THE BIG STORY: The company they keep

The protests by some women workers at Urban Company, the Indian platform that provides home and beauty services, are not new. What is unprecedented is the legal notice sent by the company to its workers (called “partners”) who are protesting against “unfair trade practices”, which the women say, will hurt their earnings. Back in October, the women had sat in protest too. Then, the company agreed to revise its commission rates, a bone of contention with the workers.

On December 20, there was a new round of protests as 50-odd women began a sit-in outside the company’s office to demonstrate against new rules that require them to pay a monthly subscription of Rs 3,000 and guarantee at least 40 jobs per month, or forfeit the subscription. The company also plans to go ahead with a ratings system under which those in the lowest category are required to offer discounts to customers.

Urban Company has responded by issuing notice to the women protestors and seeking a permanent injunction against demonstrations and protests from a Gurugram district court, reported first by Soumyarendra Barik of Entrackr.

Partners not workers:

When she joined Urban Clap as it was then known four years ago, Seema Singh was already running a beauty salon with four employees of her own, she said. But with two young children, the youngest just a few months old, and an elderly mother-in-law at home she needed flexibility of working hours. “The company said I would earn on my own terms and could work when and how much I liked,” she said.

This flexibility has been gradually whittled away as the company began imposing newer rules and restrictions, she said. “This company runs on our earnings. We built it and now they are harassing us and imposing conditions,” she said.

Singh is one of four workers who have been legally served by the company. “They call us ‘partners’ but when we were sitting outside in the freezing cold, we were not even allowed use of the washroom,” she said. Ever since the notice was sent, the protest has been called off.

Gig work and women:

Bound by gendered notions of what is appropriate work for women, hampered by a disproportionate share of housework and shackled by lack of infrastructure including low-cost and safe public transportation and generally hostile public spaces, the gig economy has provided women with flexibility and an income, but little in terms of job security.

This flexibility comes at a time when women’s workforce participation has fallen to historically low levels and the Covid pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women’s paid employment.

Companies like Urban Company (home care and beauty service), Ola (transportation) and Swiggy (food delivery) connect customers with service providers. In 2019, Urban Company had close to 20,000 service providers, 40% of whom were women, found a June 2020 study by Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE). The study also found that while women workers appreciated the income-generating potential of the gig economy, they encountered challenges in terms of social protection, safety, upward mobility and bargaining power.

Seema Singh is undeterred. “I possess a skill. This company grew because of me. If I leave, I will be able to stand on my own feet,” she said.


Hum saath saath hain:

The courts will eventually decide on a clutch of petitions already before it on same-sex marriage. But in Hyderabad, Supriyo Chakraborty and Abhay Dang said no one’s permission was needed to be happy and went ahead and tied the knot on December 18.

Gender Tracker

617 are the number of convictions in the 26 years since the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 made it illegal test the gender of a foetus. The number of cases filed so far are 3,158. As many as 18 states didn’t have a single case registered.

The sex ratio at birth is 929 girls for every 1,000 boys born finds the latest round of the National Family Health Survey.

(Source: Fifth report of the Parliamentary Committee on empowerment of women)


Under training since 2019, 32 women commandos of the Central Reserve Police Force are now set to be deployed to provide security to Z+ category politicians including home minister Amit Shah and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi. More here.

Watch video.



Joan Didion, iconic essayist and enormously influential chronicler of contemporary American society, died aged 87. “When women writers of my generation speak in awed tones of Didion’s ‘style’,” wrote English novelist Zadie Smith in a tribute in New Yorker, what they revere is “the authority. The authority of tone.”


To raise or not to raise?

A draft bill seeking to raise the legal age of marriage of women to 21 from 18 was tabled in the Lok Sabha on December 21 by minister for women and child development Smriti Irani. While Irani listed the advantages of raising the age – gender parity with men, improved education, health and nutrition outcomes, Opposition parties were critical. Congress’s Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said it was being introduced in a hurry without consultation with all stakeholders. Asaduddin Owaisi of the AIMIM said it was against “fundamental rights”. Irani has sent the bill to a Parliamentary panel for further scrutiny.

