Being A Dalit Woman In Modern India

To say don’t make the rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras about caste is ignorance, and privilege. But, the systemic oppression of Dalit women isn’t new.

Two nine-year-olds are fighting over something inconsequential in district Patna, Bihar. As the fight shows no sign of flagging, the elders of one of the boys, dominant castes as it turns out, decide to get involved. The Dalit boy must be taught his place.

The dominant caste men catch hold of the Dalit boy’s mother. They strip her and parade her through the village. The woman’s mother and daughter try to intervene and are thrashed. Finally, the village sarpanch steps in and a bystander offers the woman a shawl. An FIR is filed but the accused gets bail.

This story is being told by the woman’s husband at a conference organized in New Delhi by the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch.

The Unacceptably High Price Of Love

Couples who wish to marry under the Special Marriage Act must serve a 30-day notice during which their personal details are on public display. This violates their privacy and leaves many vulnerable to parental and community reprisal.

Courtesy: The Indian Express

In October last year soon after ‘S’ informed the district magistrate’s office in Lucknow that she wanted to get married under the Special Marriage Act (SMA), she received an unexpected invitation at home: to visit the local police station.

The police met her, her partner and her father to conduct an ‘inquiry’. Why get married in court? Was the father ok with her decision? Fortunately for ‘S’, he was, even though the Act does not require parental permission, only consenting adults.

“In Uttar Pradesh it is routine to call couples and often their parents to the police station, particularly in cases of inter-religious marriages,” said Lucknow-based lawyer Renu Mishra.

Enacted in 1954, the SMA was for those who wished to marry outside their religion’s personal laws and customs, caste and, often, parental consent.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Talk to boys about consent

If sex education is too loaded a term for educators and policy-makers, call it something else — value education, life skills, consent education — but we can no longer ignore how desperately we need it in India’s school curriculums

Consent: as simple as a cup of tea. Watch the video here.

In 2018, Mini Saxena, a lawyer, moved back to India from the United Kingdom (UK) and learned for the first time just how tough it was to get schools to accept the idea of consent education.

Saxena had volunteered with a consent project in middle and high schools in the UK and wanted to bring the idea to India. It would teach kids why they needed to respect boundaries, and what their protections were under the law when these were crossed.

A 2007 Government of India survey had found that 53% of children, boys as well as girls, had been abused. Surely, such a project would be welcomed.

Not quite, she says: “I approached many schools. Nobody said ‘we can’t do this’ but they kept stalling under various excuses including, ‘we need parental approval’.”