July 20, 2012 3:44:34 am
It pains me to write in defence of an institution that is in its prime and is statutorily endowed to function as a catalyst in empowering women. But it is imperative to defend it,and now.
The National Commission for Women was established after a lot of deliberation. There was a groundswell of opinion gradually drawing the attention of policymakers about the status of women in several pockets of our country. The Committee on the Status of Women in India,led by Phulrenu Guha,submitted its report on the last day of 1974. It took cognisance of the 25th Report of the UN Commission on the Status of Women and recommend(ed) the constitution of (a) statutory,autonomous commission at the Centre and the state(s). The National Perspective Plan for Women for 1988-2000 had also recommended a commission for women. Very much like we say when debating the Lokpal bill,a commission for women was an idea whose time had come and it was set up,albeit after an indiscernible delay.
In 1990,Parliament passed the National Commission for Women Act. In 1992,the commission was set up with its first chairperson and members. Subsequently,after every three years a new chairperson and team is appointed,the present being the 7th Commission. In its 20 years of existence,the commission has had several ups and downs. There were years when it was visible,its presence actively felt,and it engaged with womens groups on substantial issues of law-making. There were times when it was out of sight and out of womens minds,too.
It may sound unbelievable that the commission is vested with just about enough powers to serve the cause of women of today. Using diverse examples,it can be said that the commission has made an immense difference in the lives of several women. Whether it is individual women complainants who approach the commission,or a group of women belonging to a professional group,commission members vested with quasi-judicial powers have helped wipe out unjust practices.
The family of a student murdered in broad daylight in her classroom by a co-student could get justice through a fast-track court. The concerned state government was persuaded to provide assistance to the family and extend protection to witnesses. A day after the incident,the presence of a broad-based inquiry team at the site of the crime and in the town,meeting with concerned officials and openly receiving inputs from the public and others who came forth,instils confidence in the minds of the victims and the witnesses. The commission ideally keeps following the case till it reaches the courts of law. This was achieved in several cases; they are recorded in the commissions reports,which are submitted annually to Parliament.
Notwithstanding the delay in passing a legislation on sexual harassment at the workplace,post the Supreme Courts verdict in what came to be known as the Vishaka case,it was the NCW that doggedly pursued compliance of the guidelines issued by the apex court in every institution,be they colleges,universities,offices,factories,commercial banks,district-level government offices or even the ministries. There are still many institutions that have not set up complaints committees in their offices,and it is expected of the commission to enforce the law in these places too.
In civil matters that may require class action or representative action,the NCW has played a distinctive role. In a matter related to women technicians and make-up specialists belonging to a section of our film industry,the commissions role was effected through a broad-based inquiry team at the centre of that film world. The NCW pursued this matter till all affected women got justice. It further ensured that,in future,women technicians could claim their place with their dignity intact. In order that not a single affected person was left out in this process,at every step,announcements were made through the media. Here,it is only appropriate to recall that,after a few years,a leading vernacular weekly carried the personal success story of a make-up specialist who,in one final line,claimed that she wouldnt be where she was if the NCW hadnt intervened.
Similarly,the recurrent cases of NRI grooms deserting their Indian brides was an issue the NCW took up in such a way that today,not only has awareness grown among women,but legislators are working on tightening the legal framework. The NCW had held several public hearings across the country,in particular in states like Kerala and Punjab,where the incidence of such behaviour was high.
Recorded in the annals of the NCW are a few instances of dogged pursuit by the commission of governments that fail to implement its orders. There is one instance of a certain chief secretary of a state sending a small team of concerned principal secretaries to apologise to the commission and then implementing the commissions orders in full.
It is worth recollecting that the work on gender budgeting began at the NCW. Making policymakers aware of the idea,its reasoning and objective,defining ways to factor it in their scheme of planning,removing apprehensions or misconceptions,were exercises no other body could effectively take up. It is a different matter altogether that less is heard of gender budgeting these days,which is a matter of neglect from the NCWs side.
In the interests of the women of this country,it is time the NCW reinvented itself. It is hoped that Parliament,through its standing committee,reviews the NCWs annual reports for accountability. The commission should not be targeted for its members failures.
The writer,BJPs national spokesperson,was a member of the National Commission for Women
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