Thursday, August 29, 2013

Think beyond the rape

This piece was written in January 2013 soon after the Delhi gang rape.  Now that we have something to report from Mumbai of a similar nature, I found it useful reading this again.

Kalpana Sharma urges the need to engage with the deep-rooted sexism and misogyny in all aspects of Indian society

We must now move beyond sorrow and anger at the horrendous gang rape and lingering death of the 23-year-old woman in Delhi. Since December 16, this one story and its many dimensions have dominated the media.  Opinion pieces, talk shows, surveys, documentaries – we have seen, read, watched.  The horror of this hideous gang rape by six men in the national capital has finally brought to centre stage an issue that should have been a national concern much earlier.

When the 2001 census figures revealed the drastic decline in the child sex ratio, we should have woken up and asked, what is happening to this country that girls are not even being allowed to be born.  But we did not.  We dismissed talk of the consequences of this precipitous decline leading to an increase in the levels of violence against women. Yet, a decade later all those prophecies are coming true.

 When international studies indicated that too many girls were dying in India before the age of six because of socially endorsed neglect in health care and nutrition, again few were alarmed.  This was not a dramatic one-time occurrence.  It was a process that was killing off girls.  So no one noticed.  And few cared.

 There are many more processes that continue to disadvantage women from birth, onto marriage and even when they are widowed, abandoned or divorced.  But these are processes that lead to subjugation, violence and death.  So no one notices.  And few care.

 Today, women are reaping the consequences of this lack of attention to the details – by policymakers, by civil society and by the media, all those who are now worked up about the issue of rape and sexual assault against women.

 At root is the issue of patriarchy – that long word that we prefer not to mention.  It is about social systems that sanctify the superiority of the male.  It is customs and traditions that socialise women to believe that they are inferior, that they must accept a secondary position in everything.  And ones that make men believe that it is their right to dominate, to order, to demand sex and servitude from women, including from those to whom they are related.

 Even as we work to make the criminal justice system work for the survivors of sexual assaults, tighten existing laws so that the perpetrators of these crimes do not get off lightly and establish fast-track courts so that cases do not drag on until the survivor is exhausted and gives up, we must delve deeper into these societal structures that ultimately perpetuate and even endorse sexual crimes.

 Even if all these legal steps are taken, they will not suffice in reducing levels of violence until the stranglehold of patriarchy is broken.  That is no easy job.  The system has had centuries within which to perfect itself.  It has learnt how to mould itself even as society changes and ‘modernises’.  So, even as women are being encouraged to study, to pursue careers, a line is drawn:  this far and no further.  A career, yes, but only if it can fit in within the prescribed limits of a marriage.  Have your own mind and opinion on issues, but not at the cost of alienating the men in your life – your father, your bothers, and your husband.  Even if young educated women chafe at these restrictions, the majority of them fall in line.

 What greater violence could there be than to tell a young girl that she is a free bird, that she can do what she likes, and then cage her within these resilient societal structures?  The price for resisting, for being their own women, is to be confronted with forms of violence that are often not even reported.  Those that occur in a public space are noticed.  What happens within the confines of homes is never known.

 The mothers of these young women lived through this violence.  But there is a difference.  Their mothers did not demand equal rights to the public space outside the home.  Today’s young women believe they have the right.  And just that act, of stepping out with confidence, is being interpreted as their being sexually available to men.  They are challenging patriarchy.  And this is enraging those who believe that a woman is good for only set tasks – as a homemaker and as someone who provides sexual gratification, and of course male progeny, to men.  Anyone falling outside this frame should be punished.

 Grim as this sounds, there is hope – because women and men are finally talking about these issues, because the media is engaged and because policy-makers are not being allowed to make any more excuses.  Yet, after all the shouting is over, those who really want a lasting change will have to engage with the deep-rooted sexism and misogyny in all aspects of Indian society, of which gang rapes and sexual assaults are one manifestation.

(To read the original published in Thumbprint, click here)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

True victories?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 18, 2013

India's P.V. Sindhu.

