THE BIG STORY: The importance of being Droupadi Murmu

Few would have heard of the 64-year-old Droupadi Murmu before the BJP announced her name as the NDA’s nominee for president of India. But few have been able to ignore the symbolism of her candidature.

When she is elected on July 18, she will become India’s first tribal (and second woman) president. It’s a done deal. The NDA alliance headed by the BJP has 49% of the vote. In addition, Naveen Patnaik’s BJD and Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress have already pledged support. Others are likely to follow the lure of the powerful optics of what her election will mean.

There’s more than a good chance that it’s identity politics more than a desire to emancipate tribal women that has led to her nomination, but in a post that is largely ceremonial, symbolism counts and “her personal journey and what it means for an Adivasi woman cannot be diminished,” says Nikita Sonavane, lawyer and co-founder of the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project that works with marginalised communities.

The data paints a bleak picture

Available data on the 705 tribes recognised by the government makes for depressing reading.

Located primarily in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and the North-east states, 60% of India’s 104 million tribals live in predominantly hilly or forested areas, according to an expert committee on tribal health set up in 2013.

Almost 40% of the 2.13 crore people displaced between 1951 and 1990 due to dams, mines and industry were tribals who continue “to suffer from lack of infrastructure development facilities and services,” found the committee.

Literacy rates among tribals did indeed improve from 47.1% in 2001 to 59% in 2011, but it remains well below the national average of 73%. For ST women, literacy rates in 2011 were just 49.4%.

In many critical parameters, scheduled tribes (ST) are worse off than scheduled castes (SC). For instance, over 45% ST children are underweight; 39.1% for SC and 35.8% for all groups, according to the National Family Health Survey – 4. The same survey found 59.9% ST women to be anaemic (55.9% for SC and 53.1% for all other groups).

The rise of Droupadi Murmu

The Murmus are Santhals, like Hemant Soren, the current chief minister of Jharkhand where Droupadi Murmu was governor until 2021.

Born in Mayurbhanj district, Odisha, she graduated from Rama Devi Women’s College in Bhubhaneshwar, Odisha, and began her career with a teaching job. In 1997, she contested the civic election and was elected councillor.

In a state where the chief minister Naveen Patnaik spearheaded the greater political empowerment of women by earmarking 33% of all Parliamentary seats for them in the 2019, Murmu’s political rise had already begun nearly two decades earlier when she was elected twice to the state assembly from Rairangpur on a BJP ticket. During the BJD-BJP coalition in 2000 she served as a minister. Bureaucrats from that time remember her as low-key, efficient and under-stated.

By the time she was appointed governor to Jharkhand in 2015, she had made the space for other tribal women. As a result of Chief Minister Patnaik’s 2019 quota, five of seven women who contested won. Amongst them was 25-year-old Chandrani Murmu, a BTech graduate and the youngest woman MP to be elected that year.

The dream of possibility

As president, Droupadi Murmu’s role will be largely ceremonial—unless faced with a Constitutional crisis.

Her candidature might have an element of tokenistic identity politics but it doesn’t take away from the fact that ‘it is valuable because it is unprecedented’, says Sonavane.

Nobody expects to see the overnight emancipation of tribal women, or even the dramatic improvement of their dismal health and education status, but her presidency will begin on a note of possibility. And that is cause for hope.

An American horror story

When we think of the route of progress, most of us assume it’s a straight road forward. If, like me, that’s how you view progress, then we’ve just been proved wrong as a rollback of 50 years of abortion rights in the US is reversed by that country’s highest court.

The judgment is a tragedy for American women, but affects women everywhere. The UN’s sustainable development goals, including those on gender equality, apply universally. Not one girl left behind. Anywhere.

We live also in a globalised world which has seen a universal articulation of women’s rights as human rights. When the Taliban bans girls from studying, we mourn everywhere. When China cracks down on feminist activism, we rage everywhere. And when women in the United States, which projects itself as a beacon of democracy and freedom, lose control over their bodies, we fear and wonder at how easy it is to lose a hard-won right. And we ask: are we next?

