Sunday, March 20, 2011

Theatre of violence

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 20, 2011


Nidhi Gupta's suicide reminds us yet again that violence does exist inside closed domestic spaces and continues to be shrouded by silence…
Photo: S. Subramanium 

In a minority...

A 31-year-old chartered accountant caught Mumbai's attention last week. That morning, she went about her tasks as she did every other morning. She got her two children, aged three and six, ready for school. Then, instead of going down, she took the lift up to the 18 {+t} {+h} floor of her building in a Mumbai suburb. She then climbed up one floor to the terrace. There she carefully placed the school bags on the floor, and one after another flung her children down 19 floors to their deaths. Even before they died, she also took the plunge.

Nidhi Gupta's suicide has shocked people. But it has also forced us to ask a number of questions. Why would a professional woman, who also taught on the side, kill her children and herself? What drove her to take such a drastic decision? Her father believes she was tortured in her marital home where she lived as part of a joint family. But even if that was true, how is it that an educated woman could not think of another alternative? Did she not know that the law now provides options to those who are victims of domestic violence? Was there no one in whom she could confide? Did her parents turn a deaf ear to her story while she was alive? Did they tell her to ‘adjust', as do most Indian parents?

Grim reminder

We might never know the truth about Nidhi's suicide even as fingers are being pointed at her husband and her in-laws. But her death reminds us yet again of the theatre of violence against women that exists behind closed doors, inside the four walls of what should be a secure place, the home. It also speaks, yet again, of the silence that surrounds such violence, the reluctance of women to talk about it, the pressure on them constantly to accept, to adjust, and even to internalise the violence.

In India, the National Family Health Survey established in its very first report the extent to which domestic violence presented a real health hazard for women. Over 50 per cent of women reported experiencing some form of violence in their homes, often leading to injury, sometimes even to death.

The National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB) notes that there has been a 10 per cent increase in one particular crime against women between 2008-09, and that is torture and cruelty by husband and family.

To add to all this available data comes a survey by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Instituto Promundo, titled ‘International Men and Gender Equality Survey', which throws an interesting light on Indian men's attitude towards gender equality. Based on questions asked of 8,000 men and 3,500 women in six developing countries – Brazil, Chile, Croatia, India, Mexico and Rwanda – the three-year study looked at attitudes among men and boys in the age group 18-59.

Of relevance in the context of domestic violence was the finding that 68 per cent of Indian men believed that women should tolerate domestic violence in order to keep the family together and 65 per cent said that there were times when a woman deserved to be beaten.

Behind the times

Indian men stood out in other ways in the survey. For instance, 40 per cent of them believed that it was the woman's responsibility to avoid getting pregnant and 47 per cent said they would be outraged if the wife asked them to use a condom.

Wait. There is more. Only 16 per cent of Indian men shared household chores with women compared to around 50 per cent in the other countries. Also, while 87-90 per cent of the men in the other countries in the survey were supportive of gender equality, the exception was India.

Indian men were also the exception in displaying high levels of homophobia. For instance, 92 per cent of the Indian men surveyed said they would be ashamed of having a gay son and 89 per cent said that they felt uncomfortable in the company of gay men.

Not surprisingly, Indian men were at the bottom of the ‘gender equitable scale' with only 17 per cent of the men surveyed qualifying as being ‘highly equitable' in their attitudes.

None of this information is particularly remarkable. There is enough evidence all around us that illustrates what this survey documents. But incidents, such as that of Nidhi Gupta's suicide, force us to ask what can be done to change attitudes.

Changing mindsets

It has become increasingly evident that laws alone do not change attitudes. The Domestic Violence Act 2005 was the result of campaigning by women's groups who argued that a specific law of this nature was needed. Yet, even women who know of the law do not use it. And millions of women do not even know about it.

Even if the campaigns to inform women about their rights under the law succeed, and large numbers of Indian women come to realise that they need not accept violence in their homes, will that bring about a change in the situation? Going by current evidence, it is unlikely. Because essentially, what needs to change are the attitudes and mindsets of Indian men. Until these change, until Indian men accept women as equal human beings, deserving of the same rights and privileges as them, stories like Nidhi Gupta's might continue to be repeated and shock and shame our sensibilities.

