Friday, December 28, 2012

Adding to the victim's trauma

The Hoot, December 28, 2012

We have to question the media’s thirst for every detail about this woman’s condition, their invasion of privacy. Was it really necessary for the doctors to give out a daily health bulletin on live television, asks KALPANA SHARMA.
Posted/Updated Friday, Dec 28 11:05:21, 2012
Kalpana Sharma

“It’s like the life we have never existed … every day now passes in a flash”.  This was the headline in the Indian Express on December 25, 2012.  And it is a quote from the younger brother of the 23-year-old survivor of the heinous gang rape that took place on a Delhi whiteline bus on December 16, 2012. 
Since then there have been thousands of words spoken on television and written in the print media, scores of slogans shouted on the streets, especially in Delhi, by women and men, many of them young.  There is justifiable anger and anguish over what this one rape, among the daily occurrence of sexual assaults all over India, represents for the future of Indian women, not just their safety but also their lives as free individuals in a free country.

Yet in the middle of all the noise and slogans many people, including the media, appear to have forgotten that the story is also about an individual and her family, and their right to have some privacy.  The Indian Express story was an essential reality check, a reminder of how things could be, or should be, when such terrible things happen.

Put yourself in the shoes of the 19-year-old brother of this woman.  She is constantly described as a “victim”.  While she certainly was the victim of a horrendous crime, surely the more accurate description is to call her a “survivor”.  This might be just another term, but it places everything in a different perspective.

Amongst the many articles that have been written and circulated in the last 10 days, one that raised a pertinent point appeared in the American feminist journal “Off our backs”.  In the article “Male-pattern violence”, the author, Jennie Ruby asks why the media always reports that a woman has been raped but not that a man has raped a woman.  Terming it “gender dyslexia”, she writes:

“This reluctance to talk about men’s violence is widespread and seems to amount almost to a taboo. The news media report that “a woman was raped,” but never say “a man raped a woman.” Analyses of school violence talk about “kids killing kids,” ignoring the fact that it is almost exclusively boys committing the violence. Terms like “domestic violence” mask the fact that most of this violence is committed by men. Feminists and feminist organizations also fall into this pattern by using the term “violence against women.” This wording puts the focus on women as victims and hides who is perpetrating the violence. If we can’t even say who is doing most of the violence in the world, how can we hope to stop it?”
So even if nothing else changes, the media should at least have another look at the terminology it uses when reporting on such cases.

Secondly, we have to question the media’s thirst for every detail about this woman’s condition.  Was it really necessary for the panel of doctors to give out a daily health bulletin on live television?  How does this help?  Is this not feeding into voyeurism?  When a person is so critical, they waver between life and death.  There are days when there is an improvement; at other times it seems hopeless. Anyone who has had to care for a person in this condition knows how your emotions swing from hope to despair almost by the hour.  In such a situation, you do not need people constantly asking you “how is she/he?” or “what is her/his BP, pulse rate, red blood count etc etc”.  Why should anyone but the family be told all this?  Is this not a gross invasion of privacy?  What were the doctors at Safdarjung Hospital thinking when they agreed to the demand for a daily news bulletin? Surely the doctors could have told the media firmly that the girl’s privacy had to respected and that they would give information as and when the family agreed to this being made public.  Was the family even consulted before all this was done?

And fourth, let us look at why some newspapers and TV channels felt they had to give the woman a fictitious name, as if respecting her anonymity was too daunting a challenge for journalists to respect.  Hence, while Times of India has decided to call her Nirbhaya, and patted itself on the back for having picked what it deems is an appropriate name given her courage, other are variously calling her Damini, Amanat etc.  But her brother, who has to hear these names, told the Indian Express,  “It’s hard to digest that this is my sister they are talking about.”  He says the first time he saw one of these names flashing on TV, he thought the channel had got his sister’s name wrong.  He says he was furious but then someone explained to him that “it is a phenomenon known as personification.  I don’t like it, but they say she is the face of a movement.”  

Unfortunately, the young man was misinformed about the meaning of “personification” and how it is commonly used.  Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:

Anthropomorphism or personification is any attribution of human characteristics (or characteristics assumed to belong only to humans) to other animals, non-living things, phenomena, material states, objects or abstract concepts, such as organizations, governments, spirits or deities.”

