Vina Mazumdar – India

inked with SPARROW, and with Global Feminisms Project, at the Universty of Michigan.

Vina Mazumdar calls herself a chronicler and recorder of the movement in India. She also fondly refers to herself as the grandmother of Women’s Studies in India. As the Member Secretary of the Committee on the Status of Women in India she was instrumental in drafting what is now known as the Towards Equality report, which has been the turning point both for Women’s Studies and women’s movement in India. She is the co-founder of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in Delhi and has served as its Director for many years. This pioneering institution has greatly influenced the course Women’s Studies has taken in India. Vina Mazumdar is 76 years old and is still active voicing her protest and influencing policies regarding women. (on Sparrow online … and click there on view for a 1.25 min video-explanation).

… She is an Honours Graduate and D.Phil from Oxford University. In her professional career she has been a teacher of Political Science in the Universities of Patna and Berhampur, an Officer in the UGC Secretariat and Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Simla. She was Member Secretary, Committee on the Status of Women in India, and later Director, Programme of Women’s Studies, Indian Council of Social Science Research for five years (1975-80). She was founder-Director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi from 1980 to 1991, and thereafter was Senior Fellow at CWDS and JP Naik National Fellow, ICSSR for two years … (full text).

She says: “Extensive discussions with over 10,000 women from different backgrounds revealed our own ignorance and shattered our self images as social scientists and as daughters of independence. (1000peacewomen).

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Vina Mazumdar – India

She works for the Centre for Women’s Development Studies CWDS.

NEW DELHI: Women’s groups and activists on Thursday submitted an “open petition” to the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court demanding review of a Division Bench judgment reducing the life sentence for a rape convict after he passed the Civil Services examination. If it is not reviewed, a special leave petition will be filed in the Supreme Court, said the signatories, numbering over 100. The judgment set an extremely retrograde and wrong precedent, the women’s groups said registering their protest … // … The signatories include the All-India Democratic Women’s Association, the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, the Guild of Services, the Joint Women’s Programme, the National Federation of Indian Women, the Young Women’s Christian Association, Vina Mazumdar, Romila Thapar, Upendra Baxi, Zoya Hasan, and other eminent social activists and representatives of civil society groups.  (full text, Feb 27, 2009).

The book: Note of Dissent, by Lotika Sarkar and Vina Mazumdar – read the first page.

Find her and her publicationson openLibrary; on amazon; on CWDS/papers; on alibris; on Google Video-search; on Google Group-search; on Google Book-search; on Google Scholar-search; on Google Blog-search.

1000peacewomen: Vina Mazumdar (born 1927) is called “the grandmother of women’s studies in South Asia”. Her transformation from an activist academic to a grassroots intervention worker began with a project that took her across the country. Her distress at the condition of women migrant laborers was the impetus for an experiment on the use of wastelands to provide sustenance for rural women. The project, widely emulated, changed the lives of the women. Vina’s mix of academic enquiry, dialoguing with policy-planners, and engaging with grassroots initiatives, is a whole new way of looking at women’s issues. (She) is a social scientist by training, a women’s activist and feminist by instinct and choice, a “troublemaker” by her own confession, and a “recorder and chronicler of the Indian Women’s Movement”. Vina is fondly referred to as “the grandmother of women’s studies in South Asia”.

Born into a middleclass Bengali family, Vina grew up in an atmosphere that instilled in her the value of education, simplicity – and the love of argument and discussion. She studied at a Diocesan Girls School run by the British Protestant Mission, graduating from the Benaras Hindu University. She went to Oxford in the 1960s and, later, in the 1970s to complete her Bachelors and Doctorate.

From 1951-65, she taught Political Science at Patna University, trying to energize the curriculum and the examination system, especially during her tenure as first secretary of the Patna University Teachers Association. Her abiding interest in educational reform prompted her move to the University Grants Commission, the apex body for the national university system.

Her appointment in the Committee on the Status of Women in India radically altered the direction of her life and work. The committee, appointed by the Government of India in 1971, was reconstituted in 1973 with Vina, a later entrant, as member secretary. The committee was given an extended term of one year to finalize its report, to enable the government to face the first UN-sponsored World Conference on Women at Mexico in 1975, after debating the Report in Parliament. The resurgent women’s movement of the 1970s acknowledged the Report, Towards Equality, as its “Founding Text”.

Traveling across the country and analyzing volumes of research and writings on women left an ineradicable impression about the large-scale marginalization, poverty, and invisibility of the majority of India’s laboring women–”the hidden and unacknowledged majority”. The concern and challenges thrown up by Towards Equality became a lifelong passionate commitment that had nothing to do with the course of her career. “Our findings through extensive discussions with over 10,000 women from different backgrounds in most states/cultural regions revealed our own ignorance and shattered our self images as social scientists /teachers/and as ‘daughters of Independence’,” she says.

