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Informed by Gender? Public Policy in Kerala

While conventional indicators in Kerala that measure the status of women such as literacy, life expectancy, sex ratio, average age of marriage, infant mortality, and maternal mortality are mostly favourable, women have not fared well in the state in terms of non-conventional indicators such as gender-based violence, mental health, and the incidence of suicides. This paper attempts to take a critical look at the much-acclaimed status indicators for women in Kerala and reflects on the work of the Mahila Samakhya Programme as an illustration of public policy focused on women.


Informed by Gender? Public Policy in Kerala

Seema Bhaskaran

While conventional indicators in Kerala that measure the status of women such as literacy, life expectancy, sex ratio, average age of marriage, infant mortality, and maternal mortality are mostly favourable, women have not fared well in the state in terms of non-conventional indicators such as gender-based violence, mental health, and the incidence of suicides. This paper attempts to take a critical look at the much-acclaimed status indicators for women in Kerala and reflects on the work of the Mahila Samakhya Programme as an illustration of public policy focused on women.

Seema Bhaskaran ( is with the Kerala Mahila Samakhya Society, Thiruvananthapuram.

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ublic policy in Kerala has been generated by the struggles carried on by people’s groups to attain social justice and equity. The demands of popular struggles, civic consciousness and the approaches of progressive governments have r esulted in positive health indicators, high literacy level, near universal primary education, development without rural and u rban disparities, communication network systems, effective public distribution system, fair and equitable daily wages, which have put Kerala ahead of other states in social and human development indicators.1

Decentralised governance has enabled enhancement of agency and participation of the most marginalised and invisible communities. Decentralisation as envisaged through the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act, 1994, with its emphasis on inclusion and participation of women at various levels, has brought about significant changes in enhancing visibility of women in public spaces. The total literacy campaign accelerated the euphoria for learning and aimed at enhancing social consciousness, by breaking down n otions of caste, religion and other fragmenting barriers. Similarly, the people’s plan campaign spiralled decentralisation with the aim of enhancing absolute participation in democracy. This, supported by the devolution of funds resulted in local level budgeting and the translation of the people’s plan into actual schemes and measures.

1 Women’s Official Status in Kerala: An Introduction

The most revolutionary stride has been the formulation of special components like Women’s Component Plan, Scheduled Caste Component Plan and Tribal Sub-Plan and a clear stipulation that basic needs like housing, sanitation, food and access to infrastructural facilities are to be met from the general sector. There is a visible bifurcation along the lines of practical needs and strategic interests. Questions of gender-based discrimination – violence against women, dowry, child marriage, being deprived of education as a girl child, reproductive health issues and programmes to enhance the empowerment of women, what might be called strategic gender interests – are met through the w omen’s component plan.

Kerala has achieved universal education in primary school and education has also gone through remarkable changes with the D istrict Primary Education Programme (DPEP) and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) introducing experiential learning and engaging children in innovative projects. Multigrade learning centres (MGLCs) under SSA have taken formal education to the most r emote nooks of the state. Further, the preponderance of girls in formal education at every level gives a distinctive character to the development profile of Kerala.2 The National Rural Health Mission has opened access to health to the most remote and marginalised areas through the Asha workers even while the primary health centres and sub-centres in rural areas continue to provide universal access.3 Institutional delivery has been achieved and constant monitoring of maternal health has been ensured. Again the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-3 data shows that 99.3% of deliveries in Kerala took place in some healthcare institutions and only a minuscule proportion of 0.6% took place at home. Comparatively, the national average for institutional delivery was much lower (38.7%). Only about one in two deliveries (46.6%) was attended by health personnel at the national level compared to all (99.7%) in Kerala. The percentage of deliveries with postnatal check up is less than half in India (41.2%) compared to 87.4% in Kerala.

Women’s most significant role in development was initiated with the Integrated Child Development Programme, where apart from maternal and infant healthcare, the child’s education was also ensured through balwadis which were later graduated into anganwadis in the 1980s. Anganwadi workers have played a m ajor role in organising mothers, adolescents and children and instilling social consciousness.

Against this backdrop, this paper attempts to take a critical look at these much-acclaimed status indicators for women in public policy in Kerala and reflect on the work of the Mahila Samakhya Programme in Kerala as an illustration of public policy focused on women.

2 Social Development without Gender Equality?

Viewed critically, gender equality and social justice for dalit and adivasi communities is as yet unrealised in the highly acclaimed social development model of Kerala. Socially disaggregated data shows that the literacy levels among the tribal and dalit communities fall far short. Where gender equality is concerned, although the literacy campaign definitely enhanced public and civic consciousness and helped the dissemination of information and the interest in reading newspapers everyday, it has not affected traditional thinking about gender or the status of women. While conventional indicators measuring the status of women like l iteracy, life expectancy, sex ratio, especially among the reproductive age group, average age of marriage, infant mortality, m aternal mortality are very favourable, women in Kerala have not fared well in terms of non-conventional indicators such as gender-based violence, mental ill health, incidence of suicide and growth and spread of dowry and related crimes (Eapen and Kodoth 2002; Eapen 2002; Sonpar and Kapur 2001).4

2.1 Education

Despite the high levels of access to education and influx into mainstream education, there is an inverse relation of education with status of women. Literacy and education have not succeeded in generating social transformation or questioning e ntrenched patriarchal values, customs and norms. Modern e ducation, on the other hand, has reinstated the patriarchal middle class norms which p roduced new forms of power and h ierarchies that are masked by symbols of “modernity”, and therefore, not easily discernible.