Is it really that difficult to follow this story without dramatizing it further, giving the survivor a fictitious name – as if by doing that the horrific aspects of this story will become more believable.  It is astounding that responsible media persons can endorse such a decision from within these media organisations.

The survivor’s brother also told the Indian Express about the pressure put on his father to issue an appeal once violence broke out during the demonstrations at India Gate.  After this experience, his father does not want to speak to anyone in the media. “My father is scared that a wrong message has gone out.  It seems like we don’t want the protests. We are suffering so much, why should we be against the movement?  Now he has decided against speaking to the media.  There were more requests from the police, but we told them we don’t want to risk it again”, he told IE.

As I write this, the woman has been taken to Singapore for treatment and her life still hangs by a thread.  One hopes the daily health bulletins will stop and the family is allowed its right to choose what it wants to convey to the world outside.  She is their daughter/sister.  Her story might have galvanized people to come out on the street and demand changes in the law.  But that is a decision that people made; she did not and neither did her family.  The media must respect that even as the wider debate on rape, on women’s safety, on the criminal justice system and the law, and on the misogyny in Indian society continues. 

(To read the original on The Hoot's website, click here.)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

What’s wrong with Indian men?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Dec 23, 2012

No easy answers. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
No easy answers. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
This is a question more people need to talk about and not be satisfied with clichés or the usual solutions.
Another horror; another rape. This time in a moving bus; at a time of the night when people are still on the roads in Delhi; in a populated area and not some remote jungle. Each time you read news like that of the bestial gang rape of a 23-year-old para-medical student in Delhi earlier this week, your senses are numbed. What is happening to us? What is this brutality we witness all so frequently now? Can it ever stop?
I doubt if we will find a satisfactory answer in the short run. But it is a question that more people need to talk about and debate and not be satisfied with the clichés, the usual solutions or even some unusual ones.
I spent last weekend in my old school, a place where I had five happy years before completing my schooling. It is an all-girls residential school with a substantial proportion of day students. Our memories of our school days, when some of us met again after many decades, were those of the fun times, the carefree years, of a place where we felt safe and were not inhibited from expressing our views. Of course, the very fact of a compulsory school uniform imposed a level of conformism but even within that girls found ways to assert individual personalities — a tuck here, a stitch there. And hair always remained the ultimate expression of rebelliousness — refusing to be neat was the preferred statement of individualism.
All these years later, the girls in that school still wear the same school uniform but they have changed, as has the world around them. They exude the same confidence some of us did. I want to be a Cordon Bleu chef, one girl told me. Another said she wants to be a lawyer — but with the army. Another became really excited when I mentioned I was a journalist. Clearly, for these girls no career is out of reach.
Yet, reading about the Delhi incident, I thought about these young women who are on the verge of stepping out into another world, away from the relatively safe environment of an all-girls school. With modern communication and social networking, they are not as secluded as perhaps we were in our days when even contact with the boys in the school across the boundary wall was frowned upon. Today, girls have Facebook friends and are daring enough to meet them even if all they know about them is what these young men choose to put on their “profile”. I am told that often it is girls from the most conservative homes who take such bold chances and end up in all kinds of trouble.
Yet, whether it was our generation jumping the boundary wall to meet boys or this lot setting up meetings through social networking sites, the compulsions are the same. But is the world a more dangerous place today for young women than it was in our days? If so, how does one prepare them for it?
The predictable formula is to urge them always to be vigilant, to be careful, not to take unnecessary chances. Against the background of the recent spate of sexual crimes against women in Mumbai, the Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) in Mumbai, Himanshu Roy, had this to say: “The most obvious method of preventing such crimes is that women should be aware of their environment. This does not mean that they should be suspicious of all their male relatives, friends or colleagues, but it would be wrong to assume that none of these will ever harm them.” In effect, he was suggesting that the onus of preventing the crimes is really on women. Roy needs to be reminded that the job of the police and law enforcement is not to tell women what they should do, but to do their own job more effectively.
At the same time, many believe the problem will be tackled if the government, law enforcement and society at large figure out how to “protect” these girls from violence. The courts have suggested more policing, asking for plainclothes women police in malls, cinema halls and public places, with closed circuit cameras. But are women safer in a police state? Can we really “protect” women in a society where they can experience the worst forms of sexual violence inside their homes?
Furthermore, even if there are men who genuinely try and “protect” women and intervene, they do not succeed. In the Delhi incident, the girl’s male companion was mercilessly beaten and thrown out of the bus. In Mumbai, men who tried to intervene were murdered. So who will “protect” the protectors?
A male reader of these columns suggested that we should not focus exclusively on women and instead we needed to make more of an effort to understand men and what drives them to such violence. Without justifying the violence, he felt it was a combination of repression and suppression that drove Indian men to such levels of violence. He might have a point. We have not looked at Indian men, at what is happening to them, what is turning some of them into people who would be better off caged.
These are troubling questions. There are no easy answers. We can begin by debating and discussing this issue much more than we do, in our schools and colleges, in the columns of our newspapers, and in our families.
(To read the original, click here)

