Friday, January 22, 2016

To understand why job quotas for women don't go far enough, take a ride on a Mumbai train

January 22, 2016 in

Employers should recognise that women start working long before they get to the office – and continue when they get home.
Photo Credit: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
“Why aren’t India’s women working?” This was the headline of an article in the August 23 edition of The New York Times. The headline writers ought to have known better. Indian women work hard, and all the time. Yet, their work is largely not considered “work”. Only work for which you are paid is counted. And much of the work that women do is unpaid.

The premise that bringing more women into the paid workforce will help women and the Indian economy is behind policies, such as the one announced on Tuesday by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, to reserve 35% of all government jobs for women.
Kumar is not the first to take this step. Madhya Pradesh already has 30% reservation for women in government jobs, as does Gujarat at 33%. In addition, the Union home ministry sent out an advisory to all state government and union territories on August 26, 2014 on increasing women in the police to 33% of the total force.

While 33% of positions in the constable rank are reserved for women in the Central Reserve Police Force and the Central Industrial Security Force, 15% are reserved in the Border Security Force, the Sashastra Seema Bal and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. As the local police come under the state government, they are expected to fall in line and work towards increasing the number of women recruits – currently in short supply as evidenced by the Delhi Police, a force in which women comprise only 9.27%.

Discouraging factors

But while quotas are well-intentioned, they are clearly not enough. The Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women, which looked specifically at the question of increasing women’s presence in the police force, underlined the simple and rather obvious problems that need to be addressed even as the number of women recruited for these jobs increases.

In its December 17, 2014 report, the committee emphasises the need to improve the facilities available to women when it writes, “despite a spate of efforts from the Government, lack of basic amenities/rest rooms/mobile toilets is still a major problem for the women in police in many States.”
In other words, it is not enough to just recruit more women. Both government and the private sector need to ensure that the conditions at work do not dehumanise women or place an additional stress on their lives. Apart from toilets, provisions of crèches and benefits such as maternity leave should not be seen as special favours. Women enter the paid workforce on unequal terms. A paid job is in addition to the unpaid “work” that they do every day – child care, elderly care, domestic chores, among them.

There will be those who will argue against quotas for women in government jobs. Such people ought to travel by the women’s special trains at peak hour from Churchgate station in Mumbai. Here you meet women, many of them employed by the state government, who wake up at the crack of dawn every day, prepare food for their families, and then set off on their long commute to work.

At the end of the day, they use the train ride to prepare for the tasks that wait exclusively for them once they get home: cook, clean, wash and at some point sleep before the day begins again. Government jobs, with all their security and benefits, are not exactly a gravy ride if you are a lower-middle-class woman.

The other important component to increase women’s presence in the paid workforce is safety. From sexual harassment to sexual assault, women face these dangers every day as they step out to earn a living. The recent distressing case of an Accredited Social Health Activist worker in Uttar Pradesh, who committed suicide because the man who raped her threatened to release the video of the act, brings home the dangers that even those women part of government programmes face. Just having a paid job does not protect them from sexual predators.

A matter of perception

In any case, even if every state government follows the lead of Nitish Kumar and others by reserving government jobs for women, it is unlikely to make more than a tiny dent in the larger problem of getting more women in paid employment. India is close to the bottom in the list of countries when it comes to the percentage of women in paid employment or “female labour force participation” (termed FLFP). While the global average is 50%, which means every other woman is in the labour
force, in India it was 33% in 2012 and has now slipped further.

Why do we need to increase the number of women in paid employment? Is it just tokenism if employment means a double burden on them?

The most obvious significance is that a woman contributing to family income has a better chance of being treated more decently than one who does not. That, of course, is an assumption that is not always born out with the statistics which reveal that even well-educated women in good jobs are at the receiving end of domestic violence. Also, in many cases, they do not have control over the money they earn. Yet, there is change, especially in urban areas where the cost of living is inducing more women into some form of paid employment.

The larger significance of more women in the workforce is that of perception. In the last several decades, women have entered many fields that remained closed to their mothers. Rabia Futtehally, for instance, was one of the first women pilots in India. Today, out of 5,100 commercial pilots in India, 11.7% are women (the average worldwide is 3%). This has been achieved without quotas but illustrates how the opening up of new avenues for employment for women encourages more women to consider these options. And even if entrenched attitudes, which will not accept that women have capabilities and rights, do not evaporate, they are challenged.

Reserving jobs for women is one way to increase the percentage of women in paid jobs. But in the long run, neither more money, nor job security, will make a difference to women’s status unless we recognise and value the real “work” that millions of women do every day, all day.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Why Haryana CM's claim that state's sex ratio has improved is dangerous for women

On  Tuesday January 19, 2016
By claiming that the declining sex ratio can be turned around by a high-profile campaign, Khattar is trivialising an important issue.

