Many people say ‘honour killings don’t happen in our state’,” says Ravi Kant, Supreme Court advocate and president of Shakti Vahini, an organisation conducting a study on honour killings for National Commission for Women. “It happens across the country, it’s just that we can’t count the cases since they are not registered under the ‘honour killings.”

“Honour crimes are registered under general sections of the Indian Penal Code as instances of assault, battery or homicide. If the case involves a dalit and a non-dalit, it is filed under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act as a caste-based crime. “Here, honour killings are not as rampant as in north India but they do happen and are often hushed up,” says U Vasuki, general secretary, All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). “In Tamil Nadu, caste is the main motive behind an honour killing. The SC/ST act is stringent enough when the killings are carried out by individuals. But there are cases in which the entire community is involved — when khap and katta panchayats order killings, then you need a separate act to deal with it and instil fear in people,” she says.

“Police too are reluctant to challenge existing caste equations. “The police have a rather callous approach to caste issues. They feel these are family matters and do not like to interfere,” says Vasuki. Tirunelveli district SP Asra Garg says an honour killing is always preceded by threats and other minor attacks. “Action should be taken at this point. Intervention is the key to prevent the situation from escalating,” he says. Advocate Geeta Ramaseshan adds, “There are many other forms of violence that are not addressed — the woman being kept under house arrest, forcibly married off to another man, being threatened into submission. But who will file these complaints for the police to act?”

“Megala, the woman who was attacked on Monday and whose lover was killed, told a fact-finding team from Evidence, an organisation working in the field of human rights, that her family had kept her locked up for a month when they found she had fallen in love with her cousin, Sivakumar. She was then married off to an older man. When she ran away with Sivakumar, the family hunted them down and killed him.

“A Kathir, executive director of Evidence, says this was a classic case. “The immediate family is involved. If a complaint is filed as is required in the case of murder, it’s hard to make the charges stick. Witnesses often turn hostile as they are threatened,” he says. Garg says they provide protection to witnesses and complainants. “But if they refuse to cooperate or money plays a role, then we are helpless,” he says.”

V Mayilvaganan/TNN, Breaking caste barrier proved fatal, The Times Of India Chennai, July 7, 2010.

“Cuddalore: It was one gruesome incident of honour killing that shook the state in 2003. Newlywed D Kannagi (22) from the backward Vanniyar caste and her Dalit husband S Murugesan (25) — both graduates — were hounded, hunted down, harassed and killed by the girl’s parents and relatives. They were killed in the most brutal way. They were forcefed poison with about a dozen persons watching them die slowly in their native Puthukooraipettai village near Vriddachalam in Cuddalore district.

“A chemical engineer, Murugesan fell in love with Kannagi, a commerce graduate, during their college days at Annamalai University in Chidambaram. Fully aware that their families would not approve their affair, Murgesan and Kannagi married discretely soon after they completed their graduation in May. They, however, continued to live in their respective houses until Murugesan got a job.

“A top grader, Murugesan managed to get a job in Tirupur in a month and on July 3 Kannagi went to Tirupur with Murugesan. Kannagi’s father Duraisamy, who was also the Puthukooraipettai panchayat president, and his relatives had been furiously hunting for the couple. Four days later, Murugesan came to the village hoping to sneak away after taking the academic certificates from his house. However, he was caught. “He was tortured the whole day, with his relatives demanding that he reveal the location of Kannagi. The harassment continued throughout the night. When it turned unbearable, he disclosed the details of where Kannagi was staying,’’ said S Velmurugan, brother of Murugesan who was 19 years old then. Kannagi was brought to the village.

“It was then that the cruel episode unfolded. Duraisamy and his relatives allegedly fed the young couple with a poisonous drink even as relatives stood mute witnesses.

“Their bodies were burnt and disposed. “Even now there is lot of pressure to withdraw the case,” says Velmurugan. The case is being investigated by the CBI. Advocate P Rathnam said he has filed a writ in the high court seeking fresh probe.”

V Mayilvaganan/TNN, Honour killings have a southern twist, Times of India, July 7, 2010.

