Thursday, February 04, 2016

Maneka Gandhi’s suggestion on mandatory sex tests aims to absolve doctors of blame for foeticide

Feb 4, 2016 on

The minister’s remarks are a response to a campaign by the medical community to change the sex selection law.

Is Maneka Gandhi just shooting her mouth off or is a policy change imminent?

According to reports by journalists who heard her speak at a conference in Jaipur on Monday, the Union Minister for Women and Child Development seems convinced that the way to deal with sex-selective abortions, which has led to a precipitous decline in the sex ratio, is to make sex-determination tests on pregnant women mandatory.

Her logic is hard to fathom. The minister has suggested, in all seriousness, that doctors should reveal the sex of the foetus to pregnant women whether they want to know it or not. She believes that by doing this, women will then be afraid to abort female foetuses as its sex will be part of public record.

“It is really not feasible to go around trying to catch every ultrasound technician for revealing the foetal gender to parents in violation of the PCPNDT Act,” Gandhi was quoted as saying. “Rather, why not reverse the strategy? The moment a woman gets pregnant, we should find out the gender of the child, tell the mother about it, and immediately register it in public records. Then we can track which pregnancies are carried to full term.”

She continued: “Since the gender is already known, and given the law, families would be compelled to go through with the pregnancy especially when the foetus is female.”

If it ain’t broke…

In other words, Gandhi wants to turn the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act on its head. The law prohibits the revelation of the sex of a foetus as it could lead to sex-selective abortions and it penalises doctors and ultrasound technicians who reveal the sex of the unborn child. The new proposal seems to suggest that the Union minister wants to shift this burden to the shoulders of pregnant women who will be considered criminals if they decide to abort a female foetus.

The proposal might never get through but it is worth considering the consequences if it did.

The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act was the result of campaigns followed by consultations with groups that linked the use of sex-selection and sex-detection technologies to the decline in the sex ratio in India. They argued that the misuse of these technologies aided society’s preference for sons. The fact that the sex ratio had declined even in wealthy districts pointed to the widespread use of these technologies to limit the births of girls.

Paperwork pain

Doctors and ultrasound technicians were held responsible for revealing the sex of the foetus because this was a straightforward way to check rampant sex selection and the sex-selective abortions that followed.

Of course, this meant that all sonography machines had to be registered and doctors had to go through additional paperwork when dealing with pregnant women. However, this was considered a small price to pay given the enormity of the problem.

The law also kept in mind that women who were compelled to have multiple abortions before they produced a male child had no choice. They did this under circumstances where they were blamed if they produced only female children.

The medical lobby

Gandhi was quick to clarify that her remarks were just loud thinking and not the precursor to policy change. Yet, her proposal did not emerge out of thin air. It is in response to a concerted campaign by the medical community to change the Pre-Natal Conception and Diagnostic Technologies Act.

Doctors have complained not just about the paperwork but that they were being charged even for minor “clerical errors”. This argument has held sway in many cases and accounts for the low level of conviction in cases that fall under the law forbidding sex determination. Doctors have also complained about corruption by officials who demand bribes when they come to inspect papers.

In Maharashtra, doctors have been particularly vociferous in their demands for a change in the law. Not surprisingly, the first response to Gandhi’s statement came from the president of the Maharashtra branch of the Indian Medical Association, Dr Jayant Lele, who said, “The sex ratio has not dramatically improved after this law came into force. If expecting couples are tracked after sex determination shows it is a female foetus, they will be more fearful of breaking the law.”

In short, the medical community would like to be absolved of all responsibility and Gandhi’s proposal is precisely what it wants.

Fix basics first

Apart from being highly impractical, Gandhi’s proposal are unacceptably intrusive. In a country with over a billion people with millions being added every year, how will the government monitor every single birth to make sure that sex selective abortions are not taking place? Who will do it?

If even the basic job of ensuring that all pregnant women receive antenatal care so that they survive the pregnancy and deliver healthy babies is not being done how will health establishments across the country take on this additional task? And should they?
The proposal is even more perplexing when Gandhi suggests that the monitoring of every pregnant woman in the country will encourage institutional deliveries. The leap of logic she uses to arrive at this conclusion is unfathomable.

In a country where the word “inadequate” would be a gross understatement when it comes to the ratio of hospital beds to people, does the minister for Women and Child Development really think that we are ready to abolish home deliveries and compel all pregnant women to go to hospital for their deliveries?