The concept of womanhood is split into the “good” woman who is described as “the light of the home” in the speech of practically every politician, and the “bad” woman, who is often i mplied to be mainly from marginalised communities, who has to work strenuously to eke out a bare subsistence, and this also often translates as a “woman of loose morals”. Malayalee women bear the burden of a culture in which morality is based on the monogamous family, an expectation that has its roots in the social reform movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.5

Mahila samajams, or women’s wings of political parties like Janathipathya Mahila Association or Mahila Congress have hardly taken up issues of women’s exploitation in a sustained manner or tried to influence policy.6 Gender stereotyping has continued to persist in post-Independence times in the field of education in Kerala, despite the fact that both girls and boys are equally educated (Kodoth and Eapen 2005). The double expectation i mposed on contemporary Kerala girls is, however, of concern. While they are expected to perform as well as the boys at school or college, there is an additional burden of having to conform to the norms of femininity. This has produced a contradictory situation, particularly striking under the present circumstances.

Social issues that affect the status of women like dowry, ostentation in marriages and heightened norms of masculinity and femininity are deeply embedded. For instance, higher levels of education among girls result in the demand for higher dowry. There is also a rigid gender stereotyping of the professions with girls still not permitted to enter technical or non-conventional courses and flocking to teaching and nursing – professions that are considered most acceptable for girls.

Education has never questioned the basis of gendering or gendered behaviour. It has reinforced distorted values and images of masculinity and femininity and super-imposed values of modernity onto obsolete social practices. Gender segregation is strictly practised and girls and boys are not allowed to mingle from young childhood. Gender discrimination, inequality, discrimination/disparity on the basis of caste, tribe, ethnicity, religion, colour, etc, is still subtly practised and no attempts have been made to address these issues critically through training or curriculum.7

With respect to higher education, data shows that girls mostly enrol for degree courses or postgraduation in the arts or humanities stream which are considered a passport to better marriage prospects (Kodoth and Eapen 2005). The proportion of students enrolling for technical, vocational and engineering courses is low. The money to be invested in higher education is set apart for dowry. Even girls who have earned higher professional degrees continue to remain trapped in negative stereotypes.

2.2 Health

Despite better health outcomes, however, the much-acclaimed K erala model of health has started showing a number of disturbing trends. Although mortality is low, morbidity figures from u rban and rural Kerala are high in comparison to other states (GoK 2005). Thus, the paradox is that on the one side, Kerala stands as the state with all indicators of better healthcare development in terms of infant mortality rate (IMR), maternal mortality rate (MMR), birth rate, death rate, etc, and on the other, it

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outstrips all other Indian states in terms of morbidity, especially chronic illness.8

Although Kerala spends a substantial amount on medical and public health compared to other Indian states, there is an uncontrolled growth of private healthcare and a growing dependence on it owing to lack of medicines and infrastructure in government hospitals and a general decay of the public health s ystem (GOK 2005).

Imrs and mmrs are at the lowest, but a notable aspect here is that almost a third of the total deliveries in Kerala end up in caesarean section (Asokan 2006). It is well known that the medical risks involved in a caesarean are much higher than that in a normal delivery. Several reasons are attributed to the high caesarean rate in Kerala. They include high rate of institutional delivery and higher dependence on private hospitals. This could be the result of the profit motive operating in private sector institutions. The one-child norm is cited as another reason – the need for no risk deliveries leading to higher proportion of caesareans. Significantly, however, there are cases reported that where the caesarean section is performed in deference to demand by the family for a delivery at an auspicious time. In general, the medicalisation of women’s bodies seems to have grown apace alongside the expansion of private healthcare, judging from the rate at which the caesarean sections in childbirth are growing (Misra and Ramanathan 2001).

The sex ratio has been favourably tilted towards women at 1,058 per 1,000 males in the reproductive age group. But among children in the age group of 0-6 years, the sex ratio among girls is showing an alarming decline.9 The family planning drive has been most successful with women most meekly and obediently succumbing to the sterilisation drive, and fertility control through the use of invasive methods. Contraceptive measures, methods like sterilisation, use of copper-T and abortions are commonly employed and these invasive methods are carried out in women’s bodies. There seems to be no responsibility or involvement on the part of men in fertility control.

The beginning of the use of contraception was promoted mainly to achieve human development indicators (HDIs) and the goals of the welfare state but women’s control over their bodies, and their control over decision-making with respect to fertility and contraception have never been a matter of concern for the state. The discussion with respect to family planning was seen as a measure for improving the economic progress of the family.

Abortions are also a common method of family planning, especially practised for spacing. But abortions are often carried out in private hospitals. With the falling girl child sex ratio, there is a fear that abortion is used as a method of sex selection after sex determination. Further, the large number of abortions taking place seems to indicate that unwanted pregnancies are rather frequent (Jayasree 2005). Also the widespread availability of contraception does not necessarily indicate that the best options are chosen. The point that women’s bodies were meant to serve patrifocal families, and that birth control became acceptable in Kerala only when it was firmly tied to the interests of the family is well taken (Devika 2005). Particularly important is the point that the discourse of family planning from the late 1950s to the 1980s

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illustrates the extent to which contraception was projected as an instrument of serving the family’s strategy for survival and u pward mobility, not the expansion of women’s life-choices.

Women in Kerala also experience several lifestyle illnesses. The major illnesses have been diabetes, hypertension, thyroidrelated problems, terminal illnesses like cancer. According to the hospital-based cancer registry at Regional Cancer Centre (RCC) at Thiruvananthapuram, breast, cervix, uteri and thyroid are the leading sites of cancer among females, while lungs, leukemia and tongue are the leading sites among males (GoK 2008). Although there is no conclusive research that establishes such a link, the question that remains is whether there is any relationship b etween this morbidity pattern and the exclusive focus of family planning on women in Kerala.

Mental health issues seem to be high in the state and women suffer disproportionately from these illnesses. Suicides and attempted suicides, for instance, are high in the state. Although the death rate in Kerala is the lowest, it has the highest suicide rate in India – three times more than the national average, and 50% more than Karnataka, the state with the second highest rate (Halliburton 1998). According to the data released from the crime branch of the police department of Kerala, there were 9,304 suicides in Kerala in 2000 as against 8,389 in 1995. Family problems (9%) are cited as the most important reason for suicide, followed by bankruptcy (14%), prolonged illness (14%) and mental illness (9%). The other major causes reported include unemployment, professional problems, love affairs, fall in social esteem and the incidence of cancer. Dowry disputes and the resulting divorces are also reported as reasons for suicide (in 34 instances in 2000).10 Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of K erala is ranked first among the cities in India in the prevalence of domestic violence, both physical and psychological (INCLEN/ ICRW 2000). However, there has been no systematic study in K erala to access the well-being and mental health of women and the relationship of these to the gender ideologies in the state.

