Sunday, September 22, 2013

We are all works in progress

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, 
Where wealth accumulates and men decay.”

All too often, one hears the view that all the good people are gone and we are left with an irreparable intellectual and moral deficit. The headlines seem to bear this out: what appears to be an epidemic of violence—sexual, structural and political; corruption; and pervasive posturing, both in public and in our personal lives. Oliver Goldsmith, writing about the advent of the industrial society, seems to be writing about us.

True confession: I cannot write about moral decline; I just do not understand the topic well enough. What seems far more tangible is to think about the qualities or values we need (and needed) to learn as children that would enable us to cope with life’s challenges and complexities, and to become good human beings. I offer you my list in no particular order; different moments may call for different combinations.

Compassion is the starting point of most of the world’s faiths, and for a good reason. Every teacher and text points out that the experience of pain is universal, and yet we suppress compassion in our interactions. Even as we live with hurt, our first instinct seems to be to snap and judge. Sometimes it seems like the smart response to a situation. Sometimes it seems to be the realistic response to something we see. But yesterday, someone reading about the Delhi rapists thought for a minute about their mother. What must she feel? In the middle of all the expert opinion swirling around me, that is the thought that I learnt most from. From compassion, flow empathy and acceptance without judgment.

In an age of physically daring pastimes, we seem to have less courage to be ourselves, to be true to ourselves in a given moment. The crush of peer pressure is no longer an adolescent reality, but something that governs all aspects of our lives. The context may vary, but the pressure to conform is uniform and overwhelming. This is the way we (are supposed to) dress to work. This is what we (are supposed to) think about a movie. This is what we (are supposed to) say about food. The ‘done’ thing is grossly overdone. The ultimate extreme sport is to stand ankle-deep in the rapids of peer pressure, to feel the water try to lift you off your feet and to stand your ground.

Without courage, life is a performance. Some kinds of pretension may even be desirable, such as pretending to like something someone has offered you with love or pretending you did not notice that someone’s wig has fallen off in the middle of a theatre production. Lying, giving and taking bribes, cheating people, stealing, being deceitful—not doing these are an aspect of integrity crucial to our interactions with other people. However, the kind of critical and transparent introspection that Gandhiji undertook sets a higher bar in my view. Can we be completely honest with ourselves? That takes clarity and courage. I envy this kind of integrity and prize it well beyond morality—whatever that is. 

Life is not fair, but we could learn to be. A sense of justice and fair play is about equal portions for everyone at the table. A sense of justice is about giving everyone an opportunity to learn and a fair chance to grow at their pace. A sense of fair play is to listen to what others have to say. It is the instinct not to discriminate or favour and to compensate for injustice. I do not know if perfect fairness or perfect justice is possible. In a hierarchical world structured to differentiate, is there any way to be fair that does not place someone at a disadvantage for some time? But the choice seems clear to me: I can either wait for that debate to play out or I can try and be fair everyday in my own way at my own little level.

To give is to live. This is the lesson I have learnt from four generations in my family, each person giving in their way, some more publicly than others. To give what you can without keeping accounts; to give in response to someone’s felt need and not your own assessment of what they deserve; to give what you can in the moment and not wait for a perfectly suitable time; to give in money and materials, in time and effort and in love and support; to give without judgment—this is what family stories valorised. I witnessed great generosity of spirit—to disregard slights, to overlook differences of perspective and lifestyle, to turn the other cheek, to accept. To be as generous as mythical Harishchandra or Karna, as my elders, remains an aspiration for me. How can I not list generosity here?

Like Rome, nothing worth building gets done in a day. In the university of my life, I have long suspected that I am undeclared “Patience” major. To learn to work very hard and wait a really long time to do the things I love, to do work with a painfully long gestation period, to wait for payment and to defer and strategize gratification—these are the themes of my adult life. Learning to be patient is learning to value process and means over outcome, to value doing things right. Patience is acceptance and tolerance of people and situations you don’t understand completely for any reason—cultural difference or temperamental difference or any other kind of difference.

Reading Indian mythology, one comes across the idea of ‘control over the senses.’ In most stories, the senses in question are physical but it must mean more. To control anger, for instance, must be such a powerful achievement. To control anger does not mean not to feel anger about injustice, but to take that anger and put it to good work. To control anger means recognizing that some expressions of anger amount to abuse. This must be true of every human thought, emotion and action—being self-aware must harness one’s energy in wonderful ways. That quality of restraint, that self-discipline, I hope to glimpse just once in this lifetime. 
I really don’t know about morality or moral decline. Most of us are doing the best we can and have no time to dwell on how we measure up to people in our real and mythical pasts. It probably does not matter. We are all works in progress.

