Forget the Nukes, We Need to Talk About Our Women

Image

Courtesy: ctvnews

There was much excitement this week on South Asia as the newly-crowned Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Modi, who won the election with the largest mandate in 30 years, took the unprecedented step of inviting Sharif to his inauguration, and much to everyone’s surprise, Sharif accepted the invitation.

That India and Pakistan are unfriendly neighbours, everyone knows. They’ve sparred over everything from cricket to their nuclear arms and even their mangoes. While improved ties between the two countries, which have been to war thrice since 1947, is undoubtedly desirable and crucial to peace in the region, what’s missing on any checklist is steps to improve the status of women in both countries.

In the same week that the two leaders held their ground-breaking meeting, a pregnant woman was stoned to death outside a court in Lahore for marrying a man of her choice, while in India, two teen-aged girls were gang-raped and hanged from a tree in a village in Uttar Pradesh state. Sharif has condemned the incident in Pakistan; there is no official response yet from Modi.

The two countries have a combined population of 1.4 billion. They have similar languages and cuisines, share customs and traditions, and a love for music, movies and cricket. They are also alike in treating their womenfolk badly. While the two countries have had a woman prime minister each and women in senior government positions, both rank low on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report: India at 101 and Pakistan at 135, one notch above the bottom and lower than their other neighbours. While Pakistan fares poorly on all four metrics, both countries do particularly badly on Economic Opportunity and Opportunity and Health and Survival.

So while it is indeed important that the two prime ministers talk about terrorism, it is also equally important that they talk about the status of women in their countries, and what they can do to improve their lot. That would be truly ground-breaking.

When Daughters Don’t Return Home From School

Image

Courtesy: batangablog

The South Korean ferry tragedy is not the only bit of sad news about school children this month; days before, gunmen had stormed a girls’ school in Chibok in Nigeria’s north-eastern state of Borno, and abducted more than 200 students. Dozens managed to escape, with no trace of the remainder. The police called off the search this week, leaving frantic parents to search the forest themselves.

The mass kidnap was allegedly by Islamist group Boko Haram, which is linked to the al-Qaeda. Boko Haram means “western education is a sin”, and the group has been waging a violent campaign to impose shariah law, which appears to be particularly opposed to girls’ formal education. Earlier this year, it killed more than 50 students elsewhere in the country. 

More people are obviously familiar with the story of Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by the Taliban in Swat Valley as she returned from school, for refusing to back down on her activism for education for girls. The U.N. has declared July 12 Malala Day.

There is very little media coverage, let alone accolades for the millions of marginalised children who are denied an education because of discrimination. A Human Rights Watch report this week highlights the widespread discrimination against Indian school children belonging to tribal groups, so-called lower castes and minority communities. It cites Unicef’s estimate that 80 million Indian children will drop out before completing elementary school and lays some of the blame on discrimination and intimidation. This, despite the passage of the Right to Education Act in 2010, which mandates free and compulsory education for all children aged 6 to 14 years. Most examples in the HRW report are of boys, because girl children are often not allowed to go to school at all.

What is a harder problem to have: fearing discrimination against your child in school or fearing your child’s safe return from school?

The Big, Fat, Gender-Biased Indian Election

Image

Via: WSJ

You may have heard the numbers: 815 million voters; 543 lawmakers; 9 rounds of voting in the world’s largest democracy. You also know who’s projected to win: the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party led by divisive leader Narendra Modi, with the ruling Congress party set for its worst performance ever.

What you probably haven’t heard is how skewed India’s voter gender ratio is: 883 women voters per 1,000 male voters. Give or take. That’s an improvement from 715 per 1,000 male voters in the 1960s, according to data compiled by Shamika Ravi and Mudit Kapoor, professors at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. But it is lower even than the national gender ratio, embarrassing as it is, of 940 women per 1,000 men.

How has this come about? Not for want of legislation. Indian women were granted the right to vote and run in elections three years after India’s independence in 1947, the same year as men. Women have played a significant role in Indian politics down: from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to present-day chief ministers Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa Jayaram.

Still, India’s largely patriarchal tradition and cultural mores that require women to acquiesce to the opinion of men has meant that women have often not been a part of the political conversation, or showed up to vote on election day. That has also resulted in very few women lawmakers: of nearly 5,000 lawmakers across the country, less than 10 percent are women.

While the Indian government did implement a law in 2009 that mandated the reservation of at least half the seats at panchayati raj or local government institutions in villages and districts for women, it has dragged its feet on the Women’s Reservation Bill. The bill proposes to amend the Indian Constitution to reserve a third of all seats in the lower house and all state legislative assemblies for women, and has not been passed by the lower house after the upper house passed it in 2010.

India ranks 101 out of 136 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2013 global gender-gap index that examines economic participation, education, health and political empowerment. That is the lowest ranking among the BRIC economies, and is lower than Botswana and Bangladesh.

