Known to be the fuel behind the burning demand for a women’s commission in Telangana, activist Spurthi Kolipaka shares her thoughts about women, activism and the need for a commission.

Spurthi Kolipaka standing facing the camera with a smile
Features Interview Monday, September 21, 2020 - 13:39

It has been a little more than 2 years since activist Spurthi Kolipaka began her crusade for a women’s commission in the state of Telangana. On August 15, 2018 she began her campaign #WomComMatter and since then a woman’s commission in the state has been the biggest thing on her mind. Today, she works as a water, sanitation and hygiene consultant and also uses her time to advocate issues that are close to her heart. TNM caught up with Spurthi Kolipaka, here are excerpts from the interview.

How did your campaign for a women’s commission first take shape? Who all have actively supported this crusade?

While researching anti-dowry measures to launch a campaign, I came across initiatives previously taken by the AP women's commission. This was the first time I was exposed to the institution that was set up solely to protect women's rights and to expedite the process of justice. I was astonished when I glanced at the functions of the commission that they could lodge an online complaint.

At first, I started the campaign to request the establishment for a website in Telangana. That is when I realized that after the completion of tenure of the previous chairperson, no one had been appointed. And that there has been no annual report for the last 6 years. 

I drafted my petition through change.org and received responses from the National Commission for Women Chairperson, Rekha Sharma, who wrote to the Telangana CM and Chief Secretary to take action and appoint the commission members. Recently, Prof. Jyotsana, Mahlila President, TDP wrote to the CMO office to prioritize women's issues facing marginalization due to the ongoing pandemic and to appoint a women's commission to resolve the pending cases.

We are also supported by several stakeholders of the society making up for inclusivity and broad impact of our actions. Our 120+ volunteer base is made up of - students, social workers, advocates, counselors, homemakers, and people of binary and non-binary gender identities whose continued support has shaped our various successful campaigns and initiatives. We also acquired 1500+ signatures for our letter to CM, by promoting our cause at various public spaces & institutions across Hyderabad.

My core team is no less full of stalwarts who juggle multiple things and yet dedicate 3 hours everyday to the campaign - Farheen, Neha, Priyanka, Sathvika, Teju are few of them.

Spurthi Kolipaka with NCW Chairperson Rekha Sharma

Why is a women's commission essential? Has the Telangana government proved that women’s issues can be addressed without a commission?

Through landmark judgements, the Supreme Court of the country has extended some safeguards to women. But to undo centuries of conditioning and prejudices against women is a mammoth task and hence constitutional structures are vital in accelerating this process.

The women’s commission has a strong fourteen-point mandate divided under four subheads:

1.       Review the Constitutional and Legal safeguards for women;

2.       Recommend remedial legislative measures;

3.       Facilitate redressal of grievances; and

4.       Advise the Government on all policy matters affecting women.

Has the Govt. created an alternative to this? No. Is there any other institution playing the role of a surveillance function and providing policy recommendations? No. The better question would be, has this Govt. even consulted the numerous NGOs, senior feminists, activists, etc. for making any policy benefitting women? No. And, when they don't consult, they end up with schemes like Kalyana Laxmi and bask in misogynistic glory that they are providing this for women. Does the TRS manifesto even have a separate plan for women empowerment? I'll leave this to the readers for a guess.

Further, the Women's Commission is supposed to submit an Annual Report to the government on lacunae, inadequacies, shortcomings of laws in force which affect the Constitutional Right to equality & fair treatment of women and also on the remedial legislative measures. This Annual Report is to be laid before the Legislative Assembly with a memorandum of action taken on the recommendations provided in the report and also mention the reasons for non-acceptance, if any. It is highly unfortunate that there has been NO Annual Report by the Commission since the formation of Telangana, according to our RTI. This shows the interest and priority towards reducing violence against women in the State through policy.

According to you are there examples of any women's commissions in any state making a substantial difference or doing a great work?

Ever since its inception, the National Commission for Women and respective State Commissions have been relentlessly working towards upholding women’s rights, have drafted policies, made key recommendations, and have been a key player in driving impactful solutions for addressing discrimination and atrocities against women. Many have also undertaken promotional, and educational studies for upliftment and advancement of the status of women.