Millions of babies are born at home, delivered by trained village dais, and survive. Yet, Gandhi believes “home deliveries pose a threat to the newborn as there might be an attempt on its life” and recommends that they be abolished.

If we have to put up with such ill-informed statements from a person tasked with ensuring the survival of women and children in India, perhaps the post of minister for Women and Child Development should be abolished.

Friday, January 22, 2016

To understand why job quotas for women don't go far enough, take a ride on a Mumbai train

January 22, 2016 in

Employers should recognise that women start working long before they get to the office – and continue when they get home.
Photo Credit: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
“Why aren’t India’s women working?” This was the headline of an article in the August 23 edition of The New York Times. The headline writers ought to have known better. Indian women work hard, and all the time. Yet, their work is largely not considered “work”. Only work for which you are paid is counted. And much of the work that women do is unpaid.

The premise that bringing more women into the paid workforce will help women and the Indian economy is behind policies, such as the one announced on Tuesday by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, to reserve 35% of all government jobs for women.
Kumar is not the first to take this step. Madhya Pradesh already has 30% reservation for women in government jobs, as does Gujarat at 33%. In addition, the Union home ministry sent out an advisory to all state government and union territories on August 26, 2014 on increasing women in the police to 33% of the total force.

While 33% of positions in the constable rank are reserved for women in the Central Reserve Police Force and the Central Industrial Security Force, 15% are reserved in the Border Security Force, the Sashastra Seema Bal and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. As the local police come under the state government, they are expected to fall in line and work towards increasing the number of women recruits – currently in short supply as evidenced by the Delhi Police, a force in which women comprise only 9.27%.

Discouraging factors

But while quotas are well-intentioned, they are clearly not enough. The Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women, which looked specifically at the question of increasing women’s presence in the police force, underlined the simple and rather obvious problems that need to be addressed even as the number of women recruited for these jobs increases.

In its December 17, 2014 report, the committee emphasises the need to improve the facilities available to women when it writes, “despite a spate of efforts from the Government, lack of basic amenities/rest rooms/mobile toilets is still a major problem for the women in police in many States.”
In other words, it is not enough to just recruit more women. Both government and the private sector need to ensure that the conditions at work do not dehumanise women or place an additional stress on their lives. Apart from toilets, provisions of crèches and benefits such as maternity leave should not be seen as special favours. Women enter the paid workforce on unequal terms. A paid job is in addition to the unpaid “work” that they do every day – child care, elderly care, domestic chores, among them.

There will be those who will argue against quotas for women in government jobs. Such people ought to travel by the women’s special trains at peak hour from Churchgate station in Mumbai. Here you meet women, many of them employed by the state government, who wake up at the crack of dawn every day, prepare food for their families, and then set off on their long commute to work.

At the end of the day, they use the train ride to prepare for the tasks that wait exclusively for them once they get home: cook, clean, wash and at some point sleep before the day begins again. Government jobs, with all their security and benefits, are not exactly a gravy ride if you are a lower-middle-class woman.

The other important component to increase women’s presence in the paid workforce is safety. From sexual harassment to sexual assault, women face these dangers every day as they step out to earn a living. The recent distressing case of an Accredited Social Health Activist worker in Uttar Pradesh, who committed suicide because the man who raped her threatened to release the video of the act, brings home the dangers that even those women part of government programmes face. Just having a paid job does not protect them from sexual predators.

A matter of perception

In any case, even if every state government follows the lead of Nitish Kumar and others by reserving government jobs for women, it is unlikely to make more than a tiny dent in the larger problem of getting more women in paid employment. India is close to the bottom in the list of countries when it comes to the percentage of women in paid employment or “female labour force participation” (termed FLFP). While the global average is 50%, which means every other woman is in the labour
force, in India it was 33% in 2012 and has now slipped further.

Why do we need to increase the number of women in paid employment? Is it just tokenism if employment means a double burden on them?

The most obvious significance is that a woman contributing to family income has a better chance of being treated more decently than one who does not. That, of course, is an assumption that is not always born out with the statistics which reveal that even well-educated women in good jobs are at the receiving end of domestic violence. Also, in many cases, they do not have control over the money they earn. Yet, there is change, especially in urban areas where the cost of living is inducing more women into some form of paid employment.