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Think pink

Power through the stick
Power through the stick
Arming women with sticks may not be enough to guard the Gulabi Gang from violence, but it certainly makes an impact.
She is not an easy subject to film or write about. Sampat Pal Devi, the 54-year-old self-proclaimed ‘commander-in-chief’ of the Gulabi Gang, a group of vigilante women that operate out of Uttar Pradesh’s notorious badlands of Bundelkhand, has been variously lauded as an activist, a feminist, and a pioneer of sorts. Yet, during this fortnight, when violence against women is in focus across the world, it is useful to ask whether the kind of strategies followed by Sampat Pal and her ‘gang’ can actually be sustained in a world where women experience violence on so many fronts.
A new documentary “Gulabi Gang” directed by Nishtha Jain, whose earlier film “Laxmi and me” on domestic work was outstanding, tackles this difficult subject. Sampat Pal remains the name and face of this unusual group. According to her website, the group was formed spontaneously when she witnessed a farmer in her village mercilessly beat up his wife. When she tried to intervene, the man turned around and abused her. Sampat Pal rallied a few women, went back to the man’s house, and thrashed him until he begged for mercy.
From that incident in 2006 was born the Gulabi Gang which now has a membership of 2,00,000, claims Sampat Pal. The women pay a membership fee, and are given a pink sari and a stick as a uniform. They respond to calls for help not just on violence, or dowry torture and death but also police inaction and corruption in the district administration. Their fame has spread beyond Bundelkhand, as the unique nature of their way of working is a natural media draw.
Jain’s film, however, moves beyond the celebratory prose of what has been written about the Gulabi Gang and Sampat Pal in particular. The latter, incidentally, has managed to get nationwide attention by participating for a short while in the reality show Big Boss 6. Jain’s documentary tries to be non-judgmental, recording some of the cases that the Gulabi Gang tackle and through this bringing out the many shades of grey that layer the work as well as the issues around violence against women.
For this reason alone, such documentation is important. It is much too easy to come out with pat solutions for any number of problems facing women. Empower them, educate them, make them economically self-sufficient – then they will not have to suffer violence. Yet, despite all this, we know for a fact that even educated, professional women cannot escape domestic violence or violence in the public space.
The film brings out quite effectively that even as injustice and violence bind these poor women together, prompting them to either join the Gulabi Gang or seek its help, religion, caste and class divide them. Women have many different identities and often their other associations take precedence. Thus, an active member of the Gang argues for honour killings, justifying it as a custom that is legitimate in her view. She withdraws from the gang when she finds others do not share her views.
Similarly, although it is encouraging that members of the Gulabi Gang have entered the political fray by contesting panchayat elections, many lost. Those who lost are bitter that their own gang members did not vote for them. The daughter of one such member who lost speaks bitterly in the film and wonders why her mother was persuaded to stand if the other members of the gang were not going to vote for her. Clearly, no one had explained to her that in elections, caste and community often play a much larger role than gender.
The film also highlights how the deeply ingrained custom of looking for a “leader” also affects a group like the Gulabi Gang. Even though there are other strong women who have been a part of the gang for the last six years, it is only Sampat Lal who is identified with the Gulabi Gang. And she clearly does not dislike the attention, including people touching her feet and garlanding her.
Finally, can arming women – even if it is only with sticks and not guns – really deal with the embedded issue of violence against women? The State so far seems to tolerate these women, even humour them, but clearly the systemic issues that underlie the violence, the inability of the criminal justice system to respond to the victims, and the fact that society accepts that such violence is inevitable, have not been touched.
One could argue that every effort to highlight and tackle violence against women, and all kinds of collectives of women, should be lauded because even if they cannot change everything, they do make an impact. The film shows us that even participating in the activities of the Gulabi Gang is meaningful for many of the women. The very fact that they can walk into a police station, or a district office, without fear is almost revolutionary in a region where women have no voice.
Yet, that is not enough. For even as women are finding a voice in so many ways, some of them quite unusual, the elements that perpetuate violence against women remain firmly in place.
(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A right, not a favour

