The article explains the meaning and scope of human rights as the collective rights of communities and peoples.The article examines the patriarchal social order in relation to women's rights. The different perspectives and approaches of women's rights are discussed in the article. Analysis of power and violence, and the power of impunity are critically analysed. Rights of women with disabilities, women victims of evictions and displacements, and women belonging to fishing communities also form parts of the article. Gendered division of labour and women in governance are discussed critically in the article.
The conventional theory of human rights presumes a homogeneous civil society and a strong and legitimate democratic state that will protect the rights of life, liberty and freedom of the individual. This is a very narrow perspective of human rights. Human Rights should be universal in its applicability but accommodates the specificities of our pluralistic society. It is based on the indivisibility of rights rooted in the mandate laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Indian Constitution, the two main Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and several International human rights treaties ratified by India. This implies that while the state must be continuously made accountable for observance of human rights standards, promotion and protection of these rights requires a continuous democratic resurgence in civil society specifically from among oppressed and exploited classes/castes, marginalised commmunities and intellectuals especially organic intellectuals.
Human rights are importantly collective rights of communities and peoples to the right to continuing sustainable development, eco-systems, livelihoods and the struggles against concentration of wealth, and power and patriarchy. It is the voice of the oppressed and exploited, of indigenous peoples, fishing communities, women, Dalits, children, workers, artisans and peasants; it is the voice from below from a resurgent civil society for sustainable livelihood and eco-systems, popular governance and equitable development. The struggles against corporate exploitation, patriarchy, destruction of forests, child labour, untouchability and caste oppression, destructive mega projects, industrial pollution, etc. are all parts of this human rights movement.
The women’s movement for socialist transformation needs to be strengthened and reconstructed within the parameters of these human rights concerns. The central challenge of this movement is the defeat of the monopoly capitalist patriarchal social order.
Patriarchal Social Order
Feminists understand that women’s status is part of a larger system of oppression and exploitation where race, ethnicity, geography, class and caste all work together so that certain groups can maintain their privileges. Today, though some economic power has shifted to an extent towards developing countries of the South, the system of “imperialist capitalist patriarchy” remains more or less intact and has even co-opted new classes of elites to its ranks. The multiple forms of oppression and discrimination result not only from sexist discrimination, but also from a racist and exploitative (of human beings and of nature) economic system that privatizes all aspects of life, and an international governance system that continues to reflect all the values of the capitalist system.
Feminist social transformation requires that we also address political, economic, ecological and cultural injustices. Otherwise the gains that women’s rights have made are always under threat, and progress for women’s rights remain uneven and unbalanced, particularly for the most disadvantaged women at the margins of capitalism.
India’s caste system, even under liberal democracy, continues to leave millions of people, particularly rural people, marginalised from the economic system. India remains one of the most unequal countries in the world because the process of wealth concentration has continued despite anti-caste and social movements against untouchability. Unfortunately, the opening up of democratic spaces has not prevented what has been called ‘global apartheid’, where the rich live in enclaves of wealth and privilege, resources are owned by a small and powerful global elite, and the poorest are criminalised and considered as ‘waste’ or as ‘parasites’deprived of rights and citizenship because they are not part of the capitalist system. The impacts of dislocation, exclusion, alienation and discrimination on marginalised women and their families have been devastating. In addition to an increasing care burden the consequences of inequality, particularly violence and intolerance, have become structural impediments to women’s rights.
The violations of human rights caused by the corporate tyranny is enormous and the biggest challenge to the human rights movement. We illustrate below some statistics to show the power of this corporate world. There are now 40,000 corporations in the world whose activities cross national boundaries; these firms ply overseas markets through some 2,50,000 foreign affiliates. The top 200 of these global firms account for an alarming and growing share of the world’s economic activity. Two hundred giant corporations, most of them larger than many national economies, now control well over a quarter of the world’s economic activity. Two-thirds of the world (the bottom 20 percent of the rich countries and the bottom 80 percent of the poor countries) are either left out, marginalised, or used for extraction of super surplus value by these webs of activity. The most alarming finding is that as corporate concentration has risen, corporate profits have soared, yet workers and communities are getting a shrinking piece of the growing pie. Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporations; only 49 are countries. Wal-Mart (the number 12 corporation) is bigger than 161 countries, including Israel, Poland and Greece. Mitsubishi is larger than the fourth most populous nation on earth: Indonesia. General Motors is bigger than Denmark. Ford is bigger than South Africa. Toyota is bigger than Norway. The top 200 corporations’ combined sales are bigger than the combined economies of all countries minus the biggest 9; that is they surpass the combined economies of 182 countries (as per data in the mid 90’s). At latest count, the world has 191 countries. If we subtract the GDP of the big nine economies: the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, and China, the combined GDP of the other 182 countries is $6.9 trillion. The combined sales of the top 200 corporations are $7.1 trillion.
