Sunday, May 29, 2011

Slaving for their dowry

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 29, 2011


How the global garment industry is using regressive customs in Tamil Nadu, enabling it to exploit young women workers…

Behind the smiling exterior of a fast-growing economy lie the tears and tragedies of women like these workers.


No respite: Killing working schedules...

Girls. Dowry. The two go together. No matter what you do to separate them, they somehow get conjoined, like twins that have remained connected in one body. We are told this is one of the main reasons parents don't want girls. So avoid girls.

But girls cannot, and should not, be avoided. So the government makes laws, NGOs campaign for the ‘girl child', there are special schemes and incentives for families to ensure that their daughters survive and prosper. It would be politically incorrect to do the contrary, to encourage killing girls, or to encourage dowry. At least, that is what you would conclude.

Yet, even today, dowry is being used as a bait to tempt poor families to surrender their daughters in the belief that they will return with a dowry. Extraordinary as this might sound, this is precisely what has been happening in the readymade garment industry in Tamil Nadu for over a decade.

Global chain

The readymade garment industry is global. Millions of people, the large majority women, work at different ends of the chain – from spinning the yarn, to weaving the cloth, to cutting the cloth, to sewing the garment, to finishing the garment. After this, the global end of the business kicks in as the garments are priced and sold to well-known brands across the world and supplied to retail outlets. But the price a consumer pays at one end of the chain has no relation to the amount the woman at the other end is paid.

In India, one of the major countries supplying readymade garments to the global market, some of the women at the end of the chain are girls as young as 14. And the bait held out to lure these girls, many of them from desperately poor families, is the promise of a lump sum at the end of three years that could go towards their dowries. Thus a global industry is directly reinforcing and exploiting regressive customs to get its workforce.

What is worse is that this workforce, lured in this manner, is virtually bonded. A disturbing report on the Sumangali Scheme, introduced 10 years ago by garment manufacturers in Tamil Nadu, brings this out. ‘Captured by Cotton' is a 38-page report by two Dutch organisations — SOMO (Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations) and ICN (India Committee of the Netherlands). They looked at four “vertically integrated” companies in Tamil Nadu that are part of an integrated chain that eventually supplies well-known brands retailing in the West. The reason for the investigation is because many of these brands subscribe to the idea of “sustainable chain management” that would require abiding by international labour standards. The Sumangali Scheme clearly does not conform and is, according to this report, “synonymous with unacceptable employment and labour conditions, even with bonded labour.”

What is this scheme? Recruiters are sent to the most impoverished villages in Tamil Nadu to approach families with daughters between the ages of 14 and 21. The families are told that their daughters will be well looked after for three years, will live in a hostel where they will get three meals a day and time for leisure activities. At the end of the three years, in addition to their wages, they will be given a lump sum ranging from Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 50,000. There are 120,000 girls working under this scheme in Tamil Nadu.

The proposition is extremely tempting for these poor families, of whom more than half are dalits. If indeed what is promised is delivered, one could argue that there is nothing wrong with the scheme. But the problems lies in the fine print, something poor families are unable to decipher when they sign on.

Thus, according to the report, girls working under the scheme have reported that they are made to work 12-hour-shifts, with only a five minute tea break and half hour lunch break; that when there is an urgent delivery to be made, they can be asked to work double shifts and they do not have the option to refuse; that they are not allowed to keep cell phones and can only make one phone call a month from a landline close to the supervisor's office, and that they have no place to go if they have a problem.

Inhuman conditions

At work, the girls have to stand for hours. Said one of the girls: “Workers had to get permission from the supervisor for everything, even for going to the toilet. We had a male supervisor. The supervisor was constantly scolding; he used a lot of abusive words. I didn't like his behaviour. He even hit on our heads.”

Some of these girls are either physically sick, or so tired, that they give up half way. This means the lump sum they were promised is forfeit. It is only paid if they work the entire three years.

In any case, what seems like a generous bonus is actually less than what they would have earned had they been paid the official minimum wage rate. In Tamil Nadu, the minimum wage is Rs. 171 per day. But employers have found a way around this by designating these girls as apprentices and thus paying them lower wages. Beginning with just Rs. 60 a day, the girls get paid Rs. 110 a day at the end of the three years. While the apprenticeship scheme is limited to one year in other states, in Tamil Nadu it is legal for three years.

