As the Chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW), Rekha Sharma is at the helm of the country's apex organisation that is mandated to protect and promote women’s interest. Yet, she rarely introduces herself as such. The reason: she believes she has only just started in her fight for women’s rights in this country.
“I always feel that I have to do much more. Before NCW, I have never made my visiting card because I always felt I have a lot more to do. Here also, I will say that I feel like I have just started. There are two more years in the Commission and after that too, I will keep on fighting for the rights of women,” Rekha Sharma, who assumed office as the Chairperson of the NCW in August 2018, told MAKERS India in an exclusive interaction.
A fierce advocate for women and vulnerable communities, Rekha – a member of the NCW since August 2015 – has never shied away from fighting for the rights of women from all walks of life – women who are sexual abuse survivors, prisoners, tea estate workers, as well as women in the workforce and vulnerable jobs.
In the last four years, Rekha has been instrumental in promoting the interests of women, especially those who have no voice in society.
In fact, when the #MeToo movement swept through the country a year ago, starting October 2018, Rekha and the Commission played a central role in helping women take their sexual harassment complaints against their offenders beyond social media to a legal conclusion.
The #MeToo Movement
“Many times, we call the companies, and go through their enquiries. If we find out something has gone wrong or if the complainant is not satisfied with the enquiry, we tell the companies to reconstitute an enquiry team. And even then, if the woman complainant is not happy about it, we help her go to court because finally, she has to go to the court,” Rekha said.
To be clear, the National Commission for Women saw a spike of more than 80 percent in the number of complaints related to sexual harassment at the workplace, to nearly 1,000 in 2018, compared with just 570 in 2017 and 539 in 2017.
Writer-director Vinta Nanda and journalist Sandhya Menon were among the more vocal #MeToo activists who approached the Commission and sought its help at the time.
Most recently as last week, the Commission sent a notice to Sony TV questioning the entertainment channel’s reinstatement of music director Anu Malik as a judge on the popular singing contest show Indian Idol, despite multiple women sharing their testimonies of being sexually harassed and assaulted by him.
The NCW’s notice to Sony, which came after singer Sona Mohapatra wrote an open letter to Union Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani, resulted in Anu Malik stepping down from the show.
@NCWIndia has taken Suo-motu cognizance of a Twitter post shared by @sonamohapatra wherein it's alleged @SonyTV has ignored testimonies of multiple women against a person regarding sexual harassment and made him a Judge for a talent show for youngsters on National television pic.twitter.com/UvC7bx7tL9— NCW (@NCWIndia) November 21, 2019
“We have been getting these complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace even before the #MeToo movement started. Yes, #MeToo helped many women come up (and speak openly). Now women know there is a law because earlier, many didn’t even know what sexual harassment at the workplace is, and what is the prevention law because companies were not forming internal committees,” Rekha explained.
“Even if companies had formed such committees, they were not telling their employees that there is such a committee that can help them. And that is why many women didn’t know. But now, when people have started talking about #MeToo and the law, they have come to me,” she added.
Acting quickly after women across India came out in droves on social media to share their personal stories of harassment at the workplace, the National Commission for Women set up a dedicated email address to receive these complaints. It also set up an electronic complaint box called ‘She-box’, which ensured that once a woman filed a complaint, it is forwarded to the relevant authority.
Fighting Violence Against Women, Girls
Committed to the welfare of girls and women across the country, Rekha has taken suo motu cognisance of crimes committed against women across India and initiated more than 25 inquiries in serious cases.
She has also championed the cause of sex workers and highlighted their plight, interacted with women prisoners in several jails across the country, and visited women with mental disabilities in different institutions following which she sent her recommendations for the formulation of policies for more gender-sensitive care and facilities for women.
A worrying trend today – which came to light when an NCW member went undercover in Delhi – is the high rate of female foeticide amongst the well-to-do, educated families across the country, Rekha said.
Many, she noted, were spending vast sums of money to go overseas to undergo tests that determine the sex of an unborn baby and then aborting a female foetus.
“And this is the tip of the iceberg. What we saw was only in Delhi, but it is happening everywhere in the country. And I think we have to do much more,” Rekha emphasised.
Women Empowerment Should Include Men
Today, any talk of women empowerment remains largely focussed on women and excludes the men, noted Rekha. Yet, to empower women, we must educate men and work towards changing their mindset as well, she added.
“We have to take the men along as well. If we want to empower women, we have to change the mindset of men because society is made up of both men and women. And we can't exclude them or go ahead without taking them along,” Rekha said.
Empowerment and equality for women also mean having equal independence – equal freedom to speak their mind and to make their own choices, said Rekha, who is the wife of an army officer and mother to two daughters.
“We don't have to raise our children separately – a set of rules for daughters and a set of rules for sons. Rules should not be different based on gender; it should be the same. And if it is the same, I think our girls will be safer,” Rekha said.
We must educate our daughters and make them self reliant. Don't raise them to just get them married off. Treat them like an individual and not just someone's daughter, sister,mother or wife. Let her have her own decisions and lead the life the way she wants to.— Rekha Sharma (@sharmarekha) July 19, 2019
But to best understand and resolve issues pertaining to women, there need to be more women at the top and decision-making levels, said Rekha.
“We need more women at the top so that men get used to working with women. When we talk about gender sensitisation, I always say that I need to sensitise people who are at the top because sometimes, in their comments, you will find that they are not sensitive enough towards women. So I think when there are more women at the top, the men will be used to working with them and they will better understand women’s difficulties, challenges… and that will change the world.”
(With additional reporting by Urmi Chatterjee and Athira Nair)