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.’’

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.”

SC’s judgment on women in the navy points to ingrained sexism

A two-judge Supreme Court bench orders that women officers in the navy be treated at par with men. Those who’ve suffered gender discrimination should be financially compensated.

The Indian Navy’s all-women Tarini crew circumnavigating the world/Indian Women Blog

“The battle for gender equality is about confronting the battles of the mind. History is replete with examples where women have been denied their just entitlements under law and the right to fair and equal treatment in the workplace.” Justices Dhananjaya Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta, 17 March, 2020

The Supreme Court, yet again, took the wrecking ball to patriarchy with its judgment this past week that allowed women in the navy to hold permanent commissions and appointments at par with men.

The ruling shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, a two-judge bench headed by Justices D.Y. Chandrachud along with Hemant Gupta had just a month earlier brushed aside all the usual objections – it would distract women from their family responsibilities, rank and file would not obey women – to rule that excluding women from top jobs in the army is illegal.

Media celebrated the army judgment with banner headlines. By comparison, reaction to the navy judgment has been muted. Yet, the second one takes the earlier judgment a step further.

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.

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.

“MeToo is a protest movement, doesn’t always lead to change”

Justice Sujata Manohar at the National Commission of Women office, New Delhi

I spoke to Sujata Manohar, the Supreme Court judge who wrote the judgment on workplace sexual harassment guidelines two decades ago, on what she thinks of a contemporary movement.

New Delhi: Before the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of April 2013, there were the Vishaka guidelines passed by the Supreme Court in August 1997. Vishaka not only defined sexual harassment for the first time, but also included a broad sweep of offences from outright sexual assault to sexually loaded comments made in the presence of a woman employee. Relying on multilateral and international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the UN in 1979, it placed responsibility on employers to prevent or deter sexual harassment and set up processes to deal with and resolve complaints.

Vishaka acknowledged women as equal citizens in the workplace with equal rights to employment and opportunity. “The fundamental right to carry on any occupation, trade or profession depends on the availability of a ‘safe’ working environment. Right to life means life with dignity,” noted the three-judge bench of Justice Sujata V Manohar, Justice BN Kirpal and the late Justice JS Verma who would subsequently go on to head a committee suggesting legal changes and reforms in the aftermath of the gang-rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012.

In the light of India’s MeToo movement, nearly 22 years after Vishaka and six years after the law on workplace sexual harassment, what are some of the core issues that remain? Is the law working or is it adequate to address the continuing malaise? Justice Sujata V Manohar, the second woman judge after Justice Fathima Beevi to be elevated to the Supreme Court, spoke to IndiaSpend:

Understanding the gender confidence gap

Men tend to over-estimate their ability and performance, while women tend to downplay both (from a Cornell University study). Men are four times more likely than women to ask for a raise (Linda Babcock, author of Women Don’t Ask). Why do so many really smart, talented women come across as diffident at the workplace? Understanding the gender confidence gap:

I often attend gender conferences where women outnumber men roughly 20 to one. The gender world’s like that, I guess. Yet, even amongst us, there will always be the one who begins apologetically, “I didn’t come prepared,” and then go on to astound the room with her brilliance.

Women struggle to talk about themselves positively, says Aparna Jain, diversity and leadership coach and author of Own It and, more recently, Like a Girl. At her leadership workshops, she says, “There’s so much self-doubt. Women just want to be perfect.”

We talk of the gender pay gap readily enough. Perhaps we need to talk a bit more of the gender confidence gap.

Research bears testimony to it. Men tend to over-estimate their abilities and performance while women downplay both, finds a Cornell University study. “The ‘gender confidence gap’ is real and closing it is as much a lynchpin to addressing gender inequity as the many other forces that have contributed to it,” writes Margie Warrell in Forbes. Continue reading “Understanding the gender confidence gap”

Bringing up father

In Hindustan Times, I argue for the need fathers to take a far more meaningful role in bringing up their children by taking paternity leave. 

It was after his son Viggo was born that Swedish photographer, Johan Bavman, then on parental leave, began looking for information about stay-at-home-dads. He found nothing. What he did find was a study that asked children who they turned to when they needed to be comforted. Their mums, said the children. Dads came at fifth place — below the option of not going to anyone at all.

Sweden has among the world’s most generous parental leave policies — 480 days with 90 days earmarked for each parent, and the balance of 300 days to be worked out between the parents. Yet, says Bavman, who took nine months off for Viggo, only 14% of Sweden’s fathers choose to equally share parental leave.

In India to inaugurate his photo project on Swedish dads, already exhibited in 50 countries and now in India along with portraits of Indian dads, Bavman said: “I wanted to find out why these fathers had chosen to stay at home; what it had done for them and their relationship with their partners and children.”

Continue reading “Bringing up father”