It’s a shock that we all saw coming when Politico published a leaked US Supreme Court opinion by conservative judge Samuel Altio that said it was wrong to grant constitutional protection to abortion rights.

Well, the conservatives have won the day.

What does this mean?

At least 25 states will severely restrict, if not outright ban abortion, regardless of the reason for seeking it (rape, incest, an ectopic pregnancy that puts the mother at risk, severe foetal abnormalities). In three states, the ban has already kicked in; in three others the ban goes into effect 30 days after the ruling.

Conservative judge Clarence Thomas who voted to overturn Roe has called for reassessing rights to same sex marriage and contraception.

In New York Times, Linda Greenhouse writes a requiem for the Supreme Court.

Companies including The Walt Disney Co have pledged to cover employee travel expenses to get an abortion in a state that allows it. But first you’re going to have to tell your boss that you’re pregnant and you want an abortion. Bye bye privacy.

We’re not going back to the time before Roe. We’re going somewhere worse, writes Jia Tolentino in New Yorker.

How 50 years of the constitutional right to abortion ended. New York Times has the blow-by-blow.

Restricting access to abortion does not prevent people from seeking it. It simply makes it more deadly. Read UNFPA’s statement.

Margaret Atwood wrote a dystopian novel of a theocratic dictatorship. Women had almost no rights in her fictional Gilead. The Supreme Court decision is ‘making it real’ she wrote in The Atlantic in May.

WE HEAR YOU

“Consent of family or community or clan is not necessary once two adult individuals agree to enter into wedlock.”

Justice M.A. Chowdhary of the Jammu and Kashmir high court on a plea filed by a couple who had got married against the wishes of their families and sought court protection from harm.

LIKE A BOSS

In the photograph, the 10-year-old holds up a handmade poster. “Behind the beauty of Taj Mahal is plastic pollution,” it reads. Licypriya Kangujam is standing before one of the world’s most iconic sites, surrounded by a sea of plastic. She’s no jane-come-lately. In 2019, she addressed world leaders at the United Nations Climate conference and on Twitter has over 146,000 followers (her mom is the admin). That didn’t stop the Samajwadi Party’s digital media coordinator Manish Agrawal–surely he’s heard of Google–from calling her a ‘foreign tourist’, putting both ignorance and racism on public display.

“Hello sir, I’m a proud Indian,” Kangujam, who comes from Manipur, clarified. But the happier ending came a day later when the Agra municipal corporation ordered a clean-up. “Ban single-use plastic completely in & around all heritage sites,” she tweeted.

STORIES YOU MAY HAVE MISSED

Death for rape-murder of a child

Ruling that a 37-year-old man from Rajasthan who raped and killed a physically and mentally challenged seven-and-a-half year old girl in 2013 had “no probability of reformation” and remained a “danger to society”, a three-judge Supreme Court bench has upheld the death sentence passed on him by the high court.

Be careful the next time you kiss your wife in public

Police in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya district have filed a case against unknown people for beating up a man who kissed his wife while taking a dip in the river Saryu. The report was filed after an undated video of the incident surfaced on social media. The case has been filed suo motu by the police as the couple has not made an official complaint.

PRIDE NEWS

It’s still Pride Month and here’s a wrap from around the world:

Fina, the swimming world’s governing body has voted to bar transgender women from elite female competitions if they have experienced any part of male puberty.

A Japanese court dealt a setback to LGBTQ+ rights by ruling that a ban on same-sex marriage does not go against the country’s Constitution.

And, the 18-year-old daughter Elon Musk, was granted the legal right to have her name changed to Vivian Jenna Wilson in accordance with her new gender. Elsewhere, Jennifer Lopez introduced her 14-year-old child Emme Muniz with gender neutral pronouns.

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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@gmail.com.

