Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 29, 2015

Thank you, Sharad Yadav…

Many women in India are really mad and irritated with Sharad Yadav. The Rajya Sabha MP, who belongs to the Janata Dal (United), thinks nothing of drawing comparisons between Indian women, their skin colour and shape and provisions of the Insurance Bill. Others might find it difficult to make the connect. But not Yadav. Nor some of his fellow male compatriots who were caught on camera laughing at his remarks.

Yet those of us who ‘know’ Sharad Yadav should not really be surprised at what he said. How can we forget his performance as a member of the ‘Yadav Troika’, that band of brothers who have fought determinedly and spiritedly against increasing the representation of women in Parliament? This is the same Sharad Yadav who, in the debate on the Women’s Reservation Bill, attacked Indian women with short hair, charging them with conspiring to increase women’s representation in Parliament.

Since then, there are probably more women in India who have short hair although this has not been the chief reason that the law that Sharad Yadav detests, also known as the 108 Constitutional Amendment Bill 2008, did pass in the Rajya Sabha. Again, we were not surprised to learn that certain members who objected to the Bill had to be physically evicted from the House.

Given his recent verbal history, we should not be alarmed at Yadav’s comments about women’s skin colour. He is being entirely consistent at a time when consistency is not a quality found in many Indian politicians. In fact, perhaps we should thank him. For without meaning to, Yadav has reminded us of something we forget: the fair-skin obsession among Indians. He has also nudged us to remember that the Women’s Reservation Bill still awaits a vote in the Lok Sabha.

Let’s take up the latter first. Much has been debated about the pluses and minuses of this Bill. Without going into that, we should remember that the party now in power, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supported the Bill. There are memorable photographs of women Members of Parliament including Sushma Swaraj of the BJP in the company of Sonia Gandhi of the Congress Party and Brinda Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) celebrating the passage of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha. Cutting across party lines, women politicians came together in support of the Bill.
Unfortunately, we do not see such solidarity among the women on other issues. Brinda Karat, in a recent comment on Sharad Yadav’s behaviour in the Rajya Sabha, lamented the absence of solidarity among the few women who were in the House the day Yadav held forth. She recounted how difficult it had been in the past, when such anti-women remarks were made, to get the attention of the chair. Surely, if one third of the House consisted of women, men like Yadav would not escape unscathed. That’s another reason to have more women elected.

In any case, the BJP government seems to have forgotten about this particular Bill. In its hurry to push through seven Bills, it has been afflicted by amnesia as far as the Women’s Reservation Bill is concerned. So perhaps Sharad Yadav’s soliloquy in the House will stir the memory of the party honchos that here is one more law that needs to be passed quite urgently.

And the other aspect of skin colour? We need not be reminded of that. Just turn on the television. There are plenty of reminders in the advertisements you see. If you want success, as a woman or a man, you must be fair and good-looking. No less than Shah Rukh Khan tells you this. Or read the matrimonial columns of newspapers. ‘Beautiful, fair, slim’, three words that are repeated. Or go to dating and marriage websites. The story never changes. The shape of the woman and the colour of her skin are essential qualities for ‘a suitable match’. Unfair, many women would say, but Indian society continues to plum for ‘fair’ over all else.

As a result, since they were first introduced in 1975, ‘fairness’ creams and skin-lightening agents have grown into an incredible Rs.3,000 crore business in India, expanding at the rate of 18 per cent a year. Their appeal has caught the interest of men since the introduction in 2005 of special men’s fairness creams.

Despite studies that reveal the harm these creams can do, their sales continue to climb. A 2014 study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) revealed that skin-lightening lotions contained harmful chemicals such as mercury. Far from lightening the colour of your skin, they can harm it and also cause other adverse reactions. The CSE tested 32 skin-lightening creams and found that 44 per cent had mercury content despite mercury being banned for use in cosmetics under the Drugs and Cosmetics Acts and Rules.

So thank you, Sharad Yadav for reminding us of a forgotten bill and a cosmetic that we ought to forget.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Suzette Jordan showed that India isn't ready for rape survivors who deny their victimhood

Published in on March 14, 2015

A 40-year-old woman died of meningo-encephalitis in a Kolkata hospital on March 13.  We need never have known her name.  Yet Suzette Jordan is a name we do know.  She is also “India’s daughter” and her story is exceptional.