Unacceptable cost of sexual harassment:

“Safety is only in the cemetery and in a mother’s womb,” were the heart-breaking words of a 17-year-old, class 11 student who died by suicide on Saturday after being sexually harassed by a man two years her senior in school in Chennai. Divya Chandrababu reports that the student left three separate suicide notes that mention an older student and relatives. The accused, now an engineering student was arrested after the police analysed the girl’s phone.


When machines replace women:

Wide-scale use of tractors on Indian farms began in the 1990s. Since then, machine usage has only gone up. An obvious impact of increasing mechanisation would be human labour. But just by how much is now the findings of a new paper by IWWAGE, Women in Agriculture: gendered impact of mechanisation of labour demand.

The paper finds that the proportion of working-age adults fell by as much as 11 percentage points between 1999 and 2011, according to the National Sample Survey. As farms moved towards mechanisation, men were more likely to be hired to operate the machines. Women’s labour bore the biggest brunt of this decline in labour, not just in terms of overall labour force participation but, more specifically, in rural employment. As women lost jobs in agriculture, they did not find replacement jobs. An increase of one percentage point in mechanisation decreased female labour usage per hectare by 0.7%

Read the paper here.


Flight to safety:

Female football players from Afghanistan and their immediate families have managed to flee their country and find safe refuge in England thanks to a global effort that included an orthodox rabbi, Leeds United and reality star Kim Kardashian. The 131 Afghans are temporarily housed in an undisclosed location and include the 28-strong squad that had been recently selected to play for the women’s national team when the Taliban took over.

Divorce settlement:

In what is reported to be the most expensive divorce settlement ever, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has been ordered by a British court to pay $733 million to his sixth wife, Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein and their children. The 47-year-old Haya who is also the sister of the late King Hussein of Jordan fled to the UK in 2019 and has said she is “terrified” of her husband.

That’s it for this week. If you have a tip or information on gender-related developments that you would like to share, write to me at:

Were you forwarded this email? Did you stumble upon it online? Sign up here.
Written by Namita Bhandare. Produced by Nirmalya Dutta.

2021: A year of quite a few silver linings

A year of loss and devastation still managed to have its undeniable hurrahs. More women judges in the higher judiciary, and the Delhi High Court, set to welcome its first openly gay judge, were a win for wider representation

In the end, it wasn’t institutions so much as women themselves who raised the greater cheers. Lovlina Borghain, Mirabai Chanu, and PV Sindhu went to the Olympics and showed what women are made of. (Getty Images)

As the year came to an end, the flight out of Kabul brought the last remaining students of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, including its famed all-women Zohra orchestra, to safety in Lisbon on December 13. Through five airlifts that had begun in October, the 273 students, teachers, and their families were evacuated in what a spokesperson calls “the largest rescue of a self-contained Afghan community” since the Taliban takeover. In the New Year, they will rebuild their music school under the supervision of their founder, Ahmad Sarmast.

Mind The Gap | The case for and against raising the marriage age for women

Hello and welcome to Mind the Gap, a newsletter that adds perspective to the gender developments of the week.

Bringing the minimum age requirement for women at par with men falls in line with Constitutional guarantees of equality for all citizens (Shutterstock)


The government is planning to introduce a bill to increase the minimum marriage age of women from 18 to 21. To become law, the bill must be passed by both houses of Parliament after it is introduced, most likely during the winter session.

The proposal, cleared during a Cabinet meeting on December 15, follows the recommendations of a task force headed by Samata Party leader Jaya Jaitley. In his 2020 Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the government was considering steps to ensure daughters were “married off at the right age”.

The case for

Increasing the marriage age for women has several clear advantages. It will help improve their nutrition status. And it will keep them in school and college longer.

Children born to mothers younger than 19-years-old, are five percentage points more likely to be stunted than those born to mothers aged 20 years old and above, found a study published in The Lancet in 2019. Younger mothers also gave birth to more low-weight babies than older women.

Bringing the minimum age requirement for women at par with men falls in line with Constitutional guarantees of equality for all citizens.

