Saturday, February 28, 2015

A question for Kejriwal

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 1, 2015

  • Why do women continue to be absent in AAP? Photo: R.V. Moorthy
    Why do women continue to be absent in AAP? Photo: R.V. Moorthy
  • If AAP really wants to pioneer an ‘alternative politics’ it cannot overlook the importance of gender.
    If AAP really wants to pioneer an ‘alternative politics’ it cannot overlook the importance of gender.

On February 11, a day after the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) thundered into power in Delhi, early morning walkers noted something interesting. An elderly man, dressed in kurta pajama, a garland of marigolds around his neck, a Gandhi topi and muffler and holding a jhadoo was walking in the park. He was beaming. Most who saw him smiled, laughed, shook his hand. This was in Mumbai, many miles from Delhi.

The Delhi victory sent out waves of optimism around the country even if this scenario will not be replicated elsewhere, at least not in the immediate future. Most people accept that AAP should be given a fair chance this time to demonstrate how different it is from other parties.

Yet, even as I grant that, I still have a grouse. Thirteen months ago, when AAP came to power for a brief period, I had asked why it did not consider calling itself the Aam Aurat Party, or even the Aam Insaan Party. The point I was trying to make then was that aadmi might mean every person but its use is also a reflection of the automatic assumption that terms like ‘man’ or ‘aadmi’ automatically include women.

Perhaps this question is now redundant. Yet, we must still ask why women continue to be absent in AAP. Where are the women, Arvind Kejriwal? How is it that in your cabinet, even if it is small, you could not find place for even one woman? Is making a woman the deputy speaker an adequate token towards gender balance? I think not.

The need to strive for gender balance — still a very long way off in most institutions — is because it reminds us that one half of humanity deserves representation. AAP could argue that it was so focused on winning as many seats as it could that it gave tickets to people who would win rather than ensuring that enough women got tickets. If that is the argument, then how can we assume that AAP represents ‘alternative politics’ as the wise men of the party continue to proclaim? Is this not the excuse used by most mainstream political parties to deny tickets to women?

In this respect, AAP unfortunately does not represent any kind of alternative as this is virtually the norm. Apart from Delhi, seven other states have no women in their cabinets — Telangana, Puducherry, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Nagaland, Puducherry and Mizoram further distinguish themselves by not having a single woman member of the legislative assembly.

Not surprisingly, the three states with women chief ministers — Rajasthan, West Bengal and Gujarat — have a higher percentage of women in the cabinet. The excuse that there are not enough women to choose from for the cabinet is also not sustainable because even states with a higher percentage of women MLAs do not necessarily have more women in the cabinet.

In the final analysis, does any of this really matter? Is it not more important to ensure that the people we elect — men or women — are not corrupt and are sincere in their commitment to ‘serve the people’, a promise that so ready rolls off their tongues during election campaigns? Yes, and No. Yes, because that is stating the obvious. But No because if we are a representative democracy, then all sections, including women, should play a part in governance. If first time male MLAs, or even MPs, can become cabinet ministers, what stops women from being appointed to such positions? If the attempt to have a caste balance, for instance, ensures that some men get cabinet posts, why not women?

Actually, there are no excuses. The exclusion of women is not always deliberate; it is unthinking. It happens because those who decide, usually men, fail to accept that the inherent disadvantage that the majority of women face in entering politics needs to be compensated by some amount of preferential treatment.

In time, perhaps this kind of preference will not be needed. In many countries around the world, women are now making their way as equal partners and do not need a leg-up. But in many instances, the initial space created did help.

So to come back to Arvind Kejriwal and AAP in Delhi, I accept that the huge mandate they got is a sign of people wanting change, and perhaps even a different type of politics.

Having said that, I still think if AAP really wants to pioneer an ‘alternative politics’ it cannot overlook the importance of gender. Making promises to deal with women’s safety, something that all parties do, does not address the issue. The party needs to acknowledge that a gender perspective is needed in all aspects of governance, that inclusive politics means making an effort to include women in decision-making, and that the perspective such an inclusion facilitates is good in the long run for everybody, women and men.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 15, 2015

Will technological interventions make any difference to women’s lives? Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

Fewer than a dozen hands went up when I asked a room of over 500 Mumbai college girls how many did not have a mobile phone. Given the growing belief that technology, as represented by the many functions of a mobile phone, whether it would 
aid the cause of women’s safety?
For instance, within a month of the Delhi gang rape in December 2012, a “women’s safety” app named “Nirbhaya” was launched. Since then dozens of such apps have been launched around the country. The latest is “Himmat” by the Delhi police, billed as the first integrated women’s safety app in India.

Given the increasing rate of rape and sexual assault on women, including minors, will these technological interventions make any difference to women’s lives? Delhi and Mumbai have also been promised thousands of closed-circuit cameras in public places to enhance women’s safety.

Will Indian women be safer with the government watching over them through closed-circuit cameras and through safety apps on mobile phones? I think not. For no app, no matter how smart or effective, can substitute for the many steps that need to be taken to make women feel secure. Principally, this involves changing a culture where attacking and sexually abusing women is acceptable.

Within the range of apps now available — with names like SmartShehar, VithU, BSafe, Raksha — the majority merely facilitate a quick call for help to the police and/or to relatives/friends in the event of an attack. A woman fearing an attack or when actually attacked (although how a woman surrounded by several men can grab her phone and use the app is anyone’s guess) is expected to be saved by the app. Designers of these apps are selling the belief that these apps will enhance women’s safety.

