(Sample Material) UPSC Mains GS Online Coaching : Paper 1 - "Role of Women"

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Subject: General Studies (Paper 1 - Indian Heritage and Culture, History & Geography of the World & Society)

Topic: Role of Women


National Commission for Women: Overview of its Performance

The response of the National Commission for Women (ncw) to the public molestation of a young girl in Guwa-hati on 12 July 2012 left women organisations and activ­ists all over the country enraged over the manner of function­ing of the ncw as well as the role of persons occupying impor­tant positions within the commission. The case once again brought to the centre stage the issues of composition and func­tioning of an apex institution like the ncw that is expected to address the issues of gender inequities and injustices and stand strongly by women victims of state and non-state violence.

It is also expected that while demanding redressal for women, the commission takes cognisance of substantive issues at hand, thereby asking questions of accountability in such cases of vio­lence. Many women activists and organisations have written to the chairperson of United Progressive Alliance (upa) govern­ment in the context of the conduct of the commission over suc­cessive years, highlighting the manner in which the ncw has ob­scured systemic injustices to women, trivialised their violations, and reduced the dignity of the institution indicating an institu­tional collapse of this national body. Citing many cases, the women’s organisations have asked in their letter to safeguard the political autonomy of this nodal women’s “rights institution by replacing the current nomination system with a transparent, democratic and non-partisan selection process for members and chairperson of the commission, undertake a comprehensive review of the performance of the commission and replace it with an immediate effect the current chairperson of the ncw.1

The issues that the Guwahati case has thrown up and the subsequent demands made by the women’s groups have been the core areas of tension between the women’s organisations and the central government both before and after the ncw came into being. The issues mainly relate to the composition, autonomy and functioning of the commission as an apex body entrusted with the tasks of monitoring the state and its agen­cies on women’s issues and investigating and redressing the complaints of women.

This paper attempts an assessment of the ncw within the wider political and institutional context of Indian democracy. It examines the state’s approach to women’s issues through the evolution of national mechanisms dealing with women’s issues as also through an understanding of the engagement of wom­en’s movements with the state, both by way of challenging and participating in the state institutions. While women’s move­ments have been able to create political constituencieswithin the democratic spaces available to them, the state’s willingness to intervene on the behalf of women, or create mechanisms and opportunities that promote women’s interests is also de­termined by the interests of the state and political actors in se­curing and maintaining power.

This creates a certain tension among activists in their work with state institutions, as this assessment of the functioning of the ncw indicates. The ques­tions women’s movements face are: to what extent do these policy initiatives and national machineries effectively address the issues for which they had been created and to what extent are they able to bring in changes in the culture and practices of bureaucratic structures of the state. There are also issues of institutional autonomy, the need to use institutions creatively to bring in changes and make them more accessible and partici­patory. What is the possibility of using such national institu­tions in a positive way? How should activists engage with such institutions? The debates and deliberations between women’s organisations and the government at the time of constituting of the commission throw light on the differences in their percep­tion of such a body along with apprehensions on the part of women activists and organisations as to whose purpose this institution would serve?


The need for an autonomous watchdog institution was first voiced in the Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (cswi) 1974 that raised the issue of continued subordi­nation of women in society resulting from the working of state institutions, laws and development policies. It noted that the processes of development had adversely affected women by leaving them out of “both the discourse and practice”, result­ing in their decreased work participation rates and share of employment, along with evidence of gender gaps in virtually every sector.2 The report also raised issues of inadequate and biased redressal mechanisms in cases of widespread though unrecognised and invisible violence against women in both private and public spheres. It recommended creating apex bodies at the national and state levels to collect information from different government agencies, evaluate existing policies, programmes and laws and recommend to Parliament or the state legislature new laws, policies and programmes and also intervene in cases of actual violations of laws. The report asked for two things: one that the state set-up follow-up mechanisms and processes that incorporated women’s perspectives and con­cerns in its policies and structures, and two, the establishment of a single agency, a statutory and autonomous commission that could coordinate and examine these measures, provide expert advice on methods of implementation and monitor state institutions to ensure equality between women and men and full integration of women in all sections of life.

As a follow-up to the cswi recommendations, the state created a number of new mechanisms to look into issues con­cerning women like the Women’s Welfare and Development Bureau (1976) and a National Committee on Women with the prime minister as the chairperson and similar committees at the level of states. In 1985, a separate Department of Women and Child Development (dwcd) was established (upgraded to ministry since 2005) followed by a number of special structures for women such as a women’s division in the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development (nipccd), cells in various ministries, women’s directorates in states, and sepa­rate institutions for economic advancement of women (like the women’s development corporations, Rashtriya Mahila Kosh). The creation of a national commission for women was not taken up.

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