2.3 Employment, Land and Livelihood

Despite a laudable standard of living with an effective public distribution system and high minimum wages achieved under the welfare-oriented governance, unemployment among the educated is a major issue. The move away from agriculture and other traditional means of livelihood and an influx into education with its focus on white-collar jobs have spiralled unemployment among the educated and migration to other states and countries. West Asia has been a major source of income for men. Despite outmigration, there has been no change in traditional gender roles. Women are mostly in the traditional unorganised sector, which is perishing – weaving, coir-making, agriculture/plantation labour, construction industry or as sales girls in retail outlets. Data shows that the work participation rate of women is as low as 15.85%. In all sectors women receive differential and low wages. Despite several governmental programmes for w omen’s empowerment and microcredit aimed at enhancing the efficiency of women, there has been no change in the sexual division of labour either in the domestic arena or in paid work. There has been no system to account for the unpaid and unaccounted labour within the home. The programmes for women have always seen women’s work as an extension of housework: traditionally female tasks in agriculture or making soap or similar products for consumption. It is only in some panchayats that non-conventional jobs like bus-driving, autorickshaw driving, masonry training are taken up as a part of the women’s component plan. Due to the decline of traditional, cottage and smallscale industries, and opening up of several large markets like “big b azaars”, younger women who have high school education enter into this workforce which offers no security or pensions and has no welfare schemes or subsidies by the state. This does not entail physical labour, it is considered respectable by Malayalee society aspiring for upward mobility and an increase in consumerism in the age of liberalisation (Thampi and Devika 2005). The difference between the male and female participation rate has also intensified between 1991 and 2001. On an average, the gender gap for Kerala has increased from around 32 percentage points in 1991 to about 34 percentage points in 2001.

Demographic transition, educational orientation with its focus on white-collar jobs, decline of the agriculture sector, especially of food production and commercialisation of land for commercial production of cash crops and real estate have led to the increase in unemployment. Enterprises have only been in the area of shops, hotels, bakeries, internet cafes, etc. Unemployment among educated women has increased. Women in Kerala have tended to prefer professions considered “apt for women” like teaching, nursing and clerical jobs – which are now in a decline. They have not yet entered into diversified vocational and technical education and thus there is no access to employment in those areas. Policymaking in the economic sector has not been sensitive to women’s upward mobility or enhancing women’s access to market spaces, credit and business or entrepreneurship, but using women as enterprising mechanical labourers in low-paid, strenuous, invisible work as cleaners, sales girls in the lowest strata. There is also a mismatch in the perception of educated women aspiring for nonconventional work areas and those offered by the state. This is further aggravated by conservative attitudes in the family which consider women’s earnings as supplementary and have restricted women’s mobility and intellectual growth.

The gender division of labour, which is rigidly maintained, has specific material consequences for women in Kerala. Despite the trade union movement and the various organisations like karshaka samithi (agricultural committee) and padashekhara samithi (paddy field committee), women’s participation has only been in numbers, and is not reflected in decision-making and substantive issues like equal wages. There has been no effort at community level and as a part of the policy to consciously involve men in tasks that are considered feminine like cleaning, cooking, sweeping which are mechanical and arduous. Most of the unskilled, m echanical work is still done by women. Girls from Kerala have moved as domestic workers to west Asian countries and are t otally unprotected by any laws or policies. Though certain networks like Pravasi Kerala have worked to address their issues, the women have gone through several hardships and are also found missing with their families having no clue of their whereabouts.11 There is no job security in these sectors and no regularity of time or wages apply. Sexual harassment at the workplace is a critical issue affecting women in Kerala. Although cases have been registered as per Vishaka guidelines, no action has been taken yet. The cases demonstrate that sexual violence against women from the lowest strata to the highest rank exists and there are no mechanisms to ensure justice – courts reinforcing the humiliation and reflecting the same stereotypical masculine values.12

Access to land and rights over land have been an issue of foremost priority to all movements for rights of equality and social justice of the dispossessed and marginalised communities. Women’s status in Kerala was deemed high due to ownership over land by women in matrilineal communities. However, although Kerala has been ranked high in the implementation of land reforms, this has not enhanced women’s ownership over land. Dalit and tribal communities and women are still deprived of land rights. Even among those matrilineal communities that enjoyed ownership over land, it has been converted to dowry and women often lose control over land. The shift from matrilocal to virilocal residence that accompanied the introduction of patrilineal monogamy, resulted in the change in women’s assets from immovable assets in land to movable assets in the form of cash and gold and the dowry system. Women do not enjoy ownership over either house or land. Even where there is joint ownership, the power of decisionmaking with respect to the immovable assets often rests with men. This discrimination is even severe among the dalit and tribal communities who earn their livelihood and sustenance from land and are producers for the entire community but do not have any ownership over land.13

2.4 Governance

Although decentralisation in Kerala has been paving the path to social transformation through genuine participation of the marginalised in planning, with reservation for women in local bodies recently enhanced to 50%, often women are considered to be merely service providers and hardly have any role in decisionmaking. That is, women’s role in development is seen to be a limited one, that of the woman worker who provides welfare services, such as the anganwadi worker and the Asha worker, and the members of the community development societies and area d evelopment societies of the Kudumbashree. In the 1990s, the development agenda focused on enhancing the efficiency of women and had its thrust on the economic empowerment of women. The Kudumbashree programme began as a poverty eradication programme but moved on to addressing the empowerment of women. It has enhanced the visibility and participation of women in all forums and increased the access to credit and micro entrepreneurship, but it is still a question whether it has enhanced the agency of women. Indebtedness seems to be i ncreasing among women. Access and availability of credit has increased the tendency to easily avail of loans and the expenses are mainly incurred for consumption and stereotypical needs like marriage, health and education needs, etc. The self-help groups have not been mobilised to create spaces where women can discuss issues which affect their status.14

