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Giri advocates gender justice

Justin Tardiff | Thursday, November 18, 2004

World-renowned women’s social activist Dr. V. Mohini Giri brought her message of gender justice to Saint Mary’s College Wednesday.

No stranger to the spotlight, Giri is the daughter-in-law of the former president of India, the late Shri. V. V. Giri. She is also the founding president of the War Widows Association, a former chairperson for the National Commission for Women, and author of “Kanya- Exploitation of Little Angels” and several other gender-based works.

Giri casually noted that her preferred lecture audience is men.

“Women don’t need to hear they’re subjugated,” Giri said. “They already know they are.”

Giri’s life in India has given her inspiration to change the culture of female submission, which she feels is upheld both by patriarchy and social norms. Giri said that in India it is common for a woman to be tortured for her dowry debt. Some women may be expected to throw themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres, or are confined to a dark room for forty days of isolation following their spouse’s death.

“My job as a social activist is to stop these harmful norms,” Giri said.

Violence against women also emerges as a social normalcy.

“Alcohol is a great curse in India,” Giri said.

Many men spend their incomes on alcohol, leaving their wives and children undernourished. Giri noted that female infanticide and poverty also specifically targets Indian women. Most women have no land rights or means of individual economic survival.

“Women are the poorest of the poor,” Giri said. “We must mobilize women toward self-sufficiency.”

Giri explained that her work strives to spread this self-sufficiency through three modes of empowerment – women must be informed of their legal and social rights, women must be given leadership training and they must have access to microcredits, or pooled community financial resources, enabling women to pursue entrepreneurship.

“Only 80 percent of Indian women can read and write,” Giri said. “Just 1 percent can enter college.”

Thus, to encourage widespread delivery messages of empowerment, Giri’s organizations create dramas, street plays and songs to reach women from all walks of education, not merely the literate.

Giri addressed the political arena as a crucial position for women to establish a voice in policymaking. Giri asserted that she will push for 33 percent female representation in Indian parliament, a step of affirmative action.

“The situation of women in politics is very sad. India has only 8 percent women representatives,” Giri said. “In the United States, it is only 14 percent.”

Giri’s activism resonated with Saint Mary’s junior Katie Kelly.

“She’s a visionary,” Kelly said. “She is very passionate about women obtaining political positions. It’s not about power, but social change.”

Anita Houck of the Saint Mary’s religious education department organized Giri’s visit.

“I knew she was a perfect fit for what we’re doing here with justice education, women’s studies and religious studies,” Houck said.

Giri’s adamancy of peace addressed both India’s three wars with Pakistan, and the United States’ current war with Iraq. Speaking from her experience collectively reaching out to Pakistani women during war, Giri called for dialogue and insisted that women play a vital role in establishing harmony.

“Peace and women are interconnected,” Giri said. “And without peace there is no development.”

Though conditions now are far from favorable, Giri insists that education is vital in establishing gender equality – especially developing courses in men’s studies. Female submission is not merely “women’s problem.”

“We need to help teach men to be responsible husbands, sons, brothers and friends of the women in their lives,” said Giri.