Women’s issues and responses

Organisations for Women’s Empowerment

Pre-Independence women’s movements

Organizations started by men for the emancipation of women

Brahmo Samaj: it was founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in 1825 to abolish restrictions and prejudices against women, which include child marriage, polygamy, and limited rights to inherit property.

Prarthana Samaj: it was founded by MG Ranade and Bhandarkar in 1867. It contributed to the education of women and emphasis on widow remarriage.

Women’s organizations started by women

Ladies Society: sister of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who formed the Ladies Society in Calcutta in 1882 for educating and imparting skills to widows and other poor women to make them economically self-reliant. She edited a women’s journal, Bharati, thus earning herself the distinction of being the first Indian woman editor.

Arya Mahila Samaj: Ramabai Saraswati formed the Arya Mahila Samaj in Pune and a few years later started the Sharda Sadan in Bombay.

The National Conference was formed at the third session of the Indian National Congress in 1887 to provide a forum for the discussion of social issues. The Bharat Mahila Parishad was the women’s wing of this and was inaugurated in 1905. It focused on child marriage, the condition of widows, dowry and other “evil” customs.

Bharat Stree Mandal: In 1910, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, daughter of Swarna Kumari Devi formed the Bharat Stree Mandal (Great Circle of India Women) with the object of bringing together “women of all castes, creeds, classes and parties… on the basis of their common interest in the moral and material progress of the women of India.” It planned to open branches all over India to promote women’s education.

The Women’s India Association (WIA): was formed in 1917 by Margaret Cousins, an Irish and Indian nationalist. National Council of Indian Women (NCIW): it was established in 1926. It was the first all-India women organization The NCWI aimed at securing women’s rights through social reforms and women’s and children’s welfare.

Post-Independence era

Though the women’s uplift movement in pre-Independence India was led by males, during the post-independence era the baton was passed on to women themselves. Pre-independence movements were essentially about social reforms initiated by men. Post-independence movement demanded gender equality, questioned the gender-based division of labour and highlighted the oppressive nature of the existing patriarchal structure.

The ‘Towards Equality’ report of 1974 prepared by the Committee on Status of Women in India is said to have laid the foundation of the women’s movement in Independent India. This report highlighted the sociocultural practices, political and economic processes that adversely affect women. It was an eye-opener about women’s condition and that freedom and equal political rights had failed to achieve substantial meaningful gains for women. It highlighted the issue of declining sex ratio, women’s education, lack of women representation in government etc. Vina Mazumdar and Lotika Sarkar played an important role in this report.

The decade of 1970-80s witnessed the emergence of many autonomous (free or independent from state or government) women’s groups fighting for liberation.

Trade unionism:

Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA): Incorporated in 1972, the Self-Employed Women’s Association, or SEWA, is a trade union made up of poor and self-employed female workers that earn a living through self-run small businesses or their personal labour.

  • SEWA aims to organize women so that they can attain full employment and all its benefits including social security, which is defined as health care, child care and shelter.
  • SEWA stimulates full employment and female self-reliance by offering a number of services including health care, child care, banking through the Sewa Bank (a cooperative bank with credit and finance services), insurance via Vimo-SEWA (SEWA insurance), legal services and housing.

Legislative reforms: The state had a positive relation to the cause of women. The Women’s organisation campaigned with State for pursuing legislative reforms. All India Democratic Women Association campaigned for women’s political rights and equality.

Organisations like the All Indian Muslim women personal law board (AIMWPLB) and Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), Provided support to women facing problems concerning marriage, divorce, maintenance, alimony, property rights, custody of child/children and guardianship rights.  Ex. Shah Bano case.

North East Network (NEN):

  • NEN is a women’s rights organization that was established in 1995 as part of the Beijing World Conference on Women.
  • NEN operates mostly in North East India and focuses on women’s human rights and gender justice.
  • NEN organizes training sessions, awareness programs, retreats, as well as short film and art competitions all with the goal of merging advocacy with activism.
  • The organization continues to fight against gender-based discrimination while building support for government policies that promote women’s rights and increase female representation in political, public and community settings.

Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (MAKAAM):

  • MAKAAM is a forum for female farmers’ rights that operates in 24 states in India.
  • Even though women make up about 60 to 70 per cent of the farming workforce in India, they only account for around 12 per cent of landholdings.
  • Since female farmers rarely own the land they work on, they are excluded from important support services provided by the government.
  • However, MAKAAM seeks to empower female farmers by teaching them to assert their rights and gain ownership of their livelihoods and the natural resources that come with them.

Peace movements: Organisations like the Naga mothers association tried to address problems of conflict, peacebuilding and substance abuse in insurgency-affected areas of Nagaland.

Cooperative organisations: Cooperative societies played a major role in not only providing employment opportunities but also improving their status in society. Ex: Shri Mahila Griha Udyog (Lijjat Papad) cooperative society.

Environmental movements: Women contributed to the front in environmental movements. Ex. Chipko movement, women encircled trees to protect them from felling. Gaura Devi played an important role in this movement. In Narmada Bachao Andolan, Medha Patkar led from the front against the submergence of villages. Vandana Shiva pioneered the idea of Ecofeminism that women-centric development was environmentally friendly. Vandana Shiva also played an important role in mainstreaming the idea of protecting biodiversity and the protection of seeds of native varieties.

Later, a schism arrived in women’s organisations in India. Sections of women, especially from Dalit and Tribal backgrounds questioned the mainstream women’s organisation. This underclass of female activists believed that concerns represented by the mainstream women’s movement were concerns of elite females. Concerns of poor and marginalised Dalits, tribals, and minority communities especially poor Muslim females were different. Thus. there was fragmentation in women’s organisations with different sections of women constituting their own movements, demands and organisations.  

Problems associated with women’s organisations

  • Unorganized: Many women’s NGOs are not adequately organised.
  • Capital: Most of women’s organisations face financial constraints due to a lack of funding.
  • Narrow base: Often women-centric issues do not get active support from men in society.
  • Urban-centric: Barring some community-based organisations, most cause-oriented women’s organisations mainly serve urban women and their issues.
  • Dependent on state support: Many of these women’s organisations despite claiming autonomy, are closely aligned with the state’s agenda.
  • Often these organisations are front organisations for pursuing vested interests.
  • Fragmentation among the women organisations.
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