[Women Empowerment] Women's Movements in India

1. Women’s Movement: A Variant of Social Movement= The women’s movement is an important variant of social movements. It is an important but neglected aspect of studies on social movements like tribal and ethnic, peasant and workers, backward classes, cultural and religious movements,

2. Reform Movements and Women’s Issues in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
  • By nineteenth century there were several evil social practices like Sati (burning of widow on the funeral pyre of her husband), child marriage, ban on widow remarriage, polygamy etc. which were a matter of debate.
  • During the British rule the spread of English education and Western liberal ideology among Indians and spread of Christianity and missionary activities, resulted in a number of movements for social change and religious reform in the nineteenth century.
  • The broad objectives of these movements were caste reform, improvement in the status of women, promoting women’s education and an attack on social practices whose roots lay in social and legal inequalities and religious traditions of different communities.
  • Earlier phase of the social reform movement initiatives came like Raja Ram Mohan Roy.
  • The issues that were taken up by them were Sati, ill treatment of widows, ban on widow remarriage, polygyny, child marriage and denial of property rights to women and the need to educate women. This period has witnessed the proliferation of various organisations.
  • The most important of these organizations where the Brahmo Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, Arya Samaj.

a)      The Brahmo Samaj=It was founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in 1825, Fought against child marriage, polygyny, limited rights to inherit property and seclusion of women. A women’s magazine called Bamabodhini Patrika was started. Civil Marriage Act, 1872 was passed. This Act, which permitted inter-caste marriage and divorce, fixed 14 and 18 as the minimum age of marriage for girls and boys respectively.

b)      The The Prarthana Samaj=M.G. Ranade and R.G. Bhandarkar were the leading figures. In 1869 the Bombay Widow Reforms Association was formed which arranged the first widow remarriage in 1869.

c)       The Arya Samaj=The Arya Samaj was founded by Dayanand Saraswati in 1875. Painting a glorious position of women in ancient India, it advocated reform in the caste system, compulsory education for both men and women, prohibition of child marriage by law, remarriage of child widows. Several Arya Kanya Pathashalas were set up which later became colleges and contributed to the cause of women’s education. Social reformers (like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, M.G. Ranade and Swami Dayanand Saraswati) eulogised the position of women in ancient India. However, the radicals like Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Jyotirao Phule and Lokhitvadi Gopal Hari Deshmukh attacked the caste system, which they said was responsible for the subjugation of women.

d)      Muslim Women and Social Reform= Emphasis on purdah system and slow spread of education among women delayed the development of a progressive movement to improve the opportunities for Muslim women. People like Begum of Bhopal, Syed Ahmad Khan and Sheikh Abdullah in Aligarh and Karmat Hussain in Lucknow spearheaded a movement to improve women’s education. In 1916 Begum of Bhopal formed the All-India Muslim Women’s Conference.

3. Women’s Participation in the Freedom Movement=
  • During the freedom movement, the struggle for Women’s right and equality as seen as an integral part of the struggle for national Independence.
  • Many women who fought for the country’s freedom were also active on the issues of women’s rights.
  • In 1885 the Indian National Congress was founded. In its 1889 Bombay Session, ten women participated.
  • Gandhiji’s call to women and large scale participation of women in India’s freedom movement brought about changes in the perception of nationalist leaders.
a)      Role of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru=
·         Mahatma Gandhi played the most significant role in involving large number of women in the nationalist movement.
·         He proclaimed: “Woman is the companion of man gifted with equal mental capacities. She has the right to participate in the minutest details of activities of men and she has the same right to freedom and / liberty as he.... By sheer force of vicious custom, even the most ignorant and worthless men have been enjoying a superiority over women which they do not deserve and ought not to have”.
·         He felt that women were most suited for Satyagraha (protest) as they have qualities appropriate for non-violent struggle and for constructive social uplift programmes of the Congress.
·         He said women had great qualities for selfsacrifice and tolerance and an ability to endure suffering, which were needed for non-violent struggle.
·         Jawaharlal Nehru was influenced by the Western suffragettes and was exposed to liberal views on women’s question in the West.
·         He believed that ‘without economic freedom other aspects of women’s equality would not be realised’.
·         He said that “if women’s struggles remained isolated from the general political, economic and social struggles, the women’s movement would not gain strength and will remain confined to the upper classes”.
·         Equality between men and women was accepted as one of the objectives in the Fundamental Rights Resolution of the Indian National Congress in 1931.

