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'Poverty is not static'

Oct 21, 2007

Dr Pam Rajput, eminent women rights activist and organiser cum jurist of the recent Women’s Tribunal on Poverty has hopes that the issue of Indian women’s engagement with poverty will not end with the tribunal. OneWorld South Asia met her prior to the event to discuss the role of women in ending poverty.

OneWorld South Asia: Tell us about south Asian initiatives to find synergies between the UN Millennium Development Goals, the Beijing Platform of Action and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Pam Rajput: The women’s movement has been inimical to the MDGs, seeing them as minimalistic goals; only goal 3 addresses the issue of gender equality, whereas for us, gender equality is essential for every one of the goals; further the Millennium Declaration does convey the spirit of social inclusion, gender equality and equity whereas the goals do not adequately translate this spirit.

The Beijing Platform for Action created a kind of euphoria globally, because it comprehensively addressed all the issues that women raised, and there was commitment from governments to see that these were addressed. CEDAW, again was a women’s rights charter; both of these constitute more than goals – they offer clear roadmaps, with a perspective and a methodology – the MDGs need to seen as an extension of the BPFA and CEDAW, must build upon them, strengthen them even while drawing strength from them.

We were preparing for the Beijing+10 review meetings, organizing a series of NGO consultations at all fora be it national, subregional, regional or global. Each consultation focused on the 12 critical action areas; in addition there was always one session on the MDGs - not only goal 3, but also goals 1, 2, 7 and 8. We saw our role as monitoring progress on all these commitments integrally, wholistically and continually to determine where the women stood, with respect to these goals.

OWSA: The upcoming Women’s Tribunal against Poverty in Delhi, India is part of a larger global movement to highlight the feminization of poverty and the role that women can play in ending poverty.

PR: Yes, the Tribunal is a part of global campaigns. The Global Call to Action against Poverty or GCAP was launched during the World Social Forum of 2005, and the Beijing +10 review of 2006 saw the institution of a Feminist Task Force within the GCAP– this came from the need to address the growing phenomenon of the feminization of poverty the world over. 70% of the poor are women.

Therefore it is fitting that on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, women the world over come to reflect, critique, assert and make way for their space in society– for rights to security, dignity and basic livelihood and services. The Tribunal is to be held in four countries across the world – in Peru, Cairo, New York and India.

OWSA: What are the expectations from the Tribunal?

PR: The beauty of the Tribunal in India lies in its focus on poor women, in that it is intended to be a platform for women from the poorest, most marginalized and discriminated communities. My expectation from the tribunal therefore, is that these women will assert their voices and question the structures that create and sustain poverty. Poverty is not static, it also does not affect all people homogenously - the marginalized, excluded sections are the ones that are always vulnerable in all situations and my expectation is that the Tribunal will highlight this.

I do also expect that Indian women’s engagement on this issue will not end with the Tribunal. A charter of demands will emanate from the testimonies of poverty presented by the women and the verdict of an eminent jury comprising academics, thematic experts and activists; this will be handed over to the India’s first woman president.

Subsequently, the charter will be shared with Members of Parliament, specific departments of the Central and State Governments, and with local governments across the country. The coming elections provide a great opportunity for women to unite and demand an end to the growing gap between rich and poor, to stake their claim to basic amenities and quality of living and working conditions.

The current development paradigm is actually converting our world, which is a globe, into a pyramid – where few on the top have access to all resources, while the billions of women and children at the bottom have nothing. My own organization, the National Alliance of Women has been coming out every year with an election manifesto and we see this tribunal as a national voice pressuring governments to deliver or die.

OWSA: End of poverty by 2015. Do you think it is achievable in South Asian context?

PR: To me, it does not seem possible. You are speaking of ‘the End of poverty’. Many years ago, in 1971, the election manifesto of the Congress bore the slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’ (Eliminate Poverty). Over the years, this has changed to poverty alleviation, poverty reduction. Even the Millennium Campaign only talks of halving the number of people living on less than a dollar a day.

In the tenth Plan, the National Development Goals or NDGs were somewhat consonant with the MDGs, now at the mid-term, they say that the percentage of people living below a dollar a day has come down from 37% to 27% - but the stats are challengeable - what we see at the grassroots is that the degree of impoverishment among farmers, migrants has only deepened, and man-made and natural causes of displacement are only worsening the situation.

OWSA: Seven steps to end poverty in seven years.

PR: i) Political will of governments
ii) Continuous advocacy and political pressure of Civil Society on governments, to keep their promises
iii) Prioritise the poor , empower them to critique, engage and negotiate with government and other stakeholders
iv) Strengthen democracy and democratic process
v) Decentralise not only implementation, but also power
vi) Monitor progress
vii) Retain Human Rights perspective

OWSA: You have been referred to as the “no textbook professor” on account of your focus on real life as the best teacher. How have you managed to combine activism with academics to train women grassroots leaders and women corporators in governance?

PR: It was important, as an academic and professor of Political Science, to ensure that all that we read, researched, taught about - all the knowledge, thoughts and ideas found a space to translate into reality.

We realized that when we spoke of women in politics, we were actually thinking of women who understood the concept of power, as we feminists saw it. We were thinking of transformative politics for good governance. Further interaction of academics and activism came about as we developed comprehensive modules integrating skills with a feminist perspective, that ‘she too can build a nation’.

We also conducted an experiment in the villages of Chandigarh, called Grameen Mahila Sansad – where we would invite elected women from the Panchayat, and facilitate interface and dialogue with their constituency (the village folk). Although the women were elected to the Panchayat, they were neither encouraged nor facilitated to attend the Gram Sabha. But these interactions alerted them with regard to the state of local governance and prompted them to seek out and eliminate the barriers to fulfilling the promises to the people. The women leaders also realized a sense of accountability towards the constituency. These sessions always ended with singing and dancing, so the people mingled and there was camaraderie and friendship as well.

Even in the classroom, the combination of theory and praxis has enriched the sessions, made them more meaningful. My students have always responded to the real life examples, and visiting the field has inspired them as no text book would.

Dr Rajput is also Director of the Centre for Women's Studies and Development (CWSD) at Punjab University.

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