The woman who tackles Indian women's issues

Margaret Alva is not a woman who wants to be ahead of her times. Not too far ahead, at least. As India's minister for women's and children's development - a primary force behind programs and policies that directly or indirectly touch the lives of some 400 million of her countrywomen - Mrs. Alva finds it more effective to be a woman of her times.

``You can't be so ahead of the social acceptance of [laws] that your people are just not prepared to accept them,'' the minister cautions.

``After all, social legislation is not an end in itself. It is meant to help you move. And unless you are able to carry large sections of the people with you, you can't just enforce it.''

A lawyer who has formerly argued female discrimination cases, among others, in India's Supreme Court, Alva knows whereof she speaks. Indian women are guaranteed equal rights and protection by the country's constitution. But that's less than half the story.

Ninety percent of Indian working women fall into the ``informal'' labor sector - working at jobs outside factories and mines, mostly in agriculture and construction. These loosely organized sectors leave women open to low wages and exploitation. Their average earnings are much less than men. Their literacy rate is 33 percent (compared to 58 percent for men). And they still face gender discrimination in a vast array of religious, social, and cultural spheres.

Alva herself, however, is an exception to these statistics.

Born and brought up in southern India, she graduated from law school and was encouraged by her family to pursue public life. She was first elected to the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of India's parliament) in 1974 and then reelected in 1980.

In December 1984, soon after Rajiv Gandhi took office as prime minister, Alva was appointed Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs. In June 1985, she became minister for the fledgling department for Women's Affairs and Development, Youth Affairs, and Sports.

During a brief interview recently, this jovial mother of four - her youngest child is 7 - exuded energy. She spoke to the Monitor minutes before delivering the keynote address at Radcliffe College's annual ``Rama Mehta Lecture and Colloquia.'' The colloquia are devoted to illuminating the problems of women in developing countries and bringing together several notables in the field every year.

Occasionally smoothing the folds of her rich cream-and-pink silk sari, Alva alternated between lively enthusiasm for her roster of programs and sober-headed recognition of the challenges that lie ahead. She spoke rapidly - moving from a litany of achievements into a detailed dissection of two recent legal battles over the status of women. In both cases - one involving the support rights of a divorced Muslim woman and the other the property rights of a Syrian Christian woman - religion played a major role. In a country that has seven major religions and at least several dozen sects and belief systems, Alva indicates that government involvement in any such matter is fraught with complications.

For Alva, ``awareness generation'' lies at the nub of women's development issues. Creating an awareness among women of their rights - as well as their abilities - is vital, she says. So is a concerted follow-up effort to provide opportunities and programs that encourage women to put their newly acquired skills to use for income generating activities.

One of the main challenges in trying to carry out such programs, Alva says, is that ``it's impossible to find a common denominator by which you can plan for all [Indian women] because of disparities, the religious groups, [varying] levels of development.''

India's 15 official languages (apart from English) make it imperative to obtain local expertise in different areas. To ship in ``experts'' from the capital or the various ministries, Alva points out, would be an exercise in futility.

This is where private development and voluntary organizations come in. ``We get local organizations,'' Alva says, ``[because] you've got to be able to talk the local language, understand the local situation, and plan for the local community. Centralized planning never works with women's programs.''

Several of the development programs, she indicates, operate on a kind of synthesized fuel - with various levels of financial and technical support provided by the central government, state governments, and private organizations.

One of the most successful programs is the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services). By setting up anganwadis (akin to preschool nurseries), the ICDS manages to cover under its umbrella pregnant and nursing mothers, preschool children, and activities such as health care and immunization, education and literacy, nutritional support, and reference services. There are 200,000 anganwadis with average attendances of 35 to 50 children - and, in effect, their mothers.

Assessments made by independent agencies of areas served by anganwadis, Alva says, show that birth rates have fallen, infant mortality rates have dropped, and - what's most important, she says - enrollment in primary schools is higher in those areas.

``We've now launched a new program called STEP (Support to Training for Employment),'' Alva continues, ``which is going into six major sectors of employment generation - agriculture, handicrafts, dairy, fisheries, sericulture (silk production), and social forestry.'' STEP aims to train, organize, and provide necessary support for women in these sectors.

To carry out these and other programs, Alva has at her disposal a five-year budget of $750 million. In many cases, her ministry provides 50 percent of a budget, the state government puts in 40 percent, and private voluntary groups make up the difference.

To the traditional themes of development - education, health care, and job training, among others - Alva adds a new twist: disarmament and peace issues.

A vocal advocate for nuclear and conventional disarmament, Alva has just completed a year's term as president of the World Women Parliamentarians for Peace. She says that among participants at the 1985 United Nations Conference on Women, where the theme for the decade was equality, development, and peace, there was a strong feeling that ``women had tended to emphasize equality and development in total disproportion to the need for peace.''

Despite limitations, Alva says, organization members feel ``we can have public opinion molded in our constituencies.''

``Ultimately, without peace there can be neither equality or development,'' Alva says. She doesn't mince words in criticizing developed and developing nations for engaging in the lucrative arms trade.

When asked what role Western nations could - and should - best play in the quest for third-world development, Alva is quick to respond: ``Maybe if they just stopped shipping arms to the developing world, they would do them the greatest favor.''

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