A little over three years ago, on February 5, 2012, Jordan went to a nightclub with friends on Kolkata’s famous Park Street.  A man she met there offered her a lift home.  Instead of dropping her to her destination, Jordan was gang-raped and then flung out of the car.

She picked herself up and reported the rape.  Because it happened in the heart of Kolkata, the crime attracted enormous media attention. Jordan became known as the “Park Street rape victim”.  But few applauded her courage at complaining to the authorities about the crime. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said Jordan had fabricated the case.  Others suggested that she was a prostitute.  What was she doing out at a nightclub when she was the mother of two girls, people asked.  For months, Jordan suffered in silence, fought her case through a hostile court, with little sympathy from even the judge.

Going public

A year later, Jordan decided to come out in the open.  “Why should I hide my identity when it was not even my fault?” she told NDTV.  “Why should I be ashamed of something I did not give rise to?  I was subjected to torture, and I was subjected to rape, and I am fighting and I will fight.”

She fought.  But there was little sympathy from society. Her daughters, who she brought up as a single mother, were mocked at school.  No one would give her a job, despite interventions from the few who were sympathetic.  She finally got one with an NGO on a helpline for women in distress.

Jordan was not an exception in that she was raped.  In the last two weeks, the brutal rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi has foregrounded the intense discussion about whether the telecast of Leslee Udwin’s film on that rape, India’s Daughter, should be allowed in this country.

Exposing hypocrisy

But Jordan stood out because she decided to reveal her identity.  By openly declaring that she was the “Park Street rape victim”, Jordan exposed the hypocrisy of Indian society, its fake sympathies for women victims of sexual assault that disappear if the woman stands up and flings off the shroud of shame society expects her to wear for the rest of her life.

Jordan’s experience illustrates how the blame for rape continues to cling to the survivor if she chooses to deny victimhood.  Who knows what the December 16 victim, whose name we still do not take, would have suffered had she lived.  Because we now celebrate her life, have given her a fictitious name, we can fool ourselves into believing that we respect and honour women like her. But do we?

While India’s Daughter brought home the unrepentant attitude of the convict, Mukesh Singh, and the crass and misogynistic views of the defence lawyers, it did not reveal what survivors of rape face if they dare to fight their cases.

Humiliating court procedures

Speaking of her experience in court to a friend, Jordan mentioned how she was humiliated, made to repeat what she suffered and felt as if she had been gang-raped repeatedly in court.  Lawyer Flavia Agnes has written about how a Mumbai journalist who was gang-raped in August 2013 had to walk up and tap the accused on the shoulder in the police line-up and state loudly what he did to her.  The woman raped in December by a taxi driver in Delhi, what is known as the Uber rape case, has had to turn to the Supreme Court to appeal against repeated questioning by the defence.

Yes, the law has changed, but not the conduct of the police, lawyers, or the atmosphere in our courts where rape cases are heard.  This is what Jordan’s story tells us.

In her death perhaps she will get the respect that was denied to her when she was alive.  Respect for shedding anonymity, respect for refusing to be pitied, respect for insisting that the shame was with the rapists and not with the woman assaulted.

Unfortunately, given what Jordan went through in the two years since she came out in public, her story is unlikely to encourage others to follow her example.  We were not ready for Suzette Jordan; we still aren’t.

Crucial realities

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 15, 2015

This March 8 was not a very happy occasion. Despite the celebrations, lurking at the back was not just the unseemly controversy over the banning of the film India’s Daughter about the December 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder but also the public lynching of a man accused of rape in Dimapur, Nagaland. There is no connection between the two. Yet, the operative word was ‘rape’. It hung in the air even as we told ourselves that the day was all about women’s empowerment.

Although the film, watched extensively on the Internet despite the ban, produced mixed responses, the chilling image that lingered was that of the convict Mukesh Singh’s cold and unrepentant words as he spoke explicitly of what happened on the bus that dreadful night of December 16. It produced in all of us a mixture of revulsion and helplessness, the former to hear a man responsible for the death of an innocent speak so clinically and casually about it, and the latter because you knew that this was not an aberrant, a monster, speaking but that he could be Mr. Everyman or as someone pointed out, he was another of ‘India’s sons’.

