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Friday, June 6, 2008

Public hearings give rural women a voice

Rajasthan is historically known for its cultural traditions and the epic tales of valour of its womenfolk are legendary. But sadly, today, this state fails to present a vibrant picture with regard to the status of its women who lead a backward existence.

Though geographically the largest state in India, Rajasthan’s human development indicators are dismal with a sex ratio of 922 women for every 1,000 men. Girls and women suffer grossly from poor health, social discrimination, poverty and paucity of resources.

Female literacy levels stand at 44.34 percent as compared to the national average of 54.16 percent while maternal mortality ratio is 667 per 100,000 live births and infant mortality rate 85 per 1,000 babies born in the state, according to the latest census figures.

Set against this stark neglect, a glimmer of hope for the State’s the Jan Sunvaiyan (public hearings). Organised by the Rajasthan State Women’s Commission (RSWC), an autonomous body set up by the state government in 1999, these hearings have the status of a civil court and investigate complaints brought before it by women and recommend the appropriate line of justice.

A patient hearing
Its primary objective says chairperson Tara Bhandi, is to bring the marginalised female population into the mainstream and provide speedy justice to genuine grievances and complaints of women. The presence, at the hearings, of top officials of the local administration ensures greater emphasis on accountability and bridging the information gap between the government and the public.

Presiding over a recent public hearing held in the district town of Sawai Madhopur, situated some 200 km away from the state capital of Jaipur, the RSWC chairperson efficiently and with infinite patience lends her ear to the 200-odd women gathered in the main town hall.
One by one, women who have travelled long distances from remote villages in the district to get a fair hearing, stand up and walk to the podium to air grievances ranging from problems in accessing health facilities, inefficiency of health workers, corruption at the panchayat (local government) level, discrimination in and lack of access to schools, sexual harassment at the work place and domestic abuse relating to dowry and alcohol abuse.

After each case, the chairperson turns to her fellow members on the podium and holds a brief consultation after which a verdict is given.

In some cases, the top police official asks his staff to note the name of errant husbands and call them to the nearest police station for follow-up action within two weeks. More serious complaints are forwarded to the state government which is bound to deal with the matter and inform the commission within three months on actions taken.

Some women complained that they had not been given employment in their villages in accordance with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). The district collector of Sawai Madhopur, Devashish Prusty, immediately asked the 15 women to give their names to the district official concerned, who was present, and directed this official to ensure that speedy steps were taken to give the women job cards.

Speedy justice
Sukhi Devi is just one of the women who came away satisfied from the hearing. "I was at my wit's end because my husband married again and brought the other woman into our home", she states. When he threatened to throw Sukhi Devi and their children out of their home, the traumatised woman appealed to the public hearing at Sawai Madhopur.

Another pleased woman is Urmila, who was assured that her jobless husband, who spent all his time drinking and gambling and abused her when she asked for household expenses, would be tackled. "The Jan Sunvaiyan has empowered women like me. Now our menfolk will think twice before exploiting and abusing us", she asserts strongly.

According to Kusum Bhandari, RSCW registrar and former district and sessions judge, "Over 85 per cent of the total 7,991 cases brought before the public hearings since their inception three years back have been resolved".

Conceptualised by the UNICEF, the preparation for a hearing starts a couple of weeks before the meeting. A credible NGO working in the field is mobilised to support the women and encourage them to bring their problems to the Commission’s hearing. So far, public hearings have been conducted in 30 districts of Rajasthan.

The task of the Commission, Bhandari points out, is daunting as Rajasthan is one of the more backward states in India. But the success and value of this initiative can be gauged by the fact that hundreds of women, often accompanied by relatives, friends and children attend. "They use whatever means possible, be it a three-wheeler, a bullock cart, bicycle or on foot," she adds.


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