The larger significance of more women in the workforce is that of perception. In the last several decades, women have entered many fields that remained closed to their mothers. Rabia Futtehally, for instance, was one of the first women pilots in India. Today, out of 5,100 commercial pilots in India, 11.7% are women (the average worldwide is 3%). This has been achieved without quotas but illustrates how the opening up of new avenues for employment for women encourages more women to consider these options. And even if entrenched attitudes, which will not accept that women have capabilities and rights, do not evaporate, they are challenged.

Reserving jobs for women is one way to increase the percentage of women in paid jobs. But in the long run, neither more money, nor job security, will make a difference to women’s status unless we recognise and value the real “work” that millions of women do every day, all day.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Why Haryana CM's claim that state's sex ratio has improved is dangerous for women

On  Tuesday January 19, 2016
By claiming that the declining sex ratio can be turned around by a high-profile campaign, Khattar is trivialising an important issue.

Photo Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP
It is quite extraordinary that the chief minister of a state with the lowest sex ratio should claim that there has been a dramatic turnaround in less than a year. Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar was reported on January 16 as saying that the child sex ratio in his state had improved from 834 girls to every 1,000 boys in the 2011 census to 903 in December. He attributed this jump to the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign launch by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last January.

The sex ratio, male-female and child sex ratio (0-6 years) cannot be measured every day – unlike, say, pollution levels. It is tracked over a period of time. Changes in the sex ratio become apparent in the census, conducted once every ten years. Thus, it was with the 2001 census data that alarm bells first rang out about the extent to which the sex ratio in India was skewed in favour of males, especially in the more prosperous districts. Specifically, it is the fall in the child sex ratio that caused concern as it fell from 927 in 2001 to 919 in 2011, clearly indicating that sex selection was widely prevalent.

However, civil society groups had warned of the dangers of the declining sex ratio three decades before the 2011 census when they noticed the growing misuse of medical technology to detect and abort female foetuses. In the 1980s, the first technologies to indicate the sex of the foetus came to India. Amniocentesis, an invasive process that removes amniotic fluid from the uterus of a pregnant woman to test the sex of the foetus, was costly and not widely available. Even so, it was evident that those who could afford the test went ahead and paid for it, followed by an abortion if the foetus was found to be female.

Misusing technology

The first group to begin campaigning and drawing attention to this came up in Mumbai. The Forum Against Sex Selection exposed the misuse of amniocentesis, meant to detect abnormalities in the foetus, and demanded that this and other such technologies be banned. In fact, in the early 1980s, Mumbai’s local trains carried advertisements selling the idea of sex selective abortions at centres that provided both services, amniocentesis and abortion, under one roof.

The FASS campaign eventually led to the Maharashtra government passing a law banning sex selection technologies in 1988. But by then, the technology had changed: it become non-invasive, cheaper and easier. Sonography machines could detect the sex of the foetus much earlier than amniocentesis, making abortion safer. There were no curbs on these machines. They were small and easily portable. Sex selection spread from cities to smaller towns and even villages.

The Maharashtra law led to the central government being persuaded to take note of the dangers of the spread of this technology and in 1994, the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act 1994 was passed.

But all such laws have their limitations. It is not just a matter of checking the misuse of such technologies but stemming the demand for them. Sex selection is essentially the desire by thousands of Indian families to avoid giving birth to girls. If in the past, some communities resorted to infanticide, today technology provides a neater, easier way of getting rid of the problem – avoid giving birth to girls.

Many justify the use of sex selection by arguing that it will spare girls the tortures they will encounter later in life. It is a strange argument, for it accepts that woman in Indian society can never hope for fair treatment. Also, the fact that the better-off use sex selection clearly establishes that at root the issue is one of property and not any concern for the safety of girls or women.

Misguided measures

Not surprisingly, a law passed to give women equal rights to inherit ancestral property, the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005 went against them in places like Haryana where the status of women is low in all respects. As this article by Chander Suta Dogra points out, since the law came into effect, the desire to avoid giving birth to girls has accelerated in Haryana rather than decreased.
Ironically, many government schemes aimed at checking the decline in the sex ratio are aimed at poor people through cash transfer schemes, such as Dhan Lakshmi and Ladli, Kanyadan, even though the groups that are most likely to practice female foeticide is well above the poverty line.

