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.”

#BoysLockerRoom: old story, new outrage

There is no piecemeal solution. If you want to get out of the boys locker room, you will have to burn it down, I write in FirstPost.

Take a good look at the locker room. It’s where we live. Here’s WhatsApp Uncle with his daily forward of sexist, offensive ‘jokes’ about wives under lockdown. There’s filmmaker-wala Uncle with his twitter meme from some years ago on what makes the Nano the safest car for women (because they can’t get gang-raped in it). A pregnant Safoora Zargar is arrested and sent to jail under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and Kapil Mishra, the Delhi BJP’s motor-mouth, comments: “Please don’t connect her pregnancy with my speech. It doesn’t work that way.”

If you are as outraged as I am over the leaked screenshots of #BoisLockerRoom – an Instagram handle where teenage boys (and a few girls) shared obscene messages and screenshots of underage girls — but found any of the other instances above ok, just harmless fun yaar, then, yes, you live in the locker room.

It’s an old concept that went global when Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate, was caught on a hot mike bragging about his ability to grab women. Just locker room stuff he said and won the election.

Locker room ‘banter’ is a raging epidemic, except, unlike Covid-19, nobody really talks about it or seems interested in pushing for a cure.

Shut in/shut out

The lockdown that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic is especially hard on women with disability.

Nidhi Goyal. Pic courtesy: Rising Flame

As a girl of 15, Nidhi Goyal wanted to be a portrait artist. Then she became visually-challenged, and turned to activism. “I was 16,” she says about losing sight to a rare genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa. “It was a struggle and I was slipping into depression until I looked at my own privilege.” She then decided to “do something about it”.

Now 34, the Mumbai-based founder and director of Rising Flame, a non-profit committed to changing the lives of people, especially women and girls with disabilities, finds herself on the UN Women executive director’s civil society advisory group and president of the Association of Women’s Rights in Development.

Before the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) upended the world, women with disabilities were undergoing their own lockdown, invisible and shut out from the rest of the world. Now, the walls are closing in.

“Women with disability have been fighting to get out of their houses as their families worry about letting them navigate alone,” says Goyal. “Now, we are under lockdown again.”

Singapore’s coronavirus success story hits a snag

I report from Singapore on new cases of Covid-19 exploded among migrant workers who live in the country’s far-flung dormitories. Human rights watchers say these developments should be no surprise.

A near-empty Changi airport greeted us as we arrived in Singapore on March 22 as the country was being hailed for its ‘gold standard’ response in battling Coronavirus. Taken by me on my iPhone.

Hailed as a model for its early success in containing the spread of coronavirus, Singapore is now having to explain an alarming surge in infections—more than 75 percent of which are among low-paid migrant workers who live in shared dormitories. The sudden rise in cases not only shines a spotlight on the difficult lives of Singapore’s often invisible foreign laborers but also foreshadows how difficult it will be for any country to eradicate a virus that has brought the world to a standstill.

From its first reported case on Jan. 23, Singapore had until March 21 recorded only 390 infections with zero deaths, earning praise from the World Health Organization. Then, over the past week, the numbers soared.

On April 18, the Ministry of Health (MOH)’s website announced the highest number of new COVID-19 cases in a single day: There were 942 new recorded infections with 893 of these among migrant workers. Singapore now has the largest infected population in Southeast Asia with a total of 6,588 cases; 4,706, or about 71.4 percent of cases, are among the country’s foreign workers who work as cleaners, construction workers, and laborers.

Post lockdown spike in domestic violence

The lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic has led to a rise in rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, stalking & voyeurism, according to online data from the National Commission for Women. With husbands at home, many women unlikely to complain.

Pic courtesy: Breakthrough India

The woman calling on the phone from Ghaziabad was distraught. Her husband, she told counsellor of the Delhi-based NGO Shakti Shalini, used to beat her occasionally. Now since the lockdown came into effect on March 24, she said, he has been home and beats her, brutally, every single day.

The woman’s parents live only 10 km away and the woman wanted them to come and take her away. But under the lockdown the parents could not make the journey. Finally, Shakti Shalini was able to convince the local police station to at least pay the woman’s husband a visit and provide her with security.

The spike in domestic violence following the nationwide lockdown that began on March 24 has left many NGOs in a bind. They simply do not have the manpower or resources to deal with the surge in cases.

“Not only have the number of cases gone up, the severity and brutality of the violence has increased too,” said Tiwari. There are other cases, she said, where women are being subjected to severe physical and emotional abuse. “How do we reach out and rescue them?” she asked. “Our hands are tied.”

Call her by her name

The December 16, 2012 gang-rape victim had a name. To honour her memory, we could start by reclaiming her identity.