Perspectives on Women’s Rights
It is an ideology which pitches itself against patriarchy. Its aim is to challenge and defeat patriarchal power for a more equal world. It is a struggle. It has a set of values, beliefs, principles and practices. Feminist studies are an intellectual field of study, looking specifically at how different aspects of social reality (politics, economics, culture, ecology, society) are gendered and therefore create different outcomes. It has resulted in the development of a large body of theory and knowledge on how gender influences specific outcomes. It is considered to be very political as it challenges not only patriarchy but also the social order – how power, resources and rights are allocated. It focuses on structural change from the personal to the political. Feminist struggles usually manifest in a more spontaneous and less institutionalized way.
Women’s Rights Approach
It is a set of legal rights and entitlements to fulfill the human rights idea that all human beings are born equal. The aim is to ensure that all laws, policies and practices align with human rights. It is the platform where we look at how laws and policies can be changed in order to achieve human rights. Those working in the women’s rights arena are concerned with identifying all the areas of change that are needed within the legal and policy framework to provide an enabling environment for social change to happen. Women’s right is a more mainstream approach to dealing with gender inequality operating in the legal, policy, administrative and judicial fields. It is not considered as “subversive” as feminism. However women’s rights, like human rights, evolve constantly to incorporate new rights and to refine old ones (e.g. indigenous people’s rights, the right to food). Women’s rights are mainly carried forward by more organised forums (UN, NGOs, women’s movements, legal movements, print and visual media) from national to international levels. The women’s rights’ terrain (in the strictest sense) is mainly occupied by lawyers, activists and legal experts who use the courts, legal system and governance systems like local bodies, legislature, and Parliament to advocate for rights.
It is a concept used to socially differentiate between women and men. It takes us beyond the normal categories of male-female, masculine-feminine in analyzing behaviour and identity across the sexes. Gender looks at how gender relations are shaped and how women and men experience the world through gender. Gender looks at all the different “beings” and the contexts that we live and work in, to understand how better outcomes can be achieved for women and men. Gender is (or has become) very technical in nature. It does not necessarily have the same political underpinnings as feminism, or the legal underpinnings of women’s rights. Thus, while true, the statement “gender is about women and men” can be used to serve conflicting agendas. This approach may or may not challenge the dominant ideology. Gender approach tends to mainstream gender into policy and programmes through different tools. The rhetoric of gender mainstreaming has often weakened the focus on true equality.
Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA)
It is an approach to development programming which puts human rights at the core. It is a strategy (or a set of tools) for achieving human rights in public policy interventions, particularly development programmes, at the household, community or national level. Like gender, the rights-based approach is a technical tool to ensure human rights are reached. However it is not of itself an agenda for political or legal changes. It simply seeks to ensure that we apply (or mainstream) the existing rights that are currently within the legal frameworks.
HRBA is an approach to development programming/ design. It is similar to gender mainstreaming, but encompasses a broader range of human rights. It is embraced by the development sector (NGOs, aid agencies, the UN), but without a shift in other organizational practices and attitudes, like gender mainstreaming. It is also important to note that different organizations have formulated their own HRBA modules.
Analysis of Power and Violence
Gender violence is perpetuated by cultural beliefs and norms based on the devaluation of women; and legitimized, obscured or denied by familial and social institutions. In fact gender violence is a historical, universal problem. It is often experienced in the context of additional oppressions based on race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, type of labour performed, level of education, class position, disability, and immigration or refugee status.
Violence against women and girls occurs across the life course. It employs a constellation of physical, sexual, economic, and emotional abuses that establish a climate of fear and result in severe physical and psychological injuries. It is the most extreme expression of sexism and misogyny; accompanied by gendered harm that leaves women and girls bearing the socio-cultural burdens of shame, humiliation, and victim-blaming. The historical nature of gender-based violence confirms that it is not an unfortunate aberration but systematically entrenched in culture and society, reinforced and powered by patriarchy. Violence against women maintains the structures of gender oppression; be it carried out by individuals in private and/or by institutional forces in the public sphere. Families, communities, and social, legal and civic institutions may covertly and overtly endorse it.
