Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mothers and “motherhood”

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, January 25, 2008


In the recent Hollywood film directed by Clint Eastwood, “Changeling”, actress Angelina Jolie plays the role of Christine Collins, a telephone operator in Los Angeles, California, whose nine-year-old son, Walter, disappears while she is at work. The story, set in the 1920s, brings out not just the callousness of the police department, who refuse to investigate for 24 hours insisting that the child will turn up, but also the attitude of the police towards single mothers like Christine. When another boy is produced after a few months, and she refuses to accept that he is her son because she can clearly see that he is not, she is told by the police that she is purposely not accepting the child because she has got used to her “freedom” from motherhood. She is also accused of being a bad mother for having left her child alone in the house. In today’s America, it is unlikely that any police department would go on record with such outrageous statements even if individual policemen might still think along these lines.

The film reminds us of the constant challenge that women face as they shoulder the primary responsibility of motherhood. In our context in India, it is also a reminder that just the process of becoming mothers, of producing children, is fraught with grave risk for millions of women.

Last fortnight, several newspapers carried stories on this reality on their front pages. The unlikely stories about maternal mortality, given that such news rarely merits any serious attention from the media, was prompted by the release of UNICEF’s 2009 State of the World’s Children report. Amongst other facts, the report reminded us that 1,500 women die every day in the world due to complications arising during pregnancy and childbirth. The chances of a woman in developing countries dying before or during childbirth are 300 times greater than for a woman in an industrialised country like the U.S. Such a gap does not exist in any other social indicator.

Dismal scene

The largest number of maternal deaths in the world is in South Asia. In India alone, an estimated 1,41,000 women die each year during pregnancy or childbirth. This is a result of a variety of factors: child marriages where girls giving birth before their bodies are ready, poverty and poor nutrition that results in high levels of anaemia in pregnant women, unsafe abortions by women who are unable to access legal facilities, unattended deliveries, often in unhygienic conditions, leading to infections and complications, and unavailability of affordable healthcare post delivery to ensure that the mother and child pull through the first hours and days. One of the abiding mysteries of our country is why, when our growth rate is still reasonably high despite the global recession, is our progress so slow in ensuring that millions of women do not die in the process of something as routine as giving birth.

The solution has been known for years. The problem is the will to make it work. We also know that the solution would benefit everyone, not just women. Yet, affordable and accessible health care, for instance, has not received the thrust that is needed. Despite efforts to increase the number of women who can have trained help during delivery, one in every four women in India who was pregnant or delivered a child received absolutely no care in the last five years. The chances of such women developing complications, and even dying in the process, are extremely high.

The UNICEF report underlines the need to improve not just health delivery but many other aspects of living that would benefit the larger community. For instance, the absence of safe water and sanitation has a direct impact on poor women who are pregnant. Even if they survive the pregnancy and childbirth, they risk infection and even death because of the conditions in which they live and deliver.

The UNICEF report contains little that is not already known. But one of the important points it emphasises is the importance of creating what it calls a “supportive environment” for maternal and newborn health.

“Creating a supportive environment for maternal and newborn health requires challenging the social, economic and cultural barriers that perpetuate gender inequality and discrimination. This involves several key actions: educating women and girls and reducing the poverty they experience; protecting them from abuse, exploitation, discrimination and violence; fostering their participation and their involvement in household decision-making and economic and political life; and empowering them to demand their rights and essential services for themselves and their children. Greater involvement of men in maternal and newborn health care and in addressing gender discrimination and inequalities is also critical to establishing a supportive environment.”

Cultural issue

What this underlines is that reducing maternal mortality is not just a technical matter — that of providing enough trained help for women during delivery, or access to healthcare during pregnancy. It also means taking steps that would make our society as a whole more just and humane, where poverty will not exclude you from access to education and health, where gender will not deny you the right to participate in economic and political affairs, and where being a woman will be equivalent to being a human being who has rights and is valued by society. It is indeed ironic that in a society where “motherhood” is virtually deified, we pay so little attention to making sure that women don’t die in the process of becoming mothers.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Shantytowns of the mind

Indian Express, January 14, 2008

I have not yet seen Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s film that has picked up four Golden Globe awards. No, not even a pirated CD of it. I only watched some trailers on the net and read reviews. Like others, I wait for its release in India. Whether it now goes on to win one or several Oscars is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that the film has placed the Mumbai slum, and more specifically Dharavi, at the centre of the world’s entertainment stage.

Is that a bad thing? Remember the film City of God, the 2002 Brazilian crime drama set in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro that exposed the dark underside of the violent existence of the urban poor? It got four nominations for the Oscars and one for the Golden Globe although it did not win either. But the film, although fiction, brought home a reality that perhaps Brazilians don’t necessarily want publicized.

Another “slum film”, so to speak, was Tsotsi, set in Soweto, the large sprawling settlement outside Johannesburg in South Africa, which won several awards in 2005. Again, like City of God, through a work of fiction, the life of people in that “slum” came alive to audiences across the world.

So what about our slums – constituting half of Mumbai and more than one third of most other cities in this country? Is it a bad thing that they are now the subject of films that go on to win awards? Perhaps not. Is there only one way of looking at the life of those who live in these wretched conditions? Or is it possible to show the worst but also appreciate the difference, the grit? If an “outsider” like Boyle depicts this difference, should we celebrate? Or be critical?

