March 8, 2010: The Hundred Years Moment

May 4, 2010

By Rukmini Sen

March 8 this year marks 100 years of women’s struggles for a just and egalitarian society. For some of us, who are young and new to the women’s movement and also have a women’s studies background, March 8, 2010 was a time to understand the past and also realize the current issues of concern affecting women in India. It is keeping this in context that I shall compare the leaflets/campaign material to remember March 8 by the Centenary Committee to Celebrate International Women’s Day and the National Women’s organizations both from my current location in Delhi. This is an effort to document the contemporary diverse concerns of women’s groups in the country.

It is important to keep in mind that the earliest March 8 celebrations in 1980 happened with the coming back of Mrs Gandhi to power—therefore with a lot of genuine apprehension. Infact, it is but ironical India observed the International Women’s Year in 1975 under the conditions of emergency. Late 1970s the women’s issues were combined with broader civil liberties issues as a response to democratic rights violations through the emergency. But then, it was Mathura rape trial and then the Rameeza Bi rape case, the plays Aurat on violations that women face in different social institutions by Safdar Hashmi and Om Swaha on the perils of the dowry system that brought women’s collectives together to celebrate March 8, 1980 for the first time. [1] It has been 30 years since the first March 8 celebrations in India also and it is relevant to see what the contemporary causes of concern are.

The Centenary Committee’s [2] pamphlet had some of the following demands and issues discussed:

Decisive government action against price rise
Right to health care
Issuing of ration cards
Equal wages for equal work
Ensuring food security
Land reforms with women’s access to and control over productive resources
Freedom from sexual assault, harassment, domestic and public violence—including government’s support to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, freedom for women to chose their way of life
Effective implementation of Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act and SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act
Repeal of AFSPA, UAPA and SEZ act—need for repealing laws giving impunity to para-military and military forces, and other repressive laws in the name of tackling extremists, supporting the cause of Irom Sharmila
Demilitarizing the country and ensure justice for victims of all excesses of the security forces—neglect of people in Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Orissa, Chattisgarh, turning many tribals as refugees in their own country, concern over increasing militarization in Kashmir and North East

The leaflet that came from national level women’s organizations [3] demanded the following:

Demand for representation
Solidarity to women fighting against imperialist aggressions and wars
Universal right to be free of hunger and food deprivation—food security as a basic right to life
Benefits of a mandated food security framework be made universal and not confined to those who have a BPL card
Withdrawal of proposed increases in the price of petrol and diesel
Employment guarantees for both rural and urban areas at minimum wages
Safe environment for women—improvement and proper implementation of laws on dowry, domestic violence, sex selection
Addressing violence on women in conflict situations like Kashmir and the North East, caste and religion-based violence and being made victims of honour


If one has to make a comparison between the two leaflets, then it is obvious that the economic concerns impacting poor women are similar in both. There is no mention of violence and lack of freedom that women with different sexual orientation face in the second leaflet. The other thing absent from the second is the mention of demilitarization from different parts of the country including those in the tribal areas. Although there is a consensus about the Kashmir and North East being situations of internal conflict that does not seem to be the political position with respect to the tribal areas. It is equally surprising that the Centenary Committee leaflet does not mention the state of West Bengal as one other region experiencing human rights violations. The other important thing to remember is that the second leaflet mentions the need for representation, which means the ongoing demand and debate about 33% reservation for women in the parliament, however the centenary committee’s leaflet does not mention this. It is unclear from the leaflet whether the women’s groups in the centenary committee consider representation through reservation and legal reforms problematic or whether they are critical of the present reservation bill which according to some shall only benefit a certain section of women. Students’ organizations and trade unions were also part of the Centenary committee.

Standing at crossroads today on the 100th year, it is definitely understood that the concerns regarding women workers in India are really crucial—wages, work conditions, maternity entitlements, crèche facilities and violence at the workplace, all remain to be tackled holistically. It is really ironical that although the International March 8 history have primarily focused on working conditions, be it workers of garment industry (1857, 1908, 1911) or textile mills (1912)4, the working conditions for women in India remain to be explored much further and with a lot of collective efforts where women’s organizations, trade unions, students organizations, other civil liberties organizations all need to voice the demands together. At the same time, it is equally interesting that the women’s movement today have to address the heterogeneity among women, depending upon their cultural, geographical, religious location as well as their physical or mental abilities/(dis)abilities and sexual orientation. Strategizing today has become more complex and there are many issues that in a rapidly changing world require simultaneous attention rather than prioritization. That is the challenge facing the women’s movement in India.

1. I am grateful to Indu Agnihotri’s discussions on March 8, 2010 at Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi for much of this information

2. Action India, All India Progressive Womens’ Association, All India Students Association, Ankur, CADAM, Centre for Struggling Women, Committee Against Violence on Women, Democratic Students Union, Delhi Forum, Disha Chhatra Sangathan, Forum for Democratic Struggle, Intercultural Resources, Jagori, Krantikari Lok Adhikari Sanghatan, Krantikari Yuv Sanghatan, Nari Mukti Sangh, New Trade Union Initiative, New Socialist Initiative, Peoples Union for Democratic Rights, Pragatisheel Mahila Manch, Progressive Students Union, Purogami Mahila Sagathan, Saheli, Saanjha Adhaar, Stree Adhikar Sangathan, Stree Mukti League, The Other Media and Anita Bharti, Dr. Ajita, Indira Chakravarthy, Jayasri, Nandini Rao and others.


4. Information from Centenary Committee leaflet, March 8, 2010

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