Patriarchy is about the social relations of power between men and women as well as between women and women. It is a system for maintaining class, gender, racial, heterosexual privilege and the status quo of power relying both on crude forms of oppression like violence and subtle ones like laws to perpetuate inequality. Patriarchal beliefs of male and heterosexual dominance lie at the root of gender-based violence. Patriarchy is a structural force that influences power relations, whether they are abusive or not.
Power sets the agenda for patriarchy. But, conflating it with abuse or masculinity is problematic and we need a more complex analysis of the typical power and control explanations. Feminism, which is about women claiming their rights to self-determination and equality, confronts gender conformity and aims to replace relationships of power with relationships of meaning.
Invisible power involves the power that shapes the psychological and ideological boundaries of participation. Invisible power keeps important issues away from the decision-making table, and also out of the consciousness of the different people involved, even those directly affected by the problem. Socialisation, culture and ideology perpetuate exclusion and inequality by defining what is normal, acceptable and safe. So, for example, girls believe sexual harassment from teachers is normal and women blame themselves for abuse from their husbands. Challenging power at this level requires strategies that help people share their experiences, build confidence in themselves and sharpen their political awareness and analysis to transform the way they perceive themselves and those around them. From aborting female foetuses to sexual abuse to declining child sex ratio, girls and women may encounter numerous oppressions during infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. In addition to physical, sexual, economic and emotional abuses, violence is about living in a climate of fear, shame, coercive control and devaluation. Domestic violence is more than a series of violent incidents on an identifiable cycle. It is about living in a climate of fear and disempowering restrictions that threaten and affect one’s selfhood, psychological well-being, health, economic independence, and emotional availability for parenting.
Sexual violence is defined as any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.
The Power of Impunity
Tamil Nadu state ranks among the highest in reported cases of violence against women. Disturbing statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that domestic violence is much more prevalent in Tamil Nadu than in any other state in the country. The data shows that the state registered 3,838 cases of domestic violence in 2012 or 84% of all complaints (4,567) of domestic violence recorded across the country (NCRB, 2012). Most of these cases are dowry, molestation, eve teasing, torture and kidnapping of women.
Impunity is what keeps unequal class and gender arrangements in place. It is constitutive of power in all its forms and the relishing of this fascist practice marks the exercise of power, rendering it desirable and attractive. Whether the rapist is a citizen or a custodian of the state, the relish that makes for a particular exercise of power has to do with sexuality, and it is this peculiar interplay of sexuality and power that needs to be understood for the evil that it is. Impunity is what dominant castes grant themselves as they attack and destroy Dalits and adivasis, and it is what keeps unequal class and gender arrangements in place. Clearly, impunity is constitutive of power in all its forms and the relishing of it marks the exercise of power, rendering it desirable and attractive.
Whenever rape is under scrutiny, several people are at pains to point out that rape is not about sex, but about power; some have complicated these arguments to argue that we cannot thus bracket sex away entirely. In this context I would like to interrogate the sexual as it is received and practised for there cannot be a rape culture that is completely outside of what passes for the sexual and it may not be enough anymore to annotate a richer, more layered sense of the erotic in response. Sexual violence always crosses the line, but it is not therefore a singular or exceptional act. The scanning of women’s bodies, marking them with numbers, adjectives, the reducing of a being to an object of appraisal, stalking, surveillance are a series of acts that structure our every day life. These acts are repeated where sexual minorities, especially transpeople, are concerned: they are constantly marked in the public eye as more or less “masculine” or “feminine”, which marking then invites different levels of abusive and violent attention.
These acts of scanning and marking define male public behaviour, set standards for maleness, and make for levels of male bonding and comradeship. While women dislike such gestures and resist them, they are not viewed as exceptional as the hope is that the men who are thus inclined are not “our kind”, and so their modes of being are not socially relevant to our situation. Transpeople have responded in various ways, attempting to balance their own sense of what they are with how the world perceives them, resisting sexualization in some cases, and deliberately courting it in others.
If the carrying out of forbidden acts willfully and with relish constitutes power that is exercised with impunity, then sexual assault as such resists accountability. This is why it is repeated, even as one protests its illegitimacy; and by those very agencies that have to punish it. Rather than see rape as an exceptional crime, we may want to see it as the ultimate mark of impunity: with the “sexual” being marshalled to render that impunity given. In this sense, to challenge impunity is to challenge the “sexual” as well, and at the same time to challenge the structures that make for public impunity (Geetha, 2013).
