Last week, following the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, a group of civil society activists from twelve organisations wrote a petition to the newly re-elected Chief Minister regarding appointments to the State Women’s Commission. They sent the petition to the Chief Minister’s cell for grievances and they also placed a petition online, which at the time of writing, after six days, has received only 62 signatures.<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>This is because most of us, in the course of our daily affairs, spare no thought for this institution which often seems like an albatross, looming but useless, and also a creature neither of the government nor of the civil society. In the decades when I studied civics in school—and likely, many of you—National and State Women’s Commissions did not exist. Chances are that most of us do not know much about the purpose and powers of the Commissions. This makes it a good time to reflect on the rationale and the potential of these Women’s Commissions— of which there is a National one and State counterparts.The National Commission for Women (NCW) was set up in 1990 by Parliament with fourteen functions but no broader definition of the mandate. The Act begins by telling us the reach of the Act (and the NCW) extends across India, except for Jammu and Kashmir. However, this Act does not set up the State Commissions. Chapter II of the Act (clauses 3-9) deal with human resources questions. Chapter III sets out the fourteen functions of the NCW, but it does so without embedding them in the context of a broad mandate—is the NCW to protect women, is it to promote gender equality?—and therefore, we do not have a clear sense of the politics of the NCW. This allows a great deal of variation in the politics of the Commission’s leadership.What are the functions of the NCW? They include: investigation of matters relating to Constitutional and legal safeguards for women; the presentation of reports to the Central Government and the making of recommendations; legal and constitutional review relating to women’s concerns; taking up cases of violations of rights of women; to call for special studies, including academic research, on discrimination against women, their representation of women and factors that impede it (including drudgery!); advise the planning process and evaluate progress; fund public interest litigation for women; inspect homes, jails and other places where women are kept imprisoned. The greatest potential for intervention lies with the NCW’s power to look into complaints and “take suo moto notice” of:“deprivation of women’s rights;non-implementation of laws enacted to provide protection to women and also to achieve the objective of equality and development;non-compliance of policy decisions, guidelines or instructions aimed at mitigating hardships and ensuring welfare and providing relief to women, and take up the issues arising out of such matters with appropriate authorities” The NCW enjoys all the powers of a civil court including that to summon a person from any part of India; to require production of documents; require evidence on affidavits; access to public records and the power of “issuing commissions for the examination of witnesses and documents.” As one reads the Act, it is striking that two words, readily used in such contexts, feature very little—rights and empowerment. I could not spot the word equality at all. These three almost-total omissions suggest that there was a great deal of ambivalence surrounding the creation of the NCW. It would be interesting to go back and research the moment of creation— what prompted the setting up of an organisation whose work was defined by function rather than power or mandate? Naturally, in the hands of most Chairpersons, the NCW has remained a fairly conservative body.The remaining two chapters of the Act deal with administrative and financial concerns. The NCW has no steady income stream and depends on Central Government grants, which are allocated and disbursed as the government deems necessary. That is, the NCW can only do what the government will pay for.The NCW Act (1990) did not set up or provide for state counterparts. These have been set up by states at their initiative. In some, like Odisha, it was initiated by the Panchayati Raj department. In Kerala, it was initiated by the Social Welfare department. In Tamil Nadu, where we are hoping for a re-constitution of the Commission, there is at present no Commission website so most information is inaccessible.The Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women Act appears to follow the existence of the Tamil Nadu Commission by several years, being passed only 2008. The act more or less replicates the National Act, except that words like ‘equality’ begin to make an appearance here. The curious thing about the Tamil Nadu Commission is the lack of public domain information about it. Under a previous chair, there was a website that listed the members of the commission and its address, but now there is just a webpage on the state government site that contains the name and direct phone number of the incumbent chair, Visalakshi Nedunchezhian. And yet, this state commission has made its presence felt occasionally— under the leadership of Dr. Vasanthi Devi, for instance. In spite of these moments, it is virtually impossible to reconstruct a history of the Commission— it is that marginal to Tamil Nadu politics.But must it be that way? We have only about 62 signatures on our petition because no one knows what the Commission does or is supposed to do, and most Chairs, all political appointments, bring their own vision to the office. From mediating familial disputes to fact-finding on human rights violations, the Commission does what the Chair deems either appropriate or expedient.This is unfortunate. Both National and state laws specify the qualities of the Chair and members of the Commission for Women. The NCW is supposed to