International Women's Day in India

April 3, 1996

By Sujatha Fernandes

On March 9, the All India Progressive Women's Association (AIPWA), the mass women's organisation of the Communist Party of India — Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML), held a rally in Delhi to mark International Women's Day. This followed an official rally on March 8 held by a coalition of non-governmental organisations, local women's groups and the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India — Marxist (CPI-M).

AIPWA participated in the organising committee of the official rally and sent along a delegation to the rally, but felt that this rally was very limited. The theme of the official rally was "Celebration".

Kumudini Pati, general secretary of AIPWA, told Green Left Weekly, "There was no focus as to where the movement has to be led, or the direction it has to take in order to achieve empowerment for women".

The agenda of the official rally was highly influenced by the NGO milieu and by the CPI and CPI-M. The CPI and CPI-M felt that since elections were coming up everything had to be focused on them. Rather than addressing women's issues in their speeches, they talked about the recent Hawala scandal, which has involved politicians from the major political parties taking bribes.

The NGOs, while criticising the government and political parties, concluded that all politics is dirty, and if women are to be empowered they have to organise in small, local groups. AIPWA activists felt that while grassroots organising is important, it is useless without a strong national movement to back it up.

A theme of the official rally was violence against women. AIPWA felt that the NGOs limited this to the specific issue of rape, and failed to look at violence in all of its forms.

When asked why AIPWA participated in the official rally, Pati answered, "There are many sincere women in the NGOs who are searching for a consistent direction to their movement. We hope that we can reach out to them through interaction and discussion and show them that there are movements which are serious about women's rights."

While the official rally attracted only 800 women, the AIPWA rally attracted more than 3000. Women from all different parts of India participated in the march. The overwhelming majority came from agricultural labourer and working class backgrounds.

The AIPWA rally was extremely political and militant. Twice there were confrontations with the police who would not allow the rally to march, but both times the women simply pushed through the police lines and continued. The slogan of the rally, "Equal treatment, equal rights, we want as our birthright", gave the demonstration a practical, relevant focus.

Kumudini Pati explained, "Although the government tries to say that it is doing a lot for women, women are still suffering a lot; they are still being marginalised from the mainstream. Economic liberalisation is throwing women out of work and putting them into low-paid, unskilled jobs in the unorganised sector or back into the home."

Kumudini Pati felt that it was extremely important that these issues be raised at a national level because "it is national policies which are directly affecting women all over India.

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