Sunday, September 27, 2015

From instruments of abuse

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Sept 27, 2015

  • Different editions of Khabar Lahariya newspapers that is published in six different local language editions in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
    Special Arrangement
    Different editions of Khabar Lahariya newspapers that is published in six different local language editions in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

They waited nine months.  Filed two FIRs and one complaint.  But the police were deaf to their appeals.  No response; no action. Suddenly, everything changed. Within two days, the problem was solved.

The lack of response is a familiar story yet there is a difference.  The protagonists in this story are a remarkable group of Dalit and Adivasi women journalists in U.P. They publish a weekly paper, Khabar Lahariya, in five local languages — Bundeli, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Hindustani and Bajjika.  In a part of India where the sex ratio is hopelessly skewed, where women confront a daily dose of violence and abuse, where female literacy clings stubbornly to levels well below the national average, where poverty and absence of opportunities breeds its special brand of despair, these women are breaking every norm.  And also setting high journalistic standards by doing what reporters are supposed to do — doggedly follow even difficult stories.

Their organisation provides no transport; instead they walk, cycle, hitch rides to places where they personally want to investigate a story.  It would be much easier to call, an established norm these days. But these women journalists of Khabar Lahariya stubbornly stick to the old-fashioned way of reporting — burning shoe leather. And the difference is evident in the accuracy and quality of their reports from the rural hinterland.

For their labours, they have received recognition.  From a paper that was viewed only as a “woman’s” paper, Khabar Lahariya is now seen as a genuine rural paper.  It covers all kinds of news including political developments. In fact, as I wrote in an earlier column (The Hindu, March 23, 2008:, mainstream journalists are now turning to these women for details, and even using their material without crediting them.

But the unsavoury side of recognition is abuse. For nine months, one man has been stalking and abusing some of these women on the phone.  He used dozens of different sim cards to call and harass different women. He would tell them things like, “Talk dirty to me else I’ll have you kidnapped and raped, many times over. Wherever you hide, I’ll find you. You and everyone in your team.” Despite complaints, the calls did not stop.  He called at all hours of the day and night to the point that some of them were terrified every time their phones rang.

The women registered their complaints and gave the cell numbers from which the calls emanated to the police and to the phone provider.  Yet nothing happened.

The nightmare ended only when another form of technology kicked in, that of social media. The Ladies Finger, a web-based portal, ran their story. (  It went “viral”.  It was posted on Facebook and Twitter.  It reached the ears of the U.P. Chief Minister.  And all of a sudden the local police woke up and arrested the man.  Without this kind of pressure, nothing would have happened.

But as Shalini, one of the coordinators told the press, “Ironically, for journalists who report on gender issues, the very process of filing complaints and visiting several police stations for repeated recording of statements turned out to be a form of harassment in itself.”

We now have to wait and watch under what provisions of the law this despicable and unrepentant man, who calls himself Nishu, is charged.  But the entire sequence of events has thrown light on many aspects of the challenges before women who are doing something different.

At least, the women journalists of Khabar Lahariya are known and have connections beyond the villages from where they report.  But think of thousands of young women who want to break out, who make tentative attempts to do something different with their lives.  When local police ignore even women like the Khabar Lahariya journalists, what hope is there for any other woman who faces similar harassment?

Then also consider the double-edged sword that is technology.  On the one hand, the mobile phone has been an instrument of tremendous empowerment, including for women.  It has given millions of people a means of communication that just did not exist for them.  But on the other, it is also the source of harassment.  

That also goes for social media.  In this and other instances, it has been successfully used to put pressure on the authorities to act.  But we also know of the increasing harassment that women writers, social activists and others face through this very channel.  Any criticism of those in power is met with an avalanche of abuse and threats. The abusers use fake identities to evade detection.  Few of them are caught or punished.

So even as we inch forward — and certainly the very existence of something like Khabar Lahariya represents progress — we are pushed back because a woman’s right to her space, her right to choose, her right to be explore the unknown, is simply not accepted.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Why do women work so hard?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Sept 13, 2015
Ahead of the International Woman's Day , Proctor and Gamble launched iconic couple Manchu Lakshmi and husband Anand Srinivasan do the laundry with Ariel -His and Her pack detergent powder in Hyderabad. Photo: P.V. Sivakumar
The Hindu
Ahead of the International Woman's Day , Proctor and Gamble launched iconic couple Manchu Lakshmi and husband Anand Srinivasan do the laundry with Ariel -His and Her pack detergent powder in Hyderabad. Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

Both ads are interesting and are attempting to be different. But are they really touching on the basic problem? Men or women should be able to operate appliances like washing machines that are designed to make domestic work less of a drudgery. Yet, does that happen? Do a random check in your neighbourhood and find out how many men, in households with washing machines, wash the clothes. I can guarantee that in the majority it will be the woman of the house, or the woman domestic help, and not the man who does this. Despite technology, certain tasks remain a woman’s work and washing clothes is one of them.
Kalpana Sharma

By setting boundaries for what women can and cannot do and what they must do, our society is increasing the burden that the majority of women already carry. What they must do are the so-called “women’s tasks” that include cleaning, caring, cooking as well as fetching — water and firewood, for instance. In rural areas, some of the most back-breaking tasks in the field are assigned to women. Yet, even as women do all this, their contribution is not counted as “work” at all.

You read headlines, like this one that I spotted in The New York Times recently asking, “Why aren’t India’s women working?” The article was only looking at paid work, and here India’s record is abysmal. In fact, according to the International Labour Organisation, in the ranking of nations, India stands 11th from the bottom in terms of female labour participation. Although the Indian economy grew steadily between 2004-11, the percentage of women in paid employment fell from 31 per cent to 24 per cent.

So, we have to worry not just about why India’s women are working so hard, but also why they cannot find work for which they are paid.

These are two sides of the same coin. Women are pushed into a relentless cycle of work because certain jobs are designated as theirs to do, irrespective of age, ill health, pregnancy or other problems.

One of these is collecting fuel to light the stove in the home. Despite all the progress our country is touted to have made, it is distressing to know that 67 per cent of India’s rural households still depend on firewood and wood chips as cooking fuel. The burden of this unfortunate statistic falls squarely on the shoulders of women. Not only do they have to fetch the firewood, they suffer the health consequences of cooking on stoves using this inefficient and polluting fuel.

In cities, poor women might not fetch firewood but collecting water is their job, apart from cleaning, caring and cooking. In addition, given the cost of living, poor women do all this in other people’s homes, as domestic help, while their middle-class sisters commute long distances to do a variety of paid jobs. But at the end of the day, the poor and not-so-poor women return to their homes and continue working.

What needs to change is this assumption that only women can do certain jobs. Why? Men cook but mostly if it is a paid job. When they come home, it is the woman who will cook. Men also work as domestics. But in their homes, the women will do all those chores. And in educated households, where both husband and wife have paid jobs and can afford domestic help and appliances that reduce the burden of housework, it is still the woman who ends up doing certain tasks.

As for the limits placed on what women can and cannot do outside their homes, some of these are crumbling. But not fast enough. For instance, while India can boast of a higher percentage of women pilots (11.7 per cent of the total of 5,100 compared to just 3 per cent in the rest of the world), the gender gap is vast in the majority of professions.

So, even if a washing machine is made simple enough for a man to use — and that indeed is funny given that men are always projected as better at handling anything mechanical — the day has yet to dawn when a man tells his wife, “Let me wash the clothes”.