The report contains several heart-rending accounts by girls who worked in different factories. One girl recounted how she did get the promised lump sum at the end of the three years. But by then she was so ill that she had to undergo an operation to remove the cotton balls accumulated in her stomach as a result of breathing in cotton fibres through the day every day. “During my stay at the factory, my parents arranged a marriage partner for me. I was engaged for a while but the marriage was cancelled because I couldn't pay the dowry because all the money was spent on medical expenses. I will never be able to marry because I don't have any money and I still feel sick”, she told the investigators.

Even the provision of three years work is manipulated to squeeze out the maximum number of days from the girls. The three years are broken up into 36 services, each consisting of 26 working days a month. If a girl misses even one day in a month, she has to do an additional 26 days to make up. Thus the number of days needed before you can get your money keeps increasing.

Reports like this get precious little play in our media. Yet, behind the smiling exterior of a fast-growing economy lie the tears and tragedies of women like these young garments workers.

Fortunately, this report has resulted in dialogue between the groups representing the interests of the workers and the employers. So we might well see a happier ending to this story. But this is only one story, brought to light because someone cared to look closer. There are so many more that remain hidden.

(To read the original, click on the link above)Slaving for their dowry

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Selling bodies or selling sports?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 15, 2011


Sportswomen have not only to get past traditional prejudices but also have to overcome commercial pressures to make themselves more attractive and marketable…
Photo: R. Ragu 

GIVE THEM THE CHOICE OF DRESS: Jwala Gutta (left) and Ashwini Ponappa in action.

When a 15-year-old girl from Nizamabad in Andhra Pradesh comes back with a gold medal for, of all sports, boxing, there must be reason to celebrate. In a week dominated with grim news from around the world, the success of young Nikhat Zareen in the Junior World Championships in Antalya, Turkey in the 50 kg category of boxing was like a welcome ray of sunshine.

Nikhat's story, like that of the other three women boxers from India who also won gold, is remarkable for a number of reasons. All of them — besides Nikhat there is Sarjubala Devi from Manipur, Lalenkawli from Mizoram and Minu Basmataray from Assam — have chosen to excel in a sport that is considered “unwomanly”. All of them come from modest backgrounds without the monetary backing to pursue an individual sport of any kind, leave alone boxing. Lalenkawli's parents, for instance, are farmers and she had to travel 300 km to the only training centre in Mizoram's capital, Aizawl. The others also have similar stories.

Relatively lucky

Nikhat is lucky in that her father, Jameel, is a former state-level football player and understands the pull of sports. Neither he, nor his wife Parveen, stood in Nikhat's way when, at the age of 12, she announced that she wanted to box. Her role models were two male cousins who were boxers. She was the only girl who wanted to pursue boxing. Luckily, her uncle, who was training his sons agreed to teach Nikhat. So Nikhat learned to box with the boys. On June 14 she turns 15. In the span of three short years, she has already made a name for herself.

“As a Muslim girl, it was a tough choice to make as everyone questioned what I was doing in the boxing ring,” Nikhat told a journalist. “There were almost no female boxers where I trained in Hyderabad, and I was often alienated.” But she got past this and now joins a remarkable group of Indian women boxers led by the redoubtable Mary Kom from Manipur.

Multiple obstacles

Nikhat's success throws light once again on the vexed issue of women and sports in India. It continues to be an arena of considerable neglect. Sportswomen in this country face an incredibly hard time getting past traditional prejudices about women playing sport. If they succeed, they enter a world dominated by games that men play. Women's sports receives little attention by the media or by the sports authorities compared to the money and time invested in the men. Things change if some women like Nikhat, or the women's hockey team, come back with medals from international fixtures. Fleetingly, they hog the media spotlight. But even before we get to know their names and faces, the focus turns back to the dominant sports. Between tournaments, the women go back to their jobs, usually in institutions like the Railways, and work away until the next big tournament.

Despite all this, it is remarkable that an increasing number of women are making a name for themselves in sports. Women like Saina Nehwal, who has become the face of women's badminton alongside the equally accomplished Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa. But Nikhat is more fortunate than these women in some ways. No one is telling her, yet, what she should wear when boxing. Women badminton players, on the hand, have been slapped with a “skirts only” rule by the men who head the Badminton World Federation (BWF). Why a compulsory dress code only for women players? The BWF, apparently, decided on this course following advice from the sports marketing giant, Octagon. They wanted to make the women's game more “attractive” and “marketable”.

