‘Concern about violence against women has a distinct class character’

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Harsh Mander
Harsh Mander Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

What is the purpose of the India Exclusion Report?

More and more I am convinced that what is most wrong with how India is changing is its inequality. But this is intensely layered and complex. We need to unravel the existing data and understand more specifically why some people have been left out of government schemes and quotas despite being extremely vulnerable. One part of the report looks at excluded groups of people — women, Dalits, tribals, religious minorities, especially Muslims, class-based disadvantaged groups like those who work in the informal sector, migrants and people with disabilities. Within these broad categories, this report also profiles those that are extremely vulnerable. This year we focus on four such groups — bonded labourers, the urban homeless, Musahars and transgendered people. We are also looking at who gets excluded sector-wise. For instance, we are trying to figure out who those children are that never go to school even in states where the RTE has been implemented. These are mainly street children, child workers etc. We are also examining who has access to the criminal justice system and which social groups get picked up under the anti-terror laws and why.

You’ve listed women as one of the most vulnerable groups in your report. In a climate where there is outrage on the vulnerability of women, what does your report throw up that we don’t know right now?

I welcome the fact that there is, perhaps for the first time, mass public concern about violence against women. But it has a distinct class character. Ragpicker women were raped in the same area — Shakti Mill complex — in Mumbai, but there was no public outrage then. The city is by far the most unsafe for homeless women. For instance, at a shelter for homeless women set up by my organisation, I asked a woman what had changed most in her life since she moved in. She said, “This is the first time after 17 years that when I close my eyes to sleep, I know I will not be raped or molested.” And then you realise that this is how she lived for 17 years. I think our absence of empathy for people in the margins is because we don’t see them as people with the same kind of lived and aspirations. We’ve constructed the poor and destitute as another species. If we really want cities that are safe for women, we must start by providing for the most vulnerable woman. The rest automatically get included along the way.

On the basis of your report, what would you say needs to be done to make cities safer for women, especially the most vulnerable?
Firstly, we need to focus on spaces for sleeping. For a homeless woman, there are virtually no spaces to go. The shelters that exist often don’t accept them. Bathing spaces and child care facilities aren’t in place or adequate. So first of all, we need to construct shelters for women that are clean and where these women are accorded respect. Then, we need to re-look at the way our cities build working womens’ hostels. In most cities these are thought of as spaces for the middle class. Where in the definition of working class does exclusion of certain kinds of working women come in? We need hostels for all kinds of working women in our cities. Also, homeless and single women need access to decent work in order to be safe.

What steps can be taken to make these women feel safe?

T0 the solution to turn the system around isn’t beyond the pale of our imagination. Delhi has a mid-day meal scheme that caters 20 lakh children. Can we look at the scheme as a source of livelihood for the poorest women? If we made food production centres around womens’ shelters, which supply mid-day meals in schools, it would be a step forward. And working womens’ hostels could be built around these. The India Exclusion Report therefore provides ways of seeing the most vulnerable in an integrated way, where one set of problems feeds another. The solutions can also be interlinked. With women, homelessness is almost always the product of domestic violence. And of course, once they are on the street they get sucked into even bigger cycles of violence. So when we look at how our cities are unsafe and unjust to women, the picture becomes extremely different when we shift our gaze from the middle class to these women.

What would you advise the government to do with the 1,000 crore Nirbhaya Fund that is sitting unspent right now?

I would say it should be spent on safe housing for disadvantaged women in cities — I’d choose big and small cities. And I would link women’s safety to the Food Bill. Where I would take a policy decision that across the country, food production should be handed to vulnerable women and build womens’ hostels around it. That would be a starting point.

The other part of the problem of violence against women is with trying to change mindsets. What do you think can be done here?

I think the focus has to be on education. We have to be committed to quality in education. Our textbooks and teacher training have to promote egalitarian values on gender, caste and class. And we’re saying this very strongly in our report. India’s diversity need to populate our text books. If children see women from the Northeast, upper-caste and lower-caste women, Muslim women in textbooks, things will start to change.

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