And while we discussed and debated, and for a brief while turned our attention to that much neglected part of India, the Northeast, because of the ghastly lynching of Syed Sarif Uddin Khan in Dimapur, more young girls and women were molested, assaulted, raped. These statistics don't take a break for any special day for women.

The Dimapur killing was a reflection of the growing clamour for instant justice echoed by people elected to uphold the law.  On March 8, Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Madhya Pradesh, Usha Thakur said in response to the Dimapur lynching, “There is a need to make a stern law against men who rape minor girls. Such criminals should be hanged in full public view and their last rites should not be performed.” A recipe to make India safer for women? Surely not.

At a time when what happens today dominates and yesterday’s news is forgotten and buried, we also forgot that thousands of women had occupied the streets of Delhi just days before March 8. The march by farmers from 16 states to Delhi on February 23, to register their protest against amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, included hundreds of women. You can see them in the photographs, women of all ages, wearing colourful saris, determination writ clearly on their faces. They sat with the men and made the same demands. They were there as farmers, and as women.

Who were these women? Why had they travelled this long distance to Delhi? Why was land so important to them? Did any of us speak to them and ask? Apart from one TV channel that had two women farmers give their views on the budget — a blink and miss intervention — the voices of such women were never heard. And before we could find out what they were thinking, they had packed up and gone back. We had missed the crucial reality that farmers are not just men but also women, that agricultural losses and the takeover of farming lands hits women as much as men and that this gender dimension of the law needs to be heeded.

It needs to be heard not just because women constitute 48.5 per cent of the Indian population and therefore cannot be treated as invisible. But also because recent studies suggest that there is a link between women’s economic rights, their right to own land and business, and their ability to face physical and other forms of violence.

Govind Kelkar, Shantanu Gaikwad and Somdatta Mandal have recently published one such study titled ‘Women’s Asset Ownership and Reduction in Gender-based Violence’. The study is based on data from Karnataka and Telangana, both states with patriarchal structures in land ownership and Meghalaya, which has a matrilineal system.

Space does not permit a detailed analysis of the facts in this study. It makes the basic and important point that when women have control over land and income, they have greater control of their lives. Ownership of assets does not automatically add up to a reduction in violence as there are many other factors making women vulnerable, particularly in the home. Yet, this study and the women interviewed in the three states suggest that ownership of land gives women greater self-respect in the family and the courage to speak up.

Such studies are important. We talk about violence against women (and not just rape). There are no instant or easy solutions. Summary justice of the kind being demanded will make no difference. We emphasise that male mindsets must change if we want real and lasting change. Yet even as that happens, we can take several specific and concrete steps to strengthen women and equip them with the tools to counter violence. One of these steps is making women owners of economic assets like land.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Talking about rape

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 8, 2015

  • Protests against the December 2012 gang rape.
    Protests against the December 2012 gang rape.
  • Film-maker Leslee Udwin, Director of the documentary 'India's Daughter'.
    Film-maker Leslee Udwin, Director of the documentary 'India's Daughter'.

We are so easily outraged. We get angry if someone from another country critically views what we know to be our terrible reality. We know women in India are not safe. We know there are rapes of women every day — young, old, Dalit, tribal, in cities and in villages. Yet, if a ‘foreigner’ deigns to point this out, we get upset; we are ‘hurt’, says the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh; we are outraged; we think it is a ‘conspiracy to defame India’.

So the controversy surrounding Leslee Udwin’s documentary film India’s Daughter — about the December 16, 2012 gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi — goes round and round in circles. It generates heat and sound but little sense and certainly no hope.

I have not seen the film and so will not comment on its contents. The controversy surrounding it has once again brought into focus the grim reality of rape as well as how many Indian men view women. Personally, I don’t think any film, made by an Indian or a foreigner can make things look worse than they already are. Nor should there be a question of banning such films. What are we afraid of? What we can question is the perspective in such films. For instance, the decision of the filmmaker to interview one of the convicts and the lawyers, knowing what they would say, can be questioned.