Even as we accept that sex selection is a symptom of the larger problem, the implementation of the PCPNDT Act has been patchy at best and mostly indifferent. Even in Haryana, where the declining sex ratio has been the focus of many campaigns for well over a decade, only 58 FIRs had been registered under this law in the last six months. These are registered cases, not convictions. In many instances, those operating sonography machines without registering them are caught but there is no way to prove that they have been used for sex selection. Even if this law was enforced more strictly, it only deals with the technology of sex-selection when the problem is embedded in societal attitudes.

Regressive environment

In Haryana, these attitudes have a long way to go before they change. Political parties, including the BJP that has launched the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign with such fanfare, refuse to take a stand against regressive institutions like the khap panchayats that have a direct impact on the status and rights of women in that state.

Whatever the credibility of the figures recently released by the Haryana government about the improvement in the child sex ratio, the larger problem of women’s rights remains unaddressed. By claiming that something as serious as the declining sex ratio can be turned around by a campaign high on optics is to trivialise an important issue. Such boasts are not just false, they are dangerous. What they do is deny the process required to change mindsets. Even if a state has a reasonably good sex ratio, if its women are harassed, denied choice in marriage, restricted in their movement, dictated what they should wear and what they can do, can we conclude that women’s status has improved and that all girls in the future will be safe? This is the question Khattar and his colleagues need to answer.
Read the original here.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Unheard voices

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Jan 10, 2016

A note to my readers:
After a run of 22 years in The Hindu (and before that 4 years in Indian Express), this is the last column to appear in print (at least for the moment).  The Hindu's editors informed me that they were dropping it, and some other columns, to make way for "new content".  
Sadly, despite my long association with the paper, the people in-charge did not have the courtesy to call and speak to me personally about this, or to give me enough notice and finally agreed to this last column on my prompting!  On top of it, they removed the line that indicated clearly that I was stopping the column only because they wanted it and not on my own volition.

Be that as it may, I will, as I've written, continue to write about these issues, on this blog, on other digital platforms and hopefully in print.

Irom Sharmila's fast without end and her plea that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act be withdrawn has so far fallen on deaf ears. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma
The Hindu
Irom Sharmila's fast without end and her plea that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act be withdrawn has so far fallen on deaf ears. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma
This column has tried, in the 22 years that it has occupied this space, to remind us that these unheard voices need an audience. Urgently.

Voices like that of Irom Sharmila in Manipur. Her fast without end and her plea that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) be withdrawn has so far fallen on deaf ears. Sharmila continues her protest; successive governments continue to justify the imposition of AFSPA in northeastern States like Manipur and in Kashmir. And the voices of those who bear the brunt of this policy are heard only when there is an “incident”, when enough people die to be noted by the national press. And that is where the story ends.

Voices like that of Lakshmi, who lived on a Mumbai pavement for decades. Her plea that cities also belong to the urban poor, that they too are equal citizens who are guaranteed the same rights as those who live in 100-room mansions, has also fallen on deaf ears. Our cities are for people with houses, with cars, with holiday homes but not for people like Lakshmi who hold up the city and make it work. There is money for sea links, flyovers, broad roads, gleaming new airports and swanky business districts, but no money for affordable housing, potable water supply, sanitation systems that reaches the poorest.

Voices like that of Veena Devi, the mukhiya of Loharpura panchayat in Bihar’s Nawada district. She has only basic literacy skills. Yet she has managed to grasp the essentials of good governance, brought solar lighting to her village so that women feel safe, and figured out that being humane and efficient is not rocket science. There are thousands like her across India. Their voices will disappear if the law that Rajasthan and Haryana have enacted laying down minimum educational criteria for panchayat candidates, is accepted across the country.

Voices like the rural women journalists who work without fear or favour in the rough lands of Uttar Pradesh. The women who bring out Khabar Lahariya in five dialects remind us, who live in cities, that there is an India that our urban obsessed media so readily forgets. These women, trained to be journalists, set out fearlessly to expose incidents of harassment, rape, dowry and other social issues. They also cover local politics. They report, edit and produce their paper. For it they get brickbats, they face harassment, but there is also enough appreciation to keep them going. But their voices are not loud enough to drown out the ruckus that mainstream media generates on any number of issues every day.

Giving space to such voices is not something special; it is what journalism should be about. I chose ‘The Other Half’ as the title for this column because I believe that journalism should be about telling the stories that are not obvious, that don’t automatically hit you in the face. In our rush to meet deadlines, we journalists sometimes miss out on other perspectives. We fail to invest enough in listening to those who speak in quiet voices, those not quite sure about what they feel, those who appear inarticulate to the outside world.

