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National panel for women politicians?
If you are a woman who has had the misfortune of being molested by a mob, the National Commission for Women (NCW) isn't a good place to go looking for support. If you have been brutally violated and are desperate for privacy, don't be surprised if the Commission shouts out your name from the rooftops. And if boys whistle at you on the road and call you sexy, the Commission's advice to you would probably be to take it in the right spirit.
It's not for nothing that feminist and academician Dr Vibhuti Patel calls the NCW the mother-in-law of the women's movement in India.
While the country recoiled in horror at the images of a young girl being sexually violated on the streets of Guwahati, Alka Lamba, a member of the National Commission for Women, violated the victim's rights all over again by announcing her name at a press conference.
While Lamba, a former Youth Congress member, has been removed from the NCW fact-finding team that is investigating the Guwahati incident, the incident has raised questions about the appointment of politicians who lack experience of dealing with women's rights or gender issues to the NCW.
"Every gender sensitisation programme since 1980 has spoken of the need to protect the identity of victims of sexual violence. There have been numerous cases where journalists have been booked for revealing victims' names. But what about the NCW? Shouldn't it be held accountable for doing so?" asks Patel.
When it comes to gender insensitivity, Lamba appears to have company in the NCW. Mamta Sharma, chairperson of the commission, responded to the Guwahati molestation by saying women should be careful of how they dress, as such incidents were a result of women blindly aping Western culture.
She's surprisingly liberal when it comes to the perpetrators. While feminists around the world are working towards replacing the word 'eve-teasing' with the words 'sexual harassment', a few months ago Sharma said, "Nowadays boys are very enthusiastic. If a group of boys teases you by calling you sexy, you should not get provoked and instead you should take it positively. " She later denied having made these remarks.
Like Lamba, Sharma, too is from the Congress party. Most former chairpersons of the commission have been either political party workers or those appointed by political parties, turning the Commission into a parking ground for friends and supporters of the ruling dispensation.
And it's not that just Congress members in the NCW are a problem. "During the 2002 Gujarat riots, where women were brutally raped and murdered, the NCW, headed by BJPappointee Poornima Advani, gave the Gujarat government a clean chit and alleged that the cases of violence were creations of the media. The BJP government was in power in the state and the centre at the time, " says women's rights lawyer Flavia Agnes.
When NCW member Nirmala Venkatesh, a Congress worker, was sent to assess the assault on eight women in a Mangalore pub by members of the right-wing outfit, Shree Ram Sene, she reportedly said the pub did not have adequate security and the women should have protected themselves. News reports quoted her as saying, "If the girls feel they were not doing anything wrong why are they afraid to come forward and give a statement?" Venkatesh was sacked from the NCW for her comments. In protest, she resigned from the Congress and joined the BJP.
Agnes does not believe in a broad-brush condemnation of all politicians. "There have been women in politics like Mrinal Gore and Pramila Dandavate who were very concerned about women's issues and human rights. But there are very few such women in politics today, " she says.
Agnes feels the NCW is more eager to hold press conferences than to protect the rights of women. In the Shiney Ahuja case, they made a grand show of coming to Mumbai to interview the domestic help who Ahuja had allegedly raped. "We (women's groups) sought permission from the NCW to allow us to meet the domestic help and provide her with the necessary support. NCW did not do so. Finally, the girl was under so much pressure that she retracted her statement, " says Agnes.
Harish Sadani, founder of Men Against Violence and Abuse, feels the NCW is conspicuous by its absence over issues such as female foeticide and honour killings.
"The NCW has sub-contracted the task of fighting for women's rights to the NGO sector. Women's organisations are supposed to do all the ground work, from supporting victims to holding demonstrations in protest of the police and judiciary, " charges Patel.
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