India: Learning On The Job: Norma Alvares' Advocacy For Change






Publication: Women's Feature Service
Date published: March 5, 2012

Delhi (Women's Feature Service) - Norma Alvares is an advocate of the Bombay High Court and an activist and campaigner on social and environmental issues of public concern, especially in her home state of Goa. Over the past two decades, she has argued, pro bono, over a hundred public interest litigation cases and has shared in, what she terms, as the joy in being a part of the "extended community of women". An excerpt from her memoir in Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women's Movement In India.

The issue of domestic violence, which has been one of the focal points of the feminist movement for the past few years, led me to becoming active in women's issues once again, though in a different way. This time my involvement was not restricted to Goa. As a trustee of the Lawyers Collective - the NGO which pioneered domestic violence legislation in India - it was my privilege to be able to participate actively in a number of consultations held across the country with feminists and women's organisations to draft the proposed law. Listening to women passionately discuss and debate controversial clauses, painstakingly scrutinise minute details and mundane provisions and repeatedly revise drafts so as to incorporate all viewpoints and arrive at a consensus was a truly satisfying experience. This novel experiment of nation-wide consultation bore good results, for when the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) was finally enacted by parliament in November 2005, the feminist movement was already geared up to implement this vital legislation. The PWDVA forced society to acknowledge that women in this country are indeed victims of violence in that most sacred of places - their homes.

Although the police still try to turn a woman back when she complains of harassment or ill-treatment in the home, there is no doubt that thanks to the wide publicity generated and the efforts made by civil society and the government, there is awareness of the PWDVA and its implications. Educational institutions, government departments and judicial organisations, among others, have been holding seminars and workshops on the PWDVA to disseminate information about the manner of its implementation and to encourage women to take advantage of its provisions to get relief when faced with violence in the home. Recognising that even young girls need to be aware that they need not feel ashamed to speak up if violence is done to them in the home, schools and parent-teacher associations have taken it upon themselves to organise group discussion, role playing, etc, in order to make girls aware of the remedies that are available to them.

Of course, one cannot conclude that the crimes against women graph has plunged with all the legislation and infrastructure that is now in place. My own state, Goa, has repeatedly been in the national news over the past couple of years for sexual crimes against women and children. While the high profile cases concern foreign tourists, there have been equally, if not more, serious cases of serial rapes and murders of local women, investigation of which proceeds at a slow pace.

Has my involvement with the women's movement had a major impact on my personal life? If I were to claim that I am what I am today only because of the women's movement, this would be less than honest because it is simply not true. I was fortunate to have been born into a home where women are respected and treated on par with male members of the family. I am equally fortunate to have married a man who has the finest regard for women, and our relationship has been one of equal partnership all the way. Yet, I must acknowledge that being a part of the women's movement has affected me at a very fundamental level and it has had a deep impact on my personality. Listening to women recount their personal life stories, the trials and tribulations they have undergone, their heroic efforts to cope with everyday routines, especially the demands of growing children, while at the same time trying to find a measure of peace and solace in the midst of domestic strife and tension, has been a humbling experience for someone like myself who did not find herself in similar circumstances and has never known such adversity.

There has also been the joy of being part of the sisterhood of womankind - the extended community of women. The laughter and vivaciousness that accompanied the discussions at most of our meetings, the exhilaration we all felt after a successful campaign, the disappointment when yet another obstacle was thrown our way - all this made for a lasting bond, easy to evoke even years later.

Nothing illustrates this better than the Women's Day celebrations organised in Goa every year on March 8. The event is always remarkable because it is so different from other public gatherings and meetings. There is neither the sombre, grim, intellectual posturing of seminars and conferences, nor the shrill haranguing peculiar to political meetings. Instead, the March 8 celebration, usually held in a public maidan, is characterised by bursts of singing, dances, skits, debates, speeches, even karate demonstrations! It's a unique expression of the contributions made by different women to the occasion and to the cause of empowering women in every situation, everywhere.

In such matters, we must always keep the plus side in mind, which is that the socio-political milieu has changed and that women have been an active part of that changing. Without our getting together, there would have been no change. While obviously there is no end-of-the-road success that we can celebrate, there can be a legitimate sense of pride and achievement, simply because without funding, without huge organisational structures, simply by being and working together, we have managed to dramatically alter our perceptions of ourselves and of what we can do, even if we have not yet succeeded in transforming our world.

(Excerpted from 'Memoirs From The Women's Movement In India: Making A Difference', Edited by Ritu Menon; Women Unlimited, 2011/386 pages/Softback; Rs 350)

( Women's Feature Service)

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