These are often women, poor women, but also men who belong to groups so long marginalised that they have internalised the belief that their views do not count. So they never step forward and speak to you. If you are interested, or concerned, you have to seek them out and convince them you want to listen.

As we go into a new year, followed by one that stood out for growing intolerance, perhaps we should find ways of being more intolerant, but about issues other than the ones that cropped up last year.
We are too tolerant. We tolerate abysmal poverty in the midst of strident consumerism; we tolerate the infamy of millions of our citizens who continue to be discriminated against and marginalised by virtue of their caste; we tolerate unacceptable levels of violence against women within their homes and outside; we tolerate sex-selection and son-preference leading to a skewed sex ratio; we tolerate the existence of millions of undernourished and stunted children in a country where waste is becoming a symbol of prosperity and “progress”; we tolerate women dying at child-birth when this is not a life-threatening disease; we tolerate the excesses of the state in the name of “national security” even as our justice system fails to serve the powerless. The list of what we tolerate, and should not, is endless.

As I sign off on my last column in this space, let me assure the readers of The Other Half, who favoured me with sharp and useful comments through these years, that the other half of the story will continue to be told.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Maneka Gandhi is right

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 20, 2015

R.K. Pachauri continues to head TERI while his successor is yet to take over. Photo: Prashant Nakwe
The Hindu
R.K. Pachauri continues to head TERI while his successor is yet to take over. Photo: Prashant Nakwe

So while she is already on record asking that marital rape be criminalised even though her government thinks otherwise, in May this year she objected to the cutback in central funds allocated to programmes under her ministry. She was particularly upset that the allocation for the Integrated Child Development Services, a programme that has been crucial to improving nutritional levels of the most vulnerable children and women, has been cut by almost half. Furthermore, even the National Nutrition Mission launched in December 2014 by her government has been given short shrift. Far from the Rs.28,000 crores over five years that it was expecting, it has been allocated only Rs.100 crores so far.

In the recently released Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme, India’s maternal mortality figure of 190 (number of women who die for every 100,000 live births) is substantially higher than even war-torn Syria (49) and Iraq (67). Its child mortality figures are equally depressing as compared to many other countries.

Her latest missive to her own government is equally significant. In a letter to Union Finance and Corporate Affairs minister Arun Jaitley, Gandhi has asked him to make it mandatory for companies to reveal whether they have set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) as required under the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act 2013. This is a reasonable request. Yet, Jaitley has dismissed it saying that such an additional demand on companies is “undesirable”.

How does the question of whether it is “desirable” or not enter the picture? The law has mandated that all companies and organisations must have an ICC. It also requires companies to inform employees about provisions of the law and train members of the ICC on the law and what constitutes an offence.

The non-compliance levels of Indian companies underline why Ms. Gandhi’s request is not unreasonable. According to a report titled “Fostering Safe Workplaces” by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Ernst and Young, one in every three Indian companies, or 31 per cent, has not set up ICCs. Of those who have, 40 per cent have not begun training the members in the provisions of the law, 35 per cent are unaware of the penal consequences of not complying with the law and 44 per cent have not circulated information about the law to their employees. FICCI has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with UN Women to advance “gender equality and women’s empowerment”. A good start would be to get its members to comply with provisions of the sexual harassment law.

According to the National Commission on Women, the complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace have doubled from 249 in 2013 to 526 in 2014. These represent a sliver of the reality. For every one case reported, there are likely to be dozens that remain hidden, with the women too afraid to raise their voices for fear of losing their jobs or being further victimised.

We know from the recent sexual harassment case at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) how difficult it is for a woman to pursue a case against a powerful individual. When the TERI employee first complained against the head of the institute, Dr. R.K. Pachauri, TERI did not even have an ICC. Once constituted, the ICC upheld the woman’s complaint. Dr. Pachauri was asked to go on leave and the board (after some pressure from the media, one might add) appointed his successor. Yet, Dr. Pachauri continues to head TERI while his successor is yet to take over. Meanwhile, the affected woman has resigned. In her resignation letter, she states: “TERI failed to uphold my interests as an employee, let alone protecting them. The organisation has instead protected R.K. Pachauri and provided him full immunity, despite being held guilty of sexual harassment by your own inquiry committee.” This case is as clear an illustration as any of the skewed power equations in sexual harassment cases.

