Women Organizations and Movements

Women Organizations and Movements

This article deals with  Women Organizations and Movements ’ . This is part of our series on ‘Society’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here.


  • Unlike the women’s movement in the West, the Indian women’s movement began in the shadow of colonial rule and the commitment to attain freedom from colonial rule. Thus , the Indian women’s movement transcended the limited gender framework unlike the women’s liberation struggles in the other parts of the world, especially in the West where the principal purpose was to address the relationship between women and men in the private and public spheres. Questions of independence and freedom from the colonial power were inextricably linked with the consciousness of the Indian women’s movement
  • Since the late 19th century Indian society, witnessed an active feminist movement. The early attempts at reforming the conditions under which Indian women lived were mainly carried out by western educated middle and high class men. Soon they were joined by the women of their families. These women along with the men began organized movements fighting against the oppressive social practices such as female infanticide, sati, child marriage, laws prohibiting widow remarriage, etc.
  • After Independence, many of the bourgeois women within the liberal section advocated for representation . During late 1960s and early 1970s , India witnessed the resurgence of women’s movement, mainly due to the repercussion of the problems that cropped up at the national front (such as price rise) and the women’s active mobilizations at the international front.

Pre-Independence Movements

Women’s Organizations Started by Men

1 . Brahmo Samaj

  • Founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in 1825 & attempted to abolish restrictions and prejudices against women, which included sati, child marriage, polygamy, limited rights to inherit property etc.
  • Raja Ram Mohan Roy played an important role in getting Sati abolished .

2. Prarthana Samaj

  • Founded by MG Ranade & RG Bhandarker in 1867.
  • Its objectives were more or less similar to that of Brahmo Samaj but remained confined to western India.

3. Arya Samaj

  • Founded by Dayanand Saraswati in 1875.
  • Unlike the above two, it was a religious revivalist movement , revitalising the ancient Hindu traditions. It advocated reforms in the caste system, compulsory education for men and women, prohibition of child marriage by law, remarriage of child widows.

While the men wanted the women to be educated and take part in public activities, but at the same time they regarded the home as the primary focus for women. Gender equality was never an agenda for any of the movements mentioned above. They had a very limited perspective of changing the position of women within the family .

Women’s Organization Started by Women

By the end of the nineteenth century, a few women emerged from within the reformed families who formed organizations of their own.

1 . Swarnakumari Devi

  • She was the daughter of Devendranath Tagore, a Brahmo leader, and sister of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who formed the Ladies Society in Calcutta in 1882 for educating and imparting skills to widows and other poor women to make them economically self-reliant.
  • She edited a women journal named Bharati.

2 . Ramabai Saraswati

  • She formed the Arya Mahila Samaj in Pune in 1882 and Sharda Sadan in Bombay after few years.

Women in Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and other smaller cities formed associations whose members were drawn from among a small group of urban educated families. They were useful in bringing women out of their homes, giving them an opportunity to meet other women, doing philanthropic work, encouraging them to take an interest in public affairs and thus broadening their horizon.

National Women’s Organizations

  • The early women’s organizations were been confined to a particular locality or city. In 1910, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, daughter of Swarnakumari Devi formed the Bharat Stree Mandal  with the object of bringing together “women of all castes, creeds, classes and parties… on the basis of their common interest in the moral and material progress of the women of India.” Branches were started in different cities such as Lahore, Amritsar, Allahabad, Hyderabad, Delhi, Karachi and other cities.
  • The early 20th century saw the growth of women’s organisations at a national and local level. The Women’s India Association (WIA) (1917), All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) (1926) and National Council for Women in India (NCWI) (1925) were the prominent ones.

National Freedom Movement

  • Gandhian Movement : Women had been associated with the freedom struggle before arrival of Gandhi as well. They had attended sessions of the Indian National Congress and taken part in the Swadeshi movement in Bengal. But the involvement of really large number began when Gandhiji launched the Non Cooperation Movement and gave a special role to women.
  • Revolutionary Movements : While thousands of women joined freedom movement in response to Gandhi’s call, there were others who could not accept his creed of nonviolence and joined revolutionary or terrorist groups. Their hatred of the British was intense and their plan was to make attempts on European lives as widely as possible. 
  • Agrarian Movements : Women participated along with men in struggles and revolts in the colonial period. The Tebhaga movement originating in tribal and rural areas in Bengal, the Telangana arms struggle from the erstwhile Nizam’s rule, and the Warli Tribal Revolt are some of the examples.
  • Labour Movements : In 1917,  Anasuya Sarabhai had led the Ahmedabad textile workers’ strike and in 1920 under her leadership , the Ahmedabad textile mill workers union was established. By the late 1920s, the presence of women in the workers’ movement was noticeable. There were several prominent women unionists.

