India’s worrying surge in child brides

The spike in child marriage, a side-effect of the pandemic, threatens to reverse gains by years of activism. But a government proposal to raise minimum age to 21 for girls is not going to solve the problem, I write in Hindustan Times

Photo courtesy: TheBetterIndia

Gita got married when she was 12 but, like most married girls in her village in Rajasthan, continued to live with her parents and go to school. Her gauna — a ceremony when the bride moves to her marital home — would happen years later. But when the lockdown began, her family decided it was time. Gita, on the verge of completing secondary school, was dispatched to her husband’s home. When she left, three other girls from her village had their gaunas too.

The surge in child marriage is an unanticipated side-effect of the pandemic.

Between March and May, Childline India, an organisation helping children in distress, intervened in 5,333 such marriages. “Given that there was a lockdown and no events, no movement and no mobility, the number is very high,” a Childline official explained. When the lockdown eased in June and July, child marriages spiked, marking a 17% increase over the previous year.

There’s a strong correlation between Covid-19 and child marriage.

India’s one million strong fighting force of women

India’s army of community health workers, the one million Asha workers and 1.3 million anganwadi workers, are invisibilised despite the critical role they play in fighting Covid-19

Courtesy: Behanbox

Sunita Rani knows the meaning of hard work. As an Asha — the acronym stands for accredited social health activist — her days used to start at 7 am: distributing supplements to pregnant women, taking them for check-ups and to give birth in hospitals, tracking their children’s weight and vaccination records, even advising young wives about contraception.

“You had to be on call day and night. You never knew when you would be needed,” she said on the phone from Sonepat, Haryana.

Then coronavirus struck and ‘hard work’ took on a whole new meaning.

Since March, Sunita has completed 11 rounds of interviews and data collection among the 1,000-odd people under her care. Under a scorching sun she walked up to five km a day, telling people to stay home, documenting the elderly and the sick, monitoring for symptoms, checking on those who needed medicines for conditions like diabetes or tuberculosis.

How Indian courts define a married woman’s place

In defining ‘cruelty’ in divorce cases—wives who don’t wear a mangalsutra or prioritise careers or want to live separately from their in-laws or do not make tea—Indian courts often fall back on stereotypes of the role of wives in marriage. My report with Surbhi Karwa for Article14.

Illustration: Tara Anand for Article14

Momita was visiting her grandmother at 7 pm on 13 January 2018 when Alamin Miah dropped by and asked her to step outside. Then, he threw acid on her face. The attack left her with third-degree burns on her forehead and eyelids and second-degree deep burns on her face and right shoulder. The damage and disfigurement are permanent.

Alamin Miah is Momita’s husband.

They had married in March 2017 but within days Alamin began beating Momita for failing to bring a dowry of Rs 10,000. Five months later, he dropped her off at her father’s house. When he changed his mind some weeks later and asked her to return, she refused.

A sessions judge gave Alamin the maximum sentence under the law against acid violence: imprisonment for life and a Rs 100,000 fine payable to Momita. For violating section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, he was sentenced to another three years in jail with an additional Rs 5,000 fine.

Alamin appealed against the decision. On 20 July 2020, a two-judge bench of the Tripura High Court reduced the sentence, citing Momita’s refusal to return to her matrimonial home, the same home where she was being beaten by her husband, as a mitigating factor.

The judges found Momita’s testimony about the acid attack “cogent and consistent”. Yet, they observed, “His reluctant wife was not willing to reunite with him which might have caused a sense of frustration…we cannot overlook this mitigating circumstance.”

Alamin’s sentence was reduced from life to 10 years, the minimum under the law. The fine payable to his wife was also brought down from Rs one lakh to Rs 25,000.

Sex work in the time of Covid-19

The lockdown and social distancing measures have pushed India’s sex workers to the edge

Pic courtesy: International Women’s Health Coalition/Creative Commons

In March, Jayashree Patil learned that she had been accepted to a nine-month leadership training programme in Washington, D.C. She had every reason to be proud. It was a competitive programme and she had completed her schooling under extremely challenging circumstances.

Then coronavirus paralysed the world, and the training programme was deferred by a year.

Jayashree, the daughter of a sex worker born and raised in Mumbai’s red-light district, Kamathipura, was devastated. “I can’t wait for a year,” she told me on the phone. It would mean putting on hold her plans to complete her B.A. “Next year I’ll be in university. I won’t be able to take nine months off.’’

Rules of engagement

Netflix’s new show, Indian Matchmaking is regressive, but not more than the patriarchy that governs the rules of marriage.

Sima Aunty, everybody’s favourite matchmaker, in a still from the Netflix show.

One critic calls it “this year’s scariest horror show about arranged marriages”. And on social media, there is a raging storm over sexism, casteism, colourism and a range of other isms.

As Netflix’s eight-episode reality show, Indian Matchmaking kicks off, the conversation about the business of arranged marriages has gathered pace.

Indian Matchmaking doesn’t claim to wear a reformist cloak. Executive producer Smriti Mundhra calls it an “unscripted, fun, crazy, light look on the surface of the Indian marriage industrial complex.” It’s an industry that places a premium on women who are fair, tall, “slim-trim”, and, above all, “flexible”. Families must be “respectable”. After all, alliances are not between individuals, but families. One eager mum tells her son she’s looking for “someone to take care of you”. The son, no surprise, is looking for someone like mummy.

