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'I'm a very touchy-feely, hands-on minister'
Monika Joshi

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October 27, 2006
One of the highpoints of Renuka Chowdhury's tenure as Union minister of state for women and child development will be the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, a new law that came into force October 26.

The law provides protection from domestic abuse to wives, live-in partners, sisters, mothers and widows from the men of the house.

Chowdhury, who was in the US last week to attend a Diwali gala at the United Nations organised by a UK-based charity, spoke to Rediff India Abroad Special Correspondent Monika Joshi in New York.

What has been your schedule here?

We met up with a lady who has been wanting to adopt a child. She had emailed us saying that she finds it very tough and confusing. I counselled her, and hopefully, we should be able to give her a child after completing the formalities.

It is a common refrain that the process of adopting a child from India is tough, and it needs to be made simpler. What are your thoughts?

Some amount of prohibitive checks have to be in place so that the children are not exploited. Having said that, I am very happy to tell you that we have brought about an amendment in Parliament on the Juvenile Justice Act whereby now you don't have to adopt only under the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act. Now you have smarter, user-friendly acts which take care of various factors and facilitate adoption. I am confident that now the process is streamlined.

We have also adopted the Guardianship and Fosterhood Act which wasn't there earlier. Today, we have a lot of young people and corporates who want to be guardians to children in orphanages.

What are the main concerns of Indian Americans here?

They say they have two problems. They don't want their children to grow up here. They cannot accept problems such as drugs, teenage pregnancies and sexual activity at an early age. They believe if they come back, their children will grow up with the values that they are familiar with.

The second is a big guilt. They feel they are not back home to look after their ageing parents. The concept of old age homes is not something that people are comfortable with.

Young families have asked me if I'll facilitate admissions (for their children) midway (through the school year). They want to head back. That's quite surprising because there was a time it was every Indian's dream to be in America.

When Vayalar Ravi (Overseas Indian Affairs minister) visited the US in July, he said many people told him about the abandonment of brides by NRIs.

That's a major issue which I had taken up with Vayalar Ravi before he came here. I also initiated a conversation with the British high commission and the American consulates just before I came here. There are lots of young men who believe that they are beyond the arm of the law. If they are married in India, then the law applies only there, and they take shelter here.

I'm taking initiatives whereby we can, under some common treaty between the two countries, help restore justice to those women who have been married under false pretences and have been exploited. Worse, some of them have been left behind pregnant, with children and no support.

I think that is a very ugly face of India and Indian men who are sitting here abroad preening under the thing of being employed here and (other) big concerns. They have no moral values or sense of responsibility toward their partners.

As minister, what key issues have you identified?

Three things. One is pre-school education, nutrition levels to be met, and identifying children as children below the age of 18. We had far too many conflicting definition of a 'child,' so it became very hard to implement laws.

Where women are concerned, I'm still battling on maternal mortality rates, and banning child marriage below 15. Women who get married at 15, if they are malnutritioned and they have children, obviously, you are going to have infant mortality and maternal mortality.

We have counseling and helplines for these women (against) domestic violence and sexual harassment in workplaces. (We are) integrating women into every field as equals, as the Constitution recognises them.

You have hit out at female foeticide.

That is something which I am deeply maliced about, collectively ashamed about and absolutely determined to put an end to. We have lost almost 10 million children in the past 20 years and there're skewed sex ratios in most of our states now.

It would mean huge ramifications. By 2020, we are looking at the youngest workforce in the world. If we're going there, there aren't going to be any women to marry these young men. It will have a negative impact on the population balance.

But how do you address the problem at its roots? What if someone doesn't have enough to eat.

Ironically, it is not at the grassroots. The poor don't kill their children, because they can earn for them. It's the educated middle classes who have access to some science and technology, who are in the yuppie culture, who believe that like Ray-Ban glasses and Reebok shoes they have to have designer families, and who view girls as a liability.

I think there was a lack of awareness where each one believed that they were the only ones doing it and so it's nobody's problem, till it suddenly hit them between the eyes. We actually have a problem in states like Rajasthan and Haryana where we do not have enough women. There are not enough women for men to marry and reproduce.

You have been an activist. What inspired you?

Being born a woman was hugely empowering. A tremendous advantage I had was I had no brothers. I had two other sisters, so we girls were brought up as people and not as women and girls. We were taught to be competitive and to put out our best.

Maybe I was considered a bit radical in my time. This was 30 years ago when I was in school and colleges. I drove tractors; I rode motorcycles even then.

However, coming into a complex world of gender stereotyping, I found that there were conflicting moments when I wanted to conform with that. I said hey, maybe life's easier if I just go back into being a girl and doing pretty much what is expected of me. Other times, I rebelled against it.

As I grew older, I was happier to accept me for myself and then put that out to the rest. I didn't want to do the typical feminism thing when you compromise on your feminity, and you power-dress for boardrooms. I will dress as I want to; it's the problem of the boardroom to accept me, and not the other way round. I am a little alarmed when I see supposedly progressive magazines, and supposedly in a progressive Western society where you still talk about power dressing.