These questions can be asked once you see the film. Now that the government has successfully got a restraint order from the court, this is not a possibility (although the Internet defies all restraint orders, as we all know). In fact, by releasing the content of her interviews with Mukesh Singh and the lawyers, the filmmaker has ensured that her film will be sought after, despite the restraining order. Perhaps that is what she wanted in the first place, to stir a controversy to promote her film. Or, to give her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she did not anticipate the government’s response. If not, then she was incredibly na├»ve.

But the separate — and perhaps more pertinent — issue is whether we can go on talking about December 16, as if time has stood still and nothing has changed. The Delhi gang rape galvanised women and men in a way that has not been seen in India for several decades. It might have seemed momentary. The demonstrations and candlelight vigils did end eventually. But the protests set in motion several important initiatives including the Justice J.S. Verma Committee report, the changes in the law and the growing consciousness and conversation about crimes against women.

We see this in the increase in the reporting on the incidence of rape. We notice this in the way some women are now fighting back. We acknowledge this in the fact that no political party can now ignore addressing the question of women’s safety (whether they mean what they say is another issue). This is the legacy left behind after those weeks when women and men came out on the streets and expressed their anguish. The clock on such consciousness cannot be turned back easily.

We also know that, as articulated beautifully by the activist Kavita Krishnan, Indian women do not want to be seen as India’s daughters — or, for that matter, as mothers, wives, aunts, nieces or grandmothers. Women want equality as citizens. They do not need the legitimacy of a link to a male, a family or ‘the nation’. They demand respect as human beings. It is so easy to bracket women within this cosy frame of ‘the family’ while leaving ‘the nation’ to be managed by men. Objecting to the title of the film is not just a question of semantics; it is objecting to the attitude that the phrase represents; something that is ultimately at the root of the violence that women face.

So a film, good or bad, should not bring us back to the subject of rape, of sexual assault, of everyday violence that millions of Indian women suffer every single day. Our concern should not be reduced to one incident, however horrific it was, one set of parents, or even one city. There are women in Manipur, in Kashmir, in Chhattisgarh who face the violence of the state. There are Dalit women across India who face the violence of the upper castes. There are women born into poverty who face the violence of a heartless economy that excludes them.

We must also recognise that there is a struggle to see an end to this violence. Women and men are needed for it. All Indian men are not rapists or criminals. Women know that. So even as women sometimes despair at the dominant attitudes that prevail, we must not fall into the trap of reducing our problems to these simplistic binaries — of helpless women and villainous men, of daughters that should be protected and of rapists who should be hanged. And the ‘hurt’ that the Home Minister should feel is not over the contents of a film, but the daily reality of violence that women in India continue to face.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A question for Kejriwal

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 1, 2015

  • Why do women continue to be absent in AAP? Photo: R.V. Moorthy
    Why do women continue to be absent in AAP? Photo: R.V. Moorthy
  • If AAP really wants to pioneer an ‘alternative politics’ it cannot overlook the importance of gender.
    If AAP really wants to pioneer an ‘alternative politics’ it cannot overlook the importance of gender.

On February 11, a day after the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) thundered into power in Delhi, early morning walkers noted something interesting. An elderly man, dressed in kurta pajama, a garland of marigolds around his neck, a Gandhi topi and muffler and holding a jhadoo was walking in the park. He was beaming. Most who saw him smiled, laughed, shook his hand. This was in Mumbai, many miles from Delhi.

The Delhi victory sent out waves of optimism around the country even if this scenario will not be replicated elsewhere, at least not in the immediate future. Most people accept that AAP should be given a fair chance this time to demonstrate how different it is from other parties.

Yet, even as I grant that, I still have a grouse. Thirteen months ago, when AAP came to power for a brief period, I had asked why it did not consider calling itself the Aam Aurat Party, or even the Aam Insaan Party. The point I was trying to make then was that aadmi might mean every person but its use is also a reflection of the automatic assumption that terms like ‘man’ or ‘aadmi’ automatically include women.

Perhaps this question is now redundant. Yet, we must still ask why women continue to be absent in AAP. Where are the women, Arvind Kejriwal? How is it that in your cabinet, even if it is small, you could not find place for even one woman? Is making a woman the deputy speaker an adequate token towards gender balance? I think not.

The need to strive for gender balance — still a very long way off in most institutions — is because it reminds us that one half of humanity deserves representation. AAP could argue that it was so focused on winning as many seats as it could that it gave tickets to people who would win rather than ensuring that enough women got tickets. If that is the argument, then how can we assume that AAP represents ‘alternative politics’ as the wise men of the party continue to proclaim? Is this not the excuse used by most mainstream political parties to deny tickets to women?