Participation of women in forums like gram sabhas working groups and development seminars has increased visibly. But this

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participation is largely limited to filling up quorums and raising personal demands. Needs articulated in these events have not translated into plans and projects, especially since implementation remains the prerogative of elected male representatives or party representatives. The microcredit programme with its thrust on efficiency has often thrown women into multitasking roles where women are participating in all development forums of the panchayat and shouldering the entire responsibility of the family. Men seem to have shirked from all social tasks and indulge increasingy in leisure activities. There is also an increase in alcoholism but decision-making remains concentrated in male power centres.15 Although women’s political participation has enhanced at the panchayat level to 50%, it is limited to just one woman minister and one MLA at the assembly level. Political participation has dwindled over the years with active women in party politics shying away from it and important portfolios eluding women. Like unpaid, unaccounted, invisible work in the domestic spheres, all the social tasks which are low paid, use high mobilisation skills and are time-consuming have been under taken by women. But none of these programmes address the strategic needs which affect the status of women.

The formation of the Kerala State Women’s Commission, intended as a step towards institutionalising gender justice in the state, was ineffective. Predictably, the women’s commission reflected the divisiveness of mainstream politics (Erwer 2003: 169-74). The members in the commission are often political nominees and represent the interests of the party in power. Hampered by political interests, they have not been able to take up any of the controversial cases of gender injustice.

Women’s participation in cultural activities is limited to performances of classical dance or music. There are very few dances, theatre or other cultural forums where women participate in public spaces. Even literary events have the participation of limited women. The cultural spaces are entirely dominated by patriarchal norms.

And yet, it was historic that the decentralised governance decided to address the issues regarding the status of women through the women’s component plan. The women’s movement of the 1990s in Kerala took on the state in a range of cases – Suryanelli, Vithura ice-cream parlour and sexual harassment at workplace cases mentioned above, etc. The experience of legal defeats and the closing of ranks by men across parties to protect their interests as men, often viciously, have aggravated the sense of insecurity among women and induced fear of reprisals and violence. Even while the atmosphere was thus systematically vitiated by men from mainstream political parties including the Left, Kodoth and Devika argue, the state in a contrary move initiated the moves to engender democratic decentralisation (Devika and Kodoth 2001).

2.5 Violence against Women

In contrast and paradoxical to conventional indicators, violence against women is extremely high in Kerala. All forms of violence, be it physical, mental, emotional, sexual, verbal, take place within the home, in the workplaces and in public spaces. Sexualisation is extreme and women’s mobility in public spaces is hampered by rampant alcoholism and sexual harassment in the streets and

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public transport. Recently, there was an incident of a young woman who was pushed off from a moving train, was raped, and left to die. Travelling even in the ladies compartment has been unsafe for women. Every woman is looked upon as a sexualised object to be harassed and commented upon in a derogatory manner. Sexual abuse of children has taken ghastly forms and has been shocking society with an average of two to five cases reported per day. The perpetrators are usually people in close relationship with the child and are supposed to protect the child. Children find it difficult to report or articulate abuse by close kin. Often the children are not believed when they report abuse. Gender segregation, consumerism, domestic violence, alcoholism of men, poor status of women within families, misuse of information technology and pornography seem to have accelerated the incidence of sexual crimes against children.

Domestic violence seems to be on the rise. A close examination appears to indicate that the mere participation of women in public forums and development activities has challenged the patriarchal norms and this in turn has triggered violence. Domestic violence has been extremely difficult to report as for women it entails the breaking up of a home and need to find space to stay and alternative sources of livelihood. Often, women have no resources or assets in their names. To be able to acknowledge and question domestic violence itself is a difficult process for the victim. Domestic violence has included all forms of violence and often dowry is a major reason. In Kerala, it is seen that the demand for dowry has been directly related to the levels of education. Higher the level of education, higher has been the demand for dowry. With the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, several women have started reporting domestic violence but lack of full time protection officers, stereotypical and patriarchal attitude of judicial officers who focus on compromise and adjustment renders protection orders into a farce, with no correction in the behaviour of men. Sexual violence within domestic relationships has been extremely difficult to report but is on the increase and often the reason for divorce.

If we examine causes for violence, financial matters constitute the foremost for both sexes; however, for men it is twice as much as it is for women. Next come disputes over property, which is of the same magnitude for both sexes. However, more women suffer violence stemming from dowry, alcohol-related problems, insubordination to spouse, infidelity (real or imagined), sexual discord and sloppy performance of household chores. Women’s involvement at the policy level has been practically nil although they have participated in all struggles for the formulation of policy. There is no separate women and child welfare department. Since all the women and child welfare schemes are implemented as part of social welfare department schemes, the women-specific component gets diluted. With the women’s welfare officer being transferred to the Kudumbashree, and the National Rural Livelihood Mission integrated to it, all welfare programmes in Kerala are now linked directly or indirectly to it. Jagratha Samithis (vigilance committees) were constituted by a government order in all local self-governments to act as mini-women’s commissions to prevent discrimination and violence against women and children. The panchayat president, elected representatives like the welfare standing committee chairperson, chairperson of the community development societies of Kudumbashree, circle inspector of police, doctor from primary health centre, child development project officer, social welfare officer from the dalit community are members of Jagratha Samithis. The body is to act as a pressure-building mechanism against violence against women. The members of Jagratha Samithis have been trained in the Kerala Institute of Local Level Administration but their sensitivity to deal with violence is inadequate and it has been difficult to institutionalise the system. This is one of the most lucid examples of trying to bring about policy to combat violence against women but entrenched patriarchal values have not enabled the dispensing of justice.