b)      Women’s Organisations and Issues=
·         During the early twentieth century several women’s organisations were formed The Women’s India Association (WIA) was formed in 1917 by Margaret Cousins, an Irish and an Indian nationalist.
·         This was followed by the formation of the National Council of Indian Women (NCIW) in 1926 and All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) in 1927.

i)                    Women’s Suffrage = For the first time in 1917, the demand for women’s right to vote was raised. Sarojini Naidu and Margaret Cousins met the Viceroy to put forward the demand for female franchise. Madras was the first province to allow women to vote.

ii)                   Question of Participation in the Freedom Movement= Despite women’s active participation in the freedom movement and demand for voting rights, when the civil disobedience movement began in 1930 some of the women leaders took a position that women’s organisations should keep away from party politics as women were concerned with social issues and British Government’s help was necessary to bring about social change in women’s position through education and legislation.  In the 1920s and 1930s women participated actively in the Civil Disobedience movement. Women were more active in Swadeshi movement (campaign to wear home spun Khadi) and picketing of shops selling foreign goods and liquor.

c)       Forms of Women’s Participation in the Freedom Movement=  
·         They participated in political protests, picketed shops selling foreign goods and organised Prabhat Pheri (singing patriotic songs).
·         In 1930, women in large-number participated in Salt March Some foreign women also worked with Indian revolutionaries abroad. Bhikaiji Cama, Perm D S Captain, Saraladevi Choudhurani (Bengal), Sushila Devi and Durga Devi (Punjab), Roopavati Jain (Delhi), Kalpana Dutt and Kamala Dasgupta (Calcutta), Lakshmi Sahgal (who was in charge of the Rani Jhansi Women’s regiment, part of the Indian National Army formed by Subhas Chandra Bose) were involved in revolutionary activities.

4. Institutional Initiatives and Women’s Issues in the Post-Independence Period= In the post Independence period a series of institutional initiative has been introduced for the emancipation of women in the society. Women’s movement has been widely influenced by these broad socio-economic and political processes of this period.

a)      Constitutional Provisions and Social Legislations=
·         The provision of Article 15(3), which empowered the state to make special provisions for women and children, suggests that there was a realization of women’s disadvantaged position and the need for the state to enact special measures to bring them at par with men.
·         The national government undertook to remove the legal disabilities suffered by women and initiated major reforms in Hindu family laws. 
·         in the fifties women’s organization received government grants and their activities were shaped by the grants they received for activities like adult education, nutrition programmes for children, tailoring classes under vocational training programmes and family planning programmes. 
·         In the post-Independence period, two important organisations for rural women were set up, i.e., Kasturba Memorial Trust and Bharatiya Grameen Mahila Sangh (Indian Rural Women’s Organisation). Their main objective was to assist the rural women in developing leadership potential.

b)      Planned Development and Women’s Issues=the overall growth strategies failed to take note of the existing class, caste and gender inequalities. Planned development in India increased socio-economic inequalities.

i)        Thrust of Development Policies=
·         The main thrust of development policies for women was provision of education, health and welfare.
·         The continued absence of concern for women’s economic roles till the Sixth Five-Year Plan shows that women’s economic independence was given a low priority.
·         In the Sixth Plan a separate chapter on women and development was included in the Plan document for the first time.
·         The Ninth Plan stressed the need for national policy for the empowerment of women for empowering women as the agents of social change.
·         Apart from this the nature of economic development in the post-Independence India benefited only a small section of urban educated middle and upper class women whose visibility as legislators, administrators, doctors, lawyers, teachers etc.

ii)      Women’s Educational and Economic Status=
·         The report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (1974) was a watershed in the debate on women’s issues in India.
·         The Committee on the Status of Women in India was of the view that planners, government officials, employers and trade union leaders perpetuated the middle class perceptions of women’s primary role as the homemaker and not as the bread winner.
·         The Government passed the Equal Remuneration Act (1976), however, it remains ineffective.

c)       Women’s Political Representation=
·         Several women leaders, who had actively participated in the freedom movement, occupied important positions in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha (the two houses of Parliament), state legislatures.
·         Their number has never gone beyond seven per cent in the Lok Sabha or State Assemblies.
·         Forty eight women MPs were members of the thirteenth Lok sabha.
·         The lack of efforts to reach to the masses and expand the base of women’s movement limited its effectiveness and agenda for action.
·         The 73rd and 74th amendments in the Constitution have, however, brought reservation of 33.33 percent for women in local governance at the Panchayat level.

