January 6, 2019

INDIA: High Court Forces The Forest Dept To Lift Ban Preventing Women From Summiting The Second Highest Peak In Kerala. Scores Of Women Have Already Registered For Permission! :)

The Hindu, India
written by G. Anand
Saturday January 5, 2019

The Forest Department yields to High Court order and lifts the long-standing ban preventing women from summiting the second highest peak in Kerala at 1,868 metres.

Another bastion of gender discrimination in Kerala is set to crumble.

The Forest Department has yielded to a High Court order and lifted the long-standing ban preventing women from summiting Agasthyarkoodam, the second highest peak in the State at 1,868 metres in the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Thiruvananthapuram.

Officials said scores of women had registered themselves online with the department for permission to trek to the mountain top when bookings opened on Saturday for the January-March hiking season. However, a regular trekker said the website remained mysteriously offline.

The battle to lift the “inexplicable” embargo on the entry of women to Agasthyarkoodam was hard fought, says Divya Divakaran, a government school teacher and secretary of the Women Integration and Growth Through Sports (WINGS).

In 2015, the women’s advocacy group noticed that forest officials had promulgated a notification excluding women and children below the age of 14 from making the two-day hike that included an overnight stay in a spartan base camp abutting a fast flowing forest stream at Athirumala.

Court battle
Two other organisations, ''Pennoruma'', headed by M. Sulfath, and ''Anweshi'', led by alleged former Naxalite leader K. Ajitha, joined WINGS in a court battle to challenge the gender bias.

The organisations held demonstrations in front of the Government Secretariat and the Forest Department headquarters. They also repeatedly petitioned the government to no avail. However, their legal fight bore fruit in 2018, paving the way for women to ascend the pinnacle named after the mythical Hindu sage Agastya.

Forest Minister K. Raju told The Hindu that women were welcome to trek to Agasthyar Hill, but the government was hard-pressed to provide them with any special facilities.

“We cannot allow any new construction in the ecologically fragile biosphere reserve. Moreover, the facilities at the base camp are minimal and gender neutral. The department issues only a limited number of passes on first come first served basis. Passes will not be kept apart exclusively for women”, he said.

Adivasi Mahasabha's opposition
The Adivasi Mahasabha, which lost the fight in court, still opposes women from entering the Agasthyar forests. Some of its members consider the climb a pilgrimage. Anonymous persons had also installed few shrines on the path to the peak. Chief Wildlife Warden, Kerala, Surendra Kumar, said the government had disallowed religious expression or practice of any faith inside the biosphere reserve.

The High Court had forbidden any bid to turn the trek into a pilgrimage and disapproved of attempts to set up idols, light lamps or conduct rituals on the mountain top and along the trekking path, he said.

The department has set apart few toilets at the base camp for the exclusive use of women. Forest officers have upped security along the path. The entry to the biosphere is strictly restricted, and the possibility of human-wildlife conflict is potentially high in the dense forests.

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