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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 11, March 6, 2010

March 8, 2010: A Day for Rethinking, Redefining and Determination to go Forward

Saturday 6 March 2010, by K Saradamoni

Women’s groups have started talking about the coming March 8, a day which in recent times has become a ritual. This is true of other ‘days’ too, including August 15 and January 26. One can say that this is natural, as time goes on and new generations and new situations demand energy, time and thought over fresh ‘days’. But should that mean forgetting the past? It should not, I hold.

An annual Day for Women or Women’s Day has been observed mainly in Europe and the USA for nearly a century. But it was not always on March 8. Following a declaration in 1909 by the Socialist Party of America, the first National Day was observed across the United States on February 28. Women continued to celebrate it on the last Sunday of that month till 1913. In 1910, the Socialist International, meeting in Copenhagen, established a Women’s Day, international in character, to honour the movement for women’s rights, and to assist in achieving universal suffrage for women. The proposal was greeted with unanimous approval by the conference of over 100 women from 17 countries. In 1911, the International Women’s Day was observed on March 19 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million women and men attended rallies. Less than a week later, the tragic Triangle Fire in New York City took the lives of more than 140 working girls, most of them Italian and Jewish Immigrants. “ By urban legend” women from clothing and textile factories staged such a protest on March 8, 1857 in New York City. They were protesting against very poor working conditions and low wages. They were attacked and dispersed by the police.

The Women’s Days described above cannot be called international. The Charter of the United Nations, signed in San Francisco in 1945, was the first international agreement to proclaim gender equality as a fundamental human right. Since then, the UN has made several commitments to this cause including the declaration of the International Women’s Year (1975) and Decade (1975-85). However, it cannot be ignored that all this coincided with the collapse of the British empire and a very large number of countries, small and big, becoming free countries and equal members of the UN. One of the reasons for the protests remaining restricted to Europe and the US was that industrialisation and urbanisation first emerged in those places at the cost of agriculture and allied activities, which had engaged the people for generations. They worked in the open, breathed pure air, drank unpolluted water. Their earnings were not ‘wages’, they were not confined to tiny sheds or rooms where there was no fixed hours of work. Above all, the new groups of workers were no substitute for the old farming communities where there was more sharing and togetherness.

Technology, Industries, and Urbanisation

The changes were seen as inevitable, as they were believed to taking people to modernity, progress, radical thoughts, emergence of the new individual(mainly male). Even elementary technologies, in the beginning were seen with wonder. People who were used to footpaths and long distance walking saw the coming of the wheel which through successive improvements in technologies generated ideas about adventure, capturing and colonising. Exploration and conquering evoked fear and worship In many parts of the world, the original inhabitants and custodians of natural resources which they used and preserved with caution and care, were reduced to dispossessed aliens in their own country. Slave trade did not arouse any guilt.

Divided Societies

If we look at 2010 with this background, what can be proposed for the coming March 8? If we compare the present to the situation that prevailed a hundred years back, when women marched to protest against poor working conditions and low wages, can we say that things are better today? If we look at women in India as a whole, can we say that? True, more girls, at least in the urban areas go to schools and colleges, more women have entered professions where they were not found earlier, more women may be found in the top positions in many fields. We have a woman President. But that does not mask the unequal position women in general experience in our country. If we take women and girls in the lower strata, growing unemployment, loss of resources, casualisation of jobs which were earlier permanent and thus ensured some amount of security has thrown large number of families into complete disarray. The girl children of these families are generally stopped from continuing education. They add to the thousands of girls who never attended a school and the dropouts.

Redefine Development

While listening to a discussion on Maoists on a national TV channel I heard the words “better development” more than once. There was also reference to the Constitution of India which ensures equal rights to all people. It is here that we have to be clear about what is the present development which the Central Government is implementing mainly through the Five Year Plans we are following. It has without doubt created lots of distortions in the society and a big rift between the rich and the poor. We also celebrate the emergence of the new rich and all that go with that. They not only have wealth, but also power and influence over the policy-makers. Perhaps it may be correct to say that the policy-makers are on their side. They can also influence and control a section of the less privileged and even the poor. There are marked changes in values upheld by the society, attitude and approach to issues. It is difficult for many to remain outside the wonder world of consumerism, non-stop advertisements, and the ever increasing multi-storeyed buildings, for residence, resort or hotels. This glamour world becomes real and desirable even for those who are outside that and struggling for survival in the real world of deprivation, and hopelessness. Our government, which remembers the aam admi occasionally, comes up with the notion of “inclusive “growth. From the beginning the Government of India was aware of the great disparity and deprivation prevailing in the country. The government has increased the schemes and programmes meant to ease (if not resolve) the situation. However, the ground reality is that both disparity and deprivation have worsened.