3 Addressing Strategic Gender Concerns: Kerala Mahila Samakhya Experience

Kerala Mahila Samakhya Society (KMSS) was initiated in 1998 much after it was introduced in Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Strategic needs of women, as we have seen above, had never been addressed through various programmes for women initiated by the state. Achieving gender equality in a state with high social and human development indicators was a challenge. The beginning of the Mahila Samakhya coincided with the people’s plan campaign and the efforts to strengthen decentralisation. Women’s collectives called vanitha sabhas were formed for the first time in the history of public policy in Kerala mainly to discuss the issues related to the status of women. Women’s collectives began to meet in public spaces which were purely defined as male spaces. The mobilisation was done by visiting each house and discussing the need for formation of women’s collectives to raise the issues of equality. It began in the two blocks of Vamanapuram in Thiruvananthapuram and Adimali in Iduki on a pilot basis. With the change in the government in 2000, it suffered a severe set back. A year or two years later, it again began functioning but the the focus was shifted to a bureaucratic approach with a thrust on vocational training. In 2000 it was expanded to two other blocks of Chirayainkeezhu in Thiruvananthapuram and Devikulam in Idukki. Mahila Shikshan Kendra for integrating dropout children into education was also initiated. Again, in 2007 with the change in government, the programme suffered a setback.

Mahila Samakhya has been the sole government programme with a women-centred political orientation and which works beyond party politics and has suffered serious setbacks with the changes in successive governments tampering with the basic essence of the programme. At the local self-government level, it has struggled to gain acceptance and recognition unlike the Kudumbashree programme. The elected representatives have looked upon the sevini, the panchayat level mobiliser and catalyst with animosity. When women make their presence felt in gram sabhas, raising their demands and entitlements, the elected representatives feel threatened. The active intervention of vanitha sabhas in the implementation of schemes and programmes has challenged the networks of the local self-government.

Since 2008, the programme has expanded to the districts of Malappuram and Kasargode, and to Attapady in Palakkad d istrict and Mananthavady in Wayanad district. The expansion has basically taken place to tribal areas and among the Muslim

80 predominant areas. Though the formation of collectives, i e, vanitha sabhas and federations remains the central pivot of the programme, it has moved from conscientisation and instilling analytical thinking and critical questioning about the status quo to rights-based intervention in the issues of violation and discrimination, in the domestic arena, workplace, public spaces, etc. Mahila Samakhya is also focusing on building strong resource groups in each panchayat to work towards collating and disseminating information and knowledge from a gender perspective. Domestic violence, dowry, child sexual abuse, access to basic e ntitlements as citizens, rights over land and food security, fertility, sexuality, control over body, life-skill education for adolescents, gender education for teachers to engender the educational system have been core concerns.

At present, gender has become a keyword in government programmes and the term “gender” needs to be added for projects to gain sanction. But women’s empowerment is often mistaken as only building up the efficiency of women and utilising women’s dexterity and skilfulness in the social sector to achieve developmental goals at cheaper prices. All the insecure, low-paid, scavenging, mechanical work, e g, waste collection has been handed out to women in Kudumbashree. This has often been flaunted as women’s empowerment. This is where the challenge of KMSS has been.

In KMSS, the status study of women was the base which helped understand the issues women faced and the diversity of problems which came up in different blocks. The approach was to develop the programmes in conversation with women, and based on their needs, rather than to adopt a “top-down” approach and target them in terms of conventional indicators. Importantly, this was a signal to the state that the mere formation of self-help groups throughout the state would not automatically solve the issues faced by women in different geographical areas and with differential needs.

3.1 Reproductive Health

Reproductive health issues of women, as we have seen in the previous section, have been a critical concern. In a study of reproductive health among tribal women conducted by Mahila Samakhya in 2009, 3,000 women were interviewed from 96 tribal hamlets of Adimali and Devikulam blocks of Idukki district. The tribal people interviewed belonged to the Muduvan community and all of them lived in forest areas and depended on forest produce such as cane, honey, tubers, etc, for their livelihood. They are also engaged in cultivation of ragi and edible leaves but their land has been leased out to settlers for cardamom and tea cultivation as these are high ranges and they now work as labourers in their own land. In addition to dispossession from land and d enial of access to edible forest produce, lack of forest cover and exposure to contaminated plantation land for sanitation purposes have exposed women to urinary and reproductive health issues. The cropping pattern of traditional food crops like ragi is being replaced by pesticide filled cardamom and tea plantations by non-tribal settlers. This has led to food insecurity and took a severe toll on their physical health.

The women were interviewed from all hamlets and from varying age groups by random sampling. Eighty-seven per cent of the

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women were married, 32% of whom were between 12 and 17 years of age, over 90% were agricultural and plantation labourers; over 50% were non-literate and barely 2% had studied up to seventh standard or beyond.16

The Muduvan community believes that menses is impure and if menstruating women are seen or touched, they would incur the wrath of gods of the mountains. All the women interviewed had negative attitudes to menstruation. They perceived it as polluting, dirty, painful and disliked the experience.

Valayapuras17 are used for childbirth and during menstruation, to segregate women during the periods of “pollution”. These huts are ill-equipped and often located outside the hamlets, exposing women to hygiene-related risk. Sixty-five per cent of women interviewed stayed in valayapuras and 93% in some form of residence away from homes during menstruation – valayapura, pura or chavadi. But due to the difficulty in staying in valayapuras and other places, women use Mala-D to delay menstruation. Women said that they had learnt about Mala-D from health functionaries and had got it for free earlier, but now they had to purchase it from shops. Forty per cent of women interviewed used Mala-D daily, and close to 60% said that they preferred taking Mala-D to staying in valayapuras which are unhygienic. The study also found that over 50% of women interviewed were not taken to hospitals for delivery and did not have access to institutional delivery as claimed by the Kerala model. Quite in contradication to the Kerala state level figures, women do not get any specialised care or services during delivery. The study found that women delivered on their own and most of them cut the umbilical cord themselves. It was also noted that maternal mortality had increased because of constant use of Mala-D. Anemia and severe bleeding were common. The results of this study were used to place a series of recommendations before the government that focused specifically on reproductive health needs of women in tribal areas.