THE BIG STORY: Indian women’s unquenchable search for water

The woman in the purple sari climbs one agonising step after another, scaling up the wall of the well. At its bottom, another woman scoops a few cups of water into her bucket. This will then be hoisted by ropes by people waiting above, while she will clamber up the same perilous route, using iron level markers as steps. There is no safety net or harness.

Shot by ANI in Gusiya village, Dindori, Madhya Pradesh, the now viral video is emblematic of the water crisis staring at India in one of the hottest summers in memory.

This is not the first time that such a video has gone viral. In April this year, a video from Nashik showed women rappelling down a well and in 2019, a similar video from Maharashtra caused the usual seasonal consternation.

But, says V.K. Madhavan, CEO, Wateraid India, “We tend to talk about issues seasonally—flooding during the monsoon, water in the summer. What we need is sustained action.”

Women’s work

It’s been a harsh summer.

In Nashik, Maharashtra, women are walking 3 km a day to fetch water.

In Hinauti, northern Uttar Pradesh, Munni Adhivasi told Reuters she thought she would die in the heat as she trudges miles to bring home 30 litres of water for her family of four children and three goats.

Back in Madhya Pradesh, the handpumps in Bilhata village in the drought-prone Bundelkhand region ran dry on April 15. Women like Nanhi Gond must now undertake a perilous 2 km trek deep inside the Panna tiger reserve in search of two buckets of water, report Shruti Tomar and Anupam Pateriya for this paper.

In India, fetching water is women’s work.

It is women who require water to cook and clean. And it is women who take care of family members who might fall ill after drinking contaminated water. So it is their job to somehow find and fetch potable water.

Around the world, women spend 200 million hours a day collecting water, according to Water.org.

In India, women make up to six trips a day for water, averaging as much as 10 miles a day in searing heat.

Because India has overused its water, mainly for farming, the water table has been falling by 4 cm per year; 256 of 700 districts have reported critical or over-exploited groundwater levels, according to the Central Water Board and 600 million Indians face significant water stress.

This increasing shortage of water means that women must journey further and further away from home in search of it.

Even in cities like Delhi, where 6,25,000 households or 18% of the population, do not have access to piped water, according to the 2017 Economic Survey, it is women and children who queue up at community taps or water tanker lines.

The more time women and girls spend fetching water, the less time they have for employment and school.

Way forward

The government’s Jal Jeevan Mission aims to provide tap water to every household in rural India by 2024; at present 50% households have a connection, up from just 17% in 2019.

This, says Madhavan, has the potential to be a game-changer. “If water on tap becomes normal for every family, it will free up women’s agency in ways we cannot even imagine,” he says.

There is no shortage of public investment; what is needed is imagination. “Women must be consulted in the design and roll out of drinking water efforts in their villages and must play a role in the operation and maintenance of these systems,” he says. “This is the future.”

GENDER TRACKER

Representation of women in the Indian Foreign Service: 16%.

In leadership positions in embassies: 18%

Source: Centre for Social Research roundtable conference on gender mainstreaming in the foreign policy of India (via @jeevika_shiv).

WE HEAR YOU

“Now more than ever this is a time that we need to speak out and rewrite the dominant narratives that have landed us into quite dire straits.”

Canadian-American author, film-maker and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozekie on winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her fourth novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness.

GOING PLACES

Photo Credit: Arun Singh/Gaon Connection

Aramganj village in Madhya Pradesh has just elected its first all-women panchayat with 15 of the 17 women coming from marginalised communities. Sarpanch Rajni Bai, who has studied up to class 8 and comes from the Scheduled Caste Basor community told Gaon Connection that she felt empowered and promised to lead the village administration efficiently.

STORIES YOU MAY HAVE MISSED

Decent language, please, to describe acts of indecency

Justice Rahul Chaturvedi of the Allahabad high court has advocated the use of ‘decent’ language when filing a complaint.

