Beyond Sabarimala and Triple Talaq: A Feminist Agenda for 2019 Elections

The manifestos of parties only pay lip service to the litany of abuses that women face. These issues need to be part of mainstream political discourse.

The general elections of 2019 are upon us. Political parties, citizen groups and the common public are going to participate in a grand democratic exercise. This exercise brings together the largest electorate in the world with about 900 million voters, and more than half of the electorate is likely to be comprised of women voters this time.

Women’s participation in elections is increasing at a much faster pace than men and the women’s turnout is likely to be greater than that of men. This election could, therefore, be an important turning point in bringing feminist policy perspective to the fore.

Most feminist public policy discourse so far has surrounded around the debates about Sabarimala temple and triple talaq. A feminist policy framework must go beyond talking about these media-favourite issues to bring “everyday lived experience of marginalised communities to the forefront and provides a broader and deeper analysis of issues.”

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This article discusses some important issues missing from the feminist policy discourse, which should not evade public discussions and should be part of the feminist agenda for the 2019 elections. Even as both national political parties have promised the Women’s Reservation Bill and other oft-repeated platitudes in their manifestos, various women’s groups like Centre for Social Research and Feminist Policy India have notably contributed to gender-based policy research and advocacy in the contemporary context. It is about time that these issues take the centre-stage.

Women and work

The terrain of work and employment is highly gendered and patriarchal in the Indian context. On one hand, most of the work that women do in their families and households is not considered work and is not accounted for in the national gross domestic product (GDP).

On the other hand, most of the work done by women is either in the agriculture sector or home-based. The household work is done mostly by women and is not just undervalued but goes unrewarded. The latest OECD data shows that an Indian woman spends an average of 5.8 hours every day on unpaid work, while a man spends less than an hour doing the same.

Even as there are a great number of social barriers to women’s entry into the workforce, the workforce ecosystem is highly unorganised, discriminatory and unsafe for women. Consequently, in recent years, despite increasing levels of education, the female labour force participation is stagnating. This is a consequence of a vast number of literate rural women working in their households rather than the work market.

The recent #MeToo movement saw a number of public figures being accused of sexual harassment, increasing sexual harassment cases reported at the workplace by 54%. This number itself speaks for the grim state of reality of the Indian workforce ecosystem as far as women safety is 

Gendered and insensitive policy making is evident in the mid-day meal scheme policy documentation, where women cooks are officially considered to be ‘volunteers’ and not ‘workers’. They are paid an honorarium, not wages. They are considered to be working part-time, even when they put in 7-8 hours. They get no security, pension or medical benefits.

While these women are fighting for their rights around the country, policy discourse must shift towards a more feminist approach which incorporates these everyday realities of working women.

File photo of NREGA workers. Credit: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The workforce ecosystem is highly unorganised, discriminatory and unsafe for women. Credit: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The missing women farmer

While the public discourse has witnessed greater emphasis on the pathetic state of rural distress and farm suicides, the condition of women in this context is hardly highlighted. The situation is particularly grim because as the male population migrates to the cities to earn a livelihood, the responsibilities of the household production and cultivation are thrust upon women.

This is particularly daunting for women as they lack the title to the land and female landholdings in rural India are a rarity despite the fact that most of the farmers are women. Due to lack of land rights, women farmers are further marginalised in terms of access to state support in the form of easy credit, subsidies, insurance or income support.

This is even more distressing because of the fact that suicides by women farmers are not even recorded because they are not recognised as a farmer, in death as in life. Thus, any relief in terms of compensation for the bereaved family remains elusive.

Due to lack of land rights, women farmers are further marginalised in terms of access to state support. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/By CIAT CC BY-SA 2.0

Women’s health

The lack of basic health-care facilities remains one of the biggest challenges for India. According to the NHP report 2018, India spends only slightly over 1% of our GDP on health. India is ranked at a miserable 147 out of 149 countries in the “health and survival” indicator released by Global Gender report of 2018. This means that Indian women are likely to be healthier if they lived in Pakistan or Bangladesh instead. This dismal state of women healthcare is not surprising and is a direct result of lack of government initiatives in promoting access to basic healthcare for women and its failure to recognise the need for promoting health-related awareness.

This is stark in the context of sexual and reproductive health and rights of women in India, particularly those belonging to under-served and disadvantaged communities. While maternal health remains a challenge, the risk of adolescent women to anaemic and other under nutrition-related ailments is very high.

The scourge of forced sterilisations in the target-oriented policy framework for birth-control continues despite India’s international commitments to gender-just and rights-based population policy. The national budgets prioritise female sterilisation over male sterilisation and do not adequately provide for affordable, healthy and safe contraceptive options.

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The debate over choice-based abortions has moved ahead in order to prioritise women’s legal rights to safeguard their health and well-being. But multiple social and institutional barriers remain in our broken gynaecological healthcare system. Even in this context, abortions and foeticides of female foetuses continue due to lackadaisical enforcement of laws like Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 (PCPNDT Act).

A feminist government should make sensitisation and awareness workshops for healthcare professionals and adequate implementation of the PCPNDT Act to arrest falling sex-ratio, one of its top priorities. There is a need for increased engagement at the school level to improve women reproductive healthcare. Primary and Secondary schools need to incorporate comprehensive sex education to ensure effective sensitisation for the young population, particularly girls. Sanitary napkins should be provided in schools free of cost. A feminist government should allocate no less than 4% of the GDP on the health sector, with specific schemes focussing on promoting women health.

Justice in the family

Even as sexual, physical and emotional violence against women has been a subject of raging public debate, various essential layers of this patriarchal violence remain unchallenged. One grim example for the same is the state of mental health of housewives in India.

One out of every three women in this country is reported to have faced some form of domestic violence during their lifetime. The quiet epidemic of housewife suicides is increasing even as patriarchal violence within the family for multiple reasons like dowry-related exploitation has been prevalent. The sad state of reality is that not only has the legal and policy framework failed to address the issue of domestic violence but also that the deep-rooted patriarchy has become so ingrained that a lot of women do not even consider domestic violence as a problem.

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India is currently one of the only 36 countries where marital rape is still not considered a criminal offence. About 83% of the victims of sexual violence between 15- 49 years of age reported violence by their current husband and 9% by their former husband.

The first order of business for a feminist government should be to make marital rape a criminal offence under IPC section 375. But that will still not be enough. To make the law seep into public minds a feminist government would need to take awareness initiatives in promoting women’s rights in a marriage. The public mindset of that of acceptance of domestic violence as an acceptable thing has to be changed.

Domestic violence and marital rape are issues that a feminist government must address. Credit: Shailesh Andrade/Reuters.

Mainstream discourse

In order to ameliorate the horrifying state of a litany of abuses that affect the status of women in India, it is necessary to raise and resolve gender issues in the mainstream political discourse. The election manifestos of the political parties in India offer little more than grandiose lip service to various pertinent issues.

It is about time that women stake their claim to political power and hold their elected representatives accountable to the lofty promises of gender justice. In this process, it is equally important to not lose sight of the most dispossessed among the class of women who face the barriers of class, caste, region and status in our highly patriarchal country.

Prannv Dhawan is a student of National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. He is a volunteer with the Shakti Project for Enhancing Women’s Political Power. Ishaan Bansal is a student of Ashoka University, Sonepat.

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