Post Independence Women’s Movements

During freedom movement, it was felt that with the nation’s Independence , many of the disabilities would disappear , and problems of women attributed to colonial rule. The national government undertook to remove the legal disabilities suffered by women and initiated major reforms in Hindu family laws. The legal reforms in the 1950s sought to provide greater rights to Hindu women in marriage, inheritance and guardianship. However, they failed to bridge the gap between legal and social realities. Similar changes in the family laws of other communities like Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews, have not yet come up due to political resistance despite the Directive Principle of State Policy clearly stating the need for uniform laws for all the communities.

Feminist Movements

Feminist activism in India gained momentum in the late 1970s.

  • Towards Equality Approach : United Nations declared 1975-85 as the International Decade of the Woman and organised the World Conference on Women in Mexico (1975). As a result, In India, the National Committee on the Status of Women had been set up to examine the status of women in the country and to investigate into the extent to which the constitutional and legal provisions had impacted on women’s status . The Committee came out with its findings in the form of a report, popularly known as the Towards Equality Report (1974) . The beginnings of the women’s movement in India, has often been traced back to this report. It showed that women far behind men in enjoying the equal rights conferred on them  by the constitution. This report led to change in ideology to ‘Women in Development’ rather than  ‘Women and Development’ .
  • New organisations such as Self-Employment Women’s Association (Gujarat), Working Women’s Forum (Tamil Nadu), Shramik Mahila Sangathna (Maharashtra) etc. concerned themselves with the plight of women workers in the unorganised sector. These organisations organised women labour and took up the issues of their wages, working conditions, exploitation and health hazards .
  • Mathura Rape Case : brought women’s groups together for first time. Reason was acquittal of policemen accused of raping a young girl in a police station leading to country-wide protests in 1979-1980 which forced Government to create a new offence of custodial rape.
  • Alcoholism (Anti Arak Movement)  : Alcoholism leads to violence against women . Women groups launched anti-liquor campaigns in Andhra , Himachal , Haryana, Odisha, MP etc .
  • Anti Dowry Movement : In the 1980s , several women’s and other progressive organisations formed a joint front in Delhi called “Dahej Virodhi Chetna Manch” and campaigned through protest, demonstrations, discussions, street theatre, posters etc.  After much deliberation, the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 1984 was passed.
  • Deforestation and Ecological Movement : Women have direct contact with natural resources like fuel, food and fodder, forest, water and land especially in rural areas. Economic hardships faced by women in the Himalayan region due to cutting down of forests resulted in spontaneous mobilisation of women. They hugged the trees to prevent the contractors from felling them. This is popularly known as Chipko movement. It was just the beginning, which was followed by several other movements such as Green Belt movement in 1977 (planting trees), Appiko movement (hugging the trees) , Narmada Bachao Andolan etc. which saw significant participation of women at all levels.
  • Triple Talaq : Started in Shah Bano Case & culminated with Shyara Bano case in Supreme Court which has effectively banned the practice of Triple Talaq in Muslims.
  • Bhanwari Devi Gangrape Case (1992) : Bhanwari Devi was a Saathin in Rajasthan with job of raising consciousness in her village about child marriage, dowry etc. Her efforts wrt Child Marriage was resented by men of dominant caste and she was brutally gangraped . NGO named Vishakha filed Case in Supreme Court culminating in Vishakha Guidelines .

Self Help Groups (SHGs)

  • SHGs were key instruments in women’s empowerment .
  • 10-20 rural women from the same village , mostly poor , come together to contribute fortnightly or monthly dues as savings and provide group loans to the members .

Literary Movements

Journals devoted to promote women’s equality in various languages started to come up to raise women issues . These include

Feminist Network English Bombay
Ahalya Bengali Calcutta
Women’s Voice English Bangalore
Stree Sangarash Hindi Patna
Manushi Hindi Delhi

Present Movements

  • ‘Pinjra Tod’ : fighting against the discriminatory rules in colleges and university hostels against girls .
  • Temple Entry Movement : Women leaders like Trupati Desai (of Bhumata Brigade) raised voice for entry of women inside the sanctum sanctorum of Temples like  Shani Shignapur and Sabarimala etc.
  • #MeToo Movement :  MeToo Movement started in US and came to India where women named powerful men  who have sexually assaulted their colleagues at workplace. This movement showed  that Balance of Power at workplace is skewed in favour of perpetrators of sexual harassment.
Women Organizations and Movements

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