Here are some of the key initiatives by few State Women's Commissions:

  1. Kerala state commission, with an online website for case filing, information on women’s hostels and Initiatives such as ‘Adalat’, for public hearing & review of cases, ‘Night walk for women’, and started a counseling helpline for women at the onset of the COVID crisis.
  2. Delhi women’s commission has set up a Transgender cell, in consultation with the community which faces extreme marginalization from the society. Also prepared a ‘Women’s Manifesto’, ahead of the Delhi elections last year to be sent to all parties to galvanize political action for gender equality. Conducts various initiatives such as Mahila Panchayats, raided public spaces such as malls, etc, and campaigns for the prevention of crime against women. The chairperson also issued thousands of notices!
  3. Maharashtra women’s commission has effectively collaborated with SFA academy to create workplaces free of sexual harassment with an eight-hour POSH certification course. The course was launched on August 14 and more than 300 people have registered.
  4. Manipur Women’s Commission has recently celebrated its 14th foundation day. They have launched a dedicated website, and are working on increasing legal awareness.
  5. Haryana Women’s Commission attended hundreds of calls every day and provided immediate relief and support to those suffering due to lockdown, especially those affected by domestic violence.

If the decisions of the Commissions do not possess the ability to be ‘enforced’, it becomes directory in nature. Don’t you think this makes a women’s commission an insignificant body?

Basically, based on the primary functions of the Women's Commission, its role is to act as a surveillance institution, address grievances and make policy recommendations. So, it is not just about 'mere' recommendations but also facilitates processes to ensure Constitutional and legal safeguards for women.

Also, the Act itself provides enough power through the Annual report. These recommendations provided by the Women’s Commission are to be laid before the Legislative Assembly with an action taken report and also provide reasons for non-acceptance. The Women's Commission is actually a powerful institution but the Govt. has rendered it toothless.

It is incorrect to label that Commission is an adjudicatory institute. It is an institutional ally on the road to achieve gender equality. Albeit, there's a need to make few important amendments

1. Proposed recommendation by SWC shall wear mandatory cover on state govt.

2. It must now be accompanied with the legislative powers.

There is also a demand for a men's commission. Would you support it?

1. First let's understand the process behind the constitution of the Women's Commission.

A Women's Commission was constituted after decades of study and struggle. Committee on Status of Women in India (CSWI) undertook the most comprehensive review on women’s status since Independence for 4 years and submitted a report in 1975. It found trends of declining sex ratio, disparities in the life expectancy and death rates between men and women; and the difficulties involved in women’s access to literacy, education and livelihood. The Committee recommended setting up of National Commission for women to fulfil the surveillance functions, to facilitate redressal of grievances and to accelerate the socio-economic development of women and the first commission for women was constituted in 1992.

Now, in 2020, more than 4 and half decades later to the first finding, we still have declining sex ratios, crimes against women have become worst, and the access to opportunities and resources is highly unequal.

It is important to understand who the oppressor is which is very evident in this case. Even to suggest the due process, starting with committee and research, be followed for the constitution of a men's commission is funny.

2. Let me also remind about some other Commissions - Human Rights Commission, Commission for Minorities, Commission for Backward Classes, Commission for Child Rights Protection, etc.

3. Let's understand who is demanding this, why and on what grounds. If the only claim is to protect themselves from false cases, then there is no need for a men's commission, but there is a need for a functional justice system. As per National Family Health Survey-4, only 6% of women who face sexual violence ever report it to police. Only 6%. But, aren't 100% rapists, men?

4. Finally, I think we should progress towards our vision. A world where there is no need of women's commission even. Unfortunately, we are far away from that dream and we must actively work towards it rather than engage in whataboutery.

You have also been advocating menstrual literacy, water conservation, cleanliness etc. Would you recommend someone to be a part of such diverse movements or would you suggest young activists to choose any one cause and delve deep into the same? 

While working as a coder in Tech Mahindra, soon after my engineering from Gokaraju Rangaraju, I started to volunteer for various social causes over weekends and non-working days. During these days, I used to think social work was just about helping others, but my Master’s at TISS made me realize that it is a journey to try and understand how one can be useful for others, while keeping in mind their privileges & social positioning. However, there were so many issues to learn & contribute towards that I did not know where to begin, what to pick and what I felt most strongly about.

I learnt that no cause is isolated in itself.  I learnt that I cannot convince the dalit/ untouchable community members to send their children to Anganwadi when the teachers and helpers there are the very women from upper caste who don’t treat them like equals. I cannot waltz in and out of a rural community with my privilege showing on my attire, in my language, with my gestures and be impatient about creating change. I cannot talk about women leaving abusive families without empowering them to be financially independent, etc.

