In response to increasing violence againstwomen, the modern civil society has witnessed a mobilization of discourse onempowerment.
Rather than focussing on issues impeding freedom from violence,these discourses seek to capacitate grassroots actors, especially women, to beliable for their own welfare and development. This is highly problematic as suchself-regulatory modes of governance allow the state to conveniently relinquishits responsibility as guarantor of rights and shift the focus from women asbeneficiaries to women as change agents (Sharma 2006, p62). In the context of neo-liberalism, Sharma providesa comprehensive analysis of Mahila Samakhya’s (MS) hybrid form. It isinteresting how an organization that started with an aim to conscientize subalternwomen became depoliticised, bureaucratized and enmeshed in the developmentdiscourse (Sharma 2006, p65). I believe that the programme’s crossbredstructure is rather a marriage of convenience between the state and non-stateactors. Not only there was a substantial breach of duty by the state to act asa provider of welfare for marginalized citizens, it also allowed Indiangovernment to reframe its image as an advocate of women’s rights and a facilitatorof development.
Furthermore, MS workers used the state label to exerciseauthority and intimidate the women they are meant to empower as illustrated inLeela Vati’s example. While the representatives criticized bureaucraticinterference, they consciously donned the official garb to instill wariness inthe people. It makes me wonder whether the female employees of MS actually understandthe issues of marginalized women and work towards transforming “the masculinismof bureaucracy or do they become servants of it, disciplined and produced by it”(Brown 1992, p11)? Women’s involvement with the state and adherence tobureaucratic procedures can be seen as strategic ways of negotiating andmobilizing subaltern women. However, it cannot be denied that it makes themdependent on the state which marks “itinerary of women’s subordination” (Brown1992, p12) and undermines the agenda of gender equality and social change. Theconstruction of NGO’s image as legitimate and compassionate by MS workersremains contested and partial.
This compels me to recount the conversation Ihad with an NGO in India regarding a minor girl child called Naina. She ismerely 13 years old and wishes to support her mother financially, which is thereason why she came to my house desperately looking for a job as a domestichelp. On enquiring about the NGO’s workand programmes, all I got was information about their reach, presence and “impact”in India (for which they had no substantial evidence). After a detailed accountof numbers, I finally got an opportunity to address the issue. My sole purpose wasto seek NGO’s help in improving Naina’s condition by giving access to qualityeducation.
Instead I was harassed to give up names of people who have employedher (considering child labour law banned employment of children below 14).Moreover, I was threatened politely that they might send police at my home tointerrogate my parents, suspecting that they are potential employers. Thisepisode falsified the claims made by the NGO in the name of empowering girlsthrough education, and considering how that NGO worker played on my fear of theauthority I was forced to give up on the idea of seeking NGO’s assistance inthe matter.
Therefore, I regard the claims made by MS employees regarding the “grassrootslevel accountability” of NGOs as highly questionable.Of late, education has become crucial to Indiangovernment’s approach towards “unstately task of empowerment” (Sharma 2006,p69). Take for instance the Right to Education Act in India which is aimed atproviding free and compulsory to underprivileged children aged between 6 and 14from class 1 to 8. The child can seek admission in any government or privateschool. After getting more involved in Naina’s case, I got to know that she is availingfree education in a government school which suffers from shortage of teachersand infrastructural gaps. Since children cannot be asked to leave school or beforced to repeat a class till they complete class 8 as per the Act, the teachersare nonchalant towards student’s performance and keep promoting them to thenext level. While the government is conveniently busy portraying itself as anempowering agent, individuals like Naina and her mother continue to struggle touplift themselves out of poverty. In the end, they are the ones to be blamedfor their circumstances.
This could have been avoided if the resources such as incomeand literacy/education were evenly allocated among various groups in thesociety. As Galtung demonstrates, such cases are an example of structuralviolence where there is a no clear subject-action-object relation and oneshould not assume that it amounts to less suffering than personal-directviolence (Galtung 1969, pp171, 173). It is built into the social structure and affects everyday lives ofwomen.
Therefore, it is imperative to look at structural violence through agender lens to make visible the machinery of oppression, and links betweensocial injustice and state power.Behind the veneer of gender equality and women’sdevelopment, the state bears all the familiar elements male dominance. Aselaborated by Brown, “Through its police and military, the state monopolizesthe institutionalized physical power of society. Through its welfare function,the state wields economic power over indigent women, arbitrarily sets the termsof their economic survival, and keeps them “dangling” and submissive byproviding neither dependable, adequate income levels nor quality public daycare(Brown 1992, p28). While the neo-liberal state policies focus on individual asa site of intervention, they have rendered women vulnerable to gender violence.However, it can be argued that state power can be oppressive for men as well,considering how men are required to fit in the ideal image of hegemonicmasculinity and those who do not conform to this ideal are marginalized.