PTIIndia's P.V. Sindhu.
While it’s exciting to watch women do well in sports, the difficulties they face in building a career are still daunting.
One of the most heart-warming stories last month was that of the amazing group of young women from Jharkhand who danced a jig in their red and white saris as they collected their third prize in a football tournament in Spain. Few in India would have heard of this fixture. But thanks to the Yuwa India team of girls under 14 years of age, all from tribal villages near Ranchi, the Gasteiz Cup is known. So are the faces and the stories of some of these young girls who had to overcome incredible hurdles not just to learn to play the game but to travel to Spain to participate in the tournament.

Even as we applauded the Yuwa girls, another bunch of women under 19 years of age came home with a prize. This time it was the under-19 Indian women’s hockey team that brought back the bronze medal from the Junior Hockey World Cup in Germany. And, in China, another bronze medal came India’s way, with the victory of P.V. Sindhu in the badminton World Championships.

Yet do these victories presage a change of attitude towards women and sports in this country? Will there by many more Rinki Kumaris, the 13-year-old girl from a Jharkhand tribal village who is captain of the Yuwa India team? Or is this an exceptional story that is not likely to be repeated?

While there have been several women who have excelled in individual sports, such as Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom and Sania Mirza, it is particularly gratifying that women are doing well in team sports, especially in a game like football. In my growing up years, if girls wanted to play football, they were deflected to hockey; if they wanted to play basketball, they were asked to play netball; if they preferred volleyball, they were told throw-ball was more suitable and if they liked cricket, they were advised that “Rounders” (a British game that resembles American baseball in a vague sort of way) was the appropriate game for girls.

Fortunately, girls today are not being forced into such choices and you can see them playing hockey and football, as well as basketball and volleyball and, of course, cricket. And Rounders has probably vanished from the list of team sports considered “suitable” for girls as have the exam papers printed on blue paper that were sent by sea mail from the University of Cambridge for the school-leaving examination!

Yet, the world of sports for Indian women remains one of exceptions. The number of successes is increasing each year. But the difficulties that girls and young women face if they want to build a career in sports are still daunting. These include familial and societal attitudes towards women taking part in sports. When girls are young, playing games is tolerated. Once they reach puberty, they are actively discouraged, even if they show exceptional talent. If they overcome all this and still manage to find their way into a team at the school, university, state or national level or in individual sports, the story does not end. The quality of coaching, the kind of facilities available, the travel arrangements for tournaments, the shoddy accommodation at venues and the lack of security are only some of the more obvious problems.

In addition, women in particular are confronted with the unpleasant reality of sexual harassment. The few studies on this subject indicate that this is a major downer for women. We know of the tragic case of young Ruchika Girhotra, an aspiring tennis player, who committed suicide as a result of sexual harassment. For every such story that is known, there are likely to be many more that never surface and where the sportswoman quietly withdraws.

Women in sports need not just more visibility in the media, but their problems must be tackled at many different levels. For instance, there is a huge shortage of women coaches and sports managers. Why are women not encouraged to pursue a career in sports management, or as coaches, or as referees, or as sports psychologists? If more teams like Yuwa India and the under-19 women’s hockey team keep winning, they will need more coaches and managers. And there is no reason why women should not do this job.
It is also evident that women born in poverty face special challenges. They are hands needed to work in the home and outside. If their parents fail to understand why they want to be out in a field kicking a ball, it is understandable. The only way such girls can play is if they are provided encouragement in the form of scholarships and jobs. Many young people have succeeded in getting out of poverty by excelling in a sport. But there needs to be much more of this rather than a one-off intervention like that of the idealistic young American, Franz Gastler who decided to train adolescent tribal girls to play football in Jharkhand. Such interventions need to be an integral part of the educational system.

So let’s raise two cheers for these wonderful young women who are bringing back medals but save the last cheer for the day when we see real and substantial changes in the arena of women and sports in India.

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Naturally rich

  • Containers carrying alumina from Vedanta Aluminium Ltd. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
    The HinduContainers carrying alumina from Vedanta Aluminium Ltd. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
  • At a gram sabha in Niyamgiri hills, Kalahandi district. The locals are protesting against the proposal.
    PTIAt a gram sabha in Niyamgiri hills, Kalahandi district. The locals are protesting against the proposal.