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 25, 2012

The tragic death of the 31-year-old dentist Savita Halappanavar in a hospital in Galway, Ireland, on October 28 has brought the issue of women’s right to safe and legal abortion to the forefront yet again. Savita died in her first pregnancy even though she was within reach of a hospital with modern facilities and trained medical personnel. Yet, the doctors chose not to intervene because of their interpretation of the law that makes abortion illegal.
There are literally lakhs of Savitas in India who die during pregnancy either because they have no access to modern medical facilities or because doctors choose not to intervene because of the way they interpret the law. And this happens in a country where abortion has been legalised since 1971, under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act. Yet even here, although it is the right of any woman facing the kind of complications Savita did to go to a government facility and ask for an abortion, there is simply no guarantee that she will get it. Because the ultimate decision is left in the hands of doctors who can choose to interpret even this liberal law in different ways.
According to a recent study by the World Health Organisation and the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, India has the highest number of unsafe abortions in South and Central Asia. Of the 10.5 million abortions in the region, an estimated 6.5 million abortions take place in India (2008). And of these, two thirds are “unsafe abortions”, that is abortions that expose the woman to infection that could even lead to death. Although official figures cite that only 8 per cent of maternal deaths are caused by unsafe abortions, this is likely to be a gross underestimation as the link between an unsafe abortion and a maternal death is unlikely to be established in cases where health complications occur over a period of time after the abortion.
These complications include blood loss, infection and septic shock. Think of a woman in rural India who becomes pregnant but has to seek an abortion for various reasons. She is most likely to be sent to a quack for an abortion. If she then develops complications, chances of her getting to a medical facility in time are low. Even if she makes it to a primary health centre, whether she will get the treatment she needs in time is a question. But in the event of her death, it is highly improbable that the cause will be linked to the earlier episode of an abortion under unsafe conditions.
That apart, several studies in the last two decades have brought out several important aspects of women’s access to safe abortion facilities in India. For one, a substantial number of rural women are unaware that abortion is legal in India and that they can go to a government facility within 12 to 20 weeks of their pregnancy. Secondly, even if aware, they would not find such facilities as most are clustered in or around urban areas. As a result, most rural women are left with no choice but to turn to private untrained practitioners, thereby risking their lives.
Even where women can access government hospitals, they have complained of long waits, humiliation at the hands of doctors and nurses, insistence on approval of husbands even though this is not mandatory, and in the case of married women considerable pressure to undergo sterilisation after the abortion. For unmarried women, the treatment is much worse and usually results in the young woman running away and seeking some other facility.
This year, the central government appears to have woken up to this reality in India where, despite the law, women are dying from complications arising out of unsafe or incomplete abortions. It has identified 20,000 model health facilities that will provide abortion services round the clock and has prepared “Comprehensive Abortion Care” guidelines. This is a baby step in a country as large as India but it is a step forward.
The bottom line is that pregnancy is not a life-threatening condition or a disease. Women, who have the exclusive responsibility of childbirth, should not be exposed to risks that result in permanent health complications or even death. At a time when advances in science have increased longevity of the human race, it is unacceptable that millions of women in India continue to die during the course of their pregnancy or during childbirth.
Savita’s premature death should act as a wake-up call to our government too. There is no point having a liberal law if you cannot extend its reach to the women who need it; if you cannot train your doctors to understand and interpret the law keeping in mind the urgent need of the woman in front of them; if your facilities cannot provide the necessary safe and aseptic conditions that are essential; and if you fail to inform women that access to all this is their right and not a favour that a government doctor bestows on them.
(To read the original, click here.)