5. Resurgence of Women’s Movement in the 70s: Issues and Actions= the late 1970s and 1980s was marked by a resurgence of women’s struggle and emergence of new women’s groups and organisations.

  • The growth of ‘protest polities’ and breaking out of a limited perspective of legislation and education as the main instrument for improving women’s position marked the women’s movement in the 1970s.
  • However, many women activists, who were working with political parties, trade unions, peasant and workers movements, realised that they were hesitant to take up issues which concerned women exclusively.
  • The issues women raised were the retrenchment of women from textile mills and other industries due to technological changes and replacing them by men who received training on new machines, lack of maternity benefit to women workers, lack of provision of children at work place, wage discrimination between men and women, inadequate education and training facilities for women workers anddiscrimination at work places. 
  • These led to the emergence of separate women’s organizations in various parts of the country, which seriously attempted to organise poor women for change.
a)      Emergence of New Organisations and Approaches= The growing economic hardships of poor rural and urban women and failure to take up women’s issues by the general agrarian and industrial workers’ movements resulted in women labourers organizing separately.
i)                    Organisation= Such new organisations as Self-Employment Women’s Association (Gujarat), Working Women’s Forum (Tamil Nadu), Sramik Mahila Sangathna (Maharashtra) concerned themselves with the plight of women workers in the unorganised sector. Organising women labour and taking up the issues of their wages, working conditions, exploitation and health hazards became an important task for these women’s organisations.
ii)                  Approaches= In the late nineteen seventies several women’s organisations emerged and adopted ‘protest polities’ for mobilising women on specific issues.

b)      Deforestation and Ecological Movement= Economic hardships faced by women in the Himalayan region due to cutting down of forests resulted in spontaneous mobilisation of women. They hugged the trees to prevent the contractors from felling them. This is popularly known as Chipko movement.

c)       Issue-based Movements in the 70s and 80s= The autonomous women’s organisations’ took up issues related to women’s oppression like dowry, violence within the family, alcoholism among men and wife-beating, discrimination at the work place etc. to mobilise women for collective action. All India anti-dowry and anti-rape movements were launched by women’s organisations and Civil liberties and democratic rights organisations also joined them.

i)                       Anti-dowry Movements= In the 1980s several women’s and other progressive      organisations formed a joint front in Delhi called “Dahej Virodhi Chetna Manch”. campaigned through protest,demonstrations, discussions, street theatre, posters etc. against the ghastly murders of young brides for dowry. After a sustained campaign, finally a Bill was introduced in the Parliament in 1984, which made certain changes in the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act of 1961. While cruelty by the husband and his relatives leading to suicide or death has become an offence, punishable with imprisonment, still dowry deaths continue.

ii)                     Anti-sati Movement= The burning of a young widow Roop Kanwar in 1988 on the funeral pyre of her husband in Deorala, Rajasthan, sparked off strong protests by women’s organisations. Commission of Sati (Prevention) Bill, which was hurriedly passed in the Parliament.

iii)                     Anti-rape Movement= An anti-rape movement was launched in the last decade demanding review of the Supreme Court judgment in a rape case, which acquitted the culprit. Several women’s organisations and legal and social activists held discussions with the Law Commission to amend the law and in 1983 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act was passed.

d)      The Emerging Trends and Government’s Response=
·         There are several active grassroot organisations of poor rural and urban working class women, tribal, self-employed women who are fighting against all forms of oppression, injustice and exploitation.
·         Various national and regional political parties and trade unions have also set-up women’s wings. in the late 1970s, the government set up women’s cells within a few ministries.
·         In government’s programme for rural poor 30 per cent women beneficiaries are to be selected for training and income generation programmes.
·         1980s the government prepared a National Perspective Plan for Women which has made several recommendations relating to legal, economic, social and political status of women.
·         The government also appointed a National Commission on self employed women and women in the informal sector.
·         The 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution prepared in the late 1980s was passed in 1993 and it contained an across the board reservation of 33.33 percent in panchayats, panchayat samitis, zilla parishads and local body institutions for women.
·         The National Commission for Women was set up in 1992 envisaging to cover all facets of issues relating to safeguarding women’s rights and promotion of their empowerment.

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