In this respect, AAP unfortunately does not represent any kind of alternative as this is virtually the norm. Apart from Delhi, seven other states have no women in their cabinets — Telangana, Puducherry, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Nagaland, Puducherry and Mizoram further distinguish themselves by not having a single woman member of the legislative assembly.

Not surprisingly, the three states with women chief ministers — Rajasthan, West Bengal and Gujarat — have a higher percentage of women in the cabinet. The excuse that there are not enough women to choose from for the cabinet is also not sustainable because even states with a higher percentage of women MLAs do not necessarily have more women in the cabinet.

In the final analysis, does any of this really matter? Is it not more important to ensure that the people we elect — men or women — are not corrupt and are sincere in their commitment to ‘serve the people’, a promise that so ready rolls off their tongues during election campaigns? Yes, and No. Yes, because that is stating the obvious. But No because if we are a representative democracy, then all sections, including women, should play a part in governance. If first time male MLAs, or even MPs, can become cabinet ministers, what stops women from being appointed to such positions? If the attempt to have a caste balance, for instance, ensures that some men get cabinet posts, why not women?

Actually, there are no excuses. The exclusion of women is not always deliberate; it is unthinking. It happens because those who decide, usually men, fail to accept that the inherent disadvantage that the majority of women face in entering politics needs to be compensated by some amount of preferential treatment.

In time, perhaps this kind of preference will not be needed. In many countries around the world, women are now making their way as equal partners and do not need a leg-up. But in many instances, the initial space created did help.

So to come back to Arvind Kejriwal and AAP in Delhi, I accept that the huge mandate they got is a sign of people wanting change, and perhaps even a different type of politics.

Having said that, I still think if AAP really wants to pioneer an ‘alternative politics’ it cannot overlook the importance of gender. Making promises to deal with women’s safety, something that all parties do, does not address the issue. The party needs to acknowledge that a gender perspective is needed in all aspects of governance, that inclusive politics means making an effort to include women in decision-making, and that the perspective such an inclusion facilitates is good in the long run for everybody, women and men.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 15, 2015

Will technological interventions make any difference to women’s lives? Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

Fewer than a dozen hands went up when I asked a room of over 500 Mumbai college girls how many did not have a mobile phone. Given the growing belief that technology, as represented by the many functions of a mobile phone, whether it would 
aid the cause of women’s safety?
For instance, within a month of the Delhi gang rape in December 2012, a “women’s safety” app named “Nirbhaya” was launched. Since then dozens of such apps have been launched around the country. The latest is “Himmat” by the Delhi police, billed as the first integrated women’s safety app in India.

Given the increasing rate of rape and sexual assault on women, including minors, will these technological interventions make any difference to women’s lives? Delhi and Mumbai have also been promised thousands of closed-circuit cameras in public places to enhance women’s safety.

Will Indian women be safer with the government watching over them through closed-circuit cameras and through safety apps on mobile phones? I think not. For no app, no matter how smart or effective, can substitute for the many steps that need to be taken to make women feel secure. Principally, this involves changing a culture where attacking and sexually abusing women is acceptable.

Within the range of apps now available — with names like SmartShehar, VithU, BSafe, Raksha — the majority merely facilitate a quick call for help to the police and/or to relatives/friends in the event of an attack. A woman fearing an attack or when actually attacked (although how a woman surrounded by several men can grab her phone and use the app is anyone’s guess) is expected to be saved by the app. Designers of these apps are selling the belief that these apps will enhance women’s safety.

That, in fact, is the problem with the apps. For they create the illusion of safety and security without an understanding of the wider context of the persisting lack of safety for women. The conversation around them also fails to accept the reality of class. Apps are available to women with smartphones; these are owned only by 13 per cent of our total population (although there are an estimated 900 million mobile phone connections). And they exclude women without phones or with ordinary phones.

Secondly, these apps can work only if the official state machinery is responsive. Even the single numbers (103, 100) for distress calls do not produce a quick response, or indeed any response. Police apathy, whether you approach a police station or call a number, is virtually a given. Until this changes, the efficacy of any app is greatly limited.

