'To all distressed women out there, my doors are open for any help' — Lalitha Kumaramangalam, NCW Chairperson
When Lalitha Kumaramangalam says corruption in the police system is a frightening aspect that women seeking justice have to deal with, she knows what she is talking about. As the Chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW), she says her biggest challenge is the attitude of men, especially those in authority, towards women.
“Almost every woman who has a problem whether it’s domestic violence, dowry or rape, the first barrier they experience is the indifference or the callousness of the police. And that is frightening. At my level, I see it and I have to struggle. So I can only imagine what the average Indian woman is up against. Thus I have great admiration for women who have won despite all odds. It’s like going through hell and back,” she tells HerStory.
Last year, when Lalitha advocated legalising sex work to regulate the trade, which in her opinion would ensure better living conditions for women engaged in commercial sex work, she had inevitably opened a Pandora’s Box. Legalising the trade, she had reportedly said, will also bring down human trafficking and lower the incidence of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Her views received a lot of backlash from activists who have been working to ban prostitution.
No doubt, Lalitha is a bold and outspoken leader. And with the incidence of violence against women rising almost daily we hope she will influence a change in the government to ensure justice and safety to women in the country.
At a personal level, she says her office doors are open to any woman seeking justice.
If they can reach out to me I would do whatever I can. I wouldn’t have survived if so many people hadn’t helped me during the worst periods of my life. So why can’t I pass it on. You know you don’t live in a vacuum you live in a society. And you find friends in the most unusual places,
she says. Lalitha was born in Tamil Nadu and is the daughter of politician Mohan Kumaramangalam. Her paternal grandfather, P Subbarayan, was the Chief Minister of the Madras Presidency. Lalitha’s mother, Kalyani Mukherjee, was the niece of Ajoy Mukherjee, CM of West Bengal. Lalitha is the sister of prominent politician Late Rangarajan Kumaramangalam.
Herself an accomplished professional, Lalitha graduated from St Stephen’s College in New Delhi with a degree in Economics and has an MBA from Madras University. She contested the Lok Sabha elections twice (2004 and 2009) after her brother’s death but lost on both occasions. She also runs an NGO, Prakriti.
In a freewheeling chat with HerStory, Lalitha shares her views on Indian society’s attitude towards women and how she hopes it will change for the better soon.
HS: In your stint here at NCW what are your key challenges?
LK: The way people think about women in India is a big cause for concern. The parochial mindset has been perpetuated over the centuries. People think women have to be submissive and obedient, that they cannot question the family, and cannot be independent. But it is changing. It is taking a long time but then this is a huge country with lots of people so it will take time but it is slowly changing. Financial independence and education is very important.
The second challenge, I think is lack of education. Girls don’t even know how important it is to be educated. Whatever field you may go into later and become a success, but if you have limited education it always seems to somehow come up against you. The training and the discipline that education gives you can’t get from any other field.
HS: What was life like before you joined the government?
LK: I was recommended by the Prime Minister for this job. Before this I wore the hat of the spokesperson of BJP. I also wanted to do some solid work.
My background is Economics Honors from St Stephen’s and then MBA from Madras University. My family is from the South. I was in Delhi for 13 years because my father was here. He was a minister in the Indira Gandhi Cabinet. However, he died in an air crash when I was very young.
After school I got into Stephen’s (I was always a good student but I was lucky to get into Stephen’s) and then I went to do MBA. I worked in Ashok Leyland and a couple of other companies as well as the travel industry. In 1991, I got fed up with everything and started a NGO. I worked on HIV AIDS prevention.
HS: How come you decided to do that?
LK: There is a huge gap in this area. And I loved field work, which I do even now. Much more than sitting in a chair, though I am trained to do that too vis-à-vis the nature of my work now at NCW. So I went off for that work and I really liked it because when you work for the marginal people and you are honest and have a passion for your work, the rewards are far greater than sitting in the bureaucracy.
I was never really a politician and I didn’t want to come into politics. I took the plunge when my brother died. He was very young and dynamic and one of the popular faces in the Vajpayee government. When he died there was an enormous amount of pressure on me.
I don’t get influenced by post and power. I have seen very powerful people, who have been very close, and it can all go in a flash. I am very blunt and outspoken. I can also be very sweet and polite but I don’t like accepting excuses. I expect a lot from people.
HS: What were your early influences?
