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.)