Every social worker/ activist has to work keeping this intersectionality in mind.

For someone who is trying to get into social work and does not have a clear vision of where they want to contribute, I would recommend working on different causes; this will help them realize what they are passionate about.

You’ve spoken about misogyny in cinema recently especially regarding Arjun Reddy. How do you see the interplay between popular culture and social/power structures? 

Let me give some examples -

A tik tok star gunned down the female flight attendant because he couldn’t handle rejection. He was famous for his uploads of the Kabir Singh line "jo mera nahi ho sakta, use kisi aur ke hone ka mauka nahi doonga."

A 32-year-old Indian man who moved to Australia for work was arrested for stalking women. He pleaded guilty saying that he learnt from popular movies where the male lead always got the women to say yes by doggedly chasing them.

Art influences culture and culture influences art. And, Cinema is a powerful art that influences particularly young people in both good and bad ways and shapes their views on society. After every hit movie, we see hairstyles changing, new ringtones and dance steps, fresh attires & use of colors and patterns in the market, etc. These are the tangible changes. Remember the popular 'eyy biscuit' and 'punch aa?" dialogues which still are part of our common Telugu slang. While these are some influences we can directly see, misogyny is subtle. Time and again, Tollywood movies portray women in substandard roles, limiting their characters to hardly have screen time or any important dialogues, even if they do, it will be about the man. Forget the heroine, even the mothers, sisters, friends and all supporting women cast is just so monotonous and same old 'abla naari' stuff. While all of this has been happening with ages, what Arjun Reddy did wrong was the glorification of toxic masculinity, and normalization of harassment.

Films change our lives. They have shaped all our lives and it is extremely important to have media critiques. They are the only hope. What was also unique was the outrage against Arjun Reddy by various men, women, and communities. That surely is a glimmer of hope?

At #WomComMatters, we started a series called Films and Feminism to discuss Tollywood films and it has been a fun journey. We look forward to partnering and doing this more.

How has the internet helped you fight your causes? Have you ever felt that it also has its own limitations?

Nothing else boosts the morale of an activist as much as finding support. Internet activism is the most sure shot way of finding that support. It has an ability to reach a large number of people within a short span. Keyboard activists as a term was earlier used to loosely describe people who only exist online and not at ground level. But they have become important in amplifying the voices of citizens.

My petition change.org/WomComMatters has over 22,000 signatures.  Besides the signatures, I have a community of 150 people actively demanding for a functional women’s commission in Telangana at every available opportunity. I have a core team of 10 volunteers and we are the driving force behind #WomComMatters now. We were able to initiate many campaigns. BodyLogue - an online safe space to share and listen about body acceptance/ body positivity; #GoodGirlSeries - introducing kickass women who have redefined what being a good girl is; #RantNights - another online safe space to just rant about the everyday sexism we face abd tweetathons.

Further, during COVID-19 we were able to fundraise over 2.5L to sponsor cloth pads, support 3 different serious cases of human rights violation in getting immediate help, etc. We also submitted our inputs on violence against women to the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women.

Ofcourse, internet activism has limitations. The most prominent one being the trolls, mass duplication of messages by hate groups trying to divert our ask/ cause, etc. Nobody seems to have the power to control them.  Another is the limited attention span for each cause. It’s just like a wave. The support we receive today might disappear entirely tomorrow.

Today, #WomComMatters is a non-partisan citizen collective aimed at raising citizen awareness to hold the government accountable towards women's safety, participation and representation. We are determined to change the narrative from victim blaming to systems thinking.

We have just launched our fellowship called 'Awaaz-e-Telangana' to nurture 25 female and 15 male Telugu campaigners from across Telangana to strengthen our movement. Those interested can apply at womcommatters.in

 Few of the visionary activists in the state promoting our cause further are given below:

·         Change.org community

·         Danasri Anusuya/ Seethakka, MLA Mulugu constituency

·         Devi, Playwright & Director

·         Prof. Jyothsna Tirunagari, Mahila President, TDP

·         Indira Shoban, Mahila Spokesperson, Telangana congress

·         Sujatha Surepally, HoD Satavahana university

·         Varsha Bhargavi, Convener of Iwillgoout

·         Khalida Parveen, General secretary, Amoomat society

·         Sagina Walyat, Advocate, Punjab & Haryana high court

 

 

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.