Far more effective is to use technology not just to “protect” women, or give them an easy way to seek help, but to involve them in the process of understanding the issues of safety and danger, and become active participants. An app called SafetiPin, for instance, attempts to do that through its mapping tool. Women can pinpoint areas that they consider unsafe, put down reasons (for instance, dark corners or poor lighting) as well as seek help. An interactive app of this kind allows women to check their surroundings and also encourages them to add to the database so that others are helped. But, ultimately, even this information can make a difference only if the law enforcing machinery and city authorities act on it.

The good news is that women are using mobile technology to help themselves. There are several recent examples. The woman raped in an Uber cab in Delhi photographed the license plate of the cab on her phone, thereby assisting the police to track down the rapist. A young woman on a flight to Bhubaneswar shamed the middle-aged businessman in the seat behind her who tried to grope her by filming him, putting the clips out on YouTube and filing a complaint with the police. Well-known anti-trafficking activist Sunitha Krishnan has circulated an edited version of a shocking video of a gang rape by five men that has been on Whatsapp for some time. She has launched a Twitter campaign #ShameTheRapistCampaign urging people to find and identify the five men seen laughing away as they torture and rape a woman.

New technologies, like smartphones, are empowering and give women considerable autonomy. But in themselves, even if they are loaded with the most efficient apps, they cannot alter the reality of the dangers that women face in the public and private space. The onus should not be put on women to use such technology to keep themselves safe. Technology helps if the state does its job of dealing with crime, and society refuses to be complacent and accept sexual assault as just another crime.


Sunday, February 01, 2015

How about Ma Bachao?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, February 1, 2015

It is very well to talk about saving our daughters and educating them, but what about Ma Bachao, saving our mothers? Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

This is a season of symbols. A woman air force officer leads the official guard of honour to welcome President Obama; contingents of women and girls march in step during the Republic Day parade; the Prime Minister launches a Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign in Haryana, the state with the worst sex ratio in the country. All of this is good. Symbols matter. But are they enough?

It is very well to talk about saving our daughters and educating them, but what about Ma Bachao, saving our mothers? For every daughter that is killed, there is a mother who is demeaned, not respected. If she accedes to the demand to abort a female foetus, it is only because she knows too well what life will be like for a daughter if she is born.

Of course, even if the daughter is not aborted before birth, and is permitted to enter this world, there is no guarantee that her mother will survive. India’s worst-kept secret is that it has the highest number of women dying during childbirth in the world. According to the latest United Nations report, an estimated 17 per cent of the 2.89 lakh women worldwide who died during childbirth in 2013 were in India. In other words, 50,000 women in a year, or 137 every day, or around 11 or 12 every hour die due to pregnancy-related health complications.

For a country that is preening and pretending to be an emerging power in the world, and whose leaders glibly rub shoulders with the most powerful, this is unacceptable. Our place in the family of nations when it comes to our mothers is in fact at the bottom. Even Nigeria, a country beset by so many problems including the brutal killings of girls, women and children by Boko Haram in its northern and eastern provinces, does better than India.

The reason for the high maternal mortality figures is not just the lack of institutional deliveries, which means ensuring that every woman who is pregnant reaches a hospital or medical facility in time. That would help and the rate of such deliveries is gradually improving although not fast enough.

The underlying cause is the persistent malnourishment and under-nourishment of millions of women, many of whom are not yet ready to go through childbirth. According to the National Family Health Survey-3, an estimated 60 per cent of women between the ages of 15 and 45 are anaemic. So even if you get such women to a hospital in time, they might not survive.

In any case, a large number of them are too young to bear children. They should have had the knowledge to protect themselves from pregnancy but know nothing about contraceptives or spacing. Even if they did, they are denied a voice, a say in whether they are ready to have a child. Also, even if such women survive childbirth, they succumb later to infections and diseases and their low birth weight children have slim chances of survival.

What is frustrating about this situation is not just this “silent epidemic”, as someone put it, of maternal deaths, but the fact that women continue to be seen mainly as baby-producing machines.
Since 1994, when India participated in the UN sponsored International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, the world community accepted that women’s health needs to be addressed not just during pregnancy but at all times. If women are healthy, they will be healthy mothers, giving birth to children with a fair chance of surviving. That is such an obvious point that it hardly bears repeating.

