India: The more things change...

South Asia Citizen's Wire
Founded in 1984 as a modest resource and documentation centre, Jagori, a Delhi-based women's group, has grown from strength to strength in the last two decades.
And as with all such groups that are involved in hectic day-to-day activity, there's been little time to reflect, to sit back and take stock. Until the 20th birthday came round, that is.
But birthdays are also occasions to celebrate. So there were discussions and cultural events. And celebrations, as women from all over the globe came together in an expression of solidarity, an assertion that the women's movement is alive and well, an affirmation that the friendships it engendered still endure, a belief that feminist border crossings have a different quality to them.

It was in the spirit of celebration that Pakistani theatre director Madiha Gauhar brought her play, Barri, to Delhi, and Eve Ensler performed The Vagina Monologues, now part of a worldwide movement against gender-based violence called V-Day, to enthusiastic audiences. Several hundred women stood up and applauded in what was clearly an emotional outburst as 90-year-old Uzra Butt enacted the role of a woman prisoner caught in a Pakistani prison, in Barri. A Bangla-deshi woman stood up and spoke movingly of the despair of facing violence against women in her society, and the sense of empowerment she felt after watching Ensler perform. At the same event, a Somali woman took the microphone and spoke about what it had meant to her to be genitally mutilated. There was not a dry eye in the hall.

While the evenings were for celebration, the days were reserved for discussions. Since the early days of the contemporary women's movement in India, violence against women has been one of the key issues addressed. And this was the subject Jagori chose to focus on. From the initial emphasis on rape and dowry, the understanding of violence against women has considerably expanded within the women's movement.

No longer do women speak only of violence within the home and family - which remains the most hidden form of violence against women. They also talk of the violence of war, conflict and militarisation, which has long lasting consequences for women. Of the violence of a legal system that discriminates against one half of the population of many countries, of the violence confronted daily in the workplace, in the streets, indeed, even in the language in which they are addressed.

Among the successes that women activists measure is the recognition, at the international level, of violence against women as a human rights violation in 1993, and the subsequent appointment, by the UN, of a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. While there are some positive signals to be read into the fact that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has been ratified by many countries, there is also considerable concern that this is the one international convention that has the largest number of reservations attached to it. As always, it is women's rights that seem to be the most threatening.

Activists are painfully aware that gender-based violence is on the increase, and taking new forms. In India, one merely has to look at the declining sex ratio to understand how the female child continues to be devalued. In Nepal and Sri Lanka, one only needs to observe the increase in female-headed households as a result of the conflict to understand how women are being additionally burdened.

While activists dream of a world free of violence against women, they know that the world they live in is one where this possibility remains a distant dream. Activists at the meet organised by Jagori, Sangat, Anhad and V-Day recognised not only this reality, but also the fact that because of the growth of fundamentalisms, and the simultaneous spread of militarisation and globalisation, women are today confronted with multiple and complex forms of violence. While some of these may take culturally specific forms, some like the misnamed 'honour killings' are common across borders in South Asia.

It was this realisation that led to the understanding, articulated by Jagori, that "There is a need to reflect on our struggles, on battles won and lost, on strategies, and how much difference we have made". Two decades of work provided the opportunity to reflect an exercise that is becoming common among South Asian women's groups. Few other political movements are open to such self-questioning.

By Urvashi Butalia
The writer heads the publishing imprint, Zubaan Women's Feature Service.

Originally published in the March 26, 2004 edition of The Hindustan Times

For more information on Jagori, see their website at