(To read the original, click on the link above)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Women’s Day circus

Superficial treatment by media of issues pertaining to women marked yet another Women’s Day. Bringing Bollywood into the talk shows on the occasion was one indicator of this. The media has run out of ideas on women’s concerns, writes KALPANA SHARMA
Posted Saturday, Mar 12 18:58:33, 2011

Kalpana Sharma
International Women’s Day, March 8, saw the predictable media feeding frenzy. From print advertisements that focused on weight loss, including corrective surgery, and fairness products (size and colour matters, we are repeatedly told) to television discussions on women’s safety, the advertisements, articles and talk shows, Indian women and their status was the talk of the day. But the content was typically limited and incomplete.  The media had decided that Indian women lived in metros, were concerned above all about safety in public spaces, were facing major health problems, including body weight and shape but were generally better off today than ever in the past.
The fate of the majority of Indian women did not feature in most of the discussions or celebrations.  That over half the population of Indian women is anaemic; that the maternal mortality rate – that is women dying due to something that is not a life-threatening condition – is at least 250 per every 100,000 live births; that every 54 minutes a woman is sexually assaulted; that every 66 minutes a woman is burned for dowry. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 8,383 dowry deaths in 2009, an increase of 2.6 per cent over the previous year, 25,741 reported rape cases, 89,546 cases of cruelty by husbands or members of family.  Of the rape cases, over 11 per cent of the victims were girls under the age of 15.  Yes, these too are Indian women.  But you would not have known it had you glanced through the Indian print media or watched television debates and discussions.
A woman being shot in broad daylight outside her college in Delhi sparked off, understandably, a discussion on women’s safety onNDTV.  But the discussion was defined only in terms of the urban middle class woman. To give expert comment were the Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit, actor Shabana Azmi and then inexplicably, Kareena Kapoor.  Why Kareena Kapoor?  What are her concerns about women, or about women’s safety?  Have we ever heard her make any statement concerning the condition and fate of millions of women in this country?
To her credit, the actor did not pretend to be a concerned citizen.  Her concern about safety extended to the fact that her niece was not allowed to go down alone in the building compound. Her world was clearly far removed from the one that the young women in the audience inhabited.
CNN-IBN did little better with a predictable panel, including the redoubtable Madhu Kishwar, once known as the person to launch India’s first feminist journal in India and now seen often on television distancing herself from feminism with statements like, “I don’t know anything about patriarchy-shatriarchy!”  She was speaking in the context of a recent survey by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) that found that 65 per cent of the Indian men surveyed thought women should tolerate domestic violence. Here again, we had a Bollywood persona, Pooja Bedi, on the panel. 
Why are TV channels turning to Bollywood for everything, even issues on which the people invited have no position or opinion?  Can this really help in TRPs?
In contrast to Bollywood, Hollywood does have several actors who have openly espoused causes.  Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon and Angelina Jolie amongst the women and George Clooney, Tim Robbins, Matt Damon, Sean Penn amongst male actors.  If any of these actors are called to discussions on issues, one can understand.  George Clooney campaigned for Americans, and indeed the world, to wake up to the crisis in Dafur.  Jane Fonda stuck her neck out during the Vietnam War and since then has been outspoken on issues such as violence against women.  Do we have any equivalents in India barring Shabana Azmi, who hardly acts in any films now, and Nandita Das, who has taken a break from acting?  So,why Bollywood?
The media has run out of ideas on women’s concerns, it would seem.  Even the world of advertising cannot find any new products to promote on Women’s Day.  In previous years, March 8 was marked with special advertising supplements in almost every newspaper. 
What this actually illustrates is the increasing distance between mainstream media and the reality of India.  The bubble of celebrity and consumerism has become a permanent cocoon, something that obscures the world outside and limits the options inside.  As a result, the same tired faces are seen on TV discussions and debates, repeating what has been said before.  The expectation that Bollywood will add spice falls flat because the Bollywood community has little to say on issues of real concern.  Instead of realising this and breaking out of this cocoon, the circus of talking heads continues unheeded.
(To read the original, click on the link above)

Sunday, March 06, 2011

A tale of contrasts

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 6, 2011


Are women better off today, or worse off? The answers, like most things in India today, are contradictory.

We should not delude ourselves into believing that a few women making it to the top ... means that Indian women have overcome all barriers.

Flying high: Sub Lieutenants Seema Rani Sarma and Ambica Hooda, the Navy's first airborne tacticians.

