At the end of 2003, for every song celebrating women of courage, political ambition or corporate achievement there is a dirge. For Kalpana Chawla, the spacewoman who died in February; for the seven women factory-workers who died of silicosis in Pondicherry; and for all those named and unnamed women who were harassed, raped, mutilated or murdered. Only because they were women!
In 2003 then, Indian women of courage and conviction were a varied lot. There was the unflappable Sunita Narain, who spearheaded the methodical campaign launched by the Centre for Science and Environment against poor quality water used by soft drink giants. Bollywood's Priety Zinta calmly confirmed receiving phone calls from the underworld, something her colleagues were too scared to admit to. And there was social worker Gladys Staines who reiterated her forgiveness for the killers of her husband and two sons, even as they were awarded the death sentence.
At another level, there was Zahira Sheikh - a prime witness in the Best Bakery killing during the Gujarat riots - whose statement that she was threatened led to a re-trial of the case. And in June, young Nisha Sharma of Delhi won accolades when she said "enough" to increasing dowry demands, and called off her wedding at the last minute. Farzana Zaki emulated her, and raised hopes that the rejection of dowry-linked marriages would become a rising trend.
Crimes against women spiralled up the graph. On February 5, women members of a marriage party were raped and murdered by dacoits in Dhantala, Nadia, of West Bengal. On April 21, a woman passenger on a train was gang-raped near Bagha, Bihar, after being dragged out of the Gorakhpur-Sonepur passenger.
Women continued to be victims of vengeful husbands: On February 25, 20-year-old Challi Kale of Rakshawadi village in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra had her eyes gouged out with a knife by her husband and in-laws who were angry that she complained about his affair with a neighbour! Alpana Bhargava, an executive with Price Waterhouse, paid with her life for seeking a divorce. Her husband shot her and her companion, Yogesh Wadhwa, on March 20 in NOIDA, near New Delhi. Madhumita Shukla, poetess and BJP supporter, was shot and killed on May 9 in Lucknow. Six months pregnant, she had been associated with Amarmani Tripathi, a former minister of state in the Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh (UP).
Sexual harassment - from the global to local level - occupied the attention of policymakers, women's organisations and the corporate world. In the highly publicised Infosys case against involving Phaneesh Murthy, complainant Reka Maximovich was given a settlement of $3.9 million, of which $1.5 million was to be paid by the company. While everyone hailed the corporate decision to settle, the accused paid nothing!
Sexual harassment committees have sprung up in universities and colleges. A high-level state inquiry committee - on charges of sexual harassment made a year ago - indicted the Maharashtra Labour Welfare Board Commissioner Mohan Dhotre this year. The Head of Department, Marathi, at Mumbai University, Arun Kamble was also charged with sexual harassment by a clerk at the University's women's development cell. And in February, a coordinator was charged with sexually abusing girls at the state-level NSS camp in Nagarhole, Karnataka.
A National Family Health Survey II drew attention to the rise in domestic violence cases and the increasing vulnerability of women in nuclear families. Regressive and stereotypical media portrayal of women, thanks to the 'saas-bahu' soaps, continued throughout 2003, forcing even women corporates to take a stand. The FICCI's Ladies' Organisation hosted a seminar in April and its president, Surekha Kothari deplored the negative portrayal of women in television serials.
Earlier in March, protests from several women's organisations, led by the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), forced Hindustan Lever to pull out its sexist advertisement for Fair and Lovely cream. Also, women's organisations launched anti-liquor campaigns in Maharashtra's Ichalkaranji district and anti-trafficking campaigns in the north-eastern part of the country.
In the same month came depressing news of the abandonment of more than 10,000 women by their NRI husbands in Punjab, underlining the devalued status given to women in society.
Already hit by huge reductions in budgetary provisions for women in the annual budget of 2003, unemployment increased and countrywide employment exchanges recorded a 48.9 per cent increase in women registered. Women workers across the board were a beleaguered lot. A concerted campaign by local activists on the silicosis deaths in Pondicherry forced its government to award a compensation of Rs 630,000 (1US$=Rs 46) to 18 affected employees. In Maharashtra, the state labour board issued regulations guiding services of women domestic workers but these have remained ineffective.
In July, the Supreme Court set aside a ruling of the Mumbai High Court giving women air-hostesses of Air India the right to fly till the age of 58 and grounded them at 50 years. It subsequently rejected a review petition filed by the airhostesses too, who then took their arguments to Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani. All this occurred in the midst of the substantial achievement by women in the corporate world - Naina Lal Kidwai (HSBC), Sulajja Motwani (Kinetic group), Pallavi Jha (Walchand group), Vinita Jain (Biotique), Chanda Kelkar (ICICI Bank), Rajashree Pathy (Rajshree group), and so on.
But conditions of women in the police force did not inspire confidence, despite 188 all-women police stations in Tamilnadu. Kerala police constable N A Vinaya fought a lone battle against sexism in the force and was dismissed from service in June. In September, Mumbai's first woman senior inspector of a police station, Anita Chavan, was transferred to a crime cell with no branch to report to.
Thirteen women workers of TISCO (Tata group) in Jamshedpur began driving heavy vehicles: powered trucks, dumpers, fork-lifts and caterpillars under the company's Teaswini scheme. Two women bus operators, Hameeda Banu and Savitri, began plying public transport buses in Chennai. Women commandos undertook anti-terrorist squad training in Jammu and Kashmir; and Swati Sathe became the first woman superintendent of a state central prison in Maharashtra when she took charge of Mumbai's Arthur Road Jail.
As the new year dawns, women's organisations are gearing up for yet another struggle. A recent Supreme Court judgement permits the arrest of women after sunset without the presence of a woman constable. This would leave women totally vulnerable to custodial violence, a pernicious and ever-present threat that women have been fighting against for more than three decades.