Finally, there is a correlation between employment and marriage. As a demographic, single women are far more likely to be employed than married women. “Marriage is the first stumbling block in women’s workforce participation,” says Farzana Afridi, an associate professor with the Indian Statistical Institute. For instance, half of all unmarried women were in the labour force in 2011, compared to only 20% of married women, a figure that has remained stagnant for three decades says Afridi.

…And against

In 1978, Parliament passed a law setting the minimum age of marriage for women at 18. Over four decades later, India remains home to the world’s largest number of child brides, with 1.5 million girls under 18 married every year, according to Unicef. The latest round of the National Family Health Survey-5, (NFHS-5) finds that 23.3% of women still marry before turning 18, Raising the marriage age further to 21 will leave even more women and girls vulnerable in marriages that have no sanction in law.

Moreover, in a country where girls lack agency, raising the minimum age of marriage also has consequences for those who choose their own partners… A 2021 study on child marriage prosecutions by Partners in Law and Development (PLD) looks at 83 high court and district court child marriage prosecutions over a 10-year period to find that the majority of prosecutions are initiated by parents of women who marry men of their choosing against the wishes of their parents. In the face of parental disapproval, the law, says Madhu Mehra, head of research and training at PLD, is “overwhelmingly weaponized by parents against their daughters who initiate marriages of choice and, in contrast, negligibly prosecute forced or even arranged marriages.”

According to a 2020 report in The Lancet, the Covid pandemic will put 0.5 million more girls worldwide at risk of being forced into child marriage. In India, this is due to a combination of circumstances including unemployment, the prolonged closure of schools, and a sharp gender digital gap that has made it far more difficult for girls to access online classes.

If not legislation, then what?

In India, marriage is a social contract where the larger community’s idea of the “norm” plays a significant role in when, where, and how women get married.

Over four decades later, India remains home to the world’s largest number of child brides, with 1.5 million girls under 18 married every year (Manoj Kumar/Hindustan Times)

The past decade has seen a 19% decline in child marriages, thanks in large measure to the narrowing of the education gender gap and the rising aspirations of girls and women themselves.

Along with recognizing these newer social realities, expanding opportunities for young women in both education and employment will help delay the age at which they get married. What is needed is not an amended law but a nationwide social awareness campaign of the advantages of delaying the marriage of daughters, seeing them not as burdens to be dispatched at the earliest, but as the family’s most valuable assets.


Bonjour, Leena

Leena Nair has joined the luxury brand Chanel as its global CEO (Hindustan Times)

The youngest-ever chief human resources officer at Unilever, Leena Nair has joined luxury brand Chanel as its global CEO. “Humbled and honored,” she tweeted about joining the “iconic and admired company”.


78.9% of the total funds between 2016-19 earmarked for the prime minister’s Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme was spent on advertising and media.

Only 25% of funds have been utilized by the states since 2014-15 when the scheme was introduced.

–Parliamentary panel report. The committee on women’s empowerment suggested that the government needs to focus more on education and health.


In what is possibly the largest rescue operation of a self-contained Afghan community since the Taliban takeover in August, 273 faculty, staff, and immediate family members of the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM) have now landed safely in Lisbon, Portugal where they have been invited to re-establish the school.

In five airlifts between early October and mid-November, the ANIM community, including the famed all-female Zohra Orchestra, which performed at the HT Leadership Summit in November 2017, escaped, first from Kabul to Doha and then onwards to Lisbon. The community has been offered asylum by the government of Portugal.

Watch Zohra at a practice session here.



-The Supreme Court’s Justice Hima Kohli told a gathering of Women in Law and Litigation at a December 14 function that there was no “old boys club” for them and they would have to come to court prepared.

At the same function, Justice Pratibha M Singh of the Delhi High Court also had a bit of advice for women lawyers: don’t seek sympathy from the bench, cut time spent on movies and beauty parlors, and “Pick your battles. Don’t fight with all.” Social media was not amused.


Gloria Jean Watkins, more famously known as bell hooks, died on December 15 aged 69. The writer of over 40 books, hooks adopted a lower-case pen name because she wanted her work to speak for itself. Her writing focused on the intersection of race, gender, and class.