The Niyamgiri tribals’ rejection of the State Government’s plans to mine the hills for bauxite should lead to a rethink on the current notions of poverty and development.

I have never been to Niyamgiri in Odisha. But what is playing out there since July 18 is a drama that has people like me mesmerised even at this distance. For in those thickly forested hills, where under the rich and diverse plant and animal life above the soil lie valuable deposits of bauxite underneath, an environmental battle of an epic scale is being fought. On the one side are some 8,000 Dongria Kondh and other tribals, sometimes referred to as “primitive” tribes. On the other is the State of Odisha and one of the most powerful multi-national companies in the world, Vedanta. In the face of this apparent inequality, is it even possible for an outcome that favours the outnumbered minority?
Such an outcome is a very real possibility. Because from July 18 until August 19, these so-called “primitive” people — who have lived for centuries on the slopes of the Niyamgiri hills, drunk its clear waters, eaten its fruits, hunted some of its animals, grown small crops and merged with the natural resources abundant around them — have been asked to speak. A Supreme Court ruling in April this year, ordered the Odisha government to hold gramsabhas, or palli sabhas as they are called, in all the villages that would be affected by the State government’s plan to mine the hills for bauxite. While the court’s order has clearly stated that all the villages affected should be consulted, the Odisha government has cleverly chosen only 12 out of an estimated 112 villages that want to have a say. Perhaps it thought that a dozen villages could be “handled” easily.
Instead, the State government was in for a rude shock as one palli sabha after another unanimously voted against the mining project. These unlettered men and women stated without hesitation that any mining in the region would disturb what the Dongria Kondh regard as their deity, Niyamaraja. The apex court had clearly stated that this is what the palli sabhas should examine and decide upon — whether mining would impact their traditional beliefs. At the time of writing, six out of 12 have unanimously reiterated that the mining project would disturb their deity.
It has been truly inspiring to read the reports about these palli sabhas, covered in detail by Down to Earth, the environmental magazine produced by the Centre for Science and Environment ( and some mainstream media. First, the very fact that such a process of consultation is even taking place is extraordinary. It has never been done before. Second, the circumstances are particularly difficult. There are no motorable roads to many of the places where the palli sabhas are held. The district magistrate deputed to be present during the meeting has had to trek uphill through treacherous terrain for several kilometres to reach the place. That experience in itself should be transformative for people who otherwise are used to the aggrieved trekking long distances to offices in urban centres.
More than that, the unambiguous language in which people have spoken, without any fear, should stir the conscience of even the most stuck-in-the-mud bureaucratic type. Surely, no one can dictate to Gata Majhi, a woman of over 70 years from Palberi village in Kalahandi district where the fifth palli sabhawas held, when she says, “We only buy salt and kerosene from outside. Everything else we need is here. My God is spread over all these hills. No one messes with him” (reported in Down to Earth).
The palli sabhas should make all of us pause and think what we mean by “development” and “poverty”. Both these terms are linked. The poor, we are told, need development to get them out of their poverty. Yet, no one asks these so-called poor people what they think, whether they consider themselves poor, whether they want development, and if they do, of what kind.
The people living in Niyamgiri have more than once stated in clear terms that they do not want the kind of development that gouges out their precious hills, the inevitable outcome of open cast mines. They do not want roads blasted through forests that have survived as repositories of precious biodiversity. They do not want people stomping through their villages and hamlets bringing “development” of a kind they reject.
Also, do they think of themselves as poor? Not if you listen to the words of the woman quoted above or others like her. They have testified how the hills, the forests and the land, satisfy all their needs. They live by rules that ensure that no one hunts more than they need, no one cuts more trees than are needed, no one pollutes the natural springs and streams. These might be “poor” in the ways in which calculations about poverty are made by economists, but they are richer than most people in the world in their ability to live off the bounty that their natural environment provides. Of course, if you take that from them, destroy it in the name of “development”, you will succeed in making them “poor”.
So even as our media obsesses over what various world-famous economists believe is the way forward for this country, let us pause and listen to the wisdom of the people of Niyamgiri. In a world threatened every day by natural calamities that are a direct consequence of destructive “development”, the philosophy of the inhabitants of Niyamgiri takes on an urgent relevance.
(To read the original, click here.)