Vina headed the Women’s Studies Program Unit from 1975-1980 and organized follow-up action–research and publication–on issues identified by the committee’s report. In 1980, with some like-minded persons, she founded the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), an autonomous research institution, to carry on the task of fighting for women’s rights. Right from its inception, CWDS opted for a ‘catalyst’ role to promote debates on women’s rights, and to work towards the elimination of obstacles to gender equality and justice.

Vina was also primarily responsible for the incorporation of a section on “education for women’s equality” in the National Education Policy (1986). A national seminar on this theme brought together women academics, policy-planners, and allies within the government to draft a section that iterated and emphasized the social responsibilities of the education system.

This was also the beginning of one of the most crucial projects that Vina was involved in: For the past 24 years, she has been working with groups of poor peasant women in two districts of West Bengal. The work, funded by the International Labor Organization (ILO), began in 1981, primarily with migrant women agricultural workers and forest-dependent (tribal, indigenous community) women belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, and other marginalized communities.

The partnership began as an experiment in mobilizing women’s groups around wasteland development and livelihood issues. Initially, Vina began exploring the travails of poor migrant women workers who peregrinated every year for about eight to nine months in search of wage labor. She organized a rural women’s camp in collaboration with the government of West Bengal. The two days of deliberations revealed the subhuman conditions under which the women worked, migrating to other districts, and returning home after several months to debris and a life of privation. The annual migratory process meant high infant mortality, indebtedness, and brutish sexual exploitation.

The biggest challenge, Vina realized, was to create productive work in the women’s own villages, the creation of work opportunities locally. Thus began an odyssey: in 1981, she organized a group of assetless women from Bankura district, West Bengal; they managed to obtain eight acres of wasteland, which was registered in the name of the organization. It was the first time that these women owned an asset. It took three years of backbreaking labor by the group to demonstrate that wasteland can be regenerated to provide sustenance to women.

The experiment generated a debate, within both the ILO and the government, about the clear utility of involving women in wasteland development. The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests made an explicit policy pronouncement to involve poor women in wasteland development and joint forest management. The impact of the experiment on local women’s groups has also been widely acknowledged.

It is remarkable that the project was such a resounding success. The region that Vina decided to work was severely deforested. The biggest challenge was to prevent seasonal migration. The initial effort to register the land in the name of the women’s group was resisted by both the men in the family and the local community. Local tribal leaders, vested interests, the local elite, and those managing tribal institutions and local bodies resisted the very idea of mobilized women. The families which donated the land wanted women from their families represented on the committees. Then, once the desiccated, ochre land turned emerald, these families demanded that the land be returned to them. It took all of Vina’s skills and resources to navigate local power politics.

The experiment has prompted several replications elsewhere. The ILO itself later involved SEWA, Ahmedabad, and Seva Mandir, Udaipur, in similar enterprises. CWDS has also repeated the assay in another district in West Bengal, helping women to reclaim land that was allocated to them under the anti-poverty program.

“We were not prepared at all for the sheer intellectual and personal development demonstrated by so many of the women,” Vina writes. “The linguistic ability that they developed, the analytical and imaginative capacity to articulate and to adapt their statements or presentations after assessing the receiving or the absorption capacity of the people to whom they were talking demonstrated extraordinary mental and communication skills. I have been a teacher for 16 years, and was supposed to be a good communicator, but the way these women changed their presentations to changing audiences left me utterly amazed and thrilled.”

This was a unique initiative by a social scientist, who involved herself with grassroots action despite resistance from within her own organization. But Vina dismisses the idea that the achievement was hers at all: the women’s organization demonstrated “a great political dynamism and themselves became the agents of change”. Combining canny academic entrepreneurship with activism, she believes that in order to sustain women’s livelihood and political action, they have to learn organizational management.

Also, by providing opportunities to tribal women in non-threatening ways, and helping them break their shackles of poverty and deprivation, she has managed to crack the culture of silence that kept tribal women in segregation and privation and for centuries.

Today, she continues to work with poor peasant women, admiring their grit and ability to absorb new knowledge, and to build on their traditional knowledge base. Vina is a member of several prominent academic/advisory boards and has received awards from UNIFEM, the Association for Women in International Development, and the YWCA of India for innovative leadership.

Vina Mazumdar has eschewed models, conventions, and markers in her long career. Her amalgam of pursuing academic inquiry, dialoguing with policy-planners, and engaging with the grassroots initiatives of rural women has forged a whole new way of looking at women’s issues. (on 1000peacewomen).

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