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Hindu, November 16, 2012


Conversations across the LoC

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TALKING PEACE: Women crossing the LoC at the Kaman Bridge on November 5. Photo: Special Arrangement
The HinduTALKING PEACE: Women crossing the LoC at the Kaman Bridge on November 5. Photo: Special Arrangement
The perception gap on the condition of women on both sides was evident at the latest intra-Kashmir dialogue
November 5, 2012. Women stood on both sides of the Line of Control on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad crossing in Kashmir. As they waited, it began to drizzle. Officials on both sides seemed to be waiting interminably for the other side to open the gates. Finally, the waiting ended and for the first time in the troubled history of Kashmir, 10 women from the Kashmir Valley, Jammu and Ladakh walked across the Kaman bridge to talk about peace with their counterparts on the other side of the LoC.
A journey that took them only a few hours was many months, almost a year in the making. Since 2007, women from both sides of the LoC had met in two Intra-Kashmir Cross-LoC Women’s Dialogues facilitated by the New Delhi-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (CDR). The first meeting was held in Srinagar, the second in Gulmarg in 2011. On both occasions, the women from across the LoC had to undertake a four-day journey across the Wagah border.
This year, the newly-formed AJK Women for Peace Organisation based in Muzaffarabad decided to hold the dialogue. The women they invited from Jammu and Kashmir insisted they would only attend if they were permitted to travel across the LoC.
What should have been a routine matter in fact took months of intense negotiation. There is a misconception on both sides of the LoC that the 2005 confidence-building measure (CBM) of opening the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar road was only to facilitate the meeting of divided families. In fact, there is no such specific reference in the agreement and it is open to Kashmir residents on either side. Yet, because of this assumption, only those wanting to visit family on the other side could seek permits.
On November 5, when the 10 women crossed over they set an important precedent that could open the way for many more intra-Kashmir dialogues.
The cynics would say, what of it if the larger political issue of Kashmir remains unsettled. Yet, a prerequisite for peace between countries and between regions must necessarily be a meeting of minds between the people. In the absence of routes of communication, how can there be any conversation that could presage peace?
This is what the three dialogues between women have been attempting. It is not as easy as it sounds. Apart from the logistical problems, there is a real perception gap.
If you say “Kashmir”, “women” and “suffering” on the Pakistan side of the LoC, the only response is the suffering of women on the Indian side. There is an automatic assumption that just because there is no conflict of the kind seen on the Indian side, women across the LoC face no problems. Indeed, even during the three-day meeting in Muzaffarabad, which still bears the scars of the devastating 2005 earthquake, this perception gap was evident.
Some of it is inevitable as there have been campaigns, studies, books and reports in abundance about the many ways in which women in Jammu and Kashmir have suffered since the beginning of militancy in 1989. In contrast, there is little by way of similar studies about the impact of conflict on women on the other side of the LoC. As a result, there is a tendency to focus entirely on women on the Indian side. And many of the demands in the consensus statement reflect this, such as a call for demilitarisation and setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The delegation from Jammu and Kashmir, however, repeatedly asked that they be informed of the situation of women on the Pakistan side of the LoC. Some information did come through but not nearly enough.
For instance, there was practically no mention of the problems women face in the Neelum valley. When Indian and Pakistani troops exchange fire — despite the 2003 ceasefire agreement, violations continue — the families in the Neelum valley bear the brunt. On the Pakistan side, this is also a poor region. Many of the men have migrated to jobs in Pakistan’s urban centres or the Gulf. The women left behind are displaced for varying periods, their isolation from the rest of the region denies them basic services such as health care, and their poverty increases their vulnerability.
There was also silence about the thousands of women who crossed over in the 1990s and live in camps or have merged with the local population. These displaced families are being given some relief according to a recent study but most of them, particularly the women, want to return to their homes in India. Only a small percentage living outside the camps did not want to go back.
Still, at the end of the three days, this difference in perception was set aside because the main issue was not comparative suffering but how to address the needs of women on both sides of the LoC.
The overwhelming demand was for easing travel and communication between the two sides, including a special appeal by the women from Baltistan, Gilgit and Ladakh for a crossing that would facilitate their travel. Almost all the women, from both sides of the LoC, had heart-rending stories to tell about the price their families have paid because of the impenetrable line dividing the region. And even as they talked of this, there was joy as two sets of cousins “discovered” each other from among the participants.
Happy experience
The most remarkable experience was that of Effat Yasmin, an economics professor from Kashmir University. During a casual conversation during a coffee break with Sajda Behar, a section officer in the education department in Muzaffarabad, she discovered that their mothers were first cousins. In fact, Sajda had applied for a permit to travel to Baramulla in 2005 and only got it this year. She is yet to make the journey.
Like Sajda’s long-pending journey, the journey to peace is complex. This might have been a women’s dialogue. Some of the issues were specific to what women experienced. But you could not escape the politics underlying the Kashmir issue. The women who talked know this and do not deny it. But they believe that they too should have a role in formulating peace because they have carried the burden of conflict.
(The writer went to the meeting in Muzaffarabad on the invitation of the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation.)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Surviving in a world of men