Slumdog Millionaire is a story, a gripping one we are told. And if through it the world gets a peek at an India inhabited by millions of people who continue to live their lives without clean water, or sanitation, or electricity, what is the problem? After all, everyone knows that even as we concentrate on fraud at the highest level in our most “shining” sector, and write about the recession that will affect the salaried class, the majority of Indians inhabit another space without the Sensex or job security.

If the film had not won awards, been feted in the West, what would have been our response? Would we have been angry that an “outsider” has dared to make a film about our poverty? Would we have lambasted Boyle and the scriptwriter for not really understanding urban poverty? Would we have dismissed the film as silly and superficial? Possibly.

But now that will never be so because Slumdog Millionaire is a hit. And even before it opens in India, its place in cinematic history has been assured. A few critics here might well slam it. But our middle class will lap it up. It is poverty couched in romance. It doesn’t challenge our beliefs. It leaves us celebrating the “spirit” of the poor and downtrodden much as Mumbai’s “spirit” is constantly celebrated after a terror attack when the city picks itself up and gets back to work.

But Slumdog Millionaire’s success raises some deeper questions. How do we depict poverty as writers, filmmakers, journalists? Is it fair to expect us all the time to give a full, balanced, sensitive portrayal? Or is it inevitable that we write, film, for our audiences? And if, as a byproduct, people are sensitized, so be it. Also, if they are annoyed, so be it. If we are considered exploitative, so be it.

When I wrote my book on Dharavi, (Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum) I was surprised to come across many stories of people who had done well for themselves despite the system. I also found no self-pity in the people I spoke to. They did not expect charity. They knew what they needed to do. Should I not have written about such people just because the problem that Dharavi represented, that of crushing urban poverty, still remained unaddressed? By writing about these rags to riches stories, was I romanticizing poverty, taking away the edge from it, allow people’s consciences to be assuaged? Or was it my task as a writer to depict as honestly as I could both the highs and the lows of the issue of urban poverty, and of the lives of the people who told me their stories? Who was I to judge whether the story of someone who remained condemned to remain in poverty was superior to someone else who had managed to pull herself up by the boot straps and make something of her life?

In the end you realise as a writer, a journalist or a filmmaker, that the best you can do is to shine a torch, a searchlight, on an entrenched problem. But the solution will not be found merely by that illumination. For that, there are many more steps to be taken.

Slumdog Millionaire has focused its lens on the children of India’s slums through a work of fiction. What we do to change their future is the non-fiction that has yet to be written.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Making visible the invisible

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, January 11,2008

The Other Half

They sweep, they swab, they wash, they cook, they take care of our children and our pets, they look after our elderly. We see them every day. Yet they are invisible. Yes, millions of women, men and children — India’s large force of domest ic workers, or “servants” as most people call them — remain unseen, undervalued and denied rights that all workers deserve.

This is a subject to which we are forced to return every now and then. Sometimes it is a tragedy that forces us to think. Sometimes a positive development. In June 2006, when 10-year-old Sonu was sadistically tortured and killed by her employers in Mumbai, the invisible world of the domestic worker, and especially of the child worker, lay exposed in all its brutality. With the New Year, the possibility of changing the conditions of work and life of such people comes in the form of the Maharashtra Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board Bill that was passed by both houses of the legislature during the recently concluded winter session. Although the law has many shortcomings, it is important because it recognises the rights of these “invisible” workers.

Beyond legislation

Of course, laws alone cannot deal with a problem that constantly plays hide and seek. For decades, groups like the National Domestic Workers’ Movement have campaigned for recognition of domestic work as a form of labour. The diligence and persistence of such groups has resulted in some States initiating legislation. For instance, both Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have included domestic workers in the legal provisions for minimum wage. Tamil Nadu has included domestic work in the Manual Labour Act and in January 2007 set up the Domestic Workers’ Welfare Board. Kerala has taken some steps in this direction, as have Bihar and Rajasthan. The Central government has included domestic workers in provisions under the Unorganised Sector Workers’ Social Security Act that was passed in January last year. And now Maharashtra has passed its own law.

Most labour laws face the challenge of implementation but amongst the most difficult must surely be the ones linked to domestic work. To begin with, there are no clear statistics of the number of people working as paid labour in people’s homes. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), “A domestic worker is someone who carries out household work in a private household in return for wages.” The estimated number of domestic workers in India is 90 million but this is probably an underestimate as there has been no systematic study to document such workers throughout the country.

From the data that exists, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of domestic workers are women and girls. There has been considerable documentation of the abuse young girls, in particular, suffer at the hands of their employers. Sonu’s was not an exceptional story. It was just a reminder of what goes on behind many closed doors.

An estimated 20 per cent of domestic workers are children below 14 years of age. Under child labour laws, these children should not be employed. Yet those who do employ them, get around the law by claiming that they are “looking after” these children when in fact it is the children who look after them, usually with little or no pay. Such child workers slip between the cracks of labour laws as most laws cover workers over the age of 18. The Maharashtra law, for instance, addresses domestic workers between the ages of 18 and 60 who are now eligible to register themselves at district welfare boards. But what happens to those under 18?

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)