Over the last month, the National Commission for Women (NCW) chairperson Rekha Sharma has come in for much criticism over her social media messages before she took office. The messages were derogatory to women. This is condemnable and clearly suggests that due diligence was not exercised before appointing such a person to what is a national body entrusted to ensure justice and rights for women.
While Sharma deserves criticism, past chairpersons of this organisation have been unimpressive, to say the least. They have invariably reacted after a crime has been committed, only to fall silent once it moves away from the headlines. The NCW, to be fair, does take up issues which affect women’s rights but there is rarely any follow-up.
This could be because it does not have legislative powers. It can recommend amendments to the law which are not binding on the government that selects both members and the chairperson. The selection process seems based on political preferences rather than competence. But once in office, the chairperson can surely push to keep the focus on women’s issues and push to hold offenders accountable for crimes against them. Apart from expressing displeasure, the NCW seems unwilling or incapable of at least making sure that issues relating to women are not taken up and dropped so routinely.
One issue which the NCW has taken up and which merits much more effort is that of benefits for women migrant workers. They are vulnerable to middlemen who take cuts on their already meagre pay and have no protection from abuse and sexual harassment in their workplaces. There have been calls to set up a portal where the details of women workers are available and the facilities provided to them by the employer but, so far, not much has moved on this front. As it is, labour laws for non-formal establishments are weak at best. In the case of women, they are weaker still.
The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code 2020 provides for, among other things, first-aid, crèches and canteens, even temporary housing, all of which would help women workers. But unless there is a vigilant monitoring mechanism, it is unlikely that all this will be provided. In a shrinking job market, it is not likely that the women workers will complain about working conditions and this is where a body such as the NCW could play a constructive role. The NCW can help make migrant women workers aware of their rights. Maternity, immunisation and nutrition benefits can all be accessed from various government schemes providing women have the necessary documentation. These are not high-profile issues but should and must be taken up by the NCW, if it wants to work as an enabling organisation for women.
But for this, the NCW leadership must be selected transparently from among women, or even men, of merit. The chairperson must command respect both in the government and across civil society. This is a time when women need help in various areas more than ever, from health care to jobs, to safety to nutrition. It is not enough for the NCW to make grandiose statements about the death penalty for rapists or express outrage every time there is a crime against women.
Women need help at all levels, especially now. The NCW should be an organisation which can step up to the plate and fulfil its mandate, but that does not seem likely given its current composition.
The views expressed are personal