Compliance with the law is obviously only the first step. The minimum requirement is an ICC. Yet, as is clear from the TERI case, it is not enough. Organisations must support those women who find the courage to speak up. Instead, in their desire to avoid any slur on their reputations, many organisations end up protecting the harasser and literally hounding the complainant to leave. So, Maneka Gandhi is right. Insisting that registered companies (and other organisations) comply with this minimum requirement is not asking for too much.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Is violence the new normal?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 6, 2015

The report by Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression that recently sent a team to investigate the impact of the conflict on women, speaks of the violence, rape and sexual assault that the local women live with every day. Photo: Lingaraj Panda
The Hindu
Has violence against women become so commonplace in India that we have stopped noting it? Do we need anniversaries — December 16 is coming up — to remind us of something that happens every day? Every year, the United Nations designates 16 days for activism against gender-based violence. So from November 25 to December 10, Human Rights Day, a slew of statements and events focuses on this. Useful as that is, we have to ask why we need specific days to express our concern for something that ought to be part of our daily discourse.

Gender violence does not occur occasionally. It happens everyday, everywhere. Yet, we only take note when something out of the ordinary happens, something horrific like the December 16, 2012, gang rape in Delhi. The sheer brutality of that rape and murder is seared into our collective memories. It galvanised people, who had never before been out on the streets, to shout that enough is enough and this culture of violence must end. 

That was three years ago. Today, that culture of violence remains embedded, throwing up new shoots every day. What is frightening is the ordinariness and the pervasiveness of sexual violence: the acceptance that it is there and will always be there; that women will get beaten up; that girls will be sexually assaulted. It is this ordinariness that makes us immune, almost indifferent to the daily litany of sexual assaults against women. 
Look at any newspaper. The stories leap out at youevery day, any day: “Nine-year-old sexually assaulted by her teachers”; “21-year-old jobless youth held for sexual assault of two-year-old.” What we read about is but a sliver of the whole. Because the whole of it takes place behind closed doors, in hidden places where there are no eyes to note, no cameras to record. It includes crimes that we don’t read about, because no one goes there to witness them, to listen to the victims, to understand that violence against women is the new normal in some parts of our country.

One such place is Chhattisgarh. With deadly regularity, there are reports of encounter deaths. What is not reported is what precedes or follows these encounters. Some of these stories have been reported in local newspapers but barely a word has appeared in the national media. As usual, a curtain of invisibility falls on incidents that occur in places that the media cannot access or does not try to access.

A few brave local journalists have tried to report on some of these stories that would otherwise be forgotten. And they have paid a heavy price for this. Two of them, Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag, are still in jail in Chhattisgarh after being picked up in September and July respectively on suspicion of being sympathetic to the ‘Naxals’.

Apart from “encounter” killings, women in these troubled districts of Chhattisgarh have been targeted. Their stories remain largely unreported and uninvestigated. The report by Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression that recently sent a team to investigate the impact of the conflict on women, speaks of the violence, rape and sexual assault that the local women live with every day. Their report, about incidents during October 2015, is based on testimonies by dozens of women.

One such story was that of a 14-year-old girl from Peddagulur village in Bijapur district. According to the report, the girl “was grazing cattle with other women when she was chased by security forces. Overpowered and blind-folded, she was raped by at least three people before she became unconscious.” Another tragic story is that of a four-month pregnant woman who was stripped by the security forces, “repeatedly dunked in the stream, and then gang-raped.” Other women spoke of being chased, beaten, their houses looted and their property destroyed.

Despite this report, the higher ups in the police dismiss the complaints as propaganda. When you divide a population into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the latter are seen as ‘terrorists’, then anything can be denied. Crimes against humanity become propaganda. And by refusing to even acknowledge that these crimes have occurred, the state seeks to erase them from history.

In this case, there are two small factors that give some hope. One, that the women’s group and the local media were able to reach these villages and record the testimonies of the women. And two, that some of these women could travel to the district headquarters and depose before a district collector who was willing to listen and a police officer who was open to filing an FIR.