In other words, the BWF wants women badminton players to look more attractive on court. This, they believe, will draw more eyeballs to the game. What about their skills as players? It would appear that does not matter as long as they catch the male gaze. It seems incredible that someone can seriously contemplate such a rule, and that too for these reasons.

Different reactions

Predictably, many women players have raised strong objections. As a result, the rule has been deferred by a month. Britain's leading mixed doubles player, Imogen Bankier has said, “I will fight to make sure this dated and simply sexist rule does not happen.” Several players from different countries have said that skirts will come in the way when they play and they prefer shorts. The Indian girls have not been so forthright. While Saina has said it was not an issue, Jwala has emphasised that they should be given the choice whether to wear skirts or not.

But what is really troubling about the decision is the blatant effort to use women's bodies to sell the game. And for this, the cue has been taken from women's tennis, where glamour has played a big role in drawing an audience. But there is a big difference. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) is managed independently and women players have a say in its decisions. Thus, what women wear is decided by women players and not imposed by a male club. If women tennis players choose to be seen as fashion statements, it is their choice. But it has not diminished the power of their game. Maria Sharapova might look like a model but no one can question her skill as a player. Ditto Venus Williams. While those like Anna Kournikova, who drew attention only for their looks, have fallen by the wayside because their game was not up to the mark. People come to watch good tennis, not to gawk at women players who are fashion statements.

It is tragic that at a time when more opportunities are opening up for women, they are told they must “sell” themselves, make themselves “marketable” if they want to get financial backing for their chosen sport. Men too face the pressure of finding sponsors. But they are not asked to dress in a way that shows off their well-toned bodies and attracts female fans. While it is true that there are both men and women who go to watch football, cricket or tennis matches because they find the players good-looking, surely they will not persist unless they also enjoy the game.

As the lines between commerce, entertainment and sports disappear, young women wanting to make a career in sports face tough choices. If they don't have money, they can't train the way they need to succeed. But if they concentrate on looking presentable and finding endorsements, they are likely to be dismissed as being non-serious and in it only for the glamour. The bottom-line, however, is that those who manage a sport must respect sportswomen and give them the freedom to choose how much they bend to these commercial demands. It is unacceptable that a group of men decide how they should dress on court for no other reason than to make them “marketable”.

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

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Osama is dead, long live print!

What we heard were the predictable voices, the concerted attempt to fix Pakistan’s complicity and the self-righteous tone of ‘security experts’ from India.  Indian news television still has some way to travel when dramatic developments such as Osama’s killing take place, says KALPANA SHARMA
Posted Wednesday, May 04 17:14:57, 2011

