Constitution and women’s empowerment


November 26 this year marks the 125th birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar who is referred to as the Father of the Indian Constitution. This day was observed by the Political Science Department, NEHU as Constitution Day. There was a reflection on the Constitution vis –a-vis women’s empowerment. The Indian Constitution guarantees women several rights that are enshrined in the Preamble, in the list of Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties and Directive Principles. The Constitution not only grants equality to women, but also empowers the State to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favour of women to neutralise the cumulative socio- economic educational and political disadvantages they face. In India our laws, development policies, plans and programmes have aimed at women’s advancement in different spheres. India has also ratified various international conventions and human rights instruments which are committed to securing equal rights for women. The most notable one being the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) enacted in 1993. Some of the signification features of the Constitution which are meant to provide equal opportunities for women are to be found in Articles 14 (ii), 15, 15(3), 16, 39(a), 39(b), 39(c), 42, 46 (ix), 47 (x), 51(A) (e)) (xi). Then we have Articles 243 D(3)) (xii), 243 D (4)) (xiii) 243 T (3)) and 243 T (4)).

Those interested in women’s issues may like to look up these Articles in the Constitution and the provisions they make for women’s access to power resources. To elucidate them in this article would take up too much space. The State has enacted various legislative measures to uphold the Constitutional mandate. These legislations ensure equal rights, to counter social discrimination and various forms of violence and atrocities against women and to provide support services especially to working women.

Even when it comes to crimes like murder, robbery etc. those which are directed specifically against women, are characterized as ‘Crime against Women’. These crimes may fall under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) or the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). For instance Rape is booked under (Sec. 376 IPC), Kidnapping & Abduction ( Sec. 363-373) (iii) Homicide for Dowry, Dowry Deaths or their attempts (Sec. 302/304-B IPC) (iv) Torture, both mental and physical (Sec. 498-A IPC) (v) Molestation (Sec. 354 IPC) (vi) Sexual Harassment (Sec. 509 IPC) etc., Some crimes falls under the Special Laws (SLL) and although all laws are not gender specific, the provisions of law affecting women significantly have been reviewed periodically and amendments carried out to keep pace with the emerging requirements. Several noble initiatives for women have been initiated. The National Commission for Women a statutory body with a specific mandate to study and monitor all matters relating to the constitutional and legal safeguards provided for women, review the existing legislation to suggest amendments wherever necessary, was legislated in 1992. (ii) The 73rd Constitutional Amendment Acts passed in 1992 reserves one-third of the total seats for women in all elected offices in local bodies whether in rural areas or urban areas. (iii) The National Plan of Action for the Girl Child (1991-2000)ensures survival, protection and development of the girl child with the ultimate objective of building up a better future for her. (iv) The National Policy for the Empowerment of Women, 2001 directs the Department of Women & Child Development in the Ministry of Human Resource Development to bring about the advancement, development and empowerment of women. The word ‘women’s empowerment’ has been bandied about for nearly two decades. But what really is empowerment? It means ownership and control over resources of power; economic resources over which there is collective ownership such as forests, water bodies, land etc., Women in general and uneducated women in rural areas have no access to these resources. So who owns and controls these resources even in a matrilineal society? The socalled male heads of traditional institutions control them.

They have the right to allocate those resources to those they choose to. So who will empower women and how? Ideally speaking no one empowers any one. A woman who has access to education, economic goods and services and opportunities empowers herself. The problem is that such women are very insignificant in number. Certain gender constructs and norms handicap women both structurally and culturally from empowering themselves. Hence they need an external trigger and affirmative action by the state and other agencies. However, women too can be their own worst enemies by refusing to take action where they can and by choosing to be ‘passive beneficiaries.’ The fact that the Women’s Reservation Bill reserving 33% seats for women in parliament and state assembles is still pending in Parliament and that it is aborted time and again shows that gender equality in this country is still a far cry.

