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.”

Women show the way

It cannot be a coincidence that countries headed by women are doing comparatively better at battling the Covid-19 pandemic

Angela Merkel’s Germany witnessed a high infection but comparatively low death rate. Creative Commons/eugenbittner

Six days before Kerala recorded its first coronavirus case on January 30, health minister KK Shailaja made plans. She was following the news from Wuhan, China, where many students from the state were studying, and the minister knew there was no room for complacency.

The state’s international airports began screening, a control room was set up, and contact tracing and testing started. By early February, Kerala had shut down public events, movie halls, and schools. Children would get midday meals at home and community kitchens were set up in villages and municipal areas.

On March 24, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, Kerala had 104 confirmed cases, roughly a fifth of the 564 in India. By April 15, only 3.38% or 387 cases of 11,439 cases in India were from Kerala. There have been three deaths so far.

To give sole credit to Shailaja for the state’s containment of the virus would be an exaggeration. Kerala’s health care system and its high ranking on human development indices such as literacy and nutritional status give it an edge.

Women are bearing the brunt of the lockdown

Women are bearing a disproportionate cost of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – but there may be a silver lining yet.

Creative Commons/mgrhode1

Gauri, a lawyer in Mumbai, is grappling with a new problem — how to squeeze 25 hours into a day that already doesn’t have enough hours.

With a nationwide lockdown, her maid who helps with the housework has been unable to come to work. Her parents, who live separately, face a similar situation. And it is now Gauri’s job to juggle the two houses as she cooks, cleans, does the laundry, procures groceries, and takes care of an energetic child whose school remains shut. And, since she’s working from home, she’s also reading legal briefs on the side.

“In the last few weeks it has become increasingly difficult to run the home,” says Mahesh Vyas, managing director and CEO, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. “And it is women who are taking the hit.”

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.

Bringing men into the conversation

In the run-up to International Women’s Day, I argue that if men and women are to work as equal partners, then we need new rules of engagement that understand the centrality of mutual respect and consent.

Twenty years ago, Abhijit Das, the founder of Men Engage Alliance, attended a meeting on domestic violence. From the sidelines of the kitchen where he was working, Das noticed about 100 men had accompanied the 3,500-odd women and were listening keenly, but had no opportunity to participate. Apart from encouraging women, or accompanying them to meetings, what could these men do?

And so began a conversation with the men. They could help with the housework, take care of the children, fetch water. These were small but significant tasks that upended the idea of what is women’s work and what is her place in society.

That was the beginning of a campaign, Chuppi Todo, Hinsa Roko (break the silence, stop the violence) where men resolved to: One, not commit violence; two, speak up when they see violence, and three, support women who have faced violence.

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.

Recognise unpaid care work as a common good

The job of cooking, cleaning, caring for children and the elderly invariably falls to women. This impacts women’s participation in the paid economy. It’s time to change that.

Not funny: Women continue to bear a disproportionate burden of household chores.

Suvarna Santosh Ghate, a 38-year-old housewife who has never held a job, is learning to drive a two-wheeler at a skilling centre in Mumbai where I met her some months ago.

It’s an ambitious endeavour for someone whose day begins at 5 am with an unvarying routine of chopping-cooking-cleaning-washing. She cooks twice a day, because, well, her family can’t eat “stale” food. But between 2 and 4 in the afternoon, her “rest” time, she is able to slip away for driving lessons because “maybe someday I can get a job”.

All over the world, women bear a disproportionate burden of household chores. This “sexist economic system” has resulted in gross imbalances in paid work, finds an Oxfam report released this past week ahead of the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos.

The gender discrepancy is hardly news. The business of care work is the “main barrier to women’s participation in labour markets,” found a 2018 International Labour Organization (ILO) report. All over the world, 606 million women, compared to 41 million men, of working age said they were unavailable for paid employment because of unpaid care work.

A seat at the table

Women have their own perspective based on their struggles to ascension. To exclude them from crucial meetings is to shut out the voices of nearly half of our population.

Spot the women

They flank the prime minister, six on one side, five on the other, dressed in sombre suits to discuss serious matters. The photograph was taken on January 6 when the 11 — variously described as “telecom czar”, “richest Indian”, and even “patriarch” — met with Narendra Modi ahead of the budget.

No “czarinas”. No “matriarchs”. Just an all-boys-club meeting to weigh in on the economy, talk about the need to spur growth and create jobs.

You would imagine that some women might have been invited, particularly since the prime minister’s flagship mission, Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, is to do with female empowerment. You would imagine that some women might have had a seat at that table. After all, it’s 2020 and women are flying fighter planes and working on missions to space. But in the photograph, even our first full-time woman finance minister is missing.

It’s not that we don’t have capable women in industry. I can think of Kiran Majumdar Shaw, Anu Agha, Suneeta Reddy and all those who sparkle in finance and banking from Zarin Daruwala to Kaku Nahate.

Wage a battle against India’s rape culture

India can solve its rape problem. The question is: Do we want to?

Protest against rape/Creative Commons.

A week after an “encounter” with Telangana police left four rape and murder-accused men dead, it might not be out of place to ask if India has solved its endemic problem of violence against women.

Have men stopped raping women, or killing them, or dousing them with acid, or beating them just because women talked back, didn’t heat dinner adequately or simply because the men felt like it?

Sadly, no. We’ve done the easy part — brought in tough laws, sanctioned fast-track courts, reduced the age of juveniles, and raised the age of consent. Now comes the hard part of mindset change, of demonstrating the will to stamp out violence against women, of realising there are no short-cuts or half-measures. To stamp out rape, you must battle all forms of gender-based violence.

Are we beyond redemption? I believe we are not. The first prescription is to demonstrate political will. In 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, he asked parents to rein in their sons. That message needs to be repeated. Often. We need a clear message of zero tolerance to violence.

A Time To Rage

One in three women worldwide faces violence. We should be angry.

Pic courtesy: Breakthrough India

Women have been told to be many things – patient, accommodating, docile even. Now, for the first time on an international platform, they are being told to be angry.

Not that they needed prompting. Anger was in evidence at the regional Beijing +25 conference held this week in Bangkok where UN Women deputy executive director Anita Bhatia told an audience of 500 ministers, policy-makers and civil rights organisers from 35 countries, “Be angry. Ask your government for change.” She was speaking at the launch of 16 days of activism that focus on violence against women after hearing two moving testimonies, the first from actress and model Cindy Bishop and the second from Mumbai-based rape survivor Natasha Noel.

“You cannot remain silent,” Noel said. She spoke of the need to teach children about sexual abuse. Bishop’s anger was sparked by a March 2018 Thai government campaign advising women to dress modestly during the Songkran (new year) festival. She had been assaulted at the festival 23 years ago and said 60% of women who attend are sexually assaulted, regardless of what they wear, but only 25.8% report it. Her post “Don’t tell me how to dress” kicked off Thailand’s MeToo movement.

“Violence against women and girls is ingrained all over the world,” said UN special rapporteur on violence Dubravka Simonovic. “Why aren’t we talking about it as an emergency?”