Serious Rethinking on Development

This is where an honest, clinical examination and diagnosis of our present-day society, which is the result of our development policies, become imminent. What does the government mean by the word ‘inclusive’? The government’s attempts at alleviating poverty or ensuring minimum wages or minimum levels of living have not produced any visible results. While the upper strata of those employed get regular pay revisions and other benefits, the deprived sections, who were doing essential services for the society like agriculture and allied jobs, have been robbed of their work, resources, skill and knowledge and allowed to become migrants or floating people with no roots. Can the government say that their policies have brought significant improvement in terms of security of work and income, self-confidence and a feeling that they are part of this society in the minds of the agricultural labourers, small farmers, fisherpeople, forest dwellers and many others like them? The “welfare” schemes meant to redeem them of their situation include poor schools, hospitals, and housing, loans and their waiver etc. Can the government say that their ‘inclusive’ growth and development mean the creation of a society where fairness, equality and togetherness prevail and where fear has no place. For any independent thinking woman or man, this ‘inclusiveness ‘ is no different from the White Australian policy towards the ‘aboriginals’ and the White American treatment of Native Americans

What Can We Do?

As I said in the beginning, this is a time for serious, painful (because we allowed all this to happen thus becoming a party to every crime the government committed on the poor) introspection. Marches and slogans and meetings will take place. Will that do? First of all, those of us who organise or speak at such meetings have to make sure that we have understood the complex and subtle truths behind government’s plans and policies regarding the deprived and dispossessed of whom more than fifty per cent are women and girls. We organised gala seminars on food security. How is the government, which has ratified this noble goal, going to keep its promise when it unashamedly admits that agricultural growth is only half per cent and hence will have to resort to changes in policy towards that sector including allowing the private sector to ‘play its role’? That role started earlier and we let the present happen. It is our responsibility to revive agriculture in the wider sense and get women and men engaged in the various activities that come under that sector. not only economic well-being, but the self-respect and joy they rightfully deserve for their contribution to the nation.

We have to start with small group meetings of women and encourage them to talk about their situation, their understanding of why it happened, and possible solutions. Only when they cease to be the permanent audience to our words of wisdom and start thinking about their situation, would they slowly become agents of change as far as their own life is concerned. They should be encouraged and allowed to understand the changes in the society in which they live. Yesterday, I was in an auto and the driver found it difficult to overtake a huge truck carrying more than its capacity of cut coconut tree stumps. When I said ‘so many trees are cut’, he immediately said: ‘To build flats. In another ten years we will be like the deserts in the Middle East.’ Water shortage, changes in weather, price rise and growing unemployment are not unknown to our women. They have to be encouraged to think why these happen and why they who are the citizens of this democratic country with full voting rights are the worst sufferers.

If we look at countries near and far we can see similar, slightly better or worse, things happening. In all those countries, there are concerned individuals opposing or fighting against the powers that engage in activities opposed to the poor/deprived sections. The struggle is not easy. There is no short-cut either. There are voices loud and clear against the present way in which the world is going. It may be a surprise to many that one country where the voice for alternative path of development is loud and pragmatic is the USA. I wish to end this with what a young, dynamic and intrepid leader of Black Consciousness in South Africa, Steve Biko, when apartheid was at its height, told his followers. He said that Black South Africans had to learn a new, deep appreciation of themselves as themselves—not as compared to the White people. They had to see themselves not as “non-Europeans” or “non-Whites’, but as Blacks. He explained, the measurement of people’s worth was always the White community. White people were considered normal, usual, and correct—“the norm”. Black South Africans needed to become their own norm.

This is what our leaders in the national movement taught us. Let March 8, 2010 make us, women, proud inheritors of that relentless struggle for self-respect, self-reliance, freedom, dignity and equality.

The author is a renowned economist and concerned social activist based in Thiruvananthapuram. She is the former President of the National Federation of Indian Women.

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