‘Rape has no grey areas... it is an adult act’
It has been sometime since you took charge of the ministry. List some significant achievements of this period?
I think the most significant achievement would be that we got this ministry working. For many years it had gone into a slumber. Things were just not happening. Now we have divided the functioning of the ministry into different verticals and have set goals by which everybody has got a clear direction and timeline. One vertical deals with the legislative aspects and the second deals with the delivery of services in schemes like Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) which is the aanganwadi programme. The third would be (looking after) new initiatives that would protect women and children. Under these verticals, we have made a list of 35 things that we should activate by next April. In legal matters, the first thing we took up was the Juvenile Justice Act. We also got the high-level committee on the status of women to do a short study of the other laws that need to be looked at. We are looking into the issue of adoption-related mechanisms, which need to be revamped completely.
Cases of violence against women have increased. What measures has your ministry taken to counter this?
There are two symptoms to it. One is overpopulation. In an overpopulated society, violence does increase and it is always aimed at the weaker. So, it is always going to be one caste against another, one class against another. Our job is to focus on empowering women first and then look at changing the mindset of men, which is not easy at this point. But it is important that we empower women so that they are not seen as weaker. There are many ways to do that. One is to protect and empower them through laws. I have written to all chief ministers to have more women in the police force. The next important issue is that we have taken the matter of women in the Panchayati Raj system too lightly. Having 33 per cent women in panchayats was a brilliant idea. But women allowed themselves to be used as tools. New institutions like pradhan pati and sarpanch pati came up. They were even legitimised by district magistrates who allowed pradhan patis to sit in meetings. Pradhan patis would run the whole show while women remained in ghunghats. We, as MPs, did not do anything about it. But I have said in parliament that we need to change this. If a woman does not exercise her rights as pradhan, she should better be removed. The institution of pradhan pati should be banned. The third is to make community centres for women (associated with aanganwadis). There should be a crèche in this aanganwadi so that women can go for work. This centre should be geared to address malnutrition and also provide sanitation facilities for women in villages.
What is the response to your letter to CM favouring more women in the police force?
Well, I have just got one response so far – from Odisha. I am hopeful that other states will also do it. It is an idea whose time has come. Such a move can help make the police force more sensitive in dealing with crimes against women. Certainly, because when men have to alongside women it improves their sensitivity. If there are 33 per cent women colleagues, then you cannot avoid issues pertaining to women and their safety. At the moment, there are segregations. For women there is a women police thana; there is a woman officer to arrest a woman. These are artificial segregations. But if there is one head constable, a man or a woman, and if one out of three constables working under him or her is a woman, things become very different.
Your ministry has addressed one of the issues arising out of the Delhi gang-rape: crime by juveniles. How did you decide to take this issue head on?
The previous government did not do anything in this direction. We decided to act because people felt strongly about it. We have proposed reducing the age of the juvenile criminal from 18 to 16 for heinous crimes. But we have adopted a very rational approach for doing this. Instead of saying that all 16-year olds are bad, we have said that if a 16-year old commits a heinous crime, then we allow the juvenile justice board to look at the circumstances. If they believe that he committed the crime thinking as an adult then he will be presented before the adult court. In case he committed the crime thinking like a child, he will get the benefit of doubt. I want to give an example: suppose there is a boy whose father has been beating him, burning him, making him beg, and giving him shocks for the last 15 years. At the age of 16, the child plans a revenge on his father and does something horrible to him. In this case both possibilities will be looked at. It can be an adult act also as it is planned, but it could also be an act of child as revenge is a childish act. But rape, I think, has no grey areas because it is an adult act committed with adult mindset and emotions. We received more than 2,000 pages of remarks when we put it on the website. Most of them were overwhelmingly in favour of this. We worked really hard on this. There were two other schools of thought. One major school of thought said that the juvenile criminal should not be given any benefit of doubt and should straight be sent to the adult court, and the other thought said that no matter what he has done woh hai to bachcha hi. I disagree with both because over the years adolescence has become much more adult and precocious. We are quite happy with what we have done.
The draft amendment to the national commission for women (NCW) Act was placed in public domain recently. How do you see the role of this commission after the proposed amendments?
It was placed within a week of my becoming a minister. The proposed draft is still with the law ministry. We would like to strengthen the NCW as there is a huge pendency of cases. I have a separate email account, firstname.lastname@example.org, and people write to me every day about their problems. The complaints I get are really disturbing and can make one weep. Where will all these victimised women go if we do not help them? Why should the commission exist if it cannot redress their grievances? For instance, a man molests a woman within a government office and the woman complains to the NCW. They don’t even have the power to call him (the accused). So, what does it result in? The commission tries to make itself stronger by trying to pick up celebrity cases like those of Rakhi Sawant and Preity Zinta. These cases may have been important but they did not formally file a complaint. The NCW staff went to Badaun. They could not do anything there because even the police did not listen to them. Nor did the NCW staff carry out any investigation. We need to provide more teeth to the commission so that it does not remain just a platform to air grievances, but becomes a body that effectively redresses the problem.