The last word on the Osama bin Laden killing has not been spoken or written yet.  Questions are flying all over the world; there is a deliberate opaqueness in the selective information released by the United States that is fueling speculation and scepticism.
In such a situation what is the role of the media? Should it try and glean as much information as it can and put it out in the public realm before it launches into airing opinions?
Indian news channels, given their past record, routinely fail to provide essential information on a development before they start bombarding viewers with opinion. The hours after President Obama announced the success of his country’s operation to kill Osama bin Laden were not very different. It is true that little information was available barring what the President had announced. It is true that Indian channels do not have reporters in Pakistan and had to depend on feeds from Pakistani channels to get the first images and information.
But surely, in this day of the Internet, it would have been possible for news desks in this country to put out cogent information about the site of the attack, Abbotabad, and piece together background that would help viewers make better sense of the story. But if you watched only television, you were left with dozens of questions unanswered. So when May 3 dawned, it was a relief to turn to the print media to fill in the gaps in information.
Of course, in the middle of all the grim business, we got a bit of entertainment. For some channels, it was not Osama who had been killed but Obama! NDTV India was the first off the mark killing off the American President and through the evening, talking heads on other channels kept slipping up on the two names, making them virtually interchangeable. The prize for doing this repeatedly should probably go to the irrepressible Arnab Goswami of Times Now who repeated his trademark command performance by inviting Pakistanis to the channel and not allowing them to speak.
But coming back to backgrounding ‘breaking stories’, most news channels fall short even though some make more of an effort than others. Here print scores and for those readers/viewers who want to go beyond the favourite talking heads on TV, the next day’s newspapers do fill in some of the gaps – which include simple facts such as who are ‘US Navy Seals’ (forces trained to operate on sea, air and land).
Thanks to Arshad Yusufzai, a freelance journalist based in Peshawar, we know from his story reproduced in Indian Express that Abbotabad is in the Hazara province of the former North West Frontier Province, now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. That the majority of the population in the district is Hazara and not the Pakhtuns with kin across the border in Afghanistan. That Hazara province has not seen the violent terror attacks experienced elsewhere in Pakistan, particularly in Punjab. That the elite Pakistan Military Academy that everyone kept referring to on TV channels as being a “stone’s throw away” from the hideout where Osama was killed is actually on the outskirts of Abbotabad in a place called Kakul. And that the locals referred to the strange mansion where Osama hid out as the “Waziristan Haveli”.
You could argue that all of this is trivia that print media is forced to report because television now hogs all the breaking news. I suggest this is value addition. It gives a perspective. It erases the black and white nature of stories and introduces tones and shades of grey. It nuances events so that our understanding of what happens is backed by history and geography and not just high drama.
A good illustration of the best you can find in print on a day when television goes berserk with the breaking news is the lead from a story filed by veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, who has interviewed Osama bin Laden more than once, in The Independent, London (May 3):
“A middle-aged non-entity, a political failure outstripped by history – by the millions of Arabs demanding freedom and democracy in the Middle East – died in Pakistan yesterday. And then the world went mad.”
In a couple of sentences, Fisk has placed the incident within the larger perspective of the Middle East, something hours of viewing television news in this country fails to provide. That perhaps is the magic of the printed word; it allows you to read again and to think.
The English language newspapers in India were on the whole full of information, based on reprints from foreign papers, and surprisingly restrained compared to the high-pitched debates on television the night before. So restrained in fact that Business Standard had the clearance of the Posco plant in Orissa as its first lead and a photograph of people gathered outside the White House as the second. In the caption to the photo Osama’s name was mentioned but nowhere in the headline.
In contrast, all the other non-business papers and the business papers carried the news as the first lead. The prize for the most original headline should probably go toDNA: Obama bins Laden.
Speaking of headlines, the American Press was a story of contrasts. The Poynter Institute, has put together the front pages of a number of American newspapers that graphically illustrate how a headline reflects the stance of a newspaper. Headlines ranging from “We got the bastard” (Philadelphia Daily News) to “Burn in Hell!” (Edmonton Sun) to “Rot in Hell” (New York Daily News) to “Got him! Vengeance at last! US nails the bastard” (New York Post), reflect the mood in the US on the night of May 2. But these are mostly tabloids; broadsheet newspapers like New York Times and others followed their traditional, low-key style even when there was such a big story. Not for them the screaming eight column headers.
Indian news television still has some way to travel when dramatic developments such as Osama’s killing take place. What we heard were the predictable voices, the concerted attempt to fix Pakistan’s complicity and the self-righteous tone of ‘security experts’ from India. What we needed at this time were some thoughtful voices from Pakistan about what these developments mean for a country that is beleaguered by the internal divisions in their society and a weak political system. Perhaps making such demands on our news channels is asking for too much. Fortunately, with a more restrained and informative print media, we do not face the danger of a convergence of the two media singing the same tune – of hysteria, of vengeance, of triumphalism. 
 (click on the link above to read the original)

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Different and able

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 1, 2011


To be a woman, and to be different or disabled is to carry a heavier baggage of discrimination and violence. Yet, there are inspiring role models…
Photo: Rajeev Bhatt 

The sky is not the limit:Deepa Malik, a paraplegic, has won national and international medals in swimming, shotput and javelin and participated in the formidable motor sport event, the Raid De Himalaya.

Two women, both widows, were beaten to death on April 18 in Ranila village, Rohtak district, Haryana. Their crime? They were suspected by Naresh Kumar, the nephew of one of the women, of having a lesbian relationship. 

According to newspaper reports, Naresh suspected the 34-year-old Suman of having an affair with his 35-year-old aunt, Shakuntala. So he dragged Suman out of her house, battered her with a stick until she fell dead and then went to his aunt's home and killed her as well.