Ultimately, I can only speak for myself. The truth is, like most people, I am too busy getting through the day and getting things on my task list (like this column) done. I hope I can do these things well, without hurting anyone, without getting angry or stressed or sick, frugally, honestly. I don’t know if I possess any of the qualities I list in any measure; I cannot worry about that. If I can take each minute, each day as they come, that has to be good enough. To try my best in this moment--that is all there is; that is already a great deal.

Cross-posted here.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Where prices rise and the value of women declines

Published here, DNA, September 6, 2013

Scores of women marching through the streets of 1970s Bombay, brandishing belans and beating steel plates with them, in protest against rising prices—the image of this novel and effective protest is what I recall as I start writing this. How do rising prices affect women in all the different ways in which they are economic actors?

Entering alien territory—economics—to understand this, much of what I found addresses women primarily in their role as caregivers and then, as consumers of essential items. The rising price of food strains household budgets and consumption. A SEWA study in 2009 found as a result of food inflation, the number of meals a household consumed had come down. Moreover, the consumption of nutritious ingredients like dal and dairy products had come down. This applies to vegetables as well; after all, the prices of onions and potatoes have come to symbolise the everyday consequences of inflation.

As wages rarely increase commensurate with prices, the challenge of providing enough to eat, means that a household has to trade off other costs. Often, families trade off the way they access health care. The SEWA study found that most families opt for government health care where they might have paid to go to a private doctor. A small but significant percentage in this survey were not accessing any formal healthcare because they could no longer afford it.

For women, given the traditional hierarchy in patriarchal India, the health consequences are particularly troubling. First, always at the tail end of the food consumption trail, they now get to eat even fewer nutritious foods, the best of each meal being apportioned to men and children, in that sequence. Second, their health concerns are most easily negotiated away. They are more likely to self-medicate or use home remedies more than men or children in the household. Finally, if cost-cutting measures necessitate the firing of household help and the need to augment household income results in their taking up paid work, then a decline in health and health care comes at a time when their responsibilities and workload are growing. Women are more than mothers, but poor nutrition and health in pregnant women and new mothers has lifelong consequences for the health of a child—this should also be noted.

On every cost-cutting measure within the household, including the ones related to transport and schooling, chances are that girls and women come last. If more hands are needed in the household because the mother has to go out to work, it is likely the daughter stays home. Patriarchy finds expression everywhere.

In general, inflation pushes households further into debt and poverty. Single women and female-headed households are often the first to suffer. Their savings decline and the lack of a safety net places them on the brink of survival.

But women are more than homemakers and caregivers—more than wielders of belans and fillers of thalis and mothers of children. Women are factory and agricultural workers, entrepreneurs, service providers and bankers, as well as economists.

Rising prices also reduce earnings for entrepreneurs. One way in which they stay competitive is by keeping their prices constant as far as possible. If you consider the kinds of businesses that women run, however, not many of them work with a large profit margin anyway. For many small and medium enterprise owners, smaller profits do not mean the delayed purchase of a yacht but trouble paying rent, loan instalments and wages. And the first jobs to go in a firm are the support jobs that women are more likely to hold.

Most women in India work in the informal sector, making up one-third of all informal sector workers. Of these, most women work in the informal agricultural sector. Outside agriculture, most women do home-based work. A small percentage of women also work as street vendors; but this small percentage actually masks hundreds of thousands of women. None of these women enjoy benefits (dearness allowances, health care, unemployment benefits) that could cushion the impact of inflation on their lives and households. When inflation strikes, their earnings are simply likely to decline. Think of the woman selling vegetables around the corner from you—as your purchasing power shrinks, you bargain harder over the tomatoes, and at some point, in order to not throw her stock unsold, she has to cave. Her daily earnings shrivel.

The link between inflation and gender-based violence is forged by the way we view daughters in India—as a non-remunerative investment (paraya dhan) whose lesser being must be compensated by the provision of a dowry consisting of gold, immovable property and/or consumer durables, ownership over all of which are transferred in a lavish, more or less public ceremony. Economic opportunities for the bridegroom’s family, weddings ease the bride’s family’s descent into financial ruin--more expensive gold, more expensive goods, more expensive wedding halls, more expensive priests (who have to run their households in this inflationary environment) and more expensive food, transport and housing for guests. Violence does not occur only with dowry harassment and bride-burning; it begins much earlier with the devaluation of the daughter. But when the price of everything rises, the value of the daughter in the wedding transaction is greatly diminished. Her security depends on her ability to deliver goods and services, and she is vulnerable to dowry harassment, to other forms of cruelty and domestic violence, including economic and emotional abuse.

