Congress Parliamentary Party Chairperson Smt. Sonia Gandhi's address at the Women's Rights Conference in Chennai

Thiru MK Stalin Ji, Thirumati Kanimozhi Karunanidhi Ji, all women leaders on the dias. Sahodara Sahodaregale Vanakkam! Thank you, Chief Minister Thiru MK Stalin, for inviting me to this Women’s Right Conference.

We are assembled here to commemorate the work and memory of the great son of India, Thiru Dr K Karunanidhi, lovingly called Kalaignar—a leader of many talents, a writer, a poet, a journalist, a chief minister of many terms, but, above all, a leader who believed deeply in the upliftment of the deprived. He believed in equality for all, regardless of faith, caste, language or region. And ahead of his time, he was a champion of gender equality, which has now become something of a national movement.

Our women have made India proud in multiple fields and sectors, in spite of the shackles of tradition, patriarchy, and culture that stood in their way. This struggle for equality has had many ups and downs. But today, Indian women shine in many spheres, to mention just a few: science, knowledge, skills, culture, sports, politics, and above all, as the center of our families and as leaders of people. Yet, we all know this struggle continues, and there are many more frontiers to cross, especially for our disadvantaged sisters.

The remarkable non-violent freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi placed a strong emphasis on gender equality. In 1928, the Draft Constitution was being crafted under the chairmanship of Motilal Nehru, and the Karachi Resolution of 1931 framed by Jawaharlal Nehru. Both of these documents championed women's rights, advocating for equal voting rights, political and economic rights, and fair wages. They laid the foundation for women to play an equal role in our nation’s building. They embodied the promise of universal suffrage, gender equality, and a socialist, equitable society, and this spirit continued when the Constitution of India, under the leadership and chairmanship of Dr. BR Ambedkar, was ultimately framed.

Who can forget what our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said: “If you educate a man, you educate one individual, however, if you educate a woman, you educate a whole family. Women empowered means India empowered." And we cannot ever forget the inspiring role of Indiramma in showing how a woman can lead with strength, ability and leadership, combined with a deep sensitivity to the abolition of poverty.

Rajiv Ji, as we all know, brought in the historic 33% reservation for women in Panchayati Raj and local self-governments. This spurred an entirely new phenomenon of women entering roles of leadership at the grass-root level. It was a vital stepping stone towards the reservation on a similar one-third of seats in the Lok Sabha, which the Indian National Congress has pioneered in parliament and outside.

The Women’s Reservation Bill introduced by the UPA-2 was passed by the Rajya Sabha. But a lack of consensus prevented it from being passed in the Lok Sabha. Now, the Women’s Reservation Bill has finally been passed due to our relentless persistence, all of us, not just Congress (said pointing towards the leaders sitting on the dias) and efforts, but, as we all know, it is still a long way to come, and as Mehbooba Ji said and many of us, members of Parliament said in our intervention in Parliament, when is the bill now going to be implemented—in one year, in two years, in three years? We have no idea. Yes, I can see that some of you men are happy, but we are not; we women are not, and we are going to fight for it till we eventually get it, whether you men like or not.

I am glad to be able to say here today that the government of Tamil Nadu under Thiru Annadurai and then Thiru Karunanidhi laid the foundations for incredible changes in status and opportunities for women. Today, Tamil Nadu stands as a beacon of women’s equality and women’s development. In his historic five terms as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Thiru Karunanidhi brought the provision of reservation for women in the Police way back in 1973. Today, a fourth of its police force, or Tamil Nadu police force, are women. Another very important initiative brought in by Karunanidhi Ji was the reservation for women in government positions. Today, women’s participation in government services exceeds 30 percent. And I am told, just recently, Chief Minister M K Stalin has raised it to 40 percent, and I commend your Chief Minister for this.

And it comes as no surprise that through initiatives like mid-day meal programs, the promotion of women's empowerment, and the encouragement of female education, Tamil Nadu boasts today of some of the most impressive maternal and infant mortality rates in India.

It is unfortunate that many of these efforts and programmes to help and empower women have not been reflected at the national level. In fact, instead of mitigating the problems faced by women, the last nine years have seen a sustained effort on the part of the Modi government to turn our women purely into symbols, to be counted and appreciated only in their restricted traditional roles in a patriarchal framework.

I am confident that we, the like-minded parties of the INDIA alliance, can and will take the urgent steps needed to make women’s equality a reality. And it is my fervent hope that INDIA alliance will see to it that the bill is implemented as soon as possible. We will all work together to see to it that it happens. This is our goal. This will be the INDIA alliance goal, and this is what we women must fight for. If we fight all together, we shall be victorious. We shall be victorious. Vetri Namadae, Nanri.