In this election, the year-old Aam Admi Party has the highest percentage of women candidates, about 15 percent, while the Congress has 12 percent and the BJP has 9 percent. That doesn’t bode well for the future of women’s representation in India.

A Bank of Women, by Women, for Women

Image

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last week opened the first branch of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank (Indian Women’s Bank) in Mumbai, which will employ only women, and accept deposits from and lend mostly to women.

Importantly, this bank will have branches in smaller towns and villages where its services are most required. And while men may also operate accounts here, the focus will be on women, and making educating women financially-aware.

Why a bank – primarily – for women? Only 26 percent of women in India have an account in a financial institution – be it a bank, a credit union, a post office or a microfinance institution – compared with 46 percent of men, according to a study by the World Bank. 

Financial inclusion is a big challenge in many developing countries where barriers to opening a bank account or taking a loan include physical distance, lack of documentation and high costs; only 35 percent of Indians have access to banking services compared to a global average of 50 percent, and a developing-nation average of 41 percent, according to World Bank data.

In India, even as more women are getting an education and jobs, millions still have no access to basic financial services and are reduced to being dependent on their fathers or their husbands to manage their money. At the same time, some of the top private banks, from ICICI Bank to HSBC Plc and JP Morgan in India have women CEOs. 

Microfinance institutions and self-help groups have done much to improve access to financial services for women, as have the advent of mobile phones and the rollout of India’s unique identification system. Simply setting up a bank of women will not solve entrenched social issues and traditions which continue to favor men. But it is a start, and much like India’s popular ladies’-special-trains, the bank may lower the barriers for women in a deeply patriarchal society.

When Saudi Women Went For a Drive

Image

A bunch of Saudi Arabian women went for a drive on Saturday. There’s no punchline to that, because there’s nothing funny in the fact that these women risked imprisonment – or worse – in defying a ban on driving in the kingdom.

This was the third such protest staged by Saudi Arabian women against a de facto ban that has led to women being arrested, sentenced to flogged and losing their jobs for defying orders. There have been calls from various quarters to lift this ban – which really has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with exercising control over women. Saudi women also need a man’s permission to get a job or travel abroad.

But the Saudi government – and the country’s men – appear divided on whether it should lift the ban on driving. While the king has made some noises about lifting the ban in 2015, and various men showed their support on Saturday, one particularly enlightened cleric last month said women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and producing children with clinical problems.

Limiting the mobility of women is a time-honored practice in many countries, kept alive and well by politicians and religious leaders pandering for votes and afraid to incur the wrath of the religious conservatives. Clerics in Afghanistan this year barred women from leaving home without a male chaperone. Politicians and police in India advised women to not stay outdoors after dark following a brutal gang rape in Delhi last year. Movements such as Take Back the Night haven’t quite had an impact here; what we really need is more women going for a drive or a walk. Free and unafraid.

12 Years a Slave. How About a Lifetime in Slavery ?

Moving as the film is, even more gut-wrenching is a global index published today that shows a staggering 29.8 million people serving as modern-day slaves in countries ranging from Nigeria to Myanmar.

Ten countries account for three-fourths of the world’s slaves, and India alone is host to almost half the total, according to Walk Free, an Australia-based rights group. While slavery is illegal in every country, the fight against it is not a big priority for most governments, and some forms of the practice – including forced marriage and trafficking of women and children for domestic work and as sex workers – may not be considered slavery in these countries.

Walk Free doesn’t break down the numbers to show how many modern-day slaves are women, but it’s likely to be a high proportion of the total. Yet there’s not much action on say, domestic workers in Asia or the Middle East, a practice that encourages the trafficking of women. Despite reports of violence against domestic workers in cities from New Delhi to Dubai, the demand – ironically fueled at least in part by greater numbers of working women – hasn’t abated.

Some Philippine recruiters recently decided to stop sending maids to Singapore till the issue of the payment of a placement fee is addressed – which often leaves maids with little cash in hand. Indonesia has demanded more safety for its workers in Singapore after a frightening number fell to their deaths cleaning windows in high-rise apartments.

worker

Yet, while the decision in Hong Kong to not grant residency permits to domestic workers who have lived there for years has fueled the debate for greater rights, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort to end slave-like conditions – or even grant a mandatory day off to domestic workers.

So for every country that steps in to try and protect the rights of its women who are trafficked to richer countries, poorer countries including Cambodia and Myanmar willingly send their womenfolk into slavery.  Public apathy is as much to blame as government inaction.

That’s Not Fair: on Nina Davaluri and Miss America

I never pay any attention to so-called beauty pageants. But it was hard to miss the tsunami of tweets on the newly-crowned #MissAmerica, Nina Davuluri, who is of Indian descent. The majority of those tweets were not congratulatory.