And yet, Indian Matchmaking underplays the seedier underbelly of the marriage market. Dowry, for instance, is excised from the show. And non-conforming clients include a single mom as well as a Catholic man who says he’s open to meeting women from other religions. In one case, the match-maker introduces a woman who is seven years older than her prospective groom.

As alleged rapists roam free, gang-rape survivor is sent to jail

A traumatised gang-rape survivor who raised her voice in a Bihar district court and asked for two social workers–they helped her complain to police–while recording her statement was arrested along with the two social workers. With the district under lockdown, it is anybody’s guess when she will be released.

Image courtesy: Aasawari Kulkarni/Feminism in India

Two weeks after a Karnataka High Court judge observed that falling asleep after rape was “unbecoming of an Indian woman”, a judge at the Araria District Court in Bihar has sent a gangrape survivor to jail.

“Sending to prison a woman who has been raped will have a chilling effect on women as a class. It impedes access to justice”, Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover said. “With the arrest and imprisonment, the rape survivor’s worst fears have come true and reinforce the hesitation and apprehension that women have in approaching the criminal justice system.”  

Recording a statement made by a 22-year-old woman four days after being gang-raped by four men–none of whom have as yet been arrested–district judge Mustafa Shahi sent the rape survivor along with two social workers who had accompanied her to jail. 

The three are at present lodged at Dalsinghsarai jail in Samastipur district, some 240 km from Araria where the rape is alleged to have taken place and where the survivor lives. 

Word play

Gendered language has its roots in sexism. It invisiblises women, reinforces bias and can cause real harm.

Last week, my friend Kanta Singh took issue with a retired bureaucrat for his tweet on how civil servants must “evolve in a manner that those who want to corrupt him aren’t able to muster the courage to do so. His conscience must be his firewall”.

Kanta’s objection wasn’t the content. “Will request you to write a more inclusive language,” she tweeted. The objection is not irrelevant. Of the 700 officers working in the central government at the joint secretary level and above as of June 2019, 134 (19.14%) were women.

The use of the male pronoun to describe a group ends up invisibilising women. God is a solid, upper case He. And he/him/his are default settings for all manner of truisms: “A man is the sum of his actions,” (Mahatma Gandhi) or, “Technology is the nature of modern man,” (Octavio Paz) — but “mankind” excludes half of humanity.

The Indian courts’ misogynistic handbook for rape survivors

The Karnataka High Court’s observation that falling asleep after rape is “unbecoming” of an Indian woman is only the latest in a line of misogynistic judgements that comment on the behaviour of women. Along with law student Anupriya Dhonchak, we sift through the cases.

Image courtesy: @penpencildraw

The Karnataka High Court’s observations on 22 June 2020 while granting bail in a rape case follow a judicial tradition of commenting on the behaviour of women, particularly in rape cases, according to an Article 14 review of recent Supreme Court and High Court judgements.

“The explanation offered by the complainant that after the perpetration of the act she was tired and fell asleep, is unbecoming of an Indian woman,” said Justice Krishna S. Dixit in the case of Rakesh B vs State of Karnataka. “That is not the way our women react when ravished.”

The judge appeared also to be swayed by the fact that she was at her office at 11 pm and did not object to “consuming drinks with the petitioner and allowing him to stay with her till morning.”

The remarks sparked a storm of criticism.

Labour pains

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted an old problem of the mistreatment of women in the labour room

Pic: Ekam Foundationhttp://www.ekamoneness.org/poor-diet-strain-can-weigh-down-rural-pregnant-women/

Don’t touch me, the nurse yelled at the woman who was about to deliver her second child. On March 26, when the woman went into labour, fears of the coronavirus were high at the community health centre in Atraulia, Azamgarh. The Dalit wife of a daily wage labourer was made to wait outside until it was time to give birth. “Even then, the nurse refused to touch her, leaving the delivery to the dai (midwife),” says Sunita Singh, a social worker with Sahayog, an NGO that works on women’s health rights.

The mistreatment of women in the labour room is “fairly common, especially if you’re poor,” says Singh. The violence from midwives, cleaning staff, nurses and even doctors ranges from abusive language and sexualised comments to slapping and forcing women into birthing positions.

“There’s a clear power asymmetry that involves money, caste and class,” says Jashodhara Dasgupta, senior advisor, Sahayog.

School, interrupted

The coronavirus pandemic presents a very real risk of girls dropping out of school in large numbers, setting back years of progress. If we are to stop the slide, we need to act now.

Creative Commons/United Nations Photo

Her family has always “believed in education,” Vidhi Kumari, 18, tells me on the phone from her home in Mangolpuri, Delhi. So even though her mother never went to school and her father, a driver, studied only up to the 10th grade, four of her five sisters are graduates, one is in the 12th grade and the youngest, a brother, is in the eighth.

Even in these extraordinary times, Vidhi tries to keep up with her online BA classes. It’s not easy. “My sister and I share a phone so when she attends her class, I miss mine, and sometimes it’s the other way around.”

With only half attendance, Vidhi is one of the lucky ones. Many girls in her neighbourhood have dropped out — someone doesn’t have a phone, another has no money for recharge and someone else had to take up paid work. “This is a slum area,” says Vidhi. “There’s a lot of financial hardship here.”