And parliament and state legislatures are where laws are passed and where compliance for their implementation can be demanded! Now, while we talk of constitutional provisions, there are some issues which are private and domestic. For instance the gender division of labour persists. Women still carry heavier domestic burden than men. Even when women are working outside the home, they still need to come back to their domestic responsibilities. And domestic work is “unpaid work” although it is often more strenuous than work outside the home. Our problem is that the Constitution still cannot enter the private domain. Personal is not yet political! Hence women with careers suffer. Often they don’t take promotions (banks) because that means being transferred out and they cannot leave the family. Their professional mobility suffers. In academia, particularly in the sciences which require rigorous research to keep up with evolutionary ideas, women are not able to devote adequate time. Their loyalties are divided between work and home.

A man does not suffer such divided loyalties. Consequently many women today opt to remain single or put off their child-bearing responsibilities if they want to pursue career goals. Women in academia stagnate at a certain level. So we don’t hear of too many women heading scientific research institutions; you don’t often hear of a woman Vice Chancellor. Usually women become principals in women’s only colleges but most women’s colleges are still headed by a male. Of course, all things being equal there should be no gender distinction at this level; however gender biases persists. In the area of health and nutrition, the indices are very dismal for women. Urban women may not understand this but rural women still eat only what’s left over.

Women have to cook and serve hot ‘rotis’ to the family. They will only eat when everyone else has eaten. No one cares whether she gets enough food to eat, leave alone nutritious food. It is in the social and domestic domain that the Constitution has least impact. Transforming mindsets which essentially means transforming worldviews accumulated over years from one’s family, society, peers, media etc., is the most challenging task. The media too continues to stereotypes women.

The most watched TV serials show women who are housebound and tradition bound who come from a certain social status. They keep scheming all day while their men work outside and are shown as wideeyed innocents. The state needs to intervene and stop these regressive soaps. Even panel discussions on issues of economic and political import mostly have men on the dais. The recent discussion on matriliny/matriarchy at the ITM Conference at the NEHU Convocation Hall had three male panelists out of five. Then a recent panel discussion organised by Shillong Press Club on Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) under which women suffer most as victims of rape, molestation etc. had an all male panel and a male moderator. So this is how gender sensitive the media in Meghalaya’s matrilineal society is! Media reportage on rapes and sexual harassment lack gender sensitivity. Most reports focus on the sensational part such as …how the woman was dressed…who she was with…what she was wearing…why she was late..was she inebriated…her family background etc. There is not much interest to know about the rapist and why he did what he did. Most institutions in this country have not imbibed gender equitable norms.

The police, judiciary, administration, politics, academia et al betray deeply embedded patriarchal worldviews. Unfortunately the Constitution cannot remedy this unless there is social transformation. We need selfless social reformers for this to happen. And social reformers are not loud-mouthed activists who spend their time hammering the entire world, blaming the entire system and castigating all institutions. This world needs reincarnations of the likes of Jesus Christ (never judgmental about fallen women) Raja Rammohon Roy (who abolished Sati), Sri Aurobindo (who propounded women’s education) and such likes to see women enjoying a better world.

To conclude, I would say that while the Constitution guarantees women their rights and these rights are self evident, they are not automatically implemented. The much touted free legal aid is not easily accessible. And while there is no dearth of enlightened laws to enable women to transcend their oppressive statuses it is also true that Khap Panchayats, Salisha Sabhas and other tyrannical medieval institutions are rearing their ugly heads in this country. Even politicians make disparaging statements against women to feed a regressive male mindset – a weird political economy in India. Otherwise, how can the Chairperson of the Maharashtra State Commission for Women, state publicly that women are raped because of the way they dress. Large sections of women in this country are nurtured in patriarchy and they feed into the male biases thereby look for approval from men in all of their actions. This is problematic. But how do we deal with such problems? The kind of education imparted today is not liberating. On the contrary our minds are imprisoned by biases, hence we don’t use reason and logic sufficiently. Educators therefore have a huge challenge before them!

(This is an extract from a talk delivered at the Political Science Department, NEHU on the occasion of Constitution Day, November 26, 2015)