Adoption is one of your focus areas. The process of adoption in India is rather complicated, often giving rise to malpractices. How do you plan to address this issue?
The system for adoption seems terribly complicated. I get complaints every day about adoption. It is so complicated that if you want to adopt a child you will be able to do so only five years later and in the meantime you spend lakhs and lakhs of rupees trying to keep contact with the child, to see that the child is protected, to see that it does not get ill, etc. So, we have made it much simpler. Firstly we made the central adoption resource authority (CARA) a statutory body. The procedures have been made simpler now so that people can adopt easily. It is really important to get children out of the orphanages and into the homes of their new parents. The present system somehow suspects the adopting parents if they are not residents of India. They have this provision that the children cannot be adopted by foreigners, they can only go (with them) under guardianship. That is vicious because, for instance, in some eventuality the child could become homeless (abroad) without a passport. So, now we are saying that anybody who adopts has to legally adopt from India and the message of that adoption would be sent to the immigration department so that the child gets a passport. We are changing the CARA website to make it user-friendly and interactive. I have written to the judges of family courts to speed up pending cases of adoption. I have also written stern letters to all adoption agencies to put their act together. I believe positive results have started coming in. So we have the letters and emails of blessings from the adopting parents.
In the first impression, it seems all efforts of your ministry are aimed at helping women in distress. What about other women?
We have a ‘rashtriya mahila kosh’, which was constituted as a bank but had a whole lot of complications in its working. We are now turning it around to make it a vehicle for enabling women to be micro-entrepreneurs. Second, we are looking at a scheme of (setting up) ‘women ITIs’. We are already in talks with three-four partners to start world-class ITIs which will impart non-traditional skills to women. The third initiative is the Sabla programme for girls between 11 and 16 years. We will give them three hours extra each week in the local school and train them in ways to negotiate the world: how to go to bank, how to approach officers, what health insurance is, etc. We are also planning to start a series of stores called ‘Women of India’ which will connect women entrepreneurs, small or medium, directly to the market.
You have asked for a portion of the Nirbhaya fund. How do you intend to use it?
The Nirbhaya fund comes under the finance ministry. The police have taken a part of it. We have asked for a part of it to start one-stop crisis centres. That will go a long way towards reducing violence. Every single district will have a place with all-India helpline for women. These crisis centres will have a caretaker, a psychologist on call, a team of doctors, police personnel and a lawyer. A woman in distress can make a call (to the helpline and she will be examined there. She will write out her FIR there; she does not need to go to multiple places – her case will be fought out of there, it will be computerised and (the details will be) sent to us. One of the reasons why women are raped is that rapists believe women have nowhere to go and they also feel that women’s families will tire out before long. Once they know justice is going to be quick and easy, it will be different.
What are your views on abortion as a matter of right for women though the subject still is a taboo?
It is a problem. There are no good abortion centres. It is terribly confused with PNDT (pre-natal diagnostic techniques, or sex determination test). Female foetuses are aborted even now. But without proper care women get sick and die. The subject of safe abortion unfortunately does not come under my ministry but I want to work with the health ministry in this direction. There are many grey areas, so I thought we should totally emphasise on safe abortion. There is a need for good professional abortion clinics. I want to start a campaign on this.
What are your thoughts on the ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ programme announced in the budget? How is your ministry rolling it out?
It is a very good idea as the child sex ratio in India is completely skewed. Beti Bachao is a very good programme envisioned by Modi. We are going to roll it out in hundreds of districts with skewed child sex ratios. We are going to set up a task force of officers who have done exemplary work on this issue and will learn from the experience of some of the schemes running successfully in the states on this issue. We will closely coordinate with other ministries which will bring in their programmes and skill-sets into this visionary initiative.
What is your opinion about the style of functioning of the Modi government?
It is a good government. It has set out with good intentions. It is a job we all have to do with good intentions and full dedication. If it is a job, then do it. That is what I believe about my job. He has asked even ministers to be on time to work. He actually did not. It is merely the media’s invention. Well, the prime minister has laid down protocols more by example than by exhortation.
Your concern for animals is well known. How do you reconcile that with your new responsibilities?
I do everything I can. We have a structured list of things that needs to be done for animals. I talk to other ministers who are equally concerned. Hopefully, things will be well managed.
You belong to the Gandhi family. How do you feel about other members of the family?
I am not going to answer this question. I never speak about myself.
What about your son Varun Gandhi who was recently dropped by Amit Shah as BJP general secretary?
I will not answer that.
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