In the case that he was hearing, the complainant has alleged that her father-in-law had sought sexual favours from her while her brother-in-law tried to ‘ravish her physically’. She has also accused her husband of forcible sex. “In our traditional Indian family,” noted the judge, “it is highly improbable and difficult to digest the allegations of demanding sexual favours from her daughter-in-law by father-in-law or brother-in-law.”

The judge also asked for a two-month moratorium between an arrest and the filing of a complaint of cruelty by a wife. The two-month cooling off period can be used for mediation to resolve matrimonial disputes. The judge, however, clarified that this moratorium does not apply in cases where a wife has physical injuries.

She’s pregnant, not sick

After the State Bank of India (SBI), another public sector bank, Indian Bank has issued fitness guidelines for candidates applying for jobs. Women who are over three months pregnant will now be deemed ‘temporarily unfit’ to join the bank.

The All India Democratic Women’s Association has condemned the decision. “Classifying pregnancy as unfit is disgracing and dishonouring motherhood,” it said in a letter.

SBI withdrew its fitness guidelines after an uproar.

SAI’s advisory to make sport safer for women

After complaints of sexual and mental harassment from women athletes, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) has issued an exhaustive advisory to all national sports federations to ensure a safer environment. Among the steps recommended, a woman coach to accompany female athletes during domestic and international travel and a compliance officer who will report any cases of violations.

FIELD NOTES: Obstetric violence—a long and painful history

From 16th century papal Rome where Roman Catholic authorities sequestered Jewish women’s babies unless they consented to Christianisation via baptism to the Spanish empire in the Americas where priests performed forced caesarean sections and emphasised that the priority was to save the souls of foetuses and not the lives of their mothers, obstetric violence – the harm inflicted on women during and after pregnancy goes back a long way, documents this paper in The Lancet.

Obstetric violence was “at the heart of slavery which relied on the exploitation of Black women’s reproductive labour for economic profit.”

But even today, racial disparities persist in obstetric pain management, as the male-dominated field of obstetricians provide less pain treatment to Black and Latina women in the mistaken assumption that they have a higher pain threshold.

The forced sterilisation of those deemed ‘unfit’—disabled, impoverished and racially marginalised women—is another form of this persisting violence. Denial of access to abortion is another.

The paper does not look at the landscape in India where this April 2022 paper by Kaveri Mayra and others finds that “almost every woman goes through some level of disrespect and abuse during childbirth, more so in states such as Bihar where over 70% of women give birth in hospitals.”

Read The Lancet paper here.

Read Kaveri Mayra’s paper on obstetric violence in Bihar here.

AROUND THE WORLD

In China, the price of saying ‘no’

A June 10 attack on four women at a restaurant in Tangshan in the Hebei province, China, has led to a social media discussion on the need to talk about gender-based violence in a country that has a history of cracking down on feminists, arresting activists and censoring online debate.

The attack began after one of the women rejected a sexual advance by a man at a barbecue restaurant. In a video uploaded on Weibo (trigger warning: extreme violence), the woman pushes the man’s hand away but he persists. When she resists again, he begins hitting her and is soon joined by other men who can be seen dragging her out of the restaurant, stomping on her and kicking her on the head when she falls. The women who come to her rescue are also beaten. Two women had to be hospitalised for their injuries.

Chinese police are seeing the crime through the angle of gang violence and have said such crimes are a threat to ‘public safety’.

But, said an anonymous social media post, “To ignore and suppress the perspective of gender is to deny the violence that people – as women – suffer.”

Google settles

Without admitting to any wrongdoing, Google has agreed to shell out $118 million to settle a lawsuit that claims bias against women in promotions and pay. The class action suit covers over 15,000 women employees who have worked for the company since 2013.