LK: I was always taught to value myself. Just because I was a girl, it did not mean I could not expect a lot from myself. I was taught that you are there to excel. I am not bothered about competition from others. There is so much competition from within my own family. All of them are big achievers. I am extremely independent. Luckily, I had very strong women in my family before me. They were my role model. My aunt, Parvathi Krishnan, was a CPI MP for three terms, and a trade union leader. She was my father’s sister. I learnt from them. My mother’s aunt was also very highly respected MP Geeta Mukherjee.
HS: Do you think the NCW has enough power? Isn’t it very much on the fringes?
LK: It is. First of all, not to shoot off, but NCW was set up by the Cabinet and is part of the Women and Child Empowerment Ministry. Unfortunately in India as you know, women and child are not given importance. There are a lot of big ticket programs and there is lots of money. It is not even considered in economic ministry where it should be because they make up 48% of the population of the country.
We are still considered as CSR activity. The ministry as a whole is not considered as important as it should be. It should be equally important as the ministry of HRD. Secondly, our powers are sort of recommendatory and not mandatory. So we have (especially the current minister Maneka Gandhi) really pushed for the enhancement of power of NCW.
The present government has a huge number of things to achieve, which are more long term than short term. The top priorities are more about petroleum prices but there are issues which we deal with which are very important like women security. I was very keen that women’s issues come to the forefront and women themselves get an equal chance. We are now adopting a much more professional outlook and approach to work. And not just as people who occupy the post because it’s a reward post given to politicians. There are lots of politicians who are very well trained and are professionals. And that’s what I am looking at.
Anything to do with women in this country is almost a struggle. It’s not considered a priority at all. The PM is very proactive, but one person can’t do everything. And the system is so misogynistic that it takes enormous amount of time to change anything.
HS: What drives you as a person who is doing so many things?
LK: One part of it could be that in some ways I’ve been very fortunate. However, I don’t like to talk about my private life in public but it’s not been easy. I lost my father, lost my brother in front of my eyes who was one of the most powerful men in this country. I lost my husband 18 years ago and I had two small girls to bring up. It’s not easy in this country. But I was lucky that I had a roof over my head and all those things. I had supportive people in my family. But it’s still hard. So maybe you learn how to judge when you see that side of life, the more difficult side. Otherwise you can’t survive. You know you can’t go around crying. Then you are forced to make too many compromises in life. I was never taught to do that.
HS: Do you think that you planned your career?
LK: No. I never wanted to join politics. I was very happy with my NGO work and I was doing extremely well. I was working with almost every big donor in the world. I have travelled about 27-28 countries, and most of them during the course of my work. Around 2002, I was made the national secretary of the BJP and I couldn’t do both. The NGO was still around and it is alive but I didn’t have much time. Now I have no time. Politics is very time consuming. If you want to do any job properly you have to devote time to it.
HS: Do you see yourself getting more active as the time goes by?
LK: Ambition is fine but over ambition is not. My loyalty is to my people, my family and my party. Gandhiji said that he is less important than his country. That is why he was so successful.
HS: Coming back to your daughters, what are they doing now?
LK: My elder daughter is a lawyer. She lives in Serbia. My younger daughter is a journalist. But she is now working for an NGO. She is in Delhi and happily unmarried.
HS: What are some of the things that can be done to bring about women’s empowerment?
LK: Economic empowerment, equal access and equal opportunity and education. Education should include skill training. If we stop giving dowry we stop killing our girls.
HS: What do you have to say about your education?
LK: We were the first batch of girls in St Stephens. Stephen’s was very tough. But we always say that we taught the boys to look at us as peers.
We had some brilliant lecturers. College in Delhi is a different experience than anywhere else in the country. It has a free atmosphere. Stephen’s has its own charm. It has its own problems also. But we were always treated with great deal of respect. Of course, there were rules but girls would follow them. We weren’t overlooked.
HS: Any one person who has inspired you a lot?
LK: Many people. My father was a very successful, charismatic and powerful man. But my mother was the backbone of my life. I was 15-and-half when my father died. Without my mother’s unflinching support I would be nowhere. She was very progressive for her generation. She used to tell me that you girls are progressing. We fought for what we wanted. I think that generation had more courage. And my girls have seen me go through so many things in life that they are strong. And they are much tougher than I was at that age. But I am glad, because you have to be tough to survive and to do well in life.
HS: Despite the odds, you seem to have a pragmatic approach to life?
LK: Yes, otherwise you can’t survive. You should learn to laugh at yourself. You know nobody wants to hear about your sob stories. Everyone has their own problems. So you have to pull yourself up. Ultimately, it’s up to you. People can help you as much as you want but if you don’t help yourself you are going to be right where you started. God helps those who help themselves. I had to pull myself up and I found that once I did that, it wasn’t so difficult. Life has to be lived.