Photo Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP
It is quite extraordinary that the chief minister of a state with the lowest sex ratio should claim that there has been a dramatic turnaround in less than a year. Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar was reported on January 16 as saying that the child sex ratio in his state had improved from 834 girls to every 1,000 boys in the 2011 census to 903 in December. He attributed this jump to the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign launch by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last January.

The sex ratio, male-female and child sex ratio (0-6 years) cannot be measured every day – unlike, say, pollution levels. It is tracked over a period of time. Changes in the sex ratio become apparent in the census, conducted once every ten years. Thus, it was with the 2001 census data that alarm bells first rang out about the extent to which the sex ratio in India was skewed in favour of males, especially in the more prosperous districts. Specifically, it is the fall in the child sex ratio that caused concern as it fell from 927 in 2001 to 919 in 2011, clearly indicating that sex selection was widely prevalent.

However, civil society groups had warned of the dangers of the declining sex ratio three decades before the 2011 census when they noticed the growing misuse of medical technology to detect and abort female foetuses. In the 1980s, the first technologies to indicate the sex of the foetus came to India. Amniocentesis, an invasive process that removes amniotic fluid from the uterus of a pregnant woman to test the sex of the foetus, was costly and not widely available. Even so, it was evident that those who could afford the test went ahead and paid for it, followed by an abortion if the foetus was found to be female.

Misusing technology

The first group to begin campaigning and drawing attention to this came up in Mumbai. The Forum Against Sex Selection exposed the misuse of amniocentesis, meant to detect abnormalities in the foetus, and demanded that this and other such technologies be banned. In fact, in the early 1980s, Mumbai’s local trains carried advertisements selling the idea of sex selective abortions at centres that provided both services, amniocentesis and abortion, under one roof.

The FASS campaign eventually led to the Maharashtra government passing a law banning sex selection technologies in 1988. But by then, the technology had changed: it become non-invasive, cheaper and easier. Sonography machines could detect the sex of the foetus much earlier than amniocentesis, making abortion safer. There were no curbs on these machines. They were small and easily portable. Sex selection spread from cities to smaller towns and even villages.

The Maharashtra law led to the central government being persuaded to take note of the dangers of the spread of this technology and in 1994, the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act 1994 was passed.

But all such laws have their limitations. It is not just a matter of checking the misuse of such technologies but stemming the demand for them. Sex selection is essentially the desire by thousands of Indian families to avoid giving birth to girls. If in the past, some communities resorted to infanticide, today technology provides a neater, easier way of getting rid of the problem – avoid giving birth to girls.

Many justify the use of sex selection by arguing that it will spare girls the tortures they will encounter later in life. It is a strange argument, for it accepts that woman in Indian society can never hope for fair treatment. Also, the fact that the better-off use sex selection clearly establishes that at root the issue is one of property and not any concern for the safety of girls or women.

Misguided measures

Not surprisingly, a law passed to give women equal rights to inherit ancestral property, the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005 went against them in places like Haryana where the status of women is low in all respects. As this article by Chander Suta Dogra points out, since the law came into effect, the desire to avoid giving birth to girls has accelerated in Haryana rather than decreased.
Ironically, many government schemes aimed at checking the decline in the sex ratio are aimed at poor people through cash transfer schemes, such as Dhan Lakshmi and Ladli, Kanyadan, even though the groups that are most likely to practice female foeticide is well above the poverty line.

Even as we accept that sex selection is a symptom of the larger problem, the implementation of the PCPNDT Act has been patchy at best and mostly indifferent. Even in Haryana, where the declining sex ratio has been the focus of many campaigns for well over a decade, only 58 FIRs had been registered under this law in the last six months. These are registered cases, not convictions. In many instances, those operating sonography machines without registering them are caught but there is no way to prove that they have been used for sex selection. Even if this law was enforced more strictly, it only deals with the technology of sex-selection when the problem is embedded in societal attitudes.

Regressive environment

In Haryana, these attitudes have a long way to go before they change. Political parties, including the BJP that has launched the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign with such fanfare, refuse to take a stand against regressive institutions like the khap panchayats that have a direct impact on the status and rights of women in that state.