“Thanjavur: Lakshmi has never hated anyone like she does her brothers. A victim of ‘honour’ killing, she no longer likes her caste either. Hailing from a middle class family of Kallars – a dominant backward caste – in the agrarian Tiruvarur district, 31-year-old Lakshmi now lives with her Dalit in-laws for the past one and half years. But, her husband Sivaji is no more. He was brutally murdered by her brothers in 2008, barely six months after she got married to him, just because he was a dalit.

““Though we were constantly worried about being tracked down by my brothers, we were having the happiest days of our life. We had rented a house at Malampatti village near Dindigul with the help of my husband’s friend,” recalls Lakshmi.

“It was exactly five years ago that Lakshmi, a plus-two dropout, met Sivaji, an auto driver from the nearby Haridwaramangalam village who used to drive by her Magimai village daily. She was 26 years old then and Sivaji 29. The feudal caste hierarchy did not stop them. Soon the young couple were deeply in love.

“Reality struck them when Lakshmi’s family learnt about the affair. Her brothers Subramanian and Sivakumar were furious at the prospect of their sister having an affair with a dalit. They threatened her and asked her to discontinue the relationship immediately.

““But I ignored the warnings and decided to marry Sivaji. I left the house and went to Dindigul along with him on March 4, 2008.” Solemnised by their friends, Lakshmi and Sivaji got married at a temple in Dindigul the same day. It was six months later that her brothers managed to track her down.

““They somehow learnt that we were in Dindigul. I later learnt that my brothers had rented a house in Dindigul and were searching for us for over a month. On September 7, around 6am someone knocked on our door. When my husband unlocked it, my brothers barged into the house and dragged my husband out. Even as I screamed, they dumped him into a car and fled away,’’ Lakshmi recalled.

“A day later Sivaji’s body was found near Grand Anicut in Thanjavur with cut injuries. Sivakumar, Subramanian and three others were arrested after a few days’ search. Now they are out on bail and trial is on. Lakshmi lives with her mother -in-law Chellamma. “I would sometimes wonder why I was born in such a family,” says Lakshmi.”

Irrational remains of another day: “The Dog Matrix” (Article)


Just read this article in this week’s Outlook magazine.

Pushpa Iyengar describes a whole series of obscure rituals that persist in rationalist-run Tamil Nadu. As you will see, most of these involve women, mainly little girls. As usual.

Take a look, anyway. The article is copied and pasted here since files on Outlook’s website is hard to track back to after a while. But here is the link if you should look right away.

Pushpa Iyengar, “The Dog Matrix,”, May 3, 2010.

The ‘Rationalist’ State

  • Men marry dogs
  • Young girls marry frogs, are whipped to exorcise spirits
  • Babies are buried in the sand
  • Coconuts are broken on devotees’ heads
  • A priest sucks blood out of a goat’s throat


Recently, Tamil Nadu got an ‘ISO certification’ from none other than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “On many fronts today, Tamil Nadu is a role model for the rest of the country,” he said. “It has attained new heights in rural development and agrarian transformation. It is the hub of India’s dynamic automobile industry, has some of the most modern textile mills and a vibrant services economy.” What the PM could also have mentioned is that if you wish to set up a software park, are looking for excellent medical care or good education, Tamil Nadu is also the place for you.

All in all, it’s a fitting reputation for a state run by parties unhesitatingly committed to rationalism—the credo of the Dravidian movement. Rationalism, indeed, should have been by now implanted in the state’s DNA, given that Dravidian parties have ruled it for 40 years. Even today, in his mid-eighties, Tamil Nadu CM Karunanidhi presides over “self-respect marriages” that are scrupulously shorn of rituals.

And yet every year in Pullipudupet village, a three-hour drive from Chennai, during Kaanum Pongal in mid-January, a girl marries a frog. This is no frog-turns-into-prince-after-being-kissed fairytale. Once married, the frog is released back into a pond, while his “bride”, usually a minor, goes back to school, and marries, much later, a man who will perhaps turn into an alcoholic, and lives unhappily ever after.

That is what happened to seven-year-old Ramana’s great-grandmother, and then to her grandmother. Like them,  Ramana was dressed up as a bride two months ago, for a ritual for which nobody—including the village priest and the headman, Raman, who  selects the “bride”—has any coherent explanation.