The point that is of significance, however, is that at both ends of the socio-economic scale, we find women suffer from the abuse of reproductive technology and are at grave risk in matters of reproductive health. At one end, an easy access to institutionalised healthcare and advanced services has led to the rampant use of ceasarian sections and abortions; at the other end, the absence of minimum institutional care has led to the misuse of oral contraception by women. At both ends, the patriarchal attitudes to women’s reproductive role and the control over it remain untouched, irrespective of degree of access to healthcare. The challenge before Mahila Samakhya has been to build programmes – ranging from public hearings to street theatre – to address the strategic interests of women which underlie the practical need of guarantee of healthcare.

3.2 Gender Concerns among the Most Vulnerable

The most vulnerable tribal communities of Cholanayakans and Katunayakans who live in the forest areas of Western Ghats in the panchayats of Nilambur block entirely depend on forest produce as their source of livelihood.18 They are gatherers of honey, medicinal plants, tubers which are most valuable for preparation of some medical potions. But denudation of forest

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cover, procurement of forest produce by middle men, low pricing and reduction in traditional food like tubers have pushed them into abject poverty. Though there is little consciousness of gender discrimination or inequality within the community, women are subject to sexual exploitation by outsiders who take advantage of the positive attitude to consensual relationships within the community. Women suffer from reproductive health problems the main reason being anaemia and other health i ssues like tuberculosis, fevers, jaundice and hepatitis B for which there is no timely treatment. The communities have been deprived of all basic entitlements like ration cards, ID cards, job cards under Mahatma G andhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, etc. The housing in these areas is deplorable, with substandard constructions, no sanitation and rampant corruption in civil works. There is no electricity and drinking water is only available faraway in the forest. Children have been entirely deprived of mainstream education. Interventions in these two communities have focused almost e ntirely on addressing the basic needs – education for children through learning centres; convergence of different functionaries responsible for delivery of basic needs and measures to build accountability; formation of women’s collectives to s ecure basic entitlements; access to ration shops; decent housing, which was ensured through masonry training for women; and livelihood support for women through training in rubber tapping. In addressing these basic needs, there have been small ways in which the sexual division of labour has been disrupted

– both masonry and rubber tapping being traditionally male

o ccupations. The intervention in securing practical needs has also led to women’s protest against the distillation of alcohol and exploitation by outsiders. Women’s participation in literacy programmes has increased and they have begun to prepare for equivalency examinations. The same is the case with seeking healthcare services.

Haritamitram, meaning “green friend”, a programme to e nsure food security, livelihood and women’s access to land was initiated in Kizhuvillam panchayat and then expanded to seven panchayats of Cherienkeezh block in Thiruvananthapuram district. In Kerala, the paddy fields have been reduced and land for cultivation of vegetables, tubers and edible leaves has been converted for the cultivation of cash crops and the state is now d ependent on Tamil Nadu and Karnataka for vegetables. In this context, women have begun organic farming with the close i nvolvement of Katunayakan and Cholanayakan communities. This has helped restore the control over land and produce in some small measure and has resulted in the interlinking of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Project (NREGP) with a griculture in these regions.

The situation of most vulnerable tribal communities provides a lucid illustration of the ways in which the mainstream public p olicy in Kerala has failed to address even the basic practical needs of entire communities. In this situation, a programme like Mahila Samakhya takes the responsibility of remedying gaps like this and attempts to spread access to entitlements evenly, simultaneously creating the space for women to articulate larger strategic interests as they arise.

3.3 Dalit Women’s Federations

Since 2009, dalit women’s federations were formed in the V amanapuram block of Thiruvananthapuram and Adimali of Idukki district. These collectives have attempted to address i ssues and engender the process of governance. Violence is the major issue dealt with by the federations. In a political climate where compromises and mediations have been the mechanisms for the exercise of power over women, this independent resistance to violence by dalit women has faced hostility from families, political parties and politicians at all levels. While the federation at panchayat level consists of both dalit women and women from other backward and general communities, the spontaneous initiative and leadership skills of dalit women and their clear womencentred political perspective have posed a challenge to deepseated middle class caste norms among non-dalit women in the collectives. At the other end, dalit movements have not addressed women’s issues in any significant way either within the movement or outside. It is in this environment that dalit women in federations have questioned corruption in the implementation of NREGP and claimed access to resources like paddy fields, conversion of fields of rubber plantations or for clay mining, etc. It is true that collective mobilisation of women has strengthened their voices in articulating their needs.

3.4 Combating Dowry

In a study of women undertaken by the Mahila Samakhya in 2009 in 21 panchayats in Malapuram, dowry and domestic violence emerged as the major issues in all panchayats studied. The d emand for dowry – in the form of gold or cash or both – is the primary cause of domestic violence.19 In all panchayats, families have either mortgaged or sold off their property to pay dowry and conduct marriages with ostentation. It is considered as a status symbol for highly educated girls to be adorned in gold. This is the case even among families with matrilineal background and access. The dowry in the form of gold and cash is given to the bridegroom and his family, only to be either squandered or later invested in constructing a house which would be in the man’s name. The status study report reveals that women have completely lost all assets whether gold or cash. Dowry harassment starts immediately after marriage or the birth of the first child. Interestingly, higher the level of education of women, higher is the demand for dowry. The groom’s education is irrelevant. Education, even higher education, does not in any way help the reduction of dowry.

In Malapuram district, dowry, desertion and child marriage are major issues. In Malabar it is basically Mehr which was practised but Mehr has been replaced by dowry perhaps due to the influx of remittances from west Asia and the sharp rise in consumerism. Boys also do not gain technical or vocational education and dowry is used as a means for setting up a lucrative business. Because dowry is often given by mortgaging the property or selling the house, the women, when deserted, become destitute due to lack of education, vocational training or any skills and sources of livelihood.

