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One Indian official's strategy to improve women's lot

The Indian government has changed its attitude toward half its population -- 350 million women. ``Women are resources which can be developed -- not helpless people who need looking after,'' explains C. P. Sujaya, joint secretary of the Women's Welfare Department of the Ministry of Human Resources Development.

This new view of women is evident in the recent restructuring of the government agency that deals with women's issues. Until last year, women's affairs in India were handled by the Ministry of Social Welfare which, Mrs. Sujaya said in an interview, ``was looking after women, children, the handicapped, the aged, prisoners, drug users, prostitutes. We're trying to get away from the very wide concept of social welfare. Now we are more focused.''

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There is still a Welfare Ministry which addresses the needs of special groups. But women are no longer in this category. Now, of the three departments within the Ministry of Human Resources Development, one focuses exclusively on women and children. The largest department in the ministry is concerned with education, the smallest with youth affairs and sports. In terms of size and funding, the Women's Welfare Department sits squarely in the middle.

``Before,'' Sujaya says, ``the Ministry of Social Welfare was -- I won't say sleepy -- but it was rather a peaceful place. Now, there's so much activity going on!''

Many development experts are convinced that the best way to help the broad mass of poor people in the third world is to start with the women. Many highly-placed Indians feel that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi shares this view. He has earmarked a five-year budget of $667 million for the Women's Welfare Department to prove his commitment.

Sitting behind her large, cluttered desk, Sujaya looks at first like a typically plump and cozy middle-class Indian lady. Her face is kindly, but her manner is energetic, businesslike, and astute.

In the interview, Sujaya spoke of some of the strategies her ministry plans to use and some of the obstacles it faces. Programs for women over the next five years will include vocational training and employment; the provision of basic services, such as working-women's hostels, day-care facilities, nutrition programs; informal education for school drop-outs; and consciousness-raising.

``What is going to be important,'' says Sujaya, ``is the framing of a new national policy on education: how this policy can shape not only women's literacy but also equality issues. How do you teach the entire population the importance of equality between the sexes? It's in the Constitution, but it's not being followed.''

In fact, Sujaya feels that sex biases are sometimes reinforced by education.

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``Look at textbooks,'' she says. ``Women activists are now reviewing all the textbooks where women are shown in a very stereotyped role: `Where's your father? Father is in the office. Where's your mother? Mother is in the kitchen.' That sort of thing. Education really has to be seen from that point of view, not just to universalize literacy or remove superstition, but as a tool for ensuring equality between the sexes.''

But among Indian bureaucrats, particularly in more traditional ministries, this new emphasis on women's equality is by no means always welcome. Sujaya chuckles a bit grimly over some of the reactions to her work.

``Sometimes you meet a positively inimical attitude. `No! This is wrong! You're trying to destroy the family by making the woman stand out as an individual, by focusing on her, targeting on her!' That's a very usual complaint that people in our ministry receive.''

Sujaya is also quick to point out some of the problems that arise from efforts to legislate equal rights.

``Legislation that's favorable to women can have a negative effect,'' she concedes. ``For example, equal remuneration promises equal wages to men and women. It's never enforced, and anyway, if you try to implement the laws, the backlash is adverse. [Employers] take jobs away from women. If you try to give women the same wages as men, they would rather forgo the women's work and hire more men.''

In India, with its millions of workers desperate for jobs, does this imply that women's lower wages at least ensure their participation in the work force?

``Sure. Look at cr`eches [day-care centers],'' Sujaya says. ``You're supposed to put up a cr`eche in every factory which has at least 30 women workers. So they keep the number of women at 29.''

Sujaya says that women's contribution in all fields of work, paid and unpaid, needs to be recognized and valued.

``Take agriculture. Everyone agrees that women do the maximum work in terms of time, work load, physical labor. But they're not visible. Their work is not counted, and it's not paid.''

Is there any talk of officially counting women's work in the gross national product?

``We've been talking and talking for years about it,'' says Sujaya. ``Something I would dearly like to do before the next census in 1991 is to get the census people to agree to a more favorable definition of work which can net women's contributions also.''

The Women's Welfare Department is also trying to convince other ministries of the importance of focusing development efforts specifically on women.

``We maintain that at least 20 percent of the beneficiaries under the poverty programs should be women -- specifically targeted, not lumped in with the family.

``If money goes into the family, the assumption is that everybody will benefit equally. But it's not true. If the money goes to the man, he may spend it on liquor or consumption goods.

``The woman feels that the money should first go for food and nutrition, then for shelter, and then for clothes. What's important is her entitlement to that money. Even if a woman is able to earn more money, she may just hand over the entire amount to her husband. It's a question of making her feel entitled, empowered. Empowerment is the word one would like to use in this context.''

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