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 11, 2012

Women have to develop a thick skin and hit back if they are to play an effective role in Indian politics.
Winter is in the air, and so are elections. And with them, the season of loose talk and personal attacks. Narendra Modi leads the brigade with his one-liners; his verbal arrows become particularly sharp when aimed at women. His constant attacks on Sonia Gandhi are now so old hat that one can ignore them. But what of his sudden lashing out at Sunanda Tharoor, wife of Congress MP Shashi Tharoor? Some other men from his party have joined in. Does this mean this is open season to attack women, even if they are associated with male politicians?
Modi’s jibes at Sunanda Tharoor were in such poor taste that they do not even merit a discussion. But what is worth discussing today, in the light of the forthcoming Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, and a general election in the not-too-distant future, is the status of women in Indian politics.
Again, much has already been discussed about the powerful and visible women in Indian politics. Each has had a different, and specific, trajectory to the top. The factors that got her there cannot be replicated. But apart from this handful, what is happening to millions of other women who are in politics at various levels?
Ever since the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution were passed, guaranteeing one-third reservation (now 50 per cent) to women in panchayats and nagarpalikas, millions of women have been exposed to politics. Not all of them have flourished. Many remain mere tokens of their husbands. Despite their numbers, many do not attend meetings, do not have the courage to speak at meetings, and even if they do, what they say is not heeded.
But for every one woman who is a front for a man, there is at least another who has begun to understand what governance is all about. And at least half of these women should have been able to influence the process of governance at this lowest tier. That alone would add up to thousands of women spread across this country.
What happens to these women after they have had a taste of power, realising that they can be heard, that they can make a difference in their villages or towns? Do they subside once their terms are over and go back to the traditional roles ascribed to them, of being daughter, wife or mother? Or do they dream of moving up to a higher tier, perhaps to the State Assembly?
Stuck in a limbo
There is little data to establish whether women who have served several terms in panchayats, and who have been active participants, get picked up by local political parties to contest elections for the State Assemblies. If such a natural trickle-up process had begun to take place, we would have seen an increase in the representation of women in State Assemblies. Nothing of the kind has happened.
Meantime, as we know, the Women’s Reservation Bill remains stuck, having passed the Rajya Sabha last year, but moving nowhere since then. And with all the rhetoric about giving women a place in politics, there is little to show that major political parties are making any effort to recruit more women to their party ranks.
One could also ask whether the women who are in the political parties – and many of them have become visible faces on television talk shows – have any say in crucial matters in the party. Are they in the working committees, executive committees, election committees or politburos? Are their voices heard where it could actually affect the direction of the political party? If not, they remain mere telegenic faces for their parties at a time when the media has become such an important player.
So if the reality is that, barring a few exceptional women, an effective role for women in Indian politics still remains restricted, why are some men so worried that they would launch personal attacks against women who are not even in politics?
Modi’s misogyny is well known. But one has to ask whether his latest diatribe is a precursor to more such personalised attacks on women in public life. You might say that just as men have to learn to withstand such attacks, women must too. They too have to develop a thick skin. They too have to learn when to hit back and when to hold back. They have to reckon that politics is not just a full-time job – one that allows for no concessions to other commitments – but that it is a dirty game.
This is the reality that probably makes many women hesitate about taking the first step into State level or national politics. It is not as if politics at the panchayat or nagarpalika level is bereft of sexism. In fact, women mukhiyas and sarpanches have also had to face considerable violence in many States. It is possible that they realise that moving up the political ladder brings with it more of this. Yet these women are a valuable resource with their experience in grassroots politics. What a pity that entrenched misogyny and indifference to giving women a fair chance has resulted in us wasting this resource.
(To read the original, click here.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Taking on sexual harassment