That, in fact, is the problem with the apps. For they create the illusion of safety and security without an understanding of the wider context of the persisting lack of safety for women. The conversation around them also fails to accept the reality of class. Apps are available to women with smartphones; these are owned only by 13 per cent of our total population (although there are an estimated 900 million mobile phone connections). And they exclude women without phones or with ordinary phones.

Secondly, these apps can work only if the official state machinery is responsive. Even the single numbers (103, 100) for distress calls do not produce a quick response, or indeed any response. Police apathy, whether you approach a police station or call a number, is virtually a given. Until this changes, the efficacy of any app is greatly limited.

Far more effective is to use technology not just to “protect” women, or give them an easy way to seek help, but to involve them in the process of understanding the issues of safety and danger, and become active participants. An app called SafetiPin, for instance, attempts to do that through its mapping tool. Women can pinpoint areas that they consider unsafe, put down reasons (for instance, dark corners or poor lighting) as well as seek help. An interactive app of this kind allows women to check their surroundings and also encourages them to add to the database so that others are helped. But, ultimately, even this information can make a difference only if the law enforcing machinery and city authorities act on it.

The good news is that women are using mobile technology to help themselves. There are several recent examples. The woman raped in an Uber cab in Delhi photographed the license plate of the cab on her phone, thereby assisting the police to track down the rapist. A young woman on a flight to Bhubaneswar shamed the middle-aged businessman in the seat behind her who tried to grope her by filming him, putting the clips out on YouTube and filing a complaint with the police. Well-known anti-trafficking activist Sunitha Krishnan has circulated an edited version of a shocking video of a gang rape by five men that has been on Whatsapp for some time. She has launched a Twitter campaign #ShameTheRapistCampaign urging people to find and identify the five men seen laughing away as they torture and rape a woman.

New technologies, like smartphones, are empowering and give women considerable autonomy. But in themselves, even if they are loaded with the most efficient apps, they cannot alter the reality of the dangers that women face in the public and private space. The onus should not be put on women to use such technology to keep themselves safe. Technology helps if the state does its job of dealing with crime, and society refuses to be complacent and accept sexual assault as just another crime.


Sunday, February 01, 2015

How about Ma Bachao?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, February 1, 2015

It is very well to talk about saving our daughters and educating them, but what about Ma Bachao, saving our mothers? Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

This is a season of symbols. A woman air force officer leads the official guard of honour to welcome President Obama; contingents of women and girls march in step during the Republic Day parade; the Prime Minister launches a Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign in Haryana, the state with the worst sex ratio in the country. All of this is good. Symbols matter. But are they enough?

It is very well to talk about saving our daughters and educating them, but what about Ma Bachao, saving our mothers? For every daughter that is killed, there is a mother who is demeaned, not respected. If she accedes to the demand to abort a female foetus, it is only because she knows too well what life will be like for a daughter if she is born.

Of course, even if the daughter is not aborted before birth, and is permitted to enter this world, there is no guarantee that her mother will survive. India’s worst-kept secret is that it has the highest number of women dying during childbirth in the world. According to the latest United Nations report, an estimated 17 per cent of the 2.89 lakh women worldwide who died during childbirth in 2013 were in India. In other words, 50,000 women in a year, or 137 every day, or around 11 or 12 every hour die due to pregnancy-related health complications.

For a country that is preening and pretending to be an emerging power in the world, and whose leaders glibly rub shoulders with the most powerful, this is unacceptable. Our place in the family of nations when it comes to our mothers is in fact at the bottom. Even Nigeria, a country beset by so many problems including the brutal killings of girls, women and children by Boko Haram in its northern and eastern provinces, does better than India.

The reason for the high maternal mortality figures is not just the lack of institutional deliveries, which means ensuring that every woman who is pregnant reaches a hospital or medical facility in time. That would help and the rate of such deliveries is gradually improving although not fast enough.

The underlying cause is the persistent malnourishment and under-nourishment of millions of women, many of whom are not yet ready to go through childbirth. According to the National Family Health Survey-3, an estimated 60 per cent of women between the ages of 15 and 45 are anaemic. So even if you get such women to a hospital in time, they might not survive.

In any case, a large number of them are too young to bear children. They should have had the knowledge to protect themselves from pregnancy but know nothing about contraceptives or spacing. Even if they did, they are denied a voice, a say in whether they are ready to have a child. Also, even if such women survive childbirth, they succumb later to infections and diseases and their low birth weight children have slim chances of survival.

What is frustrating about this situation is not just this “silent epidemic”, as someone put it, of maternal deaths, but the fact that women continue to be seen mainly as baby-producing machines.
Since 1994, when India participated in the UN sponsored International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, the world community accepted that women’s health needs to be addressed not just during pregnancy but at all times. If women are healthy, they will be healthy mothers, giving birth to children with a fair chance of surviving. That is such an obvious point that it hardly bears repeating.

Yet, despite the internationally accepted concept of women’s reproductive health and rights that includes giving women the choice to have or not to have children, to decide how many, and to access health care for their other needs, women continue to be viewed principally for their ability to reproduce. And hence, whether it is people like Sakshi Maharaj urging Hindu women to produce five or more children, or so-called ‘population’ experts telling them to have fewer children, a woman is reduced to the sum of her reproductive parts.

If mothers cannot be saved, who will care for the daughters? It is easier to come up with catchy slogans than to get to the root of the malaise in our country, where women are valued only if they produce babies of the accepted gender, i.e. male, and if they do so quietly without raising their voices.