Of the 500 cases of women subjected to domestic violence who approached Mahila Samakhya, 140 women had to seek refuge in

82 short-stay homes. However, whereas women from the lower s ocio-economic backgrounds reached the short-stay home, middle class women only reached the Mahila Samakhya office and it was very difficult for them to break silence regarding domestic violence and take action as it would affect their status. Out of the women who reached short-stay homes, seven women were mentally ill. They came from poor socio-economic backgrounds and the reason behind domestic violence was dowry, suspicion of husbands about wife having illicit relations, alcoholism among men, their not engaging in economically productive activities, indulging in sexual activities which was considered as perverted by their wives and extramarital relationship of husbands. There were cases of older women who reached short-stay homes b ecause of harassment and desertion by sons. The educational levels of the women who sought recourse were low and they did not have any technical know-how or vocational training which would enable them to gain livelihoods. In obtaining protection orders and filing for divorce, the attitude among the police and the magistrates has been the cause for concern. The overwhelming opinion among these protection officers is that domestic v iolence cases were merely technical and women made up the stories; they, therefore, compelled women to compromise and tried to persuade them not to break families.

3.5 Problem of Child Sexual Abuse

The state has not yet acknowledged an issue like child sexual abuse or taken sufficient legal measures or made any innovative programmes to deal with the issue. The controversial cases from 1986 like Suryanelli, Vithura, in which girl children were abused by several men are still pending in various courts and even alarming incidents of Paravur and Kothamangalam where children have been traded by several men are trigerring alarms across the state. All the hearings in special courts created for Suryanelli and Vithura cases have not led to any convictions but those children are deeply traumatised and have stigmatised lives. Extending support and opportunities for healing to survivors of child sexual abuse is a key concern in Kerala that is in a state of denial where this issue is concerned. Apart from providing support on a case by case basis, a long-term intervention in the form of legal reform is long overdue. While initiating a process of legislative drafting on this issue, the concerns brought out during the national debate on the central legislation are also pertinent.

3.6 Influencing Policy: Some Illustrations

Intervention in violence against women, especially through s etting up short-stay homes under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, and enabling women to make informed decisions and focus on rebuilding gender roles and relationships has been a particularly rewarding experience. The positive gains from these initiatives have led to the social welfare department initiating a study on this aspect of KMSS’ work through the State Institute of Rural Development, and exploring the possibility of working in partnership to combat violence against women in public spaces. In the course of its work, therefore, KMSS is beginning, in small ways, to change the parameters of mainstream public policy in Kerala with respect to gender concerns.

October 22, 2011 vol xlvi no 43

Building up rights consciousness, empowering the most v ulnerable and marginalised tribal community to access their entitlements as citizens and influencing governance through oorukottoms (gram sabhas in tribal areas) have been very effective through formation of women’s collectives. Not only have women secured basic entitlements like ID card, ration card, job card under NREGP, but they have also mobilised against illicit distilling of liquor and sexual exploitation by outsiders. They have also gained skill in non-conventional trades like masonry and rubber tapping. This is the first experience of a tribal community dependent on forest produce learning a new skill, and has been documented in mainstream policy with respect to local level a dministration as a good practice.

The gender education of teachers programme trained 3,000 teachers throughout the state for the first time in gender issues – countering gender segregation, preventing violence against women, sexual abuse, attempts of suicide and imparting an understanding of gender equality and equity. It was basically aimed at changing the attitude and behaviour of teachers and incorpora ting gender into planning right from infrastructural development to curriculum development. As part of the training, teachers for the first time began to address social issues and violation of child rights. In Kerala, the focus has always been on academic orientation and complete enrolment of children. But with gender education, gender issues became the mandate of teachers. This was followed up by instituting help desks in each school in collaboration with SSA and the helpline from KMSS. With the inauguration of help desk, teachers have constantly reported on instances of violation of child rights and the majority being child sexual abuse cases. In a month’s time, KMSS had rescued 67 children from homes where they were being sexually abused by fathers or stepfathers or brothers. In response, the education department has agreed to address the issue and asked the planning board to make a financial commitment for this task. Advocacy on child protection issues has helped to place the onus of the issue on the state itself.

4 Conclusions

The development programmes for women in the first three decades after Independence did not question gender roles and relations. It was in the 1980s, and later, in the 1990s, with the formation of autonomous women’s organisations like Sakhi and Anweshi and the women’s network called Kerala Streevedhi which took up issues of violence against women, sexual abuse, harassment at workplace, etc, that strategic gender concerns began to be acknowledged in Kerala. The people’s plan campaign and attempts to achieve decentralised governance through Kerala Panchayati Raj Act created an environment for addressing strategic needs effectively through a clear government order stipulating setting apart 10% of plan funds for the component plan. But till date very few panchayats have been able to clearly formulate projects due to the lack of specific guidelines. Kudumbashree, which began as a poverty eradication programme, gradually progressed to a woman’s empowerment programme. But it has enhanced the social capital of women and has focused on increasing efficiency. Women seem to be multitasking but self-help groups have never addressed the strategic issues or non-conventional indicators. Enterpreneurship qualities or business acumen or women’s entry and access in market spaces have yet to be achieved.

Although the women’s commission has been set up, it operates as a political tool of the government that owes allegiance to power centres. Consequently, it has failed as an effective legal instrument. There had been an attempt by the State Planning Board to have a gender audit of the programmes but this has not succeeded in making gender issue an integral aspect of planning. All the programmes come as an add-on programmes and have not been woven in the plan or projects or budgets. Gender audit of the implemented programmes, budgets and schemes would be a good initiative. The gender board constituted by the previous government is an example of how some programmes are most ineffective and never functional. Although women’s policy was formulated it has not yet been implemented. There is no separate women and child welfare department.

An attempt has been made in this paper to present a critical reflection – a practitioner’s account – of the Kerala Mahila Samakhya experience in the context of an extremely active state planning process. In the initial years in 1978 KMSS had engaged in formation of collectives but since the women mainly came forward to discuss economic matters, it focused on formation of selfhelp groups. Slowly, it moved from formation of collectives to conscientisation about women’s status to skill training in nonconventional areas to right based intervention and finally to f ormation of resource groups.