be chaired by someone who is “committed to the cause of women” and have five members “from amongst persons of ability, integrity and standing who have had experience in law or legislation, trade unionism, management of an industry potential of women, women’s voluntary organisations ( including women activist ), administration, economic development, health, education or social welfare.” The Tamil Nadu Commission is to be headed by “shall be an eminent woman committed to the cause of women.” It is to have five members, at least three of whom shall be women, chosen “from amongst persons of ability and integrity, who have served the cause of women or have had sufficient knowledge and experience of law and legislation, administration of matters concerning advancement of women or voluntary organization for women, or who have sufficient experience in working in the field of economic development, health or education.” It is unbelievably easy to find suitable people—even all women, shocking but true!—to meet these criteria.The weak link is “committed to the cause of women.” What does that mean? For instance, commenting on last year’s Madras High Court judgment which recommended mediation and hinted at marriage as a ‘happy ending’ for a rapist and his victim, the State Commission for Women Chair is reported to have said, “We would be very happy to see the criminal and the affected girl get together. That is our aim and objective. There is no question of right or wrong in this case. If the girl has no source of income or livelihood she may adjust and live with him. Toleration is the main point here.” Would this truly be either a happy or a just ending? Almost every section of the very diverse Indian women’s movement would dispute that.So why do the National and State Commissions for Women matter?Institutions matter. An institution is defined by political scientists as an arrangement for a purpose that has a formalised process of functioning, rules and guiding principles, and that survives generational changes in leadership— that means that the purpose, processes and therefore, projects outlast a person’s leadership and that there is a collective formal memory and learning. When we create institutions for women’s rights, human rights and minority rights, we are trying to draw together and consolidate society’s learning and progress. Progress on women’s rights should not depend on a single government’s worldview or the dynamism of a single Chairperson. The Commission de-personalises and therefore guarantees (or is supposed to) continuity.Even more, it matters that the institutions we create function according to their purpose. A dormant, defunct or dysfunctional Commission for Women is of less use than not having the institution at all. If you can see no purpose for an institution, disband it. If you want it to remain, then enable it (if you are the government) and hold it accountable (if you are citizens).Being from civil society but appointed by the ruling executive and funded through official allocations, the Commissions for Women are uniquely positioned. They reach out, through their Members and Chair, to civil society and the grassroots. They have the powers of a court, the access of administration and considerably more resources than the average NGO. The Chair, at the very least, may be presumed to have the ear of the Chief Minister who appointed her.If they are committed to a consultative style of functioning, they are able to draw on civil society’s experience and insight to further the government’s agenda where there is an overlap. If they remain committed to the work they have done as part of civil society, they can use their position and access to shape that agenda itself.As a part of civil society, I would like to know there is an official body to which I can turn for specific kinds of intervention. For instance, I would like to know that when an incident of inter-caste gender-based violence occurs, beyond the efforts of human rights activists, there is an official body I can call in on an emergency basis. This body will be able to arrange its own travel and stay, and be able to access through district administration and grassroots workers, the place and people affected. I would like to know that when elections are announced, there is an official (the Chair) who can and will make a public and official reminder that there should be gender parity in nominations. I would like to know that when a politician, administrator or Minister makes a misogynistic statement, there will be an institution that calls them on it. As we call for a strong Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women and Chair, those of us that work in this area would also like to re-cast it from its recent avatars. We would like it to be pro-active, feminist (seeing women’s rights as human rights) and explicitly committed to gender equality— in the most inclusive sense of the term. We would like the Commission to be accessible both to civil society and to individuals, specifically women in distress. People should be able to get their complaints to the Commission. The 1091 helpline administration might also be accountable also to the Commission, for instance, through a reporting requirement. The Commission should work with civil society—sharing its information resources—in public education, especially legal literacy and how to engage with the administration to claim entitlements. We would like a strong and dynamic Chair for these Commissions but someone who is also smart enough to reach for help, visionary enough to strengthen networks and democratic enough to communicate (not just broadcast, but also listen).Gender equality advocates need an institutional ally. That ally could and should be found in the Commissions for Women, at the very least.Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist and the founder of Prajnya. She too is guilty of paying too little attention to the Women’s Commissions and is learning as she writes.