Chennai, (WFS) - Sudha Sundararaman, 46, took over as the national General Secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) in November, 2004. Before taking over from Brinda Karat (who led the organisation for nine years), Sundararaman was the Secretary and President of AIDWA's Tamil Nadu unit.

What were AIDWA's original goals and how have they now evolved?

AIDWA 's basic goal - striving for women's equality and emancipation - remains unchanged. AIDWA believes that women's concerns are an integral part of a larger socio-political and economic system and cannot be addressed in isolation or only within a male-female relationship framework. Priorities do change and since the 1990s, our assessment of the negative impact of globalisation - the feminisation of poverty and increase in gender violence - has sharpened our struggle against these aspects.

Apart from countering the adverse effects of macro-economic changes, we are highlighting and taking up the cause of artisans, Dalit women, tribals, migrants, home-based workers and Muslim women. AIDWA is part of the anti-terrorist movement in Tripura, women in panchayat movement in West Bengal, anti-untouchability campaign in Tamil Nadu, and the nationwide food security and work campaign. The communal attacks by fundamentalist forces on women's bodies and the rising manipulative use of religious rituals to communalise women are also part of the AIDWA agenda now.

How is AIDWA going to address these problems?

AIDWA has a multidimensional, multi-level approach, from the perspective of gender, citizenship and class. Our central strategy is to organise women in villages and urban areas to collectively protest anti-women policies and pose alternatives. In the process of organisation and protest, education and awareness building occurs not only on discrimination, but also how women have internalised discrimination. Policymakers and people are sensitised through the media and campaigns. A series of struggles - independent and with like-minded organisations - have been envisaged. Combating communalism would include providing protection to riot victims and encouraging community interaction through joint activities to ensure healthy relationships.

What are your personal goals?

To continue to increase women's ability to intervene in matters impinging on their lives and lifestyle. To evolve strategies to counter global trends, like excessive and wasteful consumption, and destructive competition. Another challenge organisationally is for a more even regional development - spending more time and attention on states with weaker units. Their membership has to be increased and organisation strengthened.

"It is ultimately a combination of better education, employment, health status and women's rights, along with availability of safe contraception, that lead to lower birth rates."
-- Sudha Sundararaman

 •  Long and ardous road
 •  Two kids, countless wrongs
AIDWA's position on the two-child norm has been criticised. Could you explain its rationale?

AIDWA is critical of coercive measures to control population, including the two-child norm. India is a signatory to the Cairo Declaration, which recognises that high fertility rates are a consequence of underdevelopment and not its cause. Experience has shown that short cuts through disincentives or incentives do not work. It is ultimately a combination of better education, employment, health status and women's rights, along with availability of safe contraception, that lead to lower birth rates.

The two-child norm targets women and marginalises poor, Dalit and tribal women. Society is already male-dominated. We want to counter the falling sex ratio, its link with consumerism, dowry, promotion of rituals and practices that devalue women and promote preference for male children. Alongside, health care has to be strengthened.

What are AIDWA's strengths and challenges?

AIDWA's unique strength is its militant opposition to all forms of exploitation and oppression of women. It challenges patriarchal norms and derives power from active mobilisation of women.

There are many challenges - but the main one is the impoverishment of large sections of women. Militant and resilient women get broken down and their ability to oppose exploiters is eroded. They become absorbed in family survival. Besides, the culture of subservience, which actually increases when moving up the social ladder, enervates women whose education and other skills should equip them to contribute to women's emancipation. Also, opposition from vested interests and consequent violence faced by activists is a challenge for the organisation.

How did the organisation grow under Brinda Karat?

AIDWA emphasises teamwork and Karat's role in strengthening teamwork in states had a very good impact. The introduction of the three-year term norm for office-bearers has led to many new cadres coming into leadership. Also, organisational guidelines were evolved. By taking up a very wide range of issues and stressing the gender component within general issues, the movement's reach has been extended. The focus on sectoral issues has given AIDWA the ability to mainstream the concerns of exploited groups. Karat won visibility for AIDWA's positions in the media and intellectual circles. While it is difficult to talk separately of her achievements from the organisation's successes, the strides forward are a credit to her leadership. And she continues to be a key part of AIDWA's collective leadership.

How did you enter the women's movement? How do you perceive yourself - as an activist, a motivator, an organiser?

I was inspired to join the Student's Federation of India (the student wing of Communist Party of India), during college. I studied English literature at Ethiraj College in Chennai. I felt collective action around a Left, pro-people perspective was important. A good student has to apply herself to studies, but also has to be aware of what is happening in society. I got married to a close friend who shared my ideals. I completed my Bachelor of Education and Master of Philosophy and worked as a schoolteacher. Women's issues drew me more and more and I spent a lot of time assisting victims of violence. I gave up teaching and devoted attention to AIDWA. I was General Secretary of AIDWA Tamil Nadu from 1995 to 2001 and later state President. My work has primarily been as an organiser - but in AIDWA terms - motivation and activism and a good understanding of perspectives are the key ingredients of organisation.

What were your feelings when elected general secretary?

Mixed. It is a great challenge and opportunity to further the cause of women. To come into national pre-eminence is also disconcerting as the movement has now expanded so much and my experience is limited at best to a few states. I will give it my best, and, in an organisation like AIDWA, it is the whole team's work that plays the determining role. I am optimistic. My good knowledge of Hindi will be useful as we want to extend our base in the Hindi-speaking states.

Since AIDWA was founded in Chennai, do you think events have come full circle by your taking on this responsibility?

Well, ever expanding circles, perhaps!