The cost of cyber bullying just went up in Japan

In 2020, faced with a barrage of online vitriol, professional Japanese wrestler Hana Kimura died by suicide, leading to a nationwide debate on the need to bring in stricter penalties to prevent cyber bullying. Two years later on June 13, the country’s Parliament passed a bill that increases punishments for such abuse from less than 30 days to a year’s imprisonment and an enhanced fine. The statute of limitations will also be extended from one year to three, giving victims more time to file charges. The men who abused Kimura online with “you’re disgusting” and “just die” got off with a fine of just 9,000 yen (roughly Rs 5,200), reports The Straits Times.

BEFORE I GO

GoSports Foundation Karke Dikhaungi athlete scholarship programme invites applications from women and girls who dream of becoming India’s next sporting champions. The scholarship provides Rs five lakh to ten lakh to athletes and covers costs for travel, equipment, training. It is open to state and national-level women athletes. The last date to apply is June 24. The form is here.

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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@gmail.com.

THE BIG STORY: Pride Month is as good a time as any to ask, what next?

By Saurabh Kirpal

The summer of ’69, as the song by Bryan Adams proclaims, were the best days of his life. Sadly, life wasn’t quite as good for the LGBTQI+ community in the June of that year when, faced with consistent police brutality, riots broke outside the iconic Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York.

The riots lasted six days and marked the first time that the queer community stood in the open and fought rather than hide in the shadows. That act of defiance in now commemorated as Pride Month not only in the US, but across the world. It is an occasion not only to remember the past, but also declare proudly to the world that we exist.

So, it seems like a good time to take stock of not only how far we have come in our fight against discrimination, but also what the next steps for the community are.

Fighting prejudice

The battle against the archaic section 377 was won in 2018, but the fight against prejudice towards the queer community has barely even begun.

The written words of the law as well as the uneven and unfair application of the rules deny LGBTQI+ citizens of our country the right to attain their full potential.

Hostile discrimination against the community is one of the last areas where the law allows the state to treat people unequally on the basis of an innate attribute, i.e. their gender or sexuality.

Same sex couples cannot marry and thus do not have access to a host of spousal rights and benefits taken for granted by heterosexuals. The issue is not only about access to monetary benefits, important as they are. The pandemic has also shone a spotlight on the fact that even the basic right to meet your partner in hospital when they are sick does not exist for the queer community.

Even when discrimination is not written into the law, in practice LGBTQI+ people face daily harassment. Access to employment is difficult, particularly in male-dominated professions and businesses. The absence of a general anti-discrimination law allows private landlords to refuse accommodation to LGBTQI+ people. While there is no bar in law from any two people opening a joint bank account, convincing a branch manager of a bank to permit a same sex couple to open an account is a herculean task.

Making positive change happen

The queer community cannot wait for society to evolve and gradually earn their basic human rights.

There is in any event no guarantee that the evolution of society will be progressive. To make positive change happen, members of the community, along with their straight allies, will have to demand and fight for their rights.

The courts will be the first places where a citizen would seek fulfilment of the constitutional promise of freedom and equality.

But the battle will also have to be carried to the court of public opinion. Civil society will have to be convinced that we are not asking for special rights, just the basic right to live with dignity. The war against hate, prejudice and discrimination can be won, but that requires perseverance and courage.

One can only hope that Pride Month will not be just another moment for corporate gimmickry, but would inspire a new generation to reach out and take what is rightfully theirs – their humanity.

Do you have a coming out story that you’d like to share? Write to me at: Namita.bhandare@gmail.com

GENDER TRACKER

Great news from Australia, where half of prime minister Anthony Alabanese’s cabinet, or 13 ministers, are women.

But, worth remembering that worldwide only 28 women are heads of state, another historic high, but far too low with just 8% of all global heads of state.

Source: iKnowPolitics

WE HEAR YOU

“In our society, the paternal grandparents will always take better care of their grandson.”

A two-judge Supreme Court bench chose to hand over custody of a five-year-old Covid orphan to his grandparents over his maternal aunt.