When everything becomes more expensive, the value of the government’s spending on social welfare declines. Charities and individual donors have less to spare and shrink their giving. Some casualties include services to women and girls in the area of health care and education. Also imperilled are support services to victims of violence such as helplines for assault victims or safe houses for domestic violence survivors.

Every changing circumstance brings with it both challenges and opportunities. As a political scientist and a feminist, I think about women’s agency in the face of rising prices. Anti-price rise protests are certainly an example, but are there others and how does their influence endure?
Coming from the study of conflicts and other emergency situations, we know that the new roles that are thrust upon women in these times increase their decision-making power in many ways. As female heads of households, women in refugee camps make decisions for their families that they never could before. The story of the thousands of women who worked in factories in the US during the Second World War and as auxiliaries in the armed forces, is well-known.

Does sustained price rise have this unintended effect? Do more women find ways to add to their household income by starting small home-based firms or looking for jobs? As more women enter the workforce, are jobs created for household support-providers? And the experience of emergencies and conflicts also leads us to ask: What happens when prices come down or become ‘normal’? Do women return to the home and to marginal roles therein? Does the double-burden of household and income-generating work remain that for women, while men enjoy the additional household income without the additional work?  The feminist economists (and there are many in India) that would have insights into some of these questions are rarely seen or heard in the mainstream media.

Inflation and economic hardship reinforce and intensify the structural disadvantages that women face, well beyond the challenges of caregiving in straitened circumstances. Women’s access to nutrition and health care is further diminished. Their workload increases. Social welfare and support services decline. Diminished means and status add up to greater vulnerability to violence. As the purchase price of goods and services goes up, it would appear that we value women and girls less. All of us are responsible for helping women find agency and autonomy in these circumstances.

"Hamaara paisa, hamaara hisaab"

Published here, DNA, August 29, 2013.

There is a story Aruna Roy often narrates when talking about the genesis of the Right to Information legislations in India. She quotes a woman in Beerawar,Rajasthan, who said, “If I give Rs 10 to my son and send him to the market to do some shopping then when he returns surely I have every right to ask him to give me hisaab. Hamara paisa, hamara hisaab. Why should I not do the same with the government?” While the anti-corruption churning of the last two years would appear to have been an urban, middle-class affair, women participating in social movements like the campaign for the Right to Information have long understood how corruption works.

Is this because women are in general, less corrupt or less prone to corruption than men? One 1999 study based on cross-national data came to the conclusion that women were more honest and less inclined to give or take bribes. Will the entry of more women into the public sphere—in politics, in the bureaucracy, in the social sector—make public services and interactions less corrupt? But charges of corruption are also levelled against women politicians, for example—and certainly of abuse of power. In a 2003 paper, the question is raised: are women less corrupt because they have less opportunity to be corrupt?
This, however, is a counter-factual debate at the moment. What is more important, perhaps, is to understand that corruption too has gendered consequences. That is, women and men feel the impact of corruption in some similar ways, but their experiences with it are different in others that reflect their different power positions in society.

Does this really matter? After all, anti-corruption movements seek to throw out corrupt people and practices, lock, stock and barrel. I would argue that it does matter. As we continue to discuss welfare policies, identity-based party politics, inclusion, governance (and its failures) and safety, corruption emerges as a common thread—whose existence we lament but often with resignation—and insofar as different women experience each of these differently, this is true of corruption too. What is true of how women experience corruption is also likely true for other minority and marginalized groups in society. For instance, understanding that corruption further disenfranchises poor women might help design better projects, with fewer loopholes, greater accountability and more careful recruitment of service delivery staff. Everyone benefits from this, not just poor women.

In a 2012 UNDP study, almost 400 grassroots women surveyed in several countries, including India, defined corruption very broadly to include the following: bribery; abuse of power or poor leadership; illegal or deceptive actions; poor or absent service delivery; sexual exploitation; and physical abuse. The women surveyed saw all public agencies as corrupt with the police and local government being the most corrupt. It was found that women encounter corruption most in the delivery of basic services (like getting food ration allocations, government documents or even health-care) and in the years when they needed public care services most, but that it extended to all their interactions with the state.

In any discussion of the gendered impact of corruption, three factors are relevant.

