The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sonia woos women with freedom

Mount Abu, Nov. 7: Congress president Sonia Gandhi is set to add the issue women’s empowerment to her party’s political agenda, in her desperate bid to counter the mandir and mandal planks.

The party conclave beginning at Mount Abu tomorrow is aimed at giving fresh impetus to gender equality that goes much beyond promising 33 per cent reservation in Parliament and Assembly seats.

If Sonia has her way, the 14 Congress-ruled states will collectively work towards greater freedom for women. This would include the right to participate in decision-making, the right to a long life, health, education, and work without exploitation, as well as the freedom from fear.

A party position paper to be presented at the conclave by MP Shivraj Patil and educationist A.K. Shiv Kumar promises to account for “25 million missing women”, some of whom are not born because of the adverse male to female ratio and rest of whom die because they do not have the opportunity to survive.

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh would be confronted with a disturbing question. Why is that his state reports the lowest life expectancy at birth among women in India' Why do women born in another Congress-ruled state — A.K. Antony’s Kerala — on an average live 18 years more'

The Congress paper on empowerment of women wants party chief ministers to pay greater attention to other issues such as women earning a far lower wage than men doing the same work. In no Indian state do women and men earn equal wages in agriculture.

The paper highlights that women are under-represented in decision-making positions. Less than 8 per cent seats in Parliament, 6 per cent Cabinet berths, 4 per cent seats in high courts and Supreme Court and 3 per cent administrative and managerial posts are held by women.

It says women are legally discriminated against in land and property rights. Most women do not own any property and do not get a share of parental property.

Police records show that a woman is molested in the country every 26 minutes, a rape occurs every 34 minutes and in every 93 minutes a woman is killed, it points out.

Close to 300 Indian women die every day during childbirth or from pregnancy related causes. This is roughly equivalent to one death every five minutes — implying that even as one reads these statistics, a women is dying somewhere in the country.

The Congress chief wants chief ministers to invest in strengthening women’s health knowledge and health so that it can lead to huge improvements in the health status of communities.

Congress leaders close to Sonia said the AICC chief was determined to take the lead in ensuring a “fair deal” for women and that it should not be seen in the context of vote-bank politics. “Soniaji is keen to change the mind-set of our policy-makers. If the political class is sensitised towards gender equality, there would be an-all-round improvement,” a Congress Working Committee member said.

However, some party leaders admitted that, being a woman, Sonia was indeed toying with the idea of attracting votes on gender-lines. They pointed out that at an all women conference organised by the Mahila Congress in Delhi last month Sonia had promised to take the lead in all women-related issues.

“In Mount Abu, there will be a follow-up where the chief ministers of the party ruled states would be formally asked to adopt specific gender-based schemes,” a party leader said.

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