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 28, 2012

  • Redefining misogyny Australian PM Julia Gillard. Photo: V.V. Krishnan
    The HinduRedefining misogyny Australian PM Julia Gillard. Photo: V.V. Krishnan
  • Gets it in the neck: Opposition leader Tony Abbot.
    APGets it in the neck: Opposition leader Tony Abbot.
It always comes as a shock to realise what good laws we have in this country and the absence of seriousness in implementing them.
You would imagine that women in powerful positions would never need to be worried about being sexually harassed at work. Or verbally abused just because they are women. India has many powerful women in politics and increasingly in the financial and corporate sectors. We hear no complaints from them, or at least they do not talk about this in public.
So when the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, recently gave a blistering speech on the floor of the House in Canberra, accusing the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbot, in no uncertain terms of misogyny, it must have come as something of a surprise to our women in politics and business. Her famous statement, which was widely viewed on YouTube, says it all. Referring to Mr Abbot, she said: “If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives; he needs a mirror.”
Is it possible that even a woman as powerful as the Prime Minister of a country can be the victim of such misogyny and much of it open, not through innuendo or behind her back? Incidentally, the Australian Prime Minister’s use of the word “misogyny” also triggered a debate on the meaning of the term. The Macquarie dictionary definition is “hatred of women”. It is now being expanded to “entrenched prejudice against women”, according to the editor of the dictionary.
Definitions apart, Ms Gillard’s speech was a reminder that the issue of sexual harassment of all women is still one that remains unaddressed, especially in this country. And here it is the Supreme Court that has stepped in to remind us. In a ruling on October 19, the SC has asked all states, union territories and regulatory bodies to set up mandatory committees where women who are harassed at work can take their complaints. This ought to have been done a long time back. Whether this particular direction of the court will be followed or not is a moot point. Many such directions on a range of issues have been given in the past and convenient excuses have always been found for not implementing them.
Lawyers not exempt
The apex court has been quite specific about what it means in its ruling in response to a petition demanding implementation of the existing guidelines against sexual harassment in the workplace, incidentally also set out by the same court in 1997. The court has noted that “there is still no proper mechanism in place to address the complaints of sexual harassment of women lawyers in Bar Associations, lady doctors and nurses in the medical clinics and nursing homes, women architects working in offices of the engineers and architects and so on and so forth”. Such a ruling will gladden the hearts of many professional women who have learnt the art of swallowing the nonsense they experience at work that is often dismissed as harmless “teasing”. Yes, “eve-teasing” is sexual harassment.
But what is odd about this latest intervention of the apex court is that, in its own premises, committees where women can go and complain have not yet been set up. When 63 women lawyers who practise in the Supreme Court filed a petition in September, asking the apex court and all the other courts under it to implement an existing law, their petition went virtually unnoticed by the media. Yet what were these women asking? That the Supreme Court and the other courts should set up committees to deal with sexual harassment as required by the law.
It should strike anyone as extraordinary that the very court that laid down what are popularly known as the Vishaka guidelines against sexual harassment, which were as good as the law until the recent bill on sexual harassment was passed by Parliament, should itself not follow it.
Apparently, the Supreme Court does have such a committee but it covers only the women in its administrative wing and not those women who practise law in that court. So in their plea, these women lawyers have said: “There is no forum in the SC, or the courts below, for women to address the issue of sexual harassment experienced by them frequently at the hands of their colleagues and persons in whose contact they come in while discharging their duties as advocates.” The important word here is “frequently”. If that is indeed the case, then the absence of such a committee is a serious lapse on the part of all courts in India.
It always comes as a shock to realise what good laws we have in this country and the absence of seriousness in implementing them. The problem is not the law. It is those who ignore it; those who break it; and those, including the government, who give it “lip service”, in the words of the Supreme Court.
(To read the original, click here.)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Just a number

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, September 14, 2012

There is an epidemic of rape in the state of Haryana. Literally. Twelve instances of rape in the last month, 367 in the first six months of this year, 733 last year. And these are only the reported ones.