How should the workplace change?

Workplaces have to learn to embrace the biological differences of gender and cater to those needs. I don't like women having to make either-or choices, saying either you have a baby or you have a promotion.

I think that you have to learn to tell your workplaces -- listen, friend, I'm a woman. These are my needs. This is my biological right, and I am going to live by that. You change your corporate policy for that.

I'm very proud that India has announced gender budgeting and soon gender auditing.

What's gender budgeting?

Gender budgeting is where we have said 10 per cent of the budget of every ministry will be focussed on sensitising, awareness, empowering, putting it into infrastructure which is required to empower women.

Now ministries have creches, and we have asked Parliament to put a creche into place. Why should a woman have to choose between breastfeeding and sitting in a boardroom?

What was it like raising two daughters in a patriarchal society?

The only regret I have is I don't know if my girls are going to find decent men with the kind of father and grandfathers they have grown up with. In our family, we were brought up to be equal. They have grown up with those yardsticks.

There is a bit of a conflict when we look at societies and families outside of our homes where stereotyping still takes place. But I'm also very proud that my girls are such flexi girls that they've learnt to survive everywhere. They don't compromise on their personal lives or preferences.

I also want to ask you about polio, which is resurgent today.

I want to put enough caution to say that there is no way that the government of India, health ministry or anyone of us is willing to compromise on polio. We are very much on an eradicating-polio mission in India and it's nowhere near being completely resurgent as the media puts it out to be.

We have had some sporadic outbreaks in one part of UP in a remote area and then, thanks to communication etc -- people who've had exposure travelling elsewhere. But the government is working around the clock.

Eradicating polio has been one of our biggest interventions and success stories where private-public partnerships have worked brilliantly. Perhaps, and we will be, a role model for the rest of the world on how to do it across a one billion and odd people.

Why did the outbreak happen?

The outbreak happened because perhaps there was not adequate outreach and awareness amongst people, the ignorance of an illiterate mother. Which is why, it is imperative to educate and empower women. It is not a feminism thing; it is about maintaining an equitable society for progress and development of an economy.

How do you tackle the problem in a country where many areas are inaccessible and there are accounts of people hiding their babies, thinking the drops may harm them?

Multicultural, multiple language, multi economic levels, factors that contribute to superstition, ignorance and a lack of awareness -- all of that is a complex situation, undoubtedly. But education, empowerment, micro-credit, fee mid-day meals schemes, free and compulsory education are some of the major steps the government has taken.

I am very optimistic that when we are doing our approach paper for the 11th plan, this sector is going to have top priority.

When did you take over as minister?

Eight months ago. This ministry has been carved out for the very first time in almost 60 years of India's Independence. The prime minister and Shrimati Sonia Gandhi [Images] are personally involved and drive this.

How will you make the streets safer for women, particularly in Delhi?

It's very unfortunate that Delhi, and the capital city at that, has that reputation, well earned, may I say very bluntly. For too long, I think, women have depended on men to keep us safe. I believe that the time is now when women learn to stand up for themselves.

I am going to be launching a major national campaign that it is not macho to be mean to a woman. To change the whole mindset, it takes huge outreach. We are asking schools to have compulsory marshal arts training; we are putting into place different checks by which they can stand up for themselves. But all of that is not enough unless you have a civilised society. To change societies is an uphill task but I'm not going to give up.

This campaign will be in Delhi?

We're going to have a huge mela on November 14 to 19 in Delhi where physical demonstrations are going to be given on how to break a deadlock and how to use an ordinary thing as an instrument.

For example, (folds a newspaper) a paper like this can well end up as a very good instrument of self defence if you were to hold it and jam someone under their nose.

How do you reach out to the people who are affected by the decisions you make?

Even my worst enemies will tell you that I'm not the stereotype minister, one that would sit in my office and listen to my staff. Those who know me understand that I'm a very touchy-feely, hands-on minister.

Recently, in my own district, I was tipped off by a citizen that the food which we sent for the children was not being distributed and holed up in a godown. I didn't hesitate to go and raid that. I stood there, and I opened up all the godowns and found this rotting molding food there. We've taken action.

Who are your partners?

I've got little networks of people, including young students, who get online and tell me that this is not working here and that's not happening there. Now I'm having national vigilance committees which will go and look at whether the mid-day meal scheme is happening or not.

I have private-public partnerships, like I've got McDonald's and Air Deccan on board as initiative partners. We have people who will get into my Anganwadis to test eyes and do corrective surgeries. I have the largest legally blind population in the world.

After doing all this work, how will you ensure it will continue if your portfolio changes?

There is a system where everything is put on file and paper. It's for the other minister to pick it up from there. Being a minister is a collective responsibility. I would like to believe that with the kind of passion and commitment I've put in I'll be allowed to remain as minister.

I want to remain in this ministry because this is where I can make a difference, and I want to.

Photograph: Getty Images

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