A life free from fear of violence and living in safe environments include women’s right not to be subjected to physical, sexual, or emotional violence inside the home by intimate partners (including husband) or outside by people and those acting on the part of the state (police/para military forces). It is important that women should be able to decide their mobility and ability to make decisions regarding where they can go, who they go with, how they travel, and the time of the day or night they can travel; make informed choices regarding sexual and reproductive health, including choice in marriage such as whether to marry, whom to marry and when to marry (age), and to demand the provision of sexual and reproductive health services that are sensitive to their rights and needs. Sexual well-being and the right to a healthy self-affirming sexuality free of violence, coercion, and disease are essential to a woman. This would include awareness about bodily integrity, which would not only address the dangers of violations of bodily integrity, but allow women to care and take pride in their bodies as women. Expression of self-identity and behaviour would include an expression of their emotional, mental, spiritual, psychological and physical spaces and desires.
Women’s Role in Reproduction and Production
In the real world there are many spaces of production and reproduction (economies) where goods and services are produced, exchanged, consumed and where surplus is reallocated and reinvested into that system. Households and communities, the environment and markets are all spaces of production and reproduction. “The economy” is used to speak about goods and services that are traded commercially in formal markets. All other types of non-market production/reproduction are excluded in “ the formal market economy”. Human existence depends on many systems and subsystems of production/reproduction which are interlinked, interdependent and often overlapping the natural/environmental economy. This and the socio-cultural economy which includes reproductive services (care), public goods and services, community and voluntary services, and social cohesion are out of the capital market economy, and the production and trade of goods and services for monetary value. But till today the natural/environmental economy is essential to marginalised women’s lives and their families. Yet capitalist oriented governments encouraged the market economy to subordinate the natural/environment and care work. We see this in the way that GDP is counted, where only the goods and services (including labour) that are valued, counted and rewarded are those that are exchanged for a monetary value in formal market institutions.
Women are economically marginalised because cultural norms and reproductive responsibilities place them outside the “second economy” but without giving them access to, control over, or rights within the first economy (natural resources) or the third economy (cash income and financial returns). Because the social economy operates largely on a non-monetary basis, goods and services produced are not counted or rewarded. Likewise, in traditional societies, women are given extensive responsibility for environmental stewardship, but these valuable roles are not acknowledged in economic counting. Economic alternative for women’s rights is about recognising the real value of three spheres and in fact stressing that human survival depends on the first two (for human capital and natural resources), and so it is the market economy that should be at the service of the others.
An analysis of women’s role in the development process also requires a full understanding of their role in reproduction, and of its consequences for women’s involvement in all aspects of economic life. As pointed out earlier, it is important to distinguish between biological reproduction, reproduction of the labour force, and social reproduction, while taking note of the connections between these multiple aspects of reproduction. The emphasis on reproduction in all of these senses is in fact a major contribution of the present feminist movement. It has developed in a number of directions, including the analysis of sexuality and reproductive freedom, mothering, and domestic labour. In doing so, this emphasis on reproduction has made the relationships of dominance and/or sub-ordination between the sexes in the household a focal point of analysis. It has also posed a very important challenge to those approaches to the “woman question,” which view the solution to women’s oppression as lying in the sphere of economic and social relations outside the household.The implications of the feminist emphasis on reproduction are far-reaching. For example, the oft-repeated developmentalist goal of making women equal partners with men in the development process is unlikely to be reached unless policies address women’s participation in both the productive and reproductive spheres.
Women with Disabilities
National laws related to persons with disabilities do not recognise the multiple discrimination experienced by women with disabilities.There is a general lack of legal mandate to ensure protection against violence against women with disabilities. Lack of policies and programmes aimed at sensitising the policy makers/ decision makers, officials in the monitoring and redressal systems, and parliamentarians on their obligation to respect, protect and promote the rights of women with disabilities; lack of resource allocation for programmes and policies promoting and protecting the rights of women with disabilities; lack of data disaggregation on women with disabilities; and lack of research and evidence based reporting are major deficiencies. Sexual exploitation is common against girls and women with intellectual disability living in institutions. Violence against women with disabilities is often lost in silence, because they are unable and powerless to communicate the acts of violence to which they are subject, and there is none to listen. Lack of accessible environment, lack of information and communication, and lack of sensitization and awareness can also be cited as the major reasons for violence and abuse experienced by women with disabilities.