It is indisputable that gender concerns must be reflected in and incorporated into policies, irrespective of whether they relate to the use of natural resources, infrastructural development, or developmental schemes and programmes. Even in looking at the especially vulnerable social groups, the provision of basic needs must go hand in hand with addressing structural inequalities. A look at the ways in which women and girls continue to suffer in Kerala, despite all positive development indicators, reminds us of the urgency of looking at non-conventional indiactors of development and well-being that speak to women’s experience of development. Finally, it is imperative to include women in all aspects of planning and to also have a gender perspective in planning and budgeting.


1 Kerala ranks highest over 20 years (1981-2001) according to the Human Development Index (HDI), at 0.638 as against the all-India index of 0.472 in 2001 (Planning Commission 2008). This is validated by other estimates as well (UNDP, Hirway and Mahadevia 1996).

2 Enrolment of students in lower primary, upper primary and high schools sections are 31.14%, 31.76% and 31.10%, respectively. The dropout r atio is very low in Kerala and it recorded 0.59%

Economic & Political Weekly October 22, 2011

at lower primary level, 0.52% at upper primary emphasis on enrolling and retention of girls in
level and 1.29% at high school level. Girls out normal schooling and non-formal education.
number boys in all classes comprising 49.23% of 3 In the state, there exist 7,831 public health insti
the total students enrolment in schools. Besides, tutions, comprising all the three disciplines. Of
out of the 46,998 students studying in vocational this, 71.8% are public health centres (including
higher secondary schools, 51.86% are girls and at sub-centres), 8.2% are community health centres
the graduate and postgraduate level too girls took and 11% are hospitals (Census 2001). Apart from
the prime position with 67% and 78.2% (2006 this, there are 81 cooperative hospitals function
2007), respectively. The picture showed that in ing effectively in Kerala. The number of sub-cen
the university education too girls stood first, tres continuously to be 5,074 for the last 12 years
which means that the government had laid and there is a sub-centre for every 6.16 sq km and
vol xlvi no 43 83

a primary health centre for every 33.3 sq km thereby assuring the accessibility of healthcare to the downtrodden sections of society. In terms of health personnel, there are 25,225 medical and para medical personnel and there is one medical officer for every 8,244 population in Kerala.

4 For a detailed discussion on conventional and non-conventional indicators of gender bias see Mukhopadhyay and Sudarshan (2003).

5 Early social reformers linked women’s education to the new monogamous home with the woman as the moral centre. Polyandrous traditions of matriliny were increasingly seen as immoral and promiscuous (see Nair (1890) reprint 1988 and Devika 2007).

6 See Velayudhan (1994) and Devika (1998) of an early history of stree samajams and the shaping of female subjectivity.

7 It is only recently in the 1990s that women’s studies has been introduced as a discipline. The inclusion of a few chapters on women achievers or successful women into school syllabi at the initiative of DPEP and NCERT has not had a far-reaching impact.

8 The morbidity analysis of Kerala reveals that the acute diarrhoeal diseases, measles, pneumonia, pulmonary tuberculosis, dengue fever, etc, are the major diseases dominating the health profile of the state. The attack and death of a mammoth of population due to vital illness – chikungunya compelled the state to declare a health package to liberate its people from this vital illness. Moreover, many epidemics that were supposed to be eliminated from Kerala are staging a come back. See Ekbal (2000) and a study on gender profile in Kerala (2002-03) by the Integrated Rural Technology Centre, Palakkad.

9 Early reports of the 2011 Census show a sharp decline in India’s child sex ratio, with a slide from 927 in 2001 to 914 girls per 1,000 boys in 2011. Kerala and Puducherry, which had improved their child sex ratios in 2001, have joined the rest of the country in a decline, according to one report. Rukmini Shrinivasan and Himanshi Dhawan “Sense of Census 2011: Save the Girl Child”, The Times of India, 1 April 2011, http://articles. 29369788_1_girl-child-low-child-ratio. Accessed on 18 September 2011.

10 Kerala has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, 27 per lakh population which is three times the national average. It increased from around 15 per lakh population in the 1970s. Within the state, Idukki, Thrissur and Wayanad have the highest rates of male and female suicides varying between 60-65 per lakh male population and 20-35 per lakh female population. While the incidence of completed suicides is higher for men, studies also show that attempted suicides are higher for females (Vadakumcherry 1994; Jayasree 1997).

11 These observations are based on the status study of women conducted in panchayats by Mahila S amakhya Society in 2009.

12 The Calicut University case of P E Usha is well known, as also the cases of IAS officers Nalini Netto and Pragati Srivastava.

13 Field observations of Mahila Samakhya Society. See also Kodoth and Eapen (2005) pp 3278-86.

14 Status study reports of Mahila Samakhya, 2008 and 2010, unpublished.

15 Status study reports of Mahila Samakhya Year, 2009 and 2010, unpublished.

16 All the tribal hamlets are at a distance of 10 km to 60 km from Adimali, Munnar or Marayoor of Adimali and Devikulam blocks of Idukki district. As part of SSA programme, multigrade learning centres (MGLC) were opened in several remote hamlets but the teachers have been appointed from the general communities and they do not reach these hamlets regularly and children are deprived of education. There are no educated children in these hamlets who can work as MGLC teachers. The seven madhyamik shiksha kendras (MSKs) in these two blocks have mainstreamed all dropout children to education. In addition, Mahila Samakhya has exerted pressure on SSA to make these centres run effectively. There are tribal hostels in Adimali and Devikulam which accommodate tribal children but not in sufficient numbers.

17 Hut used by women during menstruation. It is situated away from the hamlet to avoid pollution.

18 KMSS expanded to Nilambur and Tanur blocks of Malappuram district, in August 2008 and started working with Muslim, dalit and tribal women, i ncluding most vulnerable tribal communities.

19 The dowry free campaign was initiated by discussion with religious leaders, leaders of social organisations and community based organisations, youth in colleges and women members of Kudumbasree. The campaign was supported by all stakeholders.


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    October 22, 2011 vol xlvi no 43

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