It is still a long haul from this stage to one where the men involved will be caught and punished. But given that practically no case of this kind has made it even to the FIR stage, it is worth noting. To come back to special days, and activism against gender violence, this is needed, every day, and against all forms of violence. Not just the sexual assaults in our cities, or those that the media choose to highlight.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The open discussion on menstruation is #Happy To Bleed's biggest achievement

Started by a college student, the campaign has chipped away at the structures of patriarchy that remain in place in India.
Photo Credit: Facebook
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We usually do not speak about it in polite company. Yet, not only was the hashtag #HappyToBleed trending a few days ago, but the issue was a discussed during prime time on a mainstream news channel and endorsed by anchor Rajdeep Sardesai.

It is the M word – menstruation.

Menstruation has become a subject of open debate largely thanks to 20-year-old Nikita Azad. Earlier this month. Prayar Gopalakrishnan, president of the Travancore Devaswom Board that manages the Sabrimala Ayyappa Temple in Kerala, had justified keeping menstruating women out of the shrine. Azad reacted by starting a counter campaign, urging young women to hold placards or sanitary napkins reading "Happy To Bleed". She started a Facebook event for this purpose and a related hashtag on Twitter.

The campaign is novel because we never discuss menstruation so openly. It’s often spoken about in private – between women, between mothers and daughters, between sisters – but never in public.

We grow up not saying “to menstruate” or “I’m menstruating”. Instead, girls will say they have their “chum” (a strange term). At most, they might say “period”. The old-fashioned will say “menses”. In Marathi, you will indirectly say it is that time of the month.

But that time of the month is not a time for celebration. You don’t jump with joy when you start to bleed. Far from it.

Difficult experience

What I’m about to narrate is probably a familiar story. When I began menstruating, I was horrified. I didn’t know what was happening to my body. I was irritated, angry and depressed on being told that this was not a one-off, a medical condition that would be “cured”. It was a permanent condition that would affect me every month, or rather every 28 days.

“Not fair”, I told my father, who had more patience to discuss these matters than my mother, who thought I was an argumentative brat. “I wish I was a boy,” I wailed. “At least then I wouldn’t have to suffer this nonsense for the rest of my life”.

My understanding father countered: “But boys also have problems. They have to shave every single day.”

“Yes, but they can grow a beard to avoid shaving. I have no such option,” I said with a sense of defeat. My father had no comeback and decided to leave the matter there.

So menstruation is not a happy occurrence for girls. It is frustrating, inconvenient and happens far too often. Sometimes there are cramps before it comes. Often there is pain when it comes. And it’s messy.  It hampers your movement, changes your walk, and makes you self-conscious. Don’t tell us that the latest sanitary napkins or tampons have altered this reality. It has only allowed us to manage the situation better

But Nikita Azad and her supporters are absolutely right in asserting that what happens to their bodies is not dirty and impure. It is a fact of life. And they are not apologetic.

There is little comfort in knowing that it is not just Hindu temples, but other religions also place restrictions on menstruating women. Why? And what logic justifies this sustaining tradition? This is what is being asked today.

It’s truly bizarre that the Sabrimala priest should suggest that a machine be invented to check whether a woman is bleeding before she can enter a temple. A man of religious dogma is turning to science to enforce illogical tradition: it must be a first.

Positive movement

#HappyToBleed may disappear after a few weeks, but it’s what the hashtag represents that we need to understand.

Feminists have campaigned through the ages for the rights of women over their bodies. This meant fighting for the right to abortion, the right to use contraceptives, the right to healthcare that extended beyond the reproductive organs, and the right to feel comfortable in our skins. Feminist campaigns have been anchored in the belief that just because men and women are biologically different, women cannot be treated as lesser beings where the difference is used to whip them into submission and into accepting secondary status.

What is notable about many of the recent campaigns by young women is their ability to turn this basic belief into one that projects their own confidence and comfort with who and what they are. In many ways, launching a campaign like #HappyToBleed and posting pictures of themselves holding up sanitary napkins containing the hashtag demonstrates that today’s feminists are as confident and creative as women in the past. They have the added advantage of new technologies and new platforms that allow for different forms of campaigning, which they use to their benefit.

What is also noteworthy is that they see these campaigns not as a gimmick but as a way to challenge what lies beneath – the P word, or Patriarchy. Nikita Azad was at pains to explain that her campaign was not about temple entry for women but "a protest against patriarchy and gender discriminatory practices prevalent in our society".

Every such campaign chips away at the structures of patriarchy that remain in place in India. The structure is in no danger of crumbling just yet. But if enough young women learn to question and challenge regressive attitudes, perhaps there is hope.
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