Sunday, May 26, 2013

A life they did not choose

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 26, 2013

Her insecure space. Photo: K Murali Kumar
Her insecure space. Photo: K Murali Kumar

When it comes to women, success stories are heard more easily than the voice of those who fight the odds every day.

Summer is often called the “silly season”. Nothing much happens. People go away on holidays. In Mumbai, the city where I live, the roads are a little less jammed, the trains fractionally emptier.
During these times, people in the news business welcome a scandal, something with which to fill their news hours. So spot-fixing is the flavour of this “silly season” even as the never-ending IPL season finally draws to a close. As a result, the concerns of women have slipped under the radar. Campaigns launched last year, after the December 16 gang-rape in Delhi, have ended. It is as if enough has been written and said about women and that now we can all sit back.
But can we?
I ask myself that as I pass the two women who live with their three children, two boys and a girl, on my street. Once in a while I see a man. They live, eat and sleep next to a small garbage dump. They are rag pickers. When the sweepers from the surrounding multi-storied buildings dump garbage in the large metal bin, the two women rummage through it to extract plastic, bottles, paper, cloth, tin and anything else that could be recycled and sold.
In 10 years, I have seen no improvement in their lives. They started as young, single girls. Today both are mothers with no evident male around. Yet, they laugh, scold their children, miraculously bathe them and clean them up, feed them and send them off to the local municipal school. Some like me “see” them every day, exchange smiles, a few words. To the majority of the people living in the buildings near this small dump, they are invisible. And their stories will certainly never make it to the news pages, even in this “silly season”.
We read about the crime graph climbing in our cities and women remain the principal victims. Each day there are stories about women who are violated, raped, murdered for dowry, tortured and forced to leave their marital homes, roughed up on the road, harassed in offices, schools and colleges. The two women near the garbage dump would have suffered their share of such violence. But we will never read about the daily violence of their lives.
There is also another side, one that we do read about. We know about the women who have “made it”, who have succeeded where women did not in the past. We read recently about the two women, one from Kerala and one from Kashmir, who excelled in the UPSC examinations. And many more who are topping their classes in school and college exams. The very fact that these successes are noted, and written about, underscores that these stories are not the norm but an exception. Despite the odds placed against them as women, as girls, they have “made it”.
Yet even as we celebrate these successes, we should not forget that for every girl or woman who makes it, there are many more who do not get into school, or if they do, cannot complete their education. The two women separating waste are a part of that story. The little girl who is now a member of their “family” might be able to craft another story for her life, or she might just repeat her mother’s story.
One of the reasons so many girls do not make it through school is because they are forced into early marriage. There is a law banning child marriages. No girl should be married before the age of 18. Yet, 47 per cent of Indian girls are married by the time they turn 18. And 18 per cent are married before they are 15.
On any count, this is unacceptable. Indeed, what could be crueller than to dangle the carrot of education with one hand and the stick of early marriage with the other? If the statistics are right, then almost one in every two girls in India will never know the options available if she finishes school and defers marriage. Instead, girls as young as 15 are being pulled out of school and married to men much older than them.
It is these girls, whose bodies are not yet ready to bear children, who are another statistic in the depressingly high maternal mortality rate in India. (In India, pregnancy — by no stretch of imagination a life-threatening disease — is the leading cause of death of women between the ages of 15 and 19). It is these adolescent girls who are vulnerable to contracting HIV because the men they are forced into marrying might be carriers. It is these young girls who are often victims of the worst forms of domestic violence.
We don’t hear much about this, or read about it, because we prefer not to acknowledge that this too is an Indian reality. That, among the many other lists on which India features, it is also among the top 15 countries in the world where early and forced marriages of girls take place.
So next year, summer will come around again. So will the IPL, one presumes, despite the spot-fixing. But will we begin to make a dent on this shameful back-story of millions of Indian girls being forced into a life they did not choose?
(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Cyberspace violence

Not really safe. Photo: H. Vibhu
The HinduNot really safe. Photo: H. Vibhu

Women in public life are vulnerable not just to criticism about their views but also to personal abuse.

The face and voice of Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, became familiar to viewers across India and around the world when she spoke clearly and fearlessly after the December 16, 2012, gang rape incident in Delhi. She minced no words about what this meant for Indian women and what it revealed about the state of governance.
In this time of social media and the Internet, voices such as Kavita’s are amplified. Even if the mainstream media had ignored her, she would have been heard. Today, thanks to this kind of exposure, Kavita has been recognised by many mainstream television channels as an articulate and passionate advocate for women’s rights.
Yet, such exposure through media has its down side. When you become a public persona, you lay yourself open to criticism that is often trenchant. But women are vulnerable not just to criticism about their views but to personal abuse of the kind that Kavita faced recently when she agreed to a live online chat on issues around women and violence on a well-known website. The comments should have been moderated. Instead, Kavita had to face remarks like: “Kavita, tell me where I should come and rape you using a condom” by someone called RAPIST. The comments were also in capital letters. Kavita is not the only woman who has had to face equally vile, offensive, explicit and violent comments in cyberspace.
So on the one hand, the Internet has opened the way for many more people to be heard, people who might not have found much space in mainstream media. Even women who are not political see the Internet and social media as a space where they can express themselves, where they can connect with other like-minded people, where supportive communities can be formed. Although there is little reliable data on the extent to which women use the Internet in India, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that a growing number of women are using social media. Yet, many realise that what they considered a safe place to “hangout” is actually not that secure because of the men who lurk behind anonymous identities to jointly or individually harass, taunt, threaten and basically bully women into silence.
While one can argue that this kind of violence affects only a small percentage of women — after all Internet access is still very low in this country with hardly 11 per cent penetration — it is symbolic of the larger issues that have been discussed intensely in many fora since December last year. Essentially, the basic issue is women’s right to access “public spaces”, either physical — as in parks, beaches, the street, etc or virtual — as in the Internet and social media.
When women in the public space sense that they will be targeted and attacked, for no other reason than that they are women, many choose to withdraw rather than fight it out. Even if there are laws to protect women’s rights to access these spaces, the majority of women prefer to err on the side of safety than take a chance, especially against the reality of our poorly functioning criminal justice system.
Increasing evidence is now available to show that this is being mirrored in cyberspace where women who have entered with the full faith that they would have the freedom to access this space, are now choosing to pull back rather than fight for their right. As in sexual harassment or sexual assaults, most incidents go unreported when it comes to sexist abuse or stalking in cyberspace. Women will not complain even to their friends or parents. Recent studies have revealed that the majority withdraw, close accounts on social networking sites, change email addresses and try and be invisible.
Is there a way out? Clearly, the solution is not to withdraw. As with so many other battles women have had to fight, this too will be one with which women need to engage. Some younger women are doing just that. But just as individual women cannot fight battles that have to do with societal mindsets, in this arena too the fight must be one that is collective. The Internet Democracy Project mentions one such collective with the Twitter handle #MisogynyAlert. Anyone facing harassment on the Internet can send a message to this address. Also, following Kavita Krishnan’s example, we need to “out” the abusers, compel the sites that allow such abuse to happen to do something to curb it, and figure out if there is anything that can be done with existing laws so that a legal precedent is set for others to use in the future.
The harassment and abuse in cyberspace ultimately reminds us that even as we advance technologically, even as more women and men are educated, even as more information is available through a variety of media, some things do not change. There will always be men who want to confine women to specific roles and will want to punish those women who transgress. Speaking out as a free individual, expressing strong views and even being young and carefree do not conform to the frame that patriarchy has designed for women in India.
(To read the original, click here.)