Women voters in Kerala favoured the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government, largely because it portrayed itself as women-friendly. It was in fact one of the slogans for the LDF, which comfortably returned to power in the Kerala Assembly elections in 2021.
A large section of women voters supported the Pinarayi government primarily because of its effective policies in managing the COVID crisis. Women from the middle and lower economic strata have openly expressed their support for Pinarayi on TV channels and social media, particularly for not letting them go hungry during the lockdown.
The LDF government in Kerala successfully established that it stands for women and that it listens to women. It won women’s trust with its response to the gruesome incident in 2017, in which a young actress was abducted and raped by a leading film star. An inquiry committee headed by a retired judge, Justice Hema, was formed to probe the dark underbelly of the Malayalam film industry.
Moreover, the LDF got into the election battle with a manifesto that contained attractive promises for the welfare of women. How far has it gone to keep its promises? The Federal takes a look at the LDF government’s performance this past year.
The Justice Hema committee report, and the government’s hide-and-seek game
An indicator of the state government’s attitude towards gender rights is its handling of the Justice Hema committee report. Appointed in 2017 to probe the alleged discrimination against, and exploitation of, women in the Malayalam film industry, the committee submitted its report in December 2019.
Since then, the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) and several other organisations and activists fighting for gender rights have been repeatedly demanding that the government make the report public, without disclosing the identity of the women who have given statements.
The government put the report in cold storage and took little initiative to chalk out an action plan based on the committee’s recommendations. Time and again, ministers and other LDF leaders gave varied and unconvincing explanations about what is stopping them from publishing the report.
AK Balan, former cultural minister, told The Federal: “We have drafted a Bill to create a film regulatory authority to improve the working conditions in the Malayalam film industry. This Bill is drafted based on the recommendations of the Adoor Gopalakrishnan committee and Justice Hema committee. We could not take it forward due to the pandemic.”
Saji Cheriyan, the present minister for cultural affairs, indirectly blamed the WCC, while talking to the media on May 5. Whoever demands the report has ‘ulterior motives’, he alleged. A few days ago, law minister P Rajeev also put the onus on the WCC, stating that it asked him not to publish the report.
However, the WCC dismissed his statement and released the written representation submitted to him on the matter. “Right from the beginning we have been raising only one demand — to publish the crux of the report without disclosing the identity of the women,” Deedi Damodaran, a WCC office-bearer, told The Federal. She called the attitude of the government “disappointing”.
Many women working in Malayalam cinema have openly shared their experiences of exploitation and sexual harassment, even at the hands of prominent stars, with the committee members. Publishing the report would indeed open a can of worms, according to many within the industry. However, the question is, on whose side is the government?
‘Violence against women only on the rise’
It is not just the Justice Hema committee report, but also the report on the Child Welfare Council’s illegal adoption case that has been buried.
According to PE Usha, a gender right activist who works among tribal communities in various locations, government establishments have been politicised, because of which there is absolutely no transparency.
Referring to the recent incident in which the Child Welfare Council gave a baby for adoption ignoring the biological mother’s complaint, Usha said that the government is functioning behind an iron curtain. “The government refused to give a copy of the report even to Anupama, the child’s biological mother. Those who govern such institutions continue to be the blue-eyed boys of the government and the party,” said Usha. (None of the office-bearers of the Child Welfare Council, including General Secretary Shiju Khan, the leader of DYFI, faced any disciplinary action on the matter).
Moreover, Usha added that over the past few months, no less than 10 POCSO victims (including tribal girls) have died by suicide. “This government does not have a policy to protect the victims. Instead of strengthening the victim protection measures, they have shut down the existing shelter homes (Nirbhaya Homes),” said Usha.
Incidence of violence on the rise in the state
Mercy Alexander, a feminist activist and director of the Sakhi Women’s Resource Centre, said the incidence of violence against women is only on the rise in the state. In her view, the performance of the government with regards to women’s safety is “utterly disappointing”.
“Even in the actress abduction and assault case, the investigation is going nowhere. Two public prosecutors resigned and, over the past three months, no new person has been appointed,” said Alexander, referring to the recent transfer of Crime Branch ADGP who was in charge of the investigation.
Further, she said, the police often turn their back on the victims. “The government is not intervening to make the policing better for women, who are at the receiving end,” said Alexander.
There has been a substantial increase in crimes against women in Kerala between 2020 and 2021. The crimes across all categories show a rising trend, with a 30 per cent jump in the total crimes (against women), according to State Crime Records Bureau data. All reported offences including rape, molestation, dowry deaths, kidnapping and abduction, eve teasing and cruelty by husband have shot up in 2021.
The reported rape cases were 1,880 in 2020 and 2,318 in 2021. The trend is only going upwards in 2022 as well. Up to March, 614 rape cases were reported.
‘No package for women in the post-COVID situation’
Women representation in Kerala politics is also poor. The state Assembly has just 11 women MLAs, while the state’s record in terms of women’s participation in the labour force is not good either.
“The government has not done anything to address the massive unemployment among women, particularly in the post-COVID times,” said Sonia George, president of SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), the biggest independent women’s trade union in the country. Kerala is far behind many other states with regards to participation of women in the labour force.
According to the latest Family Health Survey, just 26 per cent of women work in Kerala. The crimes against women, including cybercrimes, have substantially increased in the state in 2020-21. According to an answer given in the Assembly on February 22, 2022, by the Chief Minister, there was a 63 per cent jump in cybercrimes in Kerala from 2020 to 2021. Across all categories of cybercrimes, the consumption and dissemination of child pornography increased by 60 per cent in 2021.
“The police remains governed by archaic anti-women patriarchal values. No effective intervention from the side of the government is being done to change their attitudes. Women get no relief at police stations,” said SEWA’s George.
“Even the position of the gender advisor to the government remains vacant since the former advisor TK Anandi resigned,” pointed out George, a feminist scholar and trade union leader who works for the welfare of women in the unorganised sector. She is also disappointed with the performance of the LDF government in its second term.
On the other hand, advocate Maya Krishnan, a high court lawyer and a member of CPI (M), has a contrary view. According to her, the gender awareness programmes being conducted by the Women and Children department among the youth are fruitful.
Krishnan, who is also a resource person for these programmes, told The Federal: “The training programmes have been conducted in several colleges over the past one year. I can see the impact of such programmes among the youth.”
Viji, a trade union leader working with sales girls in textile shops in Kozhikode, is also impressed by the government’s performance. “I am not strictly talking about the past one year, but this government gives us a great deal of encouragement. The labour officers in Kerala started taking us seriously and they listen to our complaints and provide many solutions as possible,” said Viji, the founder of Penkoott, an organisation of sales girls and other women in the unorganised sector.
Viji, however, disapproves of the way the government dealt with women’s issues in the field of cinema. “The unwillingness to publish the Hema Committee report is condemnable. The government should take a pro-active approach in this matter,” she said.
In a nutshell, women voted for LDF in large numbers but the government is not coming up with any women-centric policies. It is a thumbs down for the LDF government with regards to improving the lives of women in the state.