Jailed & Barred From Practice, How India’s First Woman CA Defied Gender Bias
R Sivabhogam was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s ideologies. It is believed that she led a simple life, wearing only khadi. This is her story of becoming India’s first Chartered Accountant.
Appearing for Chartered Accountancy (CA), where only 15% of the candidates can clear the highly competitive examinations, is no less than a laudable feat that calls for celebrations.
But for R Sivabhogam, India’s first woman CA, it was a double whammy. If on one hand her parents feared that no man would marry such an educated woman, the British laws prohibited a person like her to set up an independent practice.
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In the eyes of the law, she was a traitor who had been imprisoned for going against the British by participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement. So, she was not allowed to register as an accountant.
But Sivabhogam was not the one to sit quietly and let others dictate her destiny. After all, she had dared to enter a male bastion by fighting several small battles.
Fighting for Freedom
Sivabhogam was born on 23 July 1907. She completed her schooling from Lady Willingdon School in Triplicane and did her graduation from Queen Mary’s College in Chennai.
While there is very little to no information available about her parents, she was highly influenced by Sister R S Subbalakshmi, a pioneering social reformer. Subbalakshmi provided a platform to homemakers and widows to make themselves more aware.
She was also influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s ideologies. It is believed that she led a simple life, wearing only khadi and travelling by bus. And like every other Indian, the clarion call of the Civil Disobedience movement stirred something in her.
As part of the Youth League and later Swadesi League, she went from teaching khadi-based block printing to actively boycotting foreign goods. Her actions had reactions and she was imprisoned for a year at Vellore goal.
However, what was deemed as a stern punishment for disobedience gave India its first female auditor. No one, including Sivabhogam herself, had fathomed she would script history in more ways than one.
Paving the way
It was while she was in prison that she decided to appear for the Graduate Diploma in Accountancy (GDA) exam. While it is unclear what pushed her towards the world of accountancy, according to reports, she was dissuaded from entering a male-dominated profession. Only her elder sister and Subbalakshmi supported her decision.
One can only imagine the determination, hard work and tremendous amount of courage it must have taken for Sivabhogam to clear the exams and create history in 1933. Thereafter she did her articleship training under C S Sastri, an auditor in Chennai.
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Despite the articleship and sheer brilliance of being a pioneer, her struggles, both personal and professional, were not over yet.
When she was disallowed to set up her own practice, she questioned the bizarre law and filed a writ petition. She won the case and began her practice in 1937 and went on to head the audit of government institutions and social organisations.
She became a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) when it was set up in 1949.
She is the first and only woman to serve as the chairman of the Southern India Regional Council for three consecutive years (1955 to 1958). As a chairman she even hosted the first ever Regional Conference in 1956, which was inaugurated by legendary statesman Sir. C P Ramaswamy Iyer. She also participated in the Fourth conference of the Asian and Pacific Accountants in 1965.
She was a committee member of the Society of Auditors and Senate member of the University of Madras.
Besides carrying out audits in various government institutions, including the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), she took efforts in promoting education among young girls too. She offered scholarships and coaching classes to girls.
In 1956, she introduced an award in the form of a gold locket for best female candidate for clearing the final examination conducted by ICAI in the first sitting.
Sivabhogam, who passed away on 14 June 1966, paved the way for many women auditors in years to come. If today, ICAI has more than 80,000 women CAs, a considerable amount of credit goes to this feisty woman.
Edited by Yoshita Rao
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