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Mistress of Spice: Renuka Chowdhury
New Delhi, July 21, 2007
Renuka Chowdhury likes to be in the news. This week, however, the women and child development minister hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Her advice to women to trust condoms more than men received flak not only from men but also from women’s organisations. In the midst of this, she also provided enough ‘masala’ to news channels to rake up a fresh controversy.The 52-year-old minister from Andhra Pradesh is not left deterred, though. “I will rather deal with controversies than die compromising. I will always knock at the door of truth,” was her reaction to opinions against her on television. “People should understand the context (of the statement) — that most women get HIV/AIDS from their husbands. I just wanted to caution them,” she said.
But critics like Poornima Advani, former chairperson of National Commission for Women, would prefer more subtle ways of cautioning. “Telling (women) that men cannot be trusted is demeaning your brothers and creating a rift in families,” said Advani.
Others questioned Chowdhury’s wisdom in asking women to purchase condoms themselves, saying they would be branded as sex workers. They feel that propagating such views can cause more harm to women than do any good.
All for a cause?
A housewife-turned-politician, Chowdhury, however, describes such views as mindset problems. And strong statements such as the one she made, she says, are needed to change the popular mindset. So, don’t be amazed if Chowdhury has more astonishing words of advice for women in the future.
She believes women cannot be empowered without strong rhetoric from the top level in the government and actually takes credit for initiating a national debate on issues relating to women’s right with her statement.
Chowdhury would have you believe that she has taken over the task of championing the cause of women’s empowerment. “I have seen traumatised women in the worst possible inhuman conditions. I am here to bring a change in their lives,” she has said.
Her eloquence on mandatory registration of pregnancies last week had several women organisations up in arms, terming the proposal as a move to infringe a woman’s privacy. Bur Chowdhury disagrees: “What privacy are you talking about? They (women) live with 10 members in a room and don’t have a bathroom. They cannot even decide when to bear a child. Registration (of pregnancy) will help give a woman good and healthy life.”
The fresh row in the aftermath of Chowdhury’s statement may dissipate with time as it has happened in past, but Chowdhury’s political career, which started in 1984, has seen a long list of controversies. She hogged the limelight when she stood on top of a jeep to protest the ouster of the Andhra Pradesh government, and won the election against Congress leader P. Janardhan Reddy.
Then there was a time when she created a storm by joining the Congress after quitting the Telugu Desam Party and was subsequently made a minister of state for health and family welfare.
Her stint at the helm of the women and child development ministry has not been any less controversial. Her strong advocacy of the Domestic Violence Act earned her the dubious distinction of being one of the most hated Indian politicians on blogs and websites.
Blogs like the Unquiet Mind described her as ‘men hater’ and ‘creator of gender bias in the Indian laws’. Chowdhury’s office has received large amounts of hate mail but her officers perceive it as a signal of the good work being done. The domestic violence law even received flak from the Supreme Court, when it observed that it was a “badly framed law”.
Mixed bag of results
Chowdhury’s critics like Ranjana Kumari of Women Power Connect point out that mere sensational comments on women and child issues will not work. Many of Chowdhury’s ideas — like orphanages for girl children, which were highlighted in media with fanfare — have just not taken off, points out Ranjana Kumari. She adds that there is a need to bring seriousness in the government’s thinking on women and children issues.
Chowdhury’s retort is sharp: “We are here to restore rights of women as enshrined in the Constitution and give them a dignified way of living, which has not happened in 60 years of Independence.”
But the minister’s overdrive and admission of the faults within her ministry has won her accolades from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
For the first time, a law to protect the rights of children, a law against sexual harassment and a Child Protection Scheme are in the pipeline. Chowdhury admits that the world’s biggest child nutrition plan — the Integrated Child Development Scheme — was flawed, and has asked for restructuring of the scheme.
On the latest issue, Chowdhury claims she has got calls congratulating her for her views on HIV/AIDS and registration of pregnancies. And in making these statements, she says, she had taken the advice of a friend, who told her: “You should speak your heart out.” Well, the advice sure has brought into national focus the once low-profile ministry that she heads.