Insight from Civil Society Engaging
with Science and Technology
Reflections from the women's movement on policy making
By Rukmini Rao, Gramya
One of the earlier and larger issues taken
up by the women's movement in the country was the Mathura rape case. This
campaign catalysedthe process of reform in the rape laws in India. It went on
for several years and was successful in the sense that the government did change
the law. This is because we had a team of eminent lawyers in the forefront, who
were supported by hundreds and thousands of women across the country. These
people could look at the law and clearly articulate what changes were required.
The second issue the women's movement took
up was population control. To meet unrealistic population control targets, GOI
relaxed drug regulations to expedite the introduction of long acting hormonal
contraceptives in the family planning programme. This policy was sought to be
imposed on women through a "technical fix"in the form of an injectable called
Net-En, and an implant called Norplant, which releases chemicals over a long
period in the woman's body and prevents conception. Here the women's movement
demanded that birth control should be voluntary and the woman should have a
right to control her fertility with safe contraceptive choices, which are user
controlled. The government on the other hand was looking for supplier control,
where the injectable and the antabuse once administered by the aggressive
population control programme, could not be easily reversed by the woman.
To combat this kind of policy, Saheli and many other women's
organisations had to do their own research.
This was like what Sreekumar said; we had to do our own homework. And like the
agricultural scientists, in the GM campaign today - the medical fraternity was
not willing to state what the truth was or accept it. For example they were
introducing these two drugs saying that they were entirely safe whereas, some of
the trials showed that the drugs had caused cancer in 'beagles' (small dogs).
When the women's movement pointed it out, the "scientists"said, those trials
mean nothing. They said it was just four dogs. Yet the very same trials were
relied upon for permission to market the drugs.
(What is more scientific? To declare that
if a particular drug is administered in higher doses it caused cancer in dogs
but it is safe, or that it is better not to administer a drug which caused
cancer in four out of a dozen or so animals, to thousands and thousands of
normal, healthy women). Some of the organisations went to the Supreme Court. The
judiciary has played and continues to play an important role in policy making in
such matters. Here too we did not get any clear verdict as the matter was
pending in the court for twenty years.
Meanwhile because of all the noises the
women were making, the government made its own calculations. They found that
introducing these drugs would be much too expensive so they withdrew them from
the family planning programme. So it can be said that only because of the
intervention of the women's movement, the drugs were not introduced in the
programme as a policy, and therefore the negative impact on the health of very
poor women was avoided.
However such drugs are available in the
market and the middle class women are buying them over-the-counter. Private
clinics continue to push them. So here again the role of friendly experts is
indicated. We did not have doctors helping us, standing up and saying they
disagree. (Most doctors, in any case get their information from medical
representatives whose incentives are based on sale and not on health of the
women - Ed).
Another indication from this experience is
the need to build a large alternative experience. We failed to develop a
complete alternative package for self-help for contraception. Many things were
talked about, discussed or even tried. We needed to mobilise on the gender
considerations in contraceptive decision making. This was much needed because
women are not in control while most contraceptives are targeted at women and
Compare this to the experience with Non
Pesticide Management in Agriculture in Andhra Pradesh. At least in some places
the farmers reaped dividends through the alternative practice of organic
farming. However even this could not be replicated throughout the country. So I
feel that to be successful we need to build a much larger continually expanding
alternative practice. Then we have a better chance to exemplify the fact that a
long term policy change is required.
Here, I think we need to understand the
role of experts. They simply reject whatever alternatives are being looked at.
They refuse to see what is in front of them. They refuse to act within the
system. The women's movement brought up a lot of questions on control, safety,
etc. Their typical response would be that being pregnant carries higher risk
than Norplant or Cogent or anything. So the attitude of policy makers and
technical experts is callous. I find a parallel between the medical community in
the case of contraception and the agricultural scientist when it comes to the
genetically modified crops. The same may be true even for electricity reforms.
The technical people generally fall in line with the powers that are - those who
employ them as well as those at the helm of politics.
One attempt to bring about some policy
change through the bureaucratic mode was to bring in more gender concerns in the
watershed development programmes funded by CAPART. (Similar attempts have been
made by many women in different positions - Ed). Though I had allies on the
watershed committee, after working on it for a year, we were suddenly told we
couldn't change CAPART norms as they had to be in line with Government of India
norms. And then after that the whole thing was thrown out. So the learning from
that is -- a bureaucratic process cannot bring about policy change. We need a
political process - which begs the question: how do we influence the political
lobbies for change?
The last point I want to make is about the
role of media. In the women's movement, most of our successes have come from the
fact that the media has been friendly and supportive. In India 90 percent of the
time the media has been friendly. The most recent example is when we made
efforts to influence the Andhra Pradesh government's policy on adoption. We
found that the media played a very important role. They were there, they were
running the campaign and they were willing to highlight whatever we said and
that is what made a difference. Of course there have been occasions when the
media has hit back the women's movement, but by and large it has been
So I think that in all our campaigns for
policy change, we need to approach the right people in the media who are willing
to project our perspective clearly.
Post Workshop contribution
at all levels are not always integrating the gender dimension in their
decisions. Internationally, it is flagrant how the current agendas on
international cooperation for instance are not integrating clear
development goals such as gender equality, human rights and
environmental sustainability. Several developed countries that are
supposed to be more progressive to women's rights are quite ignorant on
how to integrate development, human rights and gender equality. So,
there is a lot of technical advance in these discussions but not real
results on the ground. "- Cecilia Alemany, Association for Women's
Rights in Development in an interview with IPS: "Political Power Is Still Very Masculine"; CED Backup Copy [ C.eldoc1/0808/080730zzz1B.html]