What is it that fuels such terrible intolerance? Women are victims of violence, we know, but are women who make choices that are not the dominant ones even more vulnerable? Are women, who out of no choice of their own, disabled – physically or mentally – prone to a much greater degree of violence? And what about those who are born male but believe themselves to be female, the transgender? How do they survive in a society like ours that exhibits such high levels of intolerance for anyone who does not fit the dominant norm?

Gendered realities

These were some of the issues addressed at a recent meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal, organized by CREA ( and intriguingly titled “Count Me In”. Women who do not fit dominant societal norms are counted out, eliminated from our consciousness, virtually rendered invisible. As a result, if they are victims of violence, no one cares or even acknowledges that this is also a reality in our gendered world.

One of the more fascinating areas that the conference explored was women and disability. Much is written and discussed about disability in general. Even the census now counts the disabled. But how are disabled women treated in a country where even able women have to struggle to be recognised as human beings with equal rights?

Anita Ghai is a striking looking woman in a wheel chair. She teaches psychology in a Delhi college. In a paper on ‘(Dis)ability and exclusion', Ms. Ghai touched on a central issue concerning disabled women that we rarely address: their sexuality. It is assumed that if a woman is confined to a wheel chair, or is impaired in other ways, she is de-sexed or asexual. Can she not have sexual feelings? Can she not be the victim of sexual violence?

Ms. Ghai recounted several stories that graphically portrayed the lives of disabled women. Meena, for instance, who was afflicted by polio as a child, describes how she hated going to school because everyone called her langri (cripple). When she wanted to go to the toilet, the teacher would refuse to let her go. By the time the teacher conceded, it was too late for Meena to make it from the classroom to the toilet because of her disability. Meena had to hear taunts from the other children and could not understand why the teacher did this.

Ms. Ghai recounts other, more horrific, stories. Of disabled girls being left with male relatives in the belief that they would be ‘safe'. Instead, the girls suffered sexual abuse but were unable to talk about it. She also writes about how while disabled men are able to get ‘normal' women as wives, disabled women have no such luck. If they get married at all, it is with tremendous difficulty that a match is arranged. One woman, for instance, decided that even if marriage was not possible, she wanted to adopt a child. But when she approached an adoption agency, she was told that she was ineligible.

The conference also brought together women who have overcome all kinds of disability and refuse to get cowed down. Amongst them were the arresting Jeeja Ghosh, Head, Advocacy and Disability Studies, Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy, Kolkata. If you listen carefully, you can understand every word that Jeeja speaks. She does so with great difficulty, but also with great passion. Speaking on the issue of disability and sexuality, Jeeja pointed out that “Women with visible physical impairments, who fail to measure up to the society's standards of a perfect and beautiful body, are marked as ‘undesirable' depriving them of their feminine identity. Thus they are socialised in a culture of asexuality.” She argues that this results in ‘internalised oppression' where the disabled woman herself begins to believe this, resulting in a lowered self-esteem.

More vulnerable

Women with disabilities face greater violence not only than women in general but even compared to men with disability. Renu Addlakha of the Centre for Women's Development Studies, New Delhi, described the many types of violence that disabled women face within the family home. These include physical violence and verbal abuse from the caregivers, lack of respect and a tendency to be treated like children even when they are adults, deliberate neglect — such as not feeding them in time, or giving them medication, confinement or being kept out of view of visitors to the home, drugs added to their food to keep them quiet and if they are angry, or assert themselves, labelling them as mentally unstable.

Humbling experience

Meeting women like Jeeja, or the wonderful Kanchan Pamnani, a corporate lawyer who lost her sight gradually but has not lost her will or her determination to be independent and to fight for the rights of others like her, was humbling in more ways than one. Kanchan, for instance, has successfully fought for the sight impaired to have the right to open and operate bank accounts, something that was not permitted earlier. As a lawyer, she has looked at existing laws, those dealing with disability but also others — such as labour laws — to see if they address the issues of disability. For instance, she believes the Copyright Act needs to allow exemptions for the visually impaired who need to reprint texts in Braille, or convert them into audio books.

Being conscious of these issues forces us to accept that there are other dimensions to violence against women — mediated not just by caste, class or community but also by disability. Women who are different out of no choice of their own, as with the disabled, or because they have made a choice, as with lesbians, are also citizens of a democratic country, and therefore entitled to the rights and privileges accorded every other citizen. Our collective gaze towards them determines the extent to which we can be called a tolerant and civilised society.

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