The shocking news of a 16-year-old Dalit girl in the state immolating herself after she was gang-raped is not just another statistic. (She was from Jind district, where the majority of these rapes have occurred in recent weeks.) It speaks to at least two depressing realities in this sordid tale. One, that if you are a poor woman who is raped, you cannot even imagine a life where there will be justice. Second, if you are a poor woman and a Dalit, then the chances of justice are even slimmer.

The list of the recent rape cases in Haryana makes depressing reading:

Nineteen-year-old newly-married girl abducted by four men in Gohana town near Sonipat and gang raped.

Thirteen-year-old girl raped by her neighbour in Rohtak.

Fifteen-year-old mentally challenged Dalit girl raped in Rohtak.

Thirty-year-old married backward caste woman gang raped inside her house by three men with guns.

Class XI teenage girl gang raped by four men in Gohana town.

Sixteen-year-old Dalit girl gang raped in Jind district

And so on.

Marriage at 16?

In some ways Haryana is a case apart. It has one of the lowest sex ratios in India – 833 women to every 1000 men. A decade back, when data about the extent of the declining sex ratio became known, an increase in sexual assault and violence on women was predicted. But for Haryanvi women, an additional factor is the continued dominance of caste-based khap panchayats, consisting exclusively of men, who lay down the law for everyone regardless of the laws of the land. These rules include special rules for women, how they should dress, behave and exercise their rights. Only the brave or foolhardy dare to question or defy the diktat of the khaps. Even if women obey khap laws, their lives are not free of violence as is evident from the increasing incidence of rape. Incidentally, the khap suggest that rapes will decrease if girls are married off at 16, even if the law of the land makes 18 the minimum age, because then they will not ‘stray’.

Against these realities, we have to worry about all women in Haryana. But Dalit women face a dual burden, that of caste and gender. According to a report in this paper (The Hindu, September 26, 2012), a study by the organisation Navsarjan of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, revealed that there were 379 cases of atrocities against Dalit women between 2004 and 2009. Of these, 76 were cases of rape or gang rape. By early 2011, only 101 cases (26.6 per cent) or under one third, had been decided.

Clearly, Haryana is not alone when it comes to atrocities against Dalits, including Dalit women. But what has to be addressed urgently is the complete lack of any belief that the criminal justice system can work for the poor and the lower castes. It is only this type of frustration, combined with the shame that society heaps on the victims of rape instead of turning its wrath on the perpetrators, that can force a 16-year-old to end her life in one instance, and the father of another teenager who was raped to end his.

Not friendly places

There is no point in speaking in statistics. Go to any rural area practically anywhere in India and ask women whether they have the courage to go on their own to a police station to report a rape or any other crime. Nine times out of ten they will tell you that they don’t consider police stations friendly places. And this is three decades after campaigns by women’s groups led to important changes in the rape law and in the rules governing the police in their dealings with women. The only women who have been able to put these changes to effective use are those who are organised, have the backing of a collective and know what it is to fight the system instead of just despairing of it.

These recent reports of crimes against women in Haryana are just one more reminder of the contradictory trends in a so-called modernising India. On the one hand, you have technology – like mobile phones or satellite television – that is giving people, including women, the freedom to communicate and to access information even if they are unlettered. On the other hand, there is little that has changed for millions of women in rural India who continue to be burdened by the realities of daily existence without adequate water, sanitation, power, access to health or education. In addition, they have to face the growing conservatism of entrenched anti-women beliefs. And the knowledge that when they are attacked, raped or even killed, they will end up as a crime statistic with no one really caring whether there is any justice.

(To read the original, click here)