Evictions and Displacements
Another major concern that affects the livelihood and security of women and young girls is the increasing numbers of families evicted and displaced from the traditional homes. Through this, families who are evicted and displaced lose their homes, dignity and all that go to make up their culture and space for assertion of their plans and dreams. It is women who have often invested a considerable proportion of their incomes over the years in land and housing often relinquishing their personal possessions and consumer needs. The State exercises its powers of acquisition and the corporate sector uses its wealth to drive people away from their lands and homes using bulldozers, police, industrial police forces or demolition mafia to destroy people’s settlements. Evictees and those displaced particularly women often lose their complex reciprocal relationships with relatives and friends damaging their safety net or survival network of protection against the costs of ill health, income decline or the loss of a job, and their right to common utility services. The affected people mostly farmers, agricultural labourers, unorganized workers, tribal and Dalit families, fishing people, self-employed and artisans lose their livelihood as they are forced to move away from the areas where they had jobs or sources of income including their traditional home land. The human costs of forced evictions especially on women and children are indeed substantial and involve a wide range of negative impacts on the lives and livelihood of those affected, including multiplying individual and social impoverishment; homelessness; physical, psychological and emotional trauma; insecurity for the future; the onset of sickness and new diseases; substantially higher transportation costs; arbitrary violence; the push out of children from school; the incursion of arbitrary and brutal police actions, etc.
Rights of Women from Minorities
The Constitution of India guarantees justice, equity and security to all citizens including the minorities. A true democracy ensures not only individual rights but also rights of minorities as a community. Our Constitution has laid down in Articles 25 to 30 the rights and freedoms of religious, cultural and linguistic minorities and thus made India a truly democratic and pluralist nation.
We are living in turbulent times full of contradictions and disparities between the rich and poor, men and women, rural and urban, majorities and minorities all of which have made life much more difficult for ordinary persons, particularly Muslim women. The Sachar Committee report (2006) has highlighted the story of the poverty and exclusion of the largest minority in our country. However, the truth about the poverty, exclusion and injustice faced daily by the Muslim woman is much higher.If the largest minority in the world’s largest democracy is languishing in poverty and backwardness what could be the appalling state of women from this community! Almost 70 years after Independence Muslim women are still under threat and yet to gain from the values of justice, equity and secularism that they cherish. The main grievance of the Indian minorities has been discrimination, especially in the economic field. The discrimination against Muslims in matters of employment, permits, contracts, and admissions to various institutes has brought them to the verge of economic ruin.
There are two categories among Muslim women. The first are those who accept Sharia pronouncements in respect of women totally and uncritically as they are totally unaware of the circumstances in which Muslim jurists made those pronouncements. Most of these women are either illiterate or educated in traditional Islamic ways. The second category is of those women who are totally indifferent to religion and consider religion an impediment in realising women’s rights. Both these extremes do not help as for the average Muslim women who, ignorant or otherwise, take their religion seriously and also are struggling against traditional Sharia pronouncements about women. These women are in overwhelming number and one has to help them realise their rights in the Muslim society.
Indigenous People and Women
Women are the real custodians of the natural resources, and they historically protected environment and saved forests for centuries. But today corporate projects, destructive development mining and sanctuaries by large acquisitions made by the State are the main forest destroyers. All natural resources such as the land, forest and water are under major attack from neo-liberal policies where the crisis is about a few usurping the rights and access of the vast majority of the marginalised over air, water, land, minerals and forests. While the thirst of global capital and transnationals for minerals and fossil-fuels magnifies, tracts of land that are under forest cover and inhabited traditionally by adivasis who are dependent largely on these natural resources have been removed from their control.
Women have been denied access to land and forest resources both by state and the family since women are considered “property” and are expected to perform only a reproductive role to reproduce male children. Despite constitutional “equality before Law” in Article 14 and “prohibition of discrimination” in Article 15,women have been denied their equal share in ownership and control over all natural resources and property, especially land. With the nationalization of forest after Independence the entire forest region was kept out of land reform policies and transferred for management to the Forest Department which became the biggest landlord in India. Already land reform policies adopted by various State governments (revenue laws and personal laws) were based on discrimination against the landless, women cultivators and women collecting non- timber forest produce (NTFP) inside forest. They were neither recognized as “cultivators”, nor as “gatherers” of food.
