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Asserting the right to be heard

Oct 18, 2007

In India, hundreds of women came together to raise their voices against poverty at the Women’s Tribunal on Poverty on October 17. The event, held at the national capital, was marked by the release of a women’s charter on poverty and a visit to the President.

New Delhi: It was a spirited cry from amongst four hundred women who had come together from different parts of the country to share their experiences and life stories of poverty at the capital on October 17.

Take away our dalit lands, take away our fertile lands,
Take away our forest land,

Where do we go… to the President’s house?

These women had come from 20 different states, across 300 districts, to participate in the Women’s Tribunal on Poverty at New Delhi on October 17, to mark the World Poverty Day. They voiced their testimonies before a jury of eight, comprising academics, political thinkers and social activists, demanding that women’s agenda be made central to policies and programmes of the government.

The women hailed from the invisible margins of society: the Dalits, Adivasis, Muslim women, women with disabilities and from nomadic tribes, who are often excluded and discriminated both by society as well as within their own communities.

They have constitutional rights to life, security, dignity, livelihood and development and are yet bereft of most. Women who are single or disabled experience further disadvantages.

"As a nation we are shameful that villages are denied of the hope of 'shinning India'," said Dr Ruth Manorama, one of the jury members and president of the National Alliance of Women (NAWO).

She applauded the courage of the women present who had come out of personal situations of displacements, evictions and deforestation to speak out their trials. "Evictions and displacements are the order of the day," she said, stressing that it is rights to land that give women power and an escape from violence.

The issue of multiple displacements was also raised by Annie Raja, jury member and General Secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), referring to cases of "heartless evictions" in the name of development under the SEZs.

The lack of ownership and access to cultivable land was highlighted as the underpinning factor for women’s poverty in rural areas and the Tribunal called for the right to cultivable land as a must for them.

Jury members Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and Kamla Bhasin (SANGAT) noted that while the country is growing at phenomenal rates, the lives of poor women are getting further impoverished. The hearing emphasized the need to bring in the gender perspective into issues of poverty and recognize women as independent citizens, and not just linked to their families.

Annie Raja noted the growing violence against women, saying that poor women face the double burden of poverty and gender, which gets further aggravated when the women belong to socially unacceptable Dalit or Adivasi communities.

The jury also noted that schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) meant to augment the livelihood opportunities of the poor have had little impact on the lives of women in villages; in many cases employment cards not reaching those in need.

"The social security welfare bill does not adequately address issues of the unorganized sector," added Ruth Manorama. In the social sector, BPL (below poverty level) cards were found to be denied to a large majority of the poor; it is more often that those undeserving have taken advantage of these cards.

Despite the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, education has remained elusive for children of Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims. Social stereotyping has led to high rates of drop-outs among those who have had access to schools, the jury held.

Sheba George, Director of Sahrwaru Women’s Action Resource Centre and jurist, commented on the inadequate attempts of the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) to provide trained health workers and professionals and the lack of medical services that have led to high rates of maternal deaths in the country.

She also drew attention to the state of Muslim women who (along with the Dalits and Adivasis) are socially excluded from socio-economic opportunities, and by being tagged to terror, are also not trusted by the administration and bureaucracy. The biases of the state have been evident in the case of post-conflict Gujarat rehabilitation.

"Bureaucracy is antipoor, antitribal, antidalit," she said, while calling for monitoring of government schemes and punitive measures against those officials engaged in diversion of funds in implementation. She also pointed out the growing violence towards women by institutional mechanisms of the police and judiciary, who have proved to be gender insensitive and anti-poor.

Dr Rosemary Dzuvichu, of Nagaland University and jurist, brought attention to the issues of customary property laws that exploit and exclude women from their rightful share; and of conflict that has afflicted the lives of women in Kashmir and the North-east.

Jurist Nikhil Dey recommended that there should be a mandatory public audit or ‘jan audit’ on an annual basis where women would do social audits in every district.

Yadicon Njie-Eribo of the Feminist Task Force, GCAP and Coordinator of women’s group Femigam in Gambia, shared her experience of a similar tribunal conducted in her country in 2005. "Society has taught women not to speak about what happens at home," she said, adding that it is this silence that breeds violence.

As the Tribunal came to a close, a delegation left to meet the President Pratibha Patil with a set of the recommendations put forth by the jury.

Development of the country is not possible minus the focused development of women and communities from the society’s margins. This infallible truth that drew out from the Tribunal was all-pervading in the voices of the women. In the words of Nikhil Dey, "the Tribunal is a step not only for the sake of women, but for the entire country."

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