Political parties and trade unions across the spectrum sat up and listened when an independent collective of poor women laborers forced the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Limited in Munnar to increase their wages and address the issues they had raised. What led to the formation of ‘Pembilai Orumai’? And how did the group become a formidable force challenging established trade unions and their political masters?
The Center of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) seems to have found the answers. A report presented by the trade union’s general secretary at its national convention at Puri in Odisha was telling in its analysis of the historic strike by the tea leaf pickers of Munnar.
The report reiterated that women’s participation in meetings and leadership committees is a part of democratic functioning. A lack of such participation has led to the chain of events in the tea plantations of Munnar, it reasoned.
The report can be read as a self-criticism by the dominant trade union. CITU’s meetings, rallies and campaigns were noted for participation from large crowds of women. Yet few women found their way into the leadership committees, said CITU general secretary Tapan Sen, also a politburo member of the CPM.
The trade union learned it the hard way. All established trade unions were in for a shock when a sudden swelling of resentment against the collusion of trade union leaders and the management led to the formation of an apolitical association like ‘Pembilai Orumai’.
The CITU has realized the need for a shift in strategy. Women could no longer be sidelined. The national convention has asked for increased participation of women at the local units.
The skewed gender representation can be seen in every forum. Take the Kerala Legislative Assembly for instance.
As many as 905 people have been elected to the state legislature so far. Only 48 of them were women. The first assembly in 1957 had six women legislators. The strength has increased by only two members when the assembly marks its 60th anniversary. All eight women members in the current assembly belongs to the Left Democratic Front.
Only 15 women have represented various constituencies of Kerala in the Lok Sabha. The general elections in 2014 saw the number of women in the fray crossing 20 for the first time. While 269 candidates contested from 20 constituencies in the state, only 27 of them were women.
This is in a state which has 1,084 women for every 1,000 men. The state has the highest level of literacy among women.
However, there is a silver lining. Political parties are waking up to the rising women power. They know they can ignore the women only at the risk of being sidelined themselves.
The CPM wants to add more women among its cadre. The party’s plenum in Kolkata has set a target of women forming a quarter of its total membership.
The party’s district committee meetings held last month stressed the point. The women’s representation in the party in Kerala stands at 18 percent on average. Kannur and Kasaragod lead with 25 percent but the northern districts have been given a higher target of 30 percent.
Though feeder organizations such as the DYFI enjoy large participation from women, they seldom make it to the parent party.
No woman has been elected as a district secretary of the party. Only a handful of women have been picked to helm the area committee. P.K. Sreemathi is the only woman in the 15-member state secretariat of the party.
The leadership expects to better its record by the next party congress.
The Congress is no better. The Grand Old Party has contributed a woman prime minister and a woman president. The first woman chief minister in the country was also from the party.
The party led by Sonia Gandhi is not very woman-friendly when it comes to the organization in Kerala. The Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee has only five women. The newly formed 21-member political affairs committee has only one woman - Shanimol Usman. Bindu Krishna rose through the ranks to be the party’s district president in Kollam but the move has not gone down well in the party.
The party leadership has urged the grass-roots workers to include more women in the booth committees but the formation of the committees has not been flawless.
The BJP fares better on this count. The party has stipulated that women should form a third of all lower-rung committees. No booth committee will be recognized unless it has at least a woman member.
The Pinarayi Vijayan ministry stands out with two women ministers. Kerala has had 208 ministers so far. Only eight among them were women. The LDF government may also be noted for the formation of an exclusive department for women, which may be announced as early as this week.
Is women’s participation in political forums a true indicator of woman empowerment? Women’s associations say that the increased participation of women in decision-making bodies is a vital necessity at a time when women are being harassed everywhere.
Every party’s manifesto is rich in phrases like gender equality and women’s rights.
One party that has not acknowledged the demands of the changing times is the Indian Union Muslim League. The party, which has never let a woman contest an election under its banner, has an opportunity to make amends. It could field a woman in the Malappuram Lok Sabha byelection necessitated by the death of E Ahamed.
The name doing the rounds is of course Dr Fouziya, the daughter of Ahamed.