It is for the first time that a special Act called the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 has been enacted which recognizes the equal rights of women in forest areas both in individual and community rights. Women play a major role in conserving the resources and primarily depend on the forest products for their livelihood. Women spend almost 80% of their time in collecting fuel wood, fodder, grass, NTFP, etc from the forest. They are part of nature and enjoy protecting it for their generation and for future generation. The forest also acts like a large reserve of food security for women and their families. Over the decades women have been enslaved after these resources were privatized by the state and the corporate sector from mining to medicinal plants. This shift in sovereignty in the last six decades has been caused by depletion of forest cover due to the invasion by large industries, transnational corporations and the State. This depletion has adversely affected the health of tribal women and other forest dwellers. Traditional health healers treating ailments and illnesses with their traditional knowledge have diminished due to the promotion by the State of commercial forestry. This completely changed the ecology of the forest; commercially promoted monocultures; and prevented grass, shrubs, herbs, and creepers to grow naturally. Monocultures have destroyed the entire biodiversity, flora and fauna of all States in India.
Land rights in the forest are the rights of indigenous people individually and collectively. This is of fundamental importance for a range of reasons, including the religious significance of the land, self-determination, identity, food security and livelihood or subsistence needs. Hunting, fishing, gathering of forest products, medicinal herbs and small garden plots still form the basis of the household economy. Forest land is sacred and everything got from the forest land is considered a gift from their gods. Losing forest land means a loss of contact with mother earth and a loss of identity,worldview and belief systems. However, millions of hectares of forests have been cleared in India due to urbanization, industrialization, dams and hydropower projects, highways, and unsustainable development projects. This has disturbed the traditional ecological balance. Adivasis have been forced to displace from their forest areas. Recently, many wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves are declared and forced traditional tribal people to move out of their habitations in total violation of the rights of Adivasi people.
Gendered Division of Labour
The term ‘labour’ normally applies to the labour market (jobs) rather than ‘work’. Yet women perform many critical types of work that are not classified as ‘labour’ and are therefore not considered to be valuable (and are not rewarded). Labour rights conventions are limited because they do not value unpaid care work. Most labour rights are geared towards formal employment. Livelihoods societies are sustained by many different types of work that do not count as “labour” or a “job” and it is mainly women who provide this unpaid work.Labour as a factor of production and as a commodity permits entry into formal labour markets. However, it is very gendered; women can do some types of work, but not others that are the preserve of men. Women are found in informal sectors (including paid care work as domestic workers) which are not adequately covered by labour legislation.Gendered division of labour results in inequality. The gendered division of labour is an unequal terrain with many dimensions. Women are disadvantaged, starting from the fact that they are not able to choose whether or not to do certain types of work (care work) and face restrictions in doing other types of work. The gendered division of labour perpetuates women’s socio-economic inequality and constrains their choices, power and entitlements. Ultimately, this division of labour means that women make a larger contribution to society and the economy than their male counterparts, but are not rewarded. This is an issue that public policy must address in order to achieve gender equality.
Women in Fisheries
The processes of globalization and industrialization have exacerbated the degradation of fishery resources. The use of over efficient fishing technology by replacing capture fishery and centralization of resources (more and more centralized fish landing centres) have resulted in threat to food security and loss of bio-diversity. The women and children are the major victims as their access to traditional processing has been denied considerably. Women’s role in fisheries has historically not been recognised by government policy makers, though it periodically provides lip service on its commitment to the development of fisherwomen. Fisherwomen predominantly work as self-employed persons in small-scale purchase, preserving, processing and vending of fish. When due to commercialization the scale of activity expands and involves investment of huge amount of capital, self-employed fisherwomen are quite often displaced, and the space is appropriated by better off fishermen or capitalists from other communities. Bulk auctioning and purchase of fish at landing sites have displaced fisherwomen who bought and sold on a small scale.
With the onset of globalization, export agents have also entered the market as purchasers of fish in some areas, offering attractive prices. Conflicts between fishermen and fisherwomen over whom to sell and how much to sell have also surfaced. While some of the fishermen want to sell the entire produce to the export agents for more money, fisherwomen want to retain some fish for consumption and local sale even at the cost of losing some money. Fisherwomen also argue that in the case of most families cash in the hands of women will lead to greater well-being of its members than cash in the hands of men.