STORIES YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED

A week in the life of Indian women

When Sher Md Sheikh learned that his wife Renu Khatun had got a job as a nurse at a government hospital, he reacted by…chopping off her hand. The 26-year-old was apparently afraid that his wife would get posted to another town.

In Gwalior, a Congress youth ‘leader’ Rishabh Bhadoriya, out on bail in two murder cases, shot his wife dead in the presence of their two children over her suspected infidelity, says the police.

The Sports Authority of India moved fast to sack cycling coach R.K. Sharma after it found merit in the complaint of an unnamed woman cyclist who accused him of barging into her room and asking her to sleep with him during a training camp in Solvenia.

And, an update on India’s rape crisis:

Hyderabad police has arrested two more juveniles in connection with the gang-rape of a minor girl on May 28 in what media is dubbing the “Mercedes gang-rape”. Of the total six men accused, five are minors, one of them the son of an AIMIM legislator, and another a relative.

Meanwhile, a two-judge Delhi high court bench of justices Mukta Gupta and Mini Pushkarna has sentenced three men to life imprisonment, for the remainder of their natural lives, for gang-raping and murdering a three-year-old girl in 2012. Life sentences usually run for 14 years. These men will never walk free again.

And in Rajasthan’s Alwar district, a 13-year-old girl has been detained and sent to a juvenile home for murdering a 45-year-old man who had been blackmailing and raping her for the past six or seven months, according to the police. The girl told the police that the man had also forced her into sexual relations with three other men in the village.

THANK YOU TO…

Mithali Raj who announced her retirement from all forms of cricket. The tributes just keep pouring in. “An inspiration to young girls wanting to play for India,” tweeted Sachin Tendulkar. “Inspiration to millions,” said Dinesh Karthik. “I had no idea that women’s cricket existed,” said another women’s cricket star, Hamanpreet Kaur. Mithali sowed the seeds for young girls to dream big.

Mithali emerged as her own person, politely reminding journalists that she was not a ‘Lady Sachin’, and once responding to a reporter’s question on who her favourite male player was with another question: “Do you ask male players who their favourite cricketer is?”

But perhaps her biggest legacy over a 23-year-career is her message of the possibility of sport to women everywhere. To say she paved the way is an understatement. In becoming a role model, she gifted girls everywhere a dream.

Read Vidhi Choudhury’s 2017 profile of Mithali Raj in Mint here.

AROUND THE WORLD

50 years of the ‘Napalm girl’

June 8 marked 50 years since Nick Ut photographed what is perhaps the defining photograph of the Vietnam War: The ‘Napalm girl’, a picture of a naked nine-year-old girl running and screaming in pain. In the decades since there’s been a ton of commentary including an autobiography about the nine-year-old, Phan Thi Kim Phuc. Now living in Ontario, Canada where she runs the Kim Foundation which aids child victims of war she has written an incredibly moving piece in The New York Times: “We are not symbols. We are human.” But, she adds about her 50 year journey, “I am proud that, in time, I have become a symbol of peace.”

Read her article here.

Credit: AP Photo/ Nick Ut

A woman’s place

Colombian presidential candidate, Rudolfo Hernandez, 77, may or may not win his country’s elections on June 19, but his views on women can leave no room for doubt. The construction magnate who has a woman running mate for vice president, is quoted in El Pais saying, “Ideally, women should devote themselves to raising children.” He added that even though women should not have a role in managerial positions, “it is good for them to make comments and to provide support from their homes.” How kind.

Kamala Khan rises

Critics can’t get enough of Kamala Khan, Disney’s first onscreen Muslim superhero who made her screen debut on Disney + Hotstar on June 8. Financial Times gave it a four-star review while The Guardian said the character played by Pakistani-Canadian Iman Vellani ‘effortlessly bats off preconceptions’. Kamala Khan has featured in Ms Marvel strips since 2014 and within five years topped Marvel’s digital sales chart with 500,000 copies sold, reports The Economist.

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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@gmail.com.