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Indian Women Channel Rape Outrage into Elections

Thursday, March 20, 2014

For the first time, 350 women's and civil society organizations in the influential state of Tamil Nadu are uniting against national parliamentary candidates who are "gender unjust." Their coalition demands rights to land, education, livelihoods and safety.

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For the first time, 350 women's and civil society organizations in the influential state of Tamil Nadu are uniting against national parliamentary candidates who are "gender unjust." Their coalition demands rights to land, education, livelihoods and safety.
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women's coalition for change
Women's Coalition for Change members discuss strategies with the group's founder, Burnad Fatima.

Credit: Women's Coalition for Change

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NEW DELHI (WOMENSENEWS)--The political landscape for women's rights could be undergoing a change here.

One of the leading parties in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu--Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK--has received a written caution not to nominate a party leader to run as a parliamentary candidate in the national elections taking place from April 7 through May 12.

The politician, AH Nazeem, is a member of the legislative assembly from Pondicherry. Last December he sparked outrage among women's groups when he said on television that the gang rape of a 20-year-old woman in his district could be a case of prostitution.

In response to his comment, the All India Democratic Women's Association filed a petition in the Delhi high court seeking action against people in high positions for making malicious statements against rape victims. Now some of those same detractors want to stop him at the polls.

"If Nazeem is nominated, we will campaign against him and ensure women don't vote for him," said Burnad Fatima, the 52-year-old founder of Women's Coalition for Change, a Chennai-based coalition that says it represents more than 2 million women.

As a result of the coalition, which formed two years ago, 350 women's and civil society organizations in Tamil Nadu are uniting for the first time against candidates they consider "gender unjust" in the national parliamentary elections next month.

"Since our aim is to expose candidates who do not respect women, we have written to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, one of main political parties in the state, asking it not to nominate AH Nazeem, a member of the legislative assembly from Pondicherry, because of his support to perpetrators of a gang rape," said Fatima in a phone interview.

Seeking Gender-Sensitive Candidates

Nazeem is just one example of the role the coalition may play in the election. Members of the Women's Coalition for Change plan to use their networks at the state, district and grassroots levels to defeat any candidate who supports misogyny, discriminates against women or has been involved in gender-based violence. If coalition partners see no gender-sensitive candidates on the party lists, they plan to advise their members to opt for the NOTA, or "none of the above," option.

The state elects 39 members of Parliament and has played a key role in national government formation in the last couple of elections.

Women's concerns have always been given short shrift by the political parties, said Fatima, pointing to the way they recently let lapse the Women's Reservation Bill, a proposal to reserve 33 percent of parliamentary seats for women.

Fatima said the coalition will give marginalized women a stronger political voice. "Assertion of rights by marginalized women has always been ignored by political parties," she said. "It is time to tell them that women, who comprise a little less than 50 percent of the electorate, can no longer be taken for granted."

Sheelu, who prefers to be known by her first name, is president of the Women's Collective, a group of 100,000 marginalized women spread over 15 districts in the state, which will work as a partner of the Women's Coalition for Change.

"The process of our coming together is a historic one because all of us have overcome the barriers of caste and religion," said Sheelu in a phone interview from Chennai. "We realized that individually, it was difficult for each of us to create pressure. So, this time, we changed our strategy and joined forces under one banner. Together, we are a big pressure group being visible in all 39 parliamentary constituencies and in all 30 districts of Tamil Nadu."

Coalition Manifesto

The coalition has issued a manifesto that outlines the concerns of all its constituents, including women from marginalized communities, transgender people, the differently abled, commercial sex workers and agricultural laborers. It says it will only support political parties that incorporate their issues into their own platforms.

The coalition, after a consultative process with grassroots women representing different communities, has set out specific demands on rights to land, education, livelihoods, wages, equality and safety. It is also asking parties to nominate more women not just as candidates, but also in key decision-making positions within their organizations.

"We need more women in governance and at crucial administrative posts in political parties to inspire behavioral change," said Fatima. "Having one woman at the helm of affairs without a critical mass of women will not work."

"As a partner of the coalition, we have already formed groups and are reaching out to the community," said Sister Alphonsa of the Thurumbar Liberation Movement, a group working for the rights of the marginalized community of washerwomen in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu. "Being the lowest on the caste hierarchy, washerwomen are subjected to oppression by all. They need to be informed about the candidate and how they can protect their rights by using the NOTA option available for the first time."

Father Arulvalan of the Thurumbar Movement added that the coalition will be looking for the support of men as well. "Men play an important role in our society and need to be sensitized not just about gender, but also about their responsibilities towards women by voting for the right candidate," he said.

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