On February 26, the front pages of many newspapers carried a report about a man who delayed a Delhi-Mumbai flight because he did not want to be flown by a woman pilot. After everyone had boarded, and the plane was ready to take off, he heard during the routine announcements made before take-off, the name of the captain. It was a woman! He was adamant that he wanted to get off and reportedly told a fellow passenger, “I don't want to die! She can't handle her home, how will she handle a plane.”

The drama ended after several hours when the passenger was persuaded to apologise to the woman pilot and to the women on the crew. The airline explained that the passenger was of “unsound mind”.

Shared perception?

So we can laugh it off. A cranky passenger holds up a flight. Does that mean the majority of men fear for their lives if a woman is piloting a plane? Probably not. Yet, do men secretly ask the same question: Can she really handle a plane, a business, a bank, the stock market, a newspaper, a TV channel, the defence department, the police etc etc?

In this day of political correctness, few voice such apprehensions openly. There are always the exceptions. Like Maharashtra Industries Minister Narayan Rane. Speaking at a seminar on women and politics in Mumbai on February 24, Rane took the bull by the horns and stated his position: “It's all very well to demand women's quotas in politics but take care of the house and children first,” he reportedly told his largely female audience. “That is our sanskriti and that is what I believe.” Not a hint of political correctness there. Yet, is the minister exceptional in having such views, that women should abide by our ‘ sanskriti' first and then worry about things like political participation, or is he echoing the thoughts of the majority of men in this country?

In the context of March 8, International Women's Day, we do have to ask these questions. Are Indian women better off today, or worse off? Has there been change, or do we still have a long way to go? Have mindsets and perceptions about women's role, their status, their worth to society changed or does it largely remain the same?
Just as India's economic growth story is one of contrasts and contradictions, so too is that of women's status in India.

On February 28, even as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee was reading the budget in Parliament, the last day of the census exercise ended. For three weeks, 2.7 million enumerators have collected data on our 1.2 billion people. It is being called the biggest census ever attempted anywhere in the world.

For Indian women, the census data holds a special significance. In 2003, the results of the 2001 census were made public. And one of the more shocking statistics that emerged was the male-female ratio. It shook up policy makers and those fighting for women's rights. For, despite economic growth, health programmes, specific mother and child programmes, the sex ratio in the zero to six years group was heavily skewed in favour of boys. Girls were either not being born, or were dying before they reached the age of six.

The story of entrenched son-preference leading to the misuse of technology for sex-selection is now well known. But it was the 2001 census that gave us the real picture, the actual numbers. Will the 2011 census indicate an improvement, or a further decline? We will have to wait until 2013 for that.


In the meantime, there is always news that defies the logic of sex selection and the declining sex ratio. Haryana, the state with one of the lowest ratios of women to men, has been producing a slew of remarkable women athletes. They shone not just during the Commonwealth and Asian games last year but just last week the Haryana women's hockey team came away with a gold medal in the recently concluded National games. How is this happening? Are Haryanvis finally valuing their women more than they did in the past?

Admittedly, these visible signs of change do not represent the whole story. We should not delude ourselves into believing that a few women making it to the top in the world of sport, business, media, or any other arena where women were formerly not noticed, means that Indian women have overcome all barriers. It is also true that the signs of change are more visible in urban areas where you now see women everywhere – even at the on-going World Cup matches as never before.

Just as the census figures will finally confirm whether the efforts to make a dent on son-preference are allowing more girls to be born and to survive their first six years, the latest report by UNICEF on the State of the World's Children reminds us of the distance still to be travelled.

Focusing this time on adolescents (15-19 years), UNICEF's data is not reassuring. It covers the estimated 243 million adolescents in India and points out that 56 per cent of adolescent girls in India are anaemic, that 30 per cent of them are married, and that three out of five women in the age group 20-49 were also married as adolescents. Despite the ban on child marriage, 29 per cent of adolescent girls in urban areas, and 56 per cent in rural areas are married before they turn 18. Worse still, the data reveals that one in five women in the age group 20-49 years had given birth before they turned 18.

Read together, this means that millions of girls, who are underweight and anaemic, become wives and mothers before their bodies are ready to bear children. And these are the women who then form part of the depressing statistic of maternal deaths in this country.

Such data does not discount the real victory of the Haryana girls on the sports field. The media, in its constant effort to appear celebratory about India, tends to discount one reality while overplaying the other. But both are part of the same story, one that indicates some success and many failures.

(To read the original, click on the link above)