The promotion of shrimp industries across the coastal belt in the 1990s has also had a more adverse impact on women workers. Fish vendors/head loaders (women) have been restrained from using traditional pathways along the coastal line, and now have to take a longer route to reach the market. Sexual harassment of women has been on the increase as the industrialists are hardly accountable to the villagers.
Unresolved issues pertaining to access to resources kept fish out of the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) in the earlier GATT discussion. Instead, fish came under stricter trade rules that govern industrial products under the negotiations on market access for non-agricultural products (NAMA). As a result, we have seen about 25% cut in import tariffs by developed countries against an overall reduction of 40% on industrial products. Major importing countries such as Japan, the EU and United States have, however, followed differential approaches toward imported fish products from developing countries ranging from preferential rates and duty-free access to nearly total removal of tariff from certain types of products such as raw fish, fresh chilled and frozen fish. Preferential agreements such as most favoured nation (MFN) and generalized systems of preference (GSP) cover 80% of the fish trade. The average weighted import tariffs on fish products to developed countries were 4.5% after the Uruguay round. This, however, hides a number of peaks and tariff escalation for processed and value-added products.
But this data is based only on exportable or importable fisheries and hence does not give the accurate picture of implications for fisheries and fisher people as a whole in India. Poor fishers, fish farmers and women could become increasingly vulnerable to poverty as their income and livelihood opportunities are threatened. Their share of fish protein declines as wealthy and commercial operators have the incentive to take over fishing and aquaculture activities, and more fish will be consumed by wealthy consumers.
The impact of liberal trade on resource, livelihoods and nutrition are major concerns for policy makers dealing with market access and liberalization of fish trade. Unlike the other highly traded agricultural commodities, almost 70% of tradable fish are still obtained from wild harvest, putting severe pressure on the sustainability of the resources. If the future increases in global fish trade follow the current patterns, it is likely to continue to induce overexploitation of wild stocks and environmental degradation.
Fisheries in developing countries are essential for achieving food security, both directly (as food) and indirectly (as employment and income). In Asia and to a lesser extent in Africa, fish is a source of inexpensive protein. Fish is also high in lysine, essential amino acids, micro-nutrients and trace elements that are generally not found in staple foods. This makes it particularly suitable for complementing the high carbohydrate diets prevailing among the poorer sections of the population. The contribution that fish can make to the nutritional status of young children and lactating women is particularly significant. Their protein requirements are much higher because protein is required for growth. For children, who cannot digest the bulk of starchy staples (maise and cassava in particular), addition of a small quantity of fish can substantially improve the biological value of the diet and contribute to significant improvements in nutritional security.
Viewing fish and fishery products as ‘industrial products’ is also doing gross injustice to the innate multifunctionality of the coastal area ecosystem from which these products are produced. In many developing countries, there is a case for creating a vision of multiple roles and functions for fisheries and fishing communities that will serve to create a context of wholesome livelihood and a sustainable fishery. Several fishery export houses are being established along the coast in violation of existing Coastal Regulation Laws. Further efforts are already underway to dismantle or weaken the Coastal Regulation Zone Law and the Environment Impact Assessment Notification which will have severe effect on the environment, coastal ecology and livelihood of the fishing people. If India succumbs to this it will be the most shameful sellout in the world in the twenty-first century.
Women and Dalit leadership have been discriminated in the matter of participation in public life and denied access to political power for centuries. Real decentralized governance, grassroots democracy and power to the people can be achieved only when women, Dalits and other disadvantaged sections who have been elected participate actively on an informed basis and enforce their rights. Women are not allowed to freely discharge their duties as elected representatives. Any bold decision regarding the panchayats especially in terms of corruption, accountability and transparency in functioning is met by very hostile resistance, including threats to life and family. Because of historical oppression which has pushed women into a culture of silence, women in panchayat lack the confidence to speak up in front of male members, and to challenge undemocratic and corrupt practices.
Women continue to be grossly under-represented in Parliament and in the State Assemblies. For nearly two decades, the issue of women’s reservation in State Assemblies and Parliament has been marred by controversy. The Bill seeking to reserve a third of the seats in the legislatures has been intoduced and allowed to lapse several times. Although women’s representation has steadily increased over the past seven decades since Independence, the state of affairs in Parliament and State Assemblies is far from encouraging and clearly points to the need for reservation of seats for women in the legislatures.
Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation (HRF), Chennai
Social Work Learning Academy
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