Rather, they focused on the fact that Davuluri is of Indian heritage and therefore “cannot be regarded as American.” The fact that she has dark skin and dark hair. The fiction that she’s Muslim and a terrorist. And the speculation that she must run a Seven-Eleven store.

In fact, Davuluri’s American and from New York. She’s not a Muslim; she wants to be a physician, like her dad. The only intractable fact is that she’s dark-skinned.

Our fixation with fair skin and light hair is alive and well in the 21st century, rearing its ugly head from Zurich to Dhaka, and targeting women in particular. Cosmetics companies have built billion-dollar businesses hawking wonder skin-lightening creams to desperate women who are made to believe being a couple of shades lighter will give them a better chance in the world that places such a premium on fair skin. You will do well in school, land a plum job, score with a good-looking guy, make your parents proud – if only your skin’s lighter.

Award-winning Indian actor and director Nandita Das recently launched a campaign called Dark is Beautiful to “campaign against the toxic belief that a person’s worth is measured by the fairness of their skin.” Davuluri-haters should sign up for a lesson in being fair, regardless of skin color.

Love Our Goddesses, Hate Our Women

A print ad campaign in India with images of battered Hindu goddesses seeks to highlight a disturbing dichotomy in the country’s culture: a reverence for goddesses and female deities on the one hand and rising numbers of rapes and abuses of women and girls on the other. You can see the images here.

How to explain this twisted double standard? Is it the patriarchal mindset, the centuries-old preference for boys, repeated reinforcements of chauvinism in the popular culture, the lack of strong legislation, or feeble political will to take a stand? All of these and more, perhaps.

There has been a 16 percent jump in the number of reported rapes in India in the five years through 2012, and a 902 percent jump since 1971, Bloomberg reported, citing police records. In the first six months of 2013 alone, reported rapes in New Delhi soared to 806 from 330 in the same period a year earlier.

An ad campaign, no matter how striking, is not going to put an end to it, even if the men charged in the horrific Delhi gang-rape were found guilty after a speedy (by Indian standards) trial. But the campaign it has at least got people talking.

There may be fewer goddesses in Bangladesh and China,  but that doesn’t mean there’s less violence against women in these countries. Almost a quarter of men surveyed in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka, said they had committed rape at least once, according to a survey of more than 10,000 men. The survey, published in The Lancet Global Health journal,  is said to be the first multi-country one on the prevalence of rape, and is part of a UN report on violence in Asia and the Pacific.

One in 10 men said they had raped a woman who wasn’t a partner; with partners included, that number jumped to 24 percent. Just under half said they had raped more than one woman. Nearly three quarters of those who committed rape said they did so for “sexual entitlement”. The second most common reason was rape as a form of entertainment. In other words, they were bored. Makes for chilling reading.

When getting home safe is all that matters

Stunned by yet another report last month of yet another gang-rape in India, this time in Mumbai, where I lived and worked for eight years, and which I believed to be the safest city in India, the most woman-friendly. It’s hard to wrap my head around the facts of the story, given that the mill-area where the 22-year-old was raped in the presence of a male colleague is where I went into work for nearly six years. The former textile mills now house media companies and private-equity firms, malls and restaurants, and is a bustling bee-hive of activity in the centre of the city. A city that doesn’t feel safe anymore, like dozens of other Indian cities.

What’s also worrying is that recent attacks on women – including the horrendous one in New Delhi last December – appear to be targeting a certain kind of woman, in particular: educated and working, usually in the city. This is not to belittle other attacks on women that occur every day across India, where a rape reportedly takes place every 21 minutes. But it seems that the more Indian women break with tradition and embark on careers and independent lives, the more determined men are to bring them down – sometimes violently.

The blowback also targets women: following the rape and eventual death of the young woman in New Delhi last year, some offices banned women from working overtime, while others barred women from certain kinds of jobs including at call centers, which may require working night shifts. Women are being unfairly discriminated against at the workplace and denied equal opportunities, and they have no one to turn to, not even the police or lawmakers, who rather than pledge to address the security issues, have said women should not stay out late, dress provocatively or take public transport.

India has a lot to lose should its women be forced to quit work because of concerns over safety. Already, despite rising levels of female literacy, labour-force participation by women fell to 16.8 percent in 2011 from 22.4 percent in 2005, according to data from the Asian Development Bank. In the World Economic Forum’s ranking of gender parity in economic participation, India languishes near the bottom, ranking only above Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen, a gap that “will be detrimental to India’s growth,” WEF said in a 2011 report. This is not progress.

Since the attack in Mumbai, women journalists – and even visitors to India – have been speaking out about their own experiences with sexual harassment and violence on the job. They are not the only ones being targeted, clearly.

I fear for my young niece’s future. What good is having your country counted among the economic powerhouses if she must one day make a career choice based on how late she must stay at work or whether she will be required to travel? When women across the world are debating issues including the glass ceiling, leaning in and pay parity, women in India are worried simply about getting home safe from work.