A majority of the world’s poor are women, and the income gap between men and women is only growing. Landlessness, lack of access to credit and gender inequitable inheritance laws contribute to what economists have called “the feminization of poverty.” Their health and nutritional needs are rarely met, and lack of education and insecure livelihood trap them in their situation. Poor women and those under their care depend most upon the welfare services of the state. Corruption, in the form of poor service delivery, abuse of power and bribery, accosts them at every turn, limiting their ability to use the services that are ostensibly meant primarily for them. This snowballs across generations. Thus it is, that after six decades of development planning for poverty alleviation, very little appears to have changed.

Sexual exploitation and the seeking of sexual favours in exchanges for the delivery of services or entitlements is something we associate with crisis situations like displacement after disasters or war. Vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence exacerbates the impact of corruption on women’s lives. This extends also to what women face when they seek justice for violence. In the UNDP study quoted above, women said that the police took bribes from both the complainant and the alleged perpetrator. Not just bribes, but nepotism and string-pulling also play a part here. This resonates as true and is reflected throughout our public discourse on governance and sexual violence as well as in our popular culture.

Not just in conflict and post-conflict situations, militarization is shadowed by corruption. The more we call out the para-military and the military to deal with law and order or disaster situations, the greater the opportunity for corruption. This is because in highly militarised situations, we increase the number of gate-keepers for everything. Access and mobility require checking and permission. More documentation is required and papers are checked more often. Property and amenities are commandeered for use, and the transfer involves an invocation of authority but possibly also a negotiation of the terms of use. The gendered impact of militarisation (limited mobility, for instance), the distress of poverty and vulnerability to violence might be compounded here by women often not having ownership of their homes or family property or female-headed households not being listed on a register of who is entitled to help.

The leadership of the anti-corruption mobilization of 2011-12 was very male, in spite of the important role that Kiran Bedi and Aruna Roy played. The crowds of volunteers at rallies across India seemed to have large numbers of young women and young men. One cannot expect a lot of nuance from spontaneous expressions of frustration, but it is still remarkable that for all the discussion at that time about corruption, very little of it was actually related to how corruption affects people differently depending on their social location and their gender. Moreover, a corollary of the myth that women are more honest than men is that the male-dominated public sphere is seen as being too corrupt for women to be able to survive and thrive. Corruption becomes a barrier for women’s participation.

We need to understand how corruption affects women—in different situations, at different life-stages—differently. We also need to ensure it doesn’t stop them from doing the things they need or the things they want to do. Some methods advocated by feminists, including gender budgeting and gender audits, have sought to introduce some measure of accountability for gender just practices into resource allocation and policy decisions. Building capacity should also mean training men and women in these and other tools.

Most of all, however, we need to stop teaching our daughters (particularly, but also our sons) that resignation to one’s fate is a virtue. If we continue to valorise resignation, then they will continue to think: a government officer will ask for a bribe and must be appeased; my passport application must be promoted by an influential relative; I cannot get a loan without a recommendation; I am nobody, the police will not register my FIR; I cannot ask questions. Asking questions, saying no, holding others accountable, gives all of us—women and men and others—agency in the fight against corruption. It really is that simple.

No more safe havens for women

(Published as Why aren't women and girls safe in India?, DNA, August 23, 2013. This text is slightly different because I did some editing after sending the first version.)

As I sit down to write this, newspapers are reporting the alleged gang-rape of a Mumbai journalist. People are posting the link everywhere, and in a while, comments and announcements about protests will follow. We’ve been here before. And then there are hundreds of other times when we should have been there to speak up, but haven’t.

Why aren’t India’s women and girls safe? Who is responsible for their safety? How should that safety be assured? Since December 2012, these three questions have become a fixture on the national agenda, as has the issue of safety, or more precisely, freedom from violence. But women and girls have always thought about safety. How could they not, when the threat of violence is pervasive and shadows them from conception through their lifetimes? Concerns about safety limit women’s mobility and activities and teach them to strategize everything from timings to travel to how to walk to the office or college toilet.

The Indian women’s movement has always raised the issue of violence—violence against women (or more broadly, gender-based violence that is directed at anyone by virtue of their gender) and the violence that follows from structural inequalities like caste, poverty or identity. India’s library of laws dealing with violence against women are a legacy of the women’s movement’s many campaigns to find ways to deter this violence (such as the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation And Prevention Of Misuse) Act, 1994, which addressed the growing problem of sex-selective abortion) or to offer justice to victims (such as the very recent Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, which is offers the growing numbers of women who work outside their own home a process whereby they can complain about sexual harassment). This is historically consistent—social reformers and social movements in India have seen the law as the remedy for social problems and sought new laws or amendments to old ones. Examples range from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s successful advocacy for the Hindu Widows Remarriage Act, 1856, to the Right to Information Act, 2005. 