Black feminist Bell Hooks (The Washington Post via Getty Im)

Read Aditya Mani Jha’s tribute in Mint Lounge here.


Normalising misogyny:

A comment from K.R. Ramesh Kumar, Congress MLA and a former speaker of the Karnataka Assembly – “When rape is inevitable lie down and enjoy” – and the accompanying laughter by fellow MLAs, including the present speaker has escalated into a political row and a depressing reminder of how rape is normalized even by legislators. Following widespread condemnation, Kumar has apologized but this is not the first time he has made such crass remarks on rape. Back in 2018-19 as a speaker he had ‘joked’ that his situation had become “like that of a rape victim”.

Karnataka Assembly Speaker KR Ramesh Kumar said, “When rape is inevitable lie down and enjoy” (PTI)

The furor comes days after Congress President Sonia Gandhi took issue with CBSE for its blatant misogyny in blaming women’s independence for a variety of social and family problems in a class 10 exam paper. In Parliament, Gandhi called the passage “shockingly regressive” and asked for a review of gender sensitivity standards in the curriculum and testing so that such mistakes “never, never” happen again. CBSE has apologized and dropped the passage saying students will be awarded full marks for it. Read more here.

I-cards for sex workers:

A decade after the Supreme Court first directed state governments and union territories to issue ration and voter ID cards to sex workers, a three-judge bench of the apex court ruled on December 14: “There is no reason as to why such direction has not been implemented till now. Right to dignity is a fundamental right that is guaranteed to every citizen of this country irrespective of his/her vocation”. Reminding the government of its “bounden duty”, the court has asked for it to issue the cards to sex workers from a list maintained by the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), reports Utkarsh Anand.

Reminding the government of its “bounden duty”, the court has asked for it to issue the cards to sex workers from a list maintained by the National AIDS Control Organisation (Sunil Saxena / Hindustan Times)

Don’t miss:

From saving fishing cats to tiger conservation; from examining malaria in birds to saving the greater adjunct stork, do not miss Vanessa Viegas’s story on India’s women ecologists working to better our world.


The United Nations called it a “shadow pandemic” and the National Commission of Women in India recorded a surge of 47.2% cases between January-March 2020. Mumbai-based NGO Akshara Centre’s new report, Grappling with the Shadow Pandemic: Women’s Groups and Domestic Violence in India makes for grim reading but places on record the work done by what it calls “other Corona warriors” to support survivors of domestic violence during the past year.

Married women, disabled women, queer and trans people were the most impacted by an increase in domestic violence including emotional and verbal abuse as they stayed home trapped with their abusers during the nationwide lockdown. Faced with restrictions on their movement, women’s groups continued to do relief work and support survivors as best they could. “The manner in which women’s groups have found ways of bypassing restrictions and finding help for survivors is remarkable and brave as they could have been arrested,” said Nandita Gandhi, one of the report’s writers. “The lessons that emerge have to be studied and turned into policies so that in the next crisis we do not see women suffering.”


Settlement for Nassar abuse survivors: Hundreds of gymnasts abused by Larry Nassar, the former doctor for the American national gymnastics team have reached a $380 million settlement with US gymnastics and Olympics organizations, the New York Times has reported. The settlement is among the largest ever for a sexual abuse case.

Gymnasts Jessica Howard, McKayla Maroney, and Aly Raisman — sexual abuse victims of former US Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar — with US Senator Richard Blumenthal (REUTERS)

In Dad’s footsteps: Sixty years after the first US astronaut, Alan Shepard went into space, his daughter, Laura Shepard Churchley, 74, followed in his footsteps as she blasted into space as one of six people aboard Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin space company. “I thought about daddy coming down and thought, gosh he didn’t even get to enjoy any of what I’m getting to enjoy,” reports BBC.

That’s it for this week. If you have a tip or information on gender-related developments that you would like to share write to me at:

Namita Bhandare writes and reports on gender

The views expressed are personal

Marika Gabriel contributed to the making of this page.