Whatever the credibility of the figures recently released by the Haryana government about the improvement in the child sex ratio, the larger problem of women’s rights remains unaddressed. By claiming that something as serious as the declining sex ratio can be turned around by a campaign high on optics is to trivialise an important issue. Such boasts are not just false, they are dangerous. What they do is deny the process required to change mindsets. Even if a state has a reasonably good sex ratio, if its women are harassed, denied choice in marriage, restricted in their movement, dictated what they should wear and what they can do, can we conclude that women’s status has improved and that all girls in the future will be safe? This is the question Khattar and his colleagues need to answer.
Read the original here.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Unheard voices

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Jan 10, 2016

A note to my readers:
After a run of 22 years in The Hindu (and before that 4 years in Indian Express), this is the last column to appear in print (at least for the moment).  The Hindu's editors informed me that they were dropping it, and some other columns, to make way for "new content".  
Sadly, despite my long association with the paper, the people in-charge did not have the courtesy to call and speak to me personally about this, or to give me enough notice and finally agreed to this last column on my prompting!  On top of it, they removed the line that indicated clearly that I was stopping the column only because they wanted it and not on my own volition.

Be that as it may, I will, as I've written, continue to write about these issues, on this blog, on other digital platforms and hopefully in print.

Irom Sharmila's fast without end and her plea that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act be withdrawn has so far fallen on deaf ears. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma
The Hindu
Irom Sharmila's fast without end and her plea that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act be withdrawn has so far fallen on deaf ears. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma
This column has tried, in the 22 years that it has occupied this space, to remind us that these unheard voices need an audience. Urgently.

Voices like that of Irom Sharmila in Manipur. Her fast without end and her plea that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) be withdrawn has so far fallen on deaf ears. Sharmila continues her protest; successive governments continue to justify the imposition of AFSPA in northeastern States like Manipur and in Kashmir. And the voices of those who bear the brunt of this policy are heard only when there is an “incident”, when enough people die to be noted by the national press. And that is where the story ends.

Voices like that of Lakshmi, who lived on a Mumbai pavement for decades. Her plea that cities also belong to the urban poor, that they too are equal citizens who are guaranteed the same rights as those who live in 100-room mansions, has also fallen on deaf ears. Our cities are for people with houses, with cars, with holiday homes but not for people like Lakshmi who hold up the city and make it work. There is money for sea links, flyovers, broad roads, gleaming new airports and swanky business districts, but no money for affordable housing, potable water supply, sanitation systems that reaches the poorest.

Voices like that of Veena Devi, the mukhiya of Loharpura panchayat in Bihar’s Nawada district. She has only basic literacy skills. Yet she has managed to grasp the essentials of good governance, brought solar lighting to her village so that women feel safe, and figured out that being humane and efficient is not rocket science. There are thousands like her across India. Their voices will disappear if the law that Rajasthan and Haryana have enacted laying down minimum educational criteria for panchayat candidates, is accepted across the country.

Voices like the rural women journalists who work without fear or favour in the rough lands of Uttar Pradesh. The women who bring out Khabar Lahariya in five dialects remind us, who live in cities, that there is an India that our urban obsessed media so readily forgets. These women, trained to be journalists, set out fearlessly to expose incidents of harassment, rape, dowry and other social issues. They also cover local politics. They report, edit and produce their paper. For it they get brickbats, they face harassment, but there is also enough appreciation to keep them going. But their voices are not loud enough to drown out the ruckus that mainstream media generates on any number of issues every day.

Giving space to such voices is not something special; it is what journalism should be about. I chose ‘The Other Half’ as the title for this column because I believe that journalism should be about telling the stories that are not obvious, that don’t automatically hit you in the face. In our rush to meet deadlines, we journalists sometimes miss out on other perspectives. We fail to invest enough in listening to those who speak in quiet voices, those not quite sure about what they feel, those who appear inarticulate to the outside world.

These are often women, poor women, but also men who belong to groups so long marginalised that they have internalised the belief that their views do not count. So they never step forward and speak to you. If you are interested, or concerned, you have to seek them out and convince them you want to listen.

As we go into a new year, followed by one that stood out for growing intolerance, perhaps we should find ways of being more intolerant, but about issues other than the ones that cropped up last year.
We are too tolerant. We tolerate abysmal poverty in the midst of strident consumerism; we tolerate the infamy of millions of our citizens who continue to be discriminated against and marginalised by virtue of their caste; we tolerate unacceptable levels of violence against women within their homes and outside; we tolerate sex-selection and son-preference leading to a skewed sex ratio; we tolerate the existence of millions of undernourished and stunted children in a country where waste is becoming a symbol of prosperity and “progress”; we tolerate women dying at child-birth when this is not a life-threatening disease; we tolerate the excesses of the state in the name of “national security” even as our justice system fails to serve the powerless. The list of what we tolerate, and should not, is endless.

As I sign off on my last column in this space, let me assure the readers of The Other Half, who favoured me with sharp and useful comments through these years, that the other half of the story will continue to be told.