Manushi is widely acknowledged as having pioneered a new thinking on women’s rights issues in the country. It is also credited for avoiding the “Ladies Compartment” approach to women’s issues which tends to ghettoize women’s concerns by overlooking the context in which women of diverse communities, regions, castes and class groups are situated.
One of the great challenges faced by women’s rights movements in India is the big and growing gap between legal prescriptions on various issues and the actual practices prevalent in society. From its inception, Manushi has been involved in understanding why the gap between governmental laws and the practices of civil society is growing larger. Our critiques of some of these laws and the alternatives we have offered have helped change the terms of debate and perception regarding several of these laws.
The Anti Dowry act, the legislation against sex determination tests, laws against domestic violence, the Indecent Representation of Women Act, laws against rape or prostitution or the Child Restraint Marriage Act were all passed ostensibly for the protection of women; nevertheless, they are either brazenly flouted by people at large, including those holding high positions of power in the Government, or actively misused and abused by unscrupulous elements, leading to a severe backlash among communities who become targeted for punitive measures.
A common reaction in India is to attribute this gap between the law and actual behaviour either to hypocrisy or to the absence of effective enforcement and punishment for non-compliance. These criticisms are without doubt true. But they are only partly responsible for the widening rift between what different groups and communities consider acceptable norms and what governmental laws define as “legal” or “illegal” behaviour.
Manushi believes that just as a doctor is expected to review her/his diagnosis rather than blame or terrorize the patient if she/he gets sicker from the given medical prescription, so also those involved in the work of healing social wounds or righting the wrongs of vulnerable groups and individuals ought to be constantly reviewing and questioning their own strategies when they fail in their campaigns, rather than merely blame society for rejecting their social prescriptions. However, what we witness in India is usually the very opposite. When a law fails, instead of undertaking a cool-headed, honest review, the tendency is to blame its failure on the laxity of implementation machinery and lack of stringent provisions for punishment. That is how all the failed laws are bolstered with more and more draconian provisions usually leading to many new unfortunate fall outs while the original problem remains unsolved.
Manushi’s well researched and thought out critiques of ill conceived legislation on women’s rights issues has played an important role in bringing about a major shift in thinking on these issues. In addition, Manushi has been fairly effective in building creative bridges with traditional as well as modern community organizations.
In addition, Manushi has been active in campaigns for police and judicial reforms. Instead of blindly bolstering ill conceived laws with draconian provisions, Manushi believes in working to create appropriate instruments within the state machinery that have the capacity and the will power to implement social legislation with dignity and honesty.
Widely acknowledged contributions of Manushi:
1) Our investigative reports disseminated widely through the Journal played a leading role in making people aware that what were being routinely passed off as suicides by women or kitchen accidents were actually cases of bride burning.
2) Organized the first ever protests against bride burning and catalyzed the process of neighborhood action with our call for social boycott of families found guilty of torturing or killing the daughters in law.
3) The first organization to bring to attention the fact through its own research and investigations that most of the cases of domestic violence are not due to dowry demands but a whole complex of factors go into making a daughter in law vulnerable to domestic violence.
4) Mobilized lawyers to provide free legal advice and aid to victims of domestic violence and have provided free counseling for such women and their natal families starting from 1979 to encourage them to support their daughters in moving out of murderous marriages instead of asking them to “adjust” till they end up dead.
5) Drafted and campaigned for a more realistic and effective legislation to enhance women’s participation in legislatures.
6) Set up among the first legal aid facility for women of domestic violence and sexual harassment.
7) Willingness to provide legal and moral support to include even those families which have been wrongly implicated by their daughters in law in dowry related offences and domestic violence cases.
8) Led the campaign for strengthening the inheritance rights of women in their natal family through following means:
a) Field based studies which looked at the customary laws of various communities with regard to women’s inheritance and implications of such fragile rights for the lives of women.
b) Challenged in the Supreme Court certain anti women inheritance practices and governmental regulations among tribal communities in Central India.
c) Made documentary films to sensitize opinion for strengthening women’s inheritance laws.
d) Developed and enacted a street play called Roshni which was enacted in various colleges and neighborhoods to sensitize people against discrimination against the girl child.
e) Undertook a study of the Hindu Code Bill to demonstrate the discriminatory provisions and flaws in that legislation which falsely claimed to have given equal rights to women.
f) Worked with a mass based farmers’ movement, Shetkarai Sangathana to mobilize farmers of Maharashtra to voluntarily transfer a portion of their land in the name of women of the family. As a result several hundred villages became Lakshmi Mukti Villages.
g) Joined Shetkari Sangathana’s fairly successful campaign for all women panchayats in Maharashtra.
h) Provided realistic ways to handle the stalemate over Muslim Personal laws. Manushi articles on this theme were widely published in the Urdu press and its approach to reform of Muslim personal laws found much greater favour among large sections of the Muslim community.
i) Provided honest and well grounded critiques of ill conceived laws which have been enacted in the last 25 years ostensibly to strengthen women’s rights. Our critiques have been widely lauded for demonstrating why much of pro women legislation lends itself to easy abuse while failing to provide protection to genuine victims of violence. Some examples are laws against domestic violence, dowry, obscenity; law banning sex determination tests.
j) Provided inputs to the Law Commission on the changes required in the Hindu Succession Act to give daughters equal inheritance rights.
A good example of the impact of Manushi’s approach is the Alternative Bill for Women’s Reservation, which received far greater acceptability than the official Women’s Reservation Bill. Similarly, the success of the “Voluntary Transfer of Land Rights to Women named the Lakshmi Mukti Campaign” which was undertaken by the Shetkari Sangathana at Manushi’s behest. It provides a good example of our ability to evolve strategies that elicit positive responses from civil society at large, including traditional rural communities, for strengthening women’s rights in the family and community without the use of coercive laws.
Plans for the Future:
1. Undertake investigations to get a realistic picture of the role of biradari panchayats in different parts of the country to understand the role they perform, the extent to which people owe allegiance to them, identify the positive leadership initiatives within these traditional institutions and explore ways of channeling the creative potential of these institutions so that they act as effective watchdogs against human rights abuses and ensuring that the fundamental rights provided in the constitution are not violated even while these community institutions continue to play a role in society.
2. Devise effective campaigns to spread information about viable alternatives at a national scale on key aspects of social legislation affecting women that emphasize desirable, more equitable norms for gender relations within the family so as to strengthen and protect the rights of women in their diverse roles—as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, grandmothers and so on.