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    Volume 9 Issue 12| March 19, 2010|

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Ila Pathak and AWAG
The voice of Gujarati Women

Tamanna Khan

Ila Pathak

During the first week of March 2010, I went to Ahmedabad to participate in a Youth Camp on Non-violence, Peace and Tolerance. On the third day of the camp I met Dr. Ila Pathak, a prominent social activist, women's liberationist, academician and freelance journalist of Gujarat, India and also the president of the South Asian section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). She was the only female speaker of the six-day long camp and was bold enough to bring out many controversial issues usually hushed up by men. She raised questions like whether the modern woman of today across Asia are truly liberated and enjoy gender equality. Much to the irritation of the male participants of the session, she even criticised Mahatma Gandhi's view that a woman's priority should be her home and rather than her career.

Dr. Pathak started her career as a lecturer of English and a freelance journalist. Her latter profession brought her near to the problems of the women of Gujarat. She noticed that many unnatural and suspicious deaths took place in community in spite of the presence of organisations that worked for the betterment of women since the late 1930s. The objective of these organisations was to provide an economic status for middle class women by providing them with training on stitching, typing etc; at the same time encouraging them to remain homebound. There were also a good number of rescue homes, relief and counseling centres for women who experienced mental and physical violence at their marital homes. However, these organisations basically worked on judicial terms trying to reach arbitration between the victimised woman and the in-laws often forcing the tortured woman back to her marital home, ultimately resulting in the suicide of the woman. Of course most of these suicides were shown as kitchen accidents and rose at an alarming rate. Analysing the situation Ila Pathak felt that a loophole existed in the system, driving women to such tragic circumstances.

During the early 80s she arranged a dialogue with leaders of the counselling and relief centres trying to point out that neither the legal system nor the counselling sessions should compel women to go back to torturing in-laws. However at that time the dialogues failed since the society was not yet ready to accept women sent away by her in-laws. Often families would not accept their daughters who left the marital homes after being victimised. Dr. Pathak realised the need for an organisation that will speak for the women, making them aware of their rights and ensure their rightful position in the society. Thus AWAG (Ahmedabad Women's Action Group) was founded on 1981 with Ila Pathak as the founder secretary. AWAG started with campaigns encouraging women to report incidents of violence to police. Such a campaign was needed, as the typical Indian woman often does not report incidents of violence in fear of marring the reputation of the husband and in-laws. Dr. Pathak recalled one incident when she had gone to visit a woman hospitalised after suffering from severe burns. “Even in her dying statement she refused to complain against her husband, reporting the cause of the burns as an accident,” says Ila. She thinks women are often forced to take such stance in the hope that their in-laws would at least take care of their children.

Members of AWAG

Nevertheless, many women complained about police not willing to file report of domestic violence. She said “Initially, I personally had to call many police officers even to the level of police commissioners to lodge a complaint of domestic violence. But this could not be done every time. Thus a more sustainable solution to this problem was required.” It was then AWAG started the work of sensitising the police force on women's rights and issues all over Gujarat. AWAG has also put forward a proposal to include awareness on violence against women in the training programme of the police force, which is yet to be implemented. AWAG's work in Gujrat apart both in urban and rural area has seen the increase in police reports and simultaneous decrease in unnatural deaths during the 1990s and early twenty first century. When asked whether there are any notable difference in the incidents of violence among the various religious communities or economic classes, Dr. Pathak said “It is equally prevalent in all religious communities and all classes. In fact, domestic violence is least reported in the upper classes.”

On the question of female feoticide Dr. Pathak stated “The rate of female foeticide in Gujarat is very high. With the advent of technology it is becoming harder to stop this crime. It is sad to see that many doctors even shun responsibilities for such acts. They try to get away by saying that they were just performing their patient's order.” In spite of the gravity of the situation, Ila Pathak strongly believes that such condition cannot prevail for men's own interest. She related one incident in a community in Gujarat where 43 young men had to remain unmarried as there were no young girls in the community. That resulted into the entire community taking a vow not to carry out female foeticide and infanticide. “I strongly believe that to stop such crimes it is the men who should be made aware of the resulting situation and not the women,” said Dr. Pathak.

Dr. Ila Pathak, through her dedication to the cause of women has built AWAG into the voice of Gujarati women. Today AWAG not only creates awareness and advocate for women's right, it works in the health and income generation sector. The AWAG-Ekta Industrial Co-operative Society formed with rescued women currently supplies clothing to the famous clothes retailer Fab, India. AWAG has also created its own brand of women's clothing Ek AWAG. However the uniqueness in AWAG comes up in monitoring mass media on issues of equality. As a result of AWAG's advocacy, the Gujarati National TV does not air programmes like “Sati” that undermines women's position in the society. Even textbooks have been revised to change the previously gender biased pictures showing boys working outside while girls doing only house chores. Dr. Ila Pathak, in her quest to ensure equality and justice to women is now trying to take women's voice to the United Nations.



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