Yet, despite the internationally accepted concept of women’s reproductive health and rights that includes giving women the choice to have or not to have children, to decide how many, and to access health care for their other needs, women continue to be viewed principally for their ability to reproduce. And hence, whether it is people like Sakshi Maharaj urging Hindu women to produce five or more children, or so-called ‘population’ experts telling them to have fewer children, a woman is reduced to the sum of her reproductive parts.

If mothers cannot be saved, who will care for the daughters? It is easier to come up with catchy slogans than to get to the root of the malaise in our country, where women are valued only if they produce babies of the accepted gender, i.e. male, and if they do so quietly without raising their voices.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Wisdom beyond schooling

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Jan 18, 2015

Veena Devi

Veena Devi is unlettered. I use that word rather than ‘uneducated’. When I met her more than five years ago, she was the mukhiya, or sarpanch, of Loharpura panchayat in Nawada district in south Bihar. She is now in her early forties. At a time when the government had reserved half the seats in panchayats for women, Veena Devi had been elected twice from general seats.

In her first term in the panchayat, she admitted that she felt lost. She did not understand fully what was going on. One could hardly blame her for this. Married at 13 to a man much older than herself, a widower with two children, she became a mother at 15 and a widow at 17. Veena had seen more than her share of life and its sorrows even before she became a major. Going to school was nowhere on the horizon.

Yet, perhaps because she was compelled to learn in the ‘school of life’, she had a wisdom beyond her years and certainly more profound than anything taught in our schools. Without being tutored, she had a sense of what people needed, how to order priorities in terms of the use of developmental funds, and how to listen to the people who came to her with problems.

I thought of Veena Devi when I learned that the Rajasthan Government had passed an ordinance stipulating that only those who have cleared Std. VIII or X can contest panchayat or zilla parishad elections in that state. If such a law had existed in Bihar, a woman like Veena Devi would never have had a chance to contest.

The assumption behind this ordinance, promulgated without any justification of its urgency, is that because panchayats have to handle considerable developmental funds, ‘educated’ people will be more efficient and less corrupt. The assumption defies not just logic but evidence that shows that corruption certainly has no connection with levels of education. Make a list of the most corrupt people in India and the majority would be so-called ‘literate’.

My own experience of meeting women like Veena Devi has been humbling. How easily those of us with privilege and access to education think we are wiser. And yet the clarity of these women shouldering the responsibility of managing developmental funds for a panchayat remind us that reading numbers and letters, going to school or college in itself does not make you a wiser person or a better administrator. It does not automatically imbue you with a concern for other people. It does not necessarily teach you how to listen to people, how to empathise, how to understand what people are trying to tell you.

None of this means that we must not ensure that every child does go to school; that by the time she is ready to contest an election she does possess basic literacy skills. But let us not, while we wait for that to happen, cut off from our systems of governance women like Veena Devi.

The best part of the 73rd amendment that laid the grounds for elections to panchayats and reservation for women is that it has brought into governance systems over 1.5 million women, many of them poor, from the lower castes, and also often with very little schooling. And although one should not generalise, and there are many instances of such women being used by men as proxies, there are an increasing number now who understand the system and who are able to work it so that it serves the interests of the largest number of people.

Let me return to Veena Devi to illustrate what I mean. Despite the handicap of minimal education, she quickly worked out how to overcome it. For instance, when she was handed petitions, she would ask people to give her some time to get back to them. She would then get a trusted person to read and tell her the content of the petition and come to a decision.

She also had the benefit of some sympathetic higher officials, including a woman bureaucrat, and a non-governmental organisation that invested in training her and giving her sound advice. As a result, when she had to decide about the use of funds for one of the villages, she chose a scheme of installing solar lights in the public areas of the village, knowing that this would benefit women in particular. In return, people of that village expressed satisfaction with her leadership.

For every Veena Devi, there are literally thousands of other women who are providing decent governance inputs at the panchayat level. They are largely unseen; they do face problems; they could benefit from more training and from getting literacy skills. But their main qualification is their commitment and their desire to serve their community. These women do not deserve to be left out of the picture because some misguided people in Rajasthan have decided that schooling equals wisdom and honesty.