“She was even taken in a procession from house to house and the whole Dalit colony divided itself into two groups, with one side being the bride’s family and the other side being the frog’s relatives,” recalls Adilakshi, who was a witness to the festivities. However, the ritual, observed only by Dalits, was aborted because the police stepped in, just as the taali (mangalsutra) was to be tied on the girl. This left Ramana’s mother, Shashi, not relieved—as you might expect—that her daughter was spared this strange fate, but distraught. “Look at her,” she told Outlook, “how weak she has become ever since the marriage was stopped.”

There’s no shortage of such rituals in this so-called rational state, and marrying a frog is a comparatively harmless one when set against others, like burying babies in the sand and having coconuts broken on your head. The coconut-breaker, Periasamy, the chief priest of a temple near Tiruchi, has carried out the ritual for 23 years, and has probably mastered the knack of avoiding serious injuries. Even so, his ministrations leave some devotees bleeding from the head. In another violent annual ritual, at the Sri Achappan temple in Vellampatti in Tiruchi district, young girls are lined up by their own parents before a huge crowd to be whipped by a priest to exorcise evil spirits. Only when they cry out (after their hands are virtually split open), are they “liberated” from the spirits. In a separate annual event held recently, a temple functionary and a woman devotee took sweets out of boiling oil with bare hands, and in an even more bizarre ritual conducted last month, a temple official bit the throat of a goat and sucked its blood. Meanwhile, men have been known to marry, not frogs, but at least in one case, a dog, to atone for some obscure sin.

Official interventions have not made much difference. Ask Thadhampatti village’s administrative officer R. Rama, who was on an inspection round on July 9, 2009, at Periyathadhampatti village— about 45 km from Madurai—where every five years children are briefly buried in the sand to propitiate the deity of the Muthalamman temple in the village. “I did not see anything amiss. But after I went away, 50 children were placed on neem leaves lining pits of 4×2 sq ft, covered with a yellow cloth and the pujari jumped over them, holding the deity on his head.” An even more brazen version of the ritual was carried out in 2002. Babies were buried in the sand for a full minute at the Muthukkuzhi Mariamman temple at Peraiyur in Madurai district in a function presided over by a minister of the then ruling AIADMK.

While the resulting furore led to the banning of that ritual and the sacking of the minister, the three persons involved in the July 2009 incident are out on bail. As the NHRC has pointed out, the beliefs leading to such rituals are deeply held, and social awareness campaigns are the best way forward. But they seem to be largely ineffectual in a state which is said to be a frontrunner in education.

“The urban ethic is yet to penetrate the deep interior of the village,” explains inspector general of police Prateep Philip, who is also project director of a social organisation called Friends of the Police, and has organised ‘Social Justice Tea Parties’ to campaign against untouchability in 37,786 villages covering 1.5 milion people for the last two years. While he sets his faith on multimedia training to dispel the “shibboleths of superstition”, Ovia, a member of the Dravida Kazhagam, the original party that propounded the rational way of life, argues that superstition is actually on the rise, not on the wane. “Lack of ability, fear and greed are pushing people to become more superstitious because in today’s world they want short-cuts.”

She also points out, as many others do, that the stoutly rationalist ideas of Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy are being diluted by his very own followers. They argue, indeed, that a powerful reason why superstition and outlandish rituals flourish is that Tamil Nadu’s current leaders legitimise them by their own practices. Jayalalitha is openly superstitious, observing rahu kalam and crushing lemons under the wheels of her car to neutralise the evil eye; a woman minister in her government once famously wore a dress of leaves to propitiate the gods in Jayalalitha’s favour, while another rolled on the ground for one-and-a-half km for the same reason.

Jayalalitha’s bete noire, current CM Karunanidhi, who projects himself as   Periyar’s intellectual heir, is rumoured to wear his trademark yellow shawl to remain longer in power. The double standard followed by the party was strikingly evident when the CM did not criticise party leaders who performed pujas, and an MLA pulled a temple chariot for the long life of the CM’s political heir, deputy CM M.K. Stalin, on his birthday on March 1. As a DMK source put it: “It’s just like the way our leaders promote Tamil while all the while sending their children to convent schools.”