We think first about the law—not because we are law-abiding—but because we repose primary responsibility for women’s safety in the hands of the state. We also see laws as expressing a larger consensus (which may or may not exist in reality) that certain kinds of behaviour are unacceptable to this society. When laws have not worked as we imagined they would, we assume it is because they were not properly implemented. The police are corrupt, we say, and the judicial system takes too long. When violence against women occurs, it’s because someone else failed—the police, the courts, the law and order apparatus, governance, politicians.

Concerns about women’s safety are expressed in paternalistic terms--how do we keep “our women” safe—our mothers and sisters, daughters and daughters-in-law, cousins and friends? Protectiveness is one way to express caring; but in the context of violence, it takes the form of restricting mobility, choice and freedom. Protection against violence outside the home becomes the pretext for control. A different category of violence emerges when education is interrupted, livelihood options are (de)limited and choice of friends and life-partners restricted or dictated. Women are told—wear this, do that, don’t go there, don’t talk to such people, don’t make eye contact. Discussing harassment situations at workshops, we learn that the “victim” should have said “no” clearly and firmly. Women are safe when they behave and speak in ways that ensure their safety. Women are unsafe when they make unsafe choices (dress, work, any).

This logic is extended, when the home is described as a “safe haven;” if women want to be safe, they should stay at home. But the home is not safe either. If the streets are full of marauders who are easily tempted into violence, predators lurk in the home. As much as they are the individual who beats and tortures a spouse or the relative who gropes, fondles or rapes the vulnerable, predators are also the family that thinks that a baby girl is a lesser child, that cousins are promised to each other or that the resident domestic worker also offers sexual services.

There are no safe havens for women. Nor, I believe, should there be. The idea of a safe haven to me seems to endorse the idea that it is acceptable that other places are unsafe. I say, it’s time we dumped that idea altogether.

How do we make every place safe for women, men and others? How do we make freedom from fear of violence a part of who we are? By taking responsibility.

Yes, laws matter and governments are responsible first and foremost, for public safety. Yes, we should be careful and thoughtful about potential risks. But we—each of us, all of us, together—also bear responsibility together for the world as it is and as it should be.

The first step is to recognize violence as “violence.” Groping is not acceptable because a girl got on a crowded bus. Someone who stayed on late to work with the team to meet a project deadline is being professional, not asking for seduction (aka harassment). Yelling at someone for a shapeless roti is not a well-deserved scolding but violence. Enforcing male preference by abusing diagnostic techniques is not freedom of choice. Forcing oneself on another person is violence even if the two have been in a relationship. To see violence where we would see lack of caution, poor choices, justice of a sort, passion or punishment—that is the starting point. After December 2012, we may be closer to that starting point than ever before.

The second step is to learn practical ways to stop violence from happening around you. Bell Bajao’s excellent videos offer many examples of simple things that neighbours and bystanders can do to break a moment of violence. In an office situation, if someone looks uncomfortable in an interaction, one might just walk up and interrupt by asking a question. On a train, if women travellers are being heckled, one might appear to join them as a way of communicating that the harassment has been noticed. Within the family, making gender violence a conversation topic can help to share awareness on what is and is not acceptable even within close relationships. Stopping violence does not need to involve confrontation and danger. It can be as simple as noticing and as sharing what one learns (from ideas to laws to helplines). Being alert and being considerate are more than half the battle won.

The third step is to know the law. We agitate for this law and that, and dissect drafts critically but do we know how to use the law? Are we willing to complain and stay the course? Reporting of violence against women is on the rise, happily, and this is where the role and functioning of the police and courts becomes relevant.

Taking responsibility, means finally, learning about support services (safe-homes and shelters; legal counselling; psychological and medical help; livelihood training) for survivors of violence and for their families. We should understand what services exist, and how we can strengthen those services—by volunteering time, by sharing resources or by making donations, at minimum.

Blaming the government, police and women, we will never eliminate the threat of violence against women (and others). By seeking and designating safe havens here and there, we force women to trade freedom for safety, citizenship for protection. But by owning and taking responsibility for a violence-free world, we start building the world in which we would like to live and we would like our children to inherit.

Mirror or dead storage, as you like it

I have been writing for Zee News/DNA for the last month, and since newspaper webpages are given to disappearing at short notice, wanted to back up my articles here.

The way this has worked is that the posts/articles are linked to the weekly theme on Zee News' 'Bharat Bhagya Vidhata' programmes, and I have tried to look at that theme from the perspective of gender, but usually women's experiences. Some posts have trodden familiar ground, others have been learning experiences that I treasure.

I will post each article separately, along with a link to the DNA webpage.