A Bill of Rights

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Photo: Shailendra Pandey
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

With the Lok Sabha polls barely days away, the voices for gender equality are getting louder. “If political parties are seeking votes based on gender, they should shed the mask of pledging security of their daughters and sisters. They need to get into the nitty-gritties of the issue and commit to something concrete,” says Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court lawyer backing the Womanifesto.

The comprehensive six-point agenda has specific demands, each set on ensuring the safety, freedom and empowerment of women in the country. Backed by over 80 civil society representatives and members of the autonomous women’s movement across the country, the Womanifesto urges political parties to commit to it as a part of their election pledges.

At a time when the conversation around the status of women begins with violence, the Womanifesto calls on candidates of various parties to pledge to develop a well-funded public education campaign in schools and through radio, television and SMS services to challenge the mindsets behind violence against women. “Gender-based violence and discrimination is a behavioural epidemic that can be rolled back but it is going to take political will,” says Nundy.

According to women’s right activists, although several gender sensitisation programmes have been undertaken, they are often hollow and fail to engage with the complexity of the issue. “Gender sensitisation is engaged with like a battle of the sexes. But men and women alike, need to engage with the issue,” says Akhila Sivadas of the Centre for Advocacy and Research, a human rights organisation that focuses on interventions on gender and development issues “Having a gender-sensitivity programme is not enough; we need to apply rigour to check if it leads to what it is supposed to.” Why have gender-sensitivity and rights never been frontline issues? Why have they always been accorded a secondary place?

Although a movement for freedom and safety of movement after the brutal assault and gangrape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi in December 2012 resulted in the amendment of anti-rape laws, it made problematic exceptions. The Womanifesto seeks an amendment for the removal of these exceptions. It wants that the issue of marital rape be addressed and laws to ensure that consenting couples aged 16-17 do not fall foul of rape laws. It also seeks to remove impunity to perpetrators of custodial rape under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

Protest Activists raise their voices against gender-based violence, Photo: Dijeshwar Singh
Protest Activists raise their voices against gender-based violence, Photo: Dijeshwar Singh

Over a year after the enactment of the new law, implementation continues to be a grey zone. The Womanifesto asks political parties to produce and fund a detailed action plan to implement laws to end violence against women. It also urges parties to provide comprehensive services to victims of violent crimes, set up a 24- hour crisis centre and safe shelters in each police district and provide swift financial compensation.

“Laws need to count for something,” says Sivadas, of the Centre for Advocacy and Research. “Institutionalising the issue simply because it is complex is not enough.” The Womanifesto calls on political parties to go beyond simply setting up institutions; to support the Women’s Reservation Bill and ensure that women are represented in committees, councils and task forces related to policy and practice. It also seeks the strengthening of the autonomic functioning of the National and State Commissions of Women with experienced professional being selected in a transparent process. It calls for a people’s police and a detailed action plan to ensure secure, dignified remunerative employment for women across sectors.

So far, the Aam Admi Party, the CPI(ML) and BJD’s Jay Panda have committed to the Womanifesto. Activists behind the campaign are in conversation with other political parties. “By committing to the Womanifesto, we want to ensure that political parties are made accountable to the promises they make,” says Nundy. The Congress and the CPM have committed to repealing section 377, which is one of the specifics of the Womanifesto.

Transgender activists Kalki Subramaniam and Bharathi Kannamma will fight as independent candidates from Pollachi and Madurai respectively, Kamla, another activist from the community, will contest from Varanasi. She is also the head of the transgender community of the Poorvanchal area. All three of them have taken it upon themselves to make a difference to the lives of their communities. “This is a clear sign of acceptance and support, but only represents a very small fraction of our community,” says Abhina, who works with India HIV-AIDS Alliance, an NGO that reaches out to a community of over two lakh people. “Many of them are not even aware of voting rights. Governments have not done much for the community,” says Abhina.

Voter ID cards now recognise the third gender; many, however, feel that it is just a tick mark, a mere formality. Nothing has translated into action on ground. The lack of equal opportunity, social security and dignity are key reasons behind why many transgenders are not keen on voting. Although Abhina finds a security in her 9 am to 5 pm job, many others are forced to take up sex work, begging and remain unemployed.

The All India Sex Workers Network (AISWN), which represents five million women and transgender sex workers across the country too continue to fight for their identity, dignity and right to livelihood. Bharati Dey, president of AISWN, in a letter to the Election Commission and political parties, has emphasised on the inclusion of sex workers into the social security framework. Sex workers retire by the age of 40-45. They are often the sole bread winners of a family and once they retire find no support.

The AISWN has demanded that political parties should clarify their standpoint about pension rights of these workers. “The time has come for sex workers to be accepted like any other worker, instead of considering it a moral condition,” says Dey. “Trafficking and sex work are separate issues and cannot be conflated. Sex work should be decriminalised in all its aspects. Individuals who choose sex work as their profession should be granted rights and dignity.”

While checking if a candidate is inclined towards taking concrete measures towards gender equality, there are a few things that activists say voters should look out for. How far has the candidate gone to address the issue? Has he taken any concrete steps? Where does he place himself as a lawmaker? Has he raised question regarding the issue in Parliament? “Many candidates claim that they have seen women struggle up close, but there is a need to evaluate their commitment,” says Sivadas.

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