What is the agenda for the National Commission of Women at present? Has it changed with the change of guard at the Centre?
NCW is the first investigating agency. Under the Act, the panel has limited powers unlike those like UPSC, CIC and EC, and no statutory changes can be affected. Only functional changes have been expedited. Though its agenda and the objectives have not changed at all, certainly there have been some improvements in its actions in the last 20 months. After the Nirbhaya case of December 2011, certain modifications were introduced in the functioning of the panel to affect a positive impact. However, it may take some time before the fruits of the changes brought into the functioning of the panel become visible.
What is your opinion on the present scenario regarding women’s issues in the country? Is women’s empowerment merely wishful thinking?
After the Magna Carta in 1215, a Charter of Citizens came out in Britain but it took several centuries before universal adult suffrage became a reality there. And it took even more time before women got voting rights. In Switzerland, they got it in the last century. A certain gap is sure to elapse before the effects of implementation of policies, projects and schemes begin bearing fruit. Even the West, which is being quoted as an example where women have achieved so much, took centuries to empower women.
We may be lagging behind them, but that does not mean we would require as many decades or centuries for empowering our women. However, a little time would still be needed for we are a very large country of 140 crore people. We are so diverse, have many languages, many societies, many states.
However, I differ on the atrocities issue. There are many states in India. All are different. While in some states women might be the victims of gender-related harassment, discrimination or criminal assault, the situation is not as pathetic in other areas. In states in the North-East, Uttarakhand, old Himachal and its hilly regions, there are almost no atrocities of the kind we mention. It may be due to high literacy rate among women there or high literacy rate of the state as a whole, or may be the prevailing matriarchal system. It could be the socio-cultural ethos of the region.
In which societies, according to you, are women more susceptible to such crimes?
In the north Indo-Gangetic plains, the scourge seems widespread. Probably because this region has a history of being subjected to invasions and exploitation over so many centuries that resulted in society becoming aggressive in order to defend itself or defeat and fight the invaders. The society thus evolved to the present day aggressions. Decades and centuries of the way men think in some areas cannot be undone just by passing a law. It will take some more time for learning, sensitisation and gender-empowerment of women, before things start improving.
What new measures have been initiated to reduce crime against women?
In order to alter the image of police who often are presumed to be gender-insensitive, plans are afoot to place Special Counseling Cells at least in one police station in each district. These cells, to be set up as a pilot project in 22 districts in seven states, including Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, will be available 24×7 for assistance to women who approach police stations so that they do not feel afraid and are told how to go about lodging their complaints. The measure has already been successful in Maharashtra, which was the pioneer. Gujarat and Rajasthan followed suit.
In Delhi, these special cells have been placed in all 11 police districts. Earlier, it was started in Nanakpura and Pitampura. Feedback is being garnered. In six months’ time our initiatives would begin showing positive results.
Apart from that our focus is to bring in a change in the mindset of men and boys. For that, young impressionable minds should be trained. Schools should include such programmes in their curriculum right from classes 9, 10, 11 and 12 so that they learn to respect girls and women and the emotion gets ingrained in them.
As the danger of muggers and drug addiction affects both men and women alike, both should be taught and trained in the art of self-defence because usually a person who assaults, accosts, harasses or attacks is a bully who intimidates but runs away if he confronts resistance.
As a member what is your mandate and contribution to NCW?
My experience of being from Sikkim cadre has helped me to bring in and implement women-friendly measures in the NCW’s functioning too. Sikkim is the only state of the country that has introduced 40 per cent quota for women.
Among the systematic steps, initiated and introduced by me to make NCW’s functioning more specific is sending demi-official letters of requests and recommendations to the SP or DM of a district for action to be taken in cases involving crime against women. Earlier, D/o letters of requests and recommendations used to be sent to SP or DM of a district for action to be taken in a case involving crime against a woman but since it did not have the name of the district official, it used to go to a peshkar, wireless operator or a reader of the SP, etc. Their responses were never prompt. Now, letters are addressed in the name of an SP or a DM. If they contain a reference of date or a deadline to be returned in a defined time-frame, they are taken note of.
What are some of the new initiatives taken by NCW?
At the third tier of governance, 33 per cent reservation for women has been established but there is one problem. More often than not these women sarpanches are illiterate and lack administrative acumen. In such villages, men — either a husband or a brother-in-law — rules by proxy. As a remedial measure, NCW has initiated certain training programmes to impart administrative knowhow to these women sarpanches.
Correct fund utilisation is another issue that needs to be handled. In villages, if the sarpanch is a man, when funds are transferred the focal point of development remains water facilities, road development and to a certain extent sanitation. Therefore, if a woman takes over, critical issues like education, health, sanitation and safety take priority.
Normally, we all know about criminal cases and cases of victimisation which NCW deals with. Are there other kind of cases the Commission takes up?
In the Act, provisions are there to look into women’s issues related to workplace and women in confined places like prisons or mental asylums. Of late, NCW is actively pursuing women’s issues pertaining to mental asylums. A four-member team from VIMHANS, with one representative of the NCW, visited 10 institutes out of 46 in the country to survey, study and prepare a report on the inmates. It has been submitted to the Ministry of Women and Child Development.
Some other women’s issues and problems that have arisen after 2005 are also being taken up by the panel. These include cases involving NRI men deserting their Indian wives. Earlier, it used to be a tough proposition to track such wayward husbands. But now we have formed a mutual legal committee to coordinate with MEA. With the help of Lookout notices and Red Corner notices, we zero in on such husbands who leave their wives behind in India. Earlier, it wasn’t as easy to reach them. But now with their passport numbers, such truant and erring husbands can be traced.