Praying for the recovery of the rape victim who ignited a nationwide protest in 2012. Creative Commons

Indian law does not permit the naming of rape victims. Presumably, this is because the crime of rape is so terrible that, in society’s eyes, it stains not the rapist but his victim with shame; a shame so indelible that her honour and that of her family is irretrievably lost.

And, so, even though Badrinath Singh, the father of the 23-year-old gangraped so brutally that she died of her injuries, said he had no objection to her real name being used, media christened her the fearless one.

We made her the braveheart who accepted her martyrdom. A martyr is someone who embraces death, usually for a religious cause.

How Arvind Kejriwal failed Delhi’s women voters

Aam Aadmi Party’s work in schools and mohalla clinics, free bus rides for women and subsidies for electricity and water was a major draw. But if Kejriwal really wants to be a game-changer, he might want to end an old bias against including women in the cabinet.

Creative Commons/joegoauk70

Following his party’s triumph in the Delhi elections, the swearing in of Arvind Kejriwal’s new cabinet had the stale whiff of an old exclusion: No women in the team. Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia’s explanation that there was “nothing wrong in repeating the same cabinet” doesn’t wash. Repeating a past omission is not going to fix it. This omission is particularly egregious when you consider the results of a poll-eve survey by Lokniti-The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, published in The Indian Express which found that women were 11 percentage points more likely to vote for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) than men.

The fact that women have, in many recent elections, turned out in greater numbers than men to vote no longer surprises. What does is the stubbornness of the parties, old and new, to share political power. Across ideology and geography, parties pay lip service to women’s empowerment. But when it comes to sharing power, their words ring hollow. Exceptions to this now predictable dance are Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which earmarked 33% and 41% seats respectively for women candidates in the 2019 election.

How 11 women officers made army history

Lt Col Seema Singh and Lt Col Sandhya Yadav tell me how 11 officers fought tirelessly from 2008 to make history for women in the army. Their behind-the-scenes account includes tales of chocolate, congeniality and chai.

A few good women: (from left) Lt Cols Sonia Sehgal, Maninder Virdi, Sandhya Yadav, Seema Singh, Anupama Munshi/Pic courtesy Maninder Singh

When 11 women Army officers first filed a petition in the Delhi High Court in December 2008 to challenge a policy that restricted them to short service commissions, Lt Col Seema Singh’s daughter Garima was just eight or nine years old. “She used to accompany me to court whenever I went,” Singh, now 47, said.

On the day the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to keep women officers out from permanent positions (see accompanying story), Singh’s daughter was also present in court, now as a final year MBBS student. “My male colleagues were also present and brought Cadbury chocolates for us as presents,” she said over the phone. “There was never any animosity with our brother officers. We were only looking for gender parity with them.”

In fact, Singh’s husband was, like her, an ordinance officer. “There was conflict in the house because he would get so much more than I did,” she said. Her husband quit the army in 2017.

Excluding women from top army jobs is illegal: Supreme Court

In a landmark judgment, India’s Supreme Court has ruled that women army officers have a right to command posts.

Dismissing arguments made by the central government against giving women command appointments in the army on grounds of their ‘physiological limitations’ and domestic responsibilities, the Supreme Court ruled that the exclusion of women is illegal.

The landmark judgment is a victory for gender equality guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution. “Implicit in the guarantee of equality is that where the action of the State does not differentiate between two classes of persons, it does not differentiate them in an unreasonable or irrational manner,” noted the judgment by a two-judge bench of Justices Dhananjay Y Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi.

The apex court was hearing an appeal filed by the central government against a 2010 Delhi High Court decision that held that short service commissioned women officers are entitled to permanent commissions at par with men.

Appealing against that decision, the central government told the Supreme Court about the possible unwillingness of male troops, drawn from predominantly rural backgrounds, to accept a woman in command of their units.

Playing touch rugby, breaking stereotypes

In a New Delhi slum in New Delhi, a group of young women and men play together and, in the process, make their city safer.

Pic courtesy: Plan India

A quiet revolution brews in a narrow lane in one of Delhi’s most unsafe localities. In Mangolpuri, a locality that registers the most number of police cases, a group of young men and women have taken charge of making their neighbourhood safer. Do streetlights work? Are there enough CCTVs? How do you rid the community park of drug addicts and gamblers who gather here after sundown?

Supported by a set of non-governmental organisations, over 500 young people who live here have conducted safety audits and taken up their concerns with the police, transport and public works department. Their goal? To build safe, accountable and inclusive cities for adolescent girls.

“In this locality, girls could not go out. On the streets, boys hung out in groups and would pass comments,” says Sonia, 14, a class 10 student. Adds Komal, 21, a graduate who is now learning stenography, “The only place I felt safe was within the four walls of my house.” In 2014, the Safer Cities Programme was launched in five cities around the world, including Cairo, Hanoi and Delhi. Two resettlement communities, Mangolpuri and Madanpur Khadar were selected, and by 2018, the programme had touched 80,000 homes in Delhi.