I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress its women have achieved,” said Dr B.R. Ambedkar, concerned as he was about women’s condition in our society and the systemic oppression she faced. Perhaps, this should have been the prime action plan for political parties as well as governments.
If one takes Dr Ambedkar’s observations seriously, the first question that comes to mind is: are we progressing? Do our development indices show that as a nation we have grown? Should people and not financial wealth be placed at the heart of development? The fact is that women continue to face deep misogyny and sex bias in our society where their independence and outspokenness are feared and despised. And many still believe discussing women’s issues will adversely affect our “culture” and the family.
The Telangana government today is tom-tomming Kaleshwaram, a multi-purpose irrigation project on the Godavari. What many do not know is how the project displaced families whose land was acquired to build the dams. Of these families, the women — who could no longer cultivate their own land nor, bound by custom and the expectation to keep members together and continue to tend to them, migrate, as their men did, to other jobs and places — were the worst-hit.
More than half of the female population in the state actively participates in the electoral process. But are they to be seen as a vote bank only?
Telangana has a long history of women taking part in various social and political movements, right from the days of armed struggle. Women writers and poets took part in all the socio-cultural movements which resulted in the creation of Telangana state. Yet there was not a single woman minister in the first state cabinet. And while the government has taken various measures for the welfare of women, their effects are hardly felt. Being a proud Telangana’ite passionately working on issues involving women and marginalised, it is a distressing experience.
As I write this piece, comes the news of murder of 19-year-old Mutta Radhika in her house in Karimnagar, a “smart city”, supposedly well-furnished with security and CCTVcameras. The same day, too, a disgusting drama of sleaze and blackmail got exposed in Sircilla district, the Assembly constituency of minister for information technology and working president of Telangana Rashtra Samithi K.T. Ramarao. Outsiders harassed young adivasi women at the local Scheduled Castes and Tribes hostel and asked them for sexual favours in exchange of money. These girls were studying intermediate at a nearby co-education college. But why had their hostel been picked by the perpetrators? The answer is that, for ages, SC/ST women’s hostels have been neglected in terms of amenities and enforcement of regulations.
A team of various women, dalit and bahujan organisations, including Dalit Women's Collective, Women & Transgender Joint Action Committee, made a visit to this hostel. It was found that the Telangana police’s SHE teams had shied away from taking up the case. They had taken the young women to a Sakhi women’s centre instead. It was Sakhi that had immediately got an FIR registered under the Pocso Act.
One of the victims informed us that Vijayamma, the cook appointed by the food contractor, T. Devaiah, was helping him approach the girls. Predictably, hostel warden G. Bhudevi claimed she was unaware of the incident. In any case, she was not required to be at the place of her employment and she rarely visited. There were no security guards in the congested lanes where the hostel appeared to have been purposefully located and the cameras in the vicinity were in a state of disrepair. Our fact-finding team also came to know that the food contractor belongs to the ruling party. The question is, will heads roll post this expose?
A few years back, when two adivasi girls, Bhumika and Priyanka, disappeared in Warangal district, we came to know of it only when their bones were carried by stray dogs into the village. Not a single person has been arrested. Their horrific deaths have receded from public memory perhaps because the media appears unmoved by them, quite unlike in the cases of “Nirbhaya” and “Disha”.
That women are a forgotten entity in the state's politics and governance is reflected in the fact that there is no functional commission for women in a state where crimes against women are rising day by day. The last chairperson of the state women’s commission, Tripurana Venkataratnam, demitted office in July 2018. While the Telangana government takes credit for Kalyana Laxmi, a scheme under which financial assistance is given to poor to marry daughters and thus perpetuate the evil of dowry, would not this money be put to better use in the form of free and compulsory education to all women in a safe environment? A full-fledged women’s commission can not only investigate breach of rights but can also give concrete suggestions to the government in this respect. It can look into policy matters and set up guidelines as well. It can work on instituting constitutional safeguards and protection mechanisms.
The issue of women is structural and complex. After Sircilla, we feel that the need for a fully-operational women’s commission is more than ever as it can hold the state police and bureaucrats accountable. Will Telangana see such a body, revived and rejuvenated, populated by women who have a track record working on women’s issues, on March 8, International Women's Day?
Sujatha Surepally is a professor of sociology at Satvahana University and a dalit and women’s rights activist...