Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How Safe? How Informed?

Recently, we had organized a workshop on gender discrimination and Pre-birth sex selection in one of the premier colleges of Mumbai. As always the interaction was energetic and the participation enthusiastic.

However, we observed a few disturbing trends. A majority of the students when asked if abortion is illegal in India said "yes". What is bothersome is, the same students expressed their concern about peer pressure to have boy friends because "everybody has one", "it shows that you are desirable" and because "It is cool". The concern did not stop at having a boy friend or not. The girls were very much bothered about pre-marital sex. Should they indulge in it or not, and whether they can say no to demand for physical intimacy from the boy friends were some of the issues which were discussed.

The discussion was followed by a role play where they were asked to portray the current scenario and how they would like to change it. The first role play showed a shy and insecure girl smitten by a very popular macho man of the college, who takes advantage of her attraction for him, gets her to have sex with him and dumps her when she gets pregnant. The girl commits suicide.

The second scenario showed the same girl being advised by a friend about the bad character of the boy and the girl walks out of the relationship hurling abuses.There was no depiction of any assertive communication or negotiation in the two role plays.

Both the role plays depict the extreme situation, which may not be the case in reality. But more importantly, both the role plays showed the inability of the young women to negotiate their sexual rights, whether it is consent to sexual intimacy, use of contraceptives or access to safe abortion. This is scary! Particularly when we juxtapose it against their ignorance about the legal abortion services.

It is clear from the above that there is an immediate and urgent need to involve young women and men in a dialogue on issues related to sexuality and reproductive rights. The question is, are we as parents, teachers and social development workers ready to break the silence around these issues by addressing them head on? Or are we just happy letting them make sense of this chaotic world with its changing perceptions about pre-marital sex and pregnancies and the changing sexual mores?

The need to provide skills to youth to make informed decisions and opt for safe sex practices cannot be ignored. The media, educational institutions and the NGOs need to get working with youth in real earnest asap.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Win and No Win Situation!

It is again that time of the year when parents and students are tensed about the results of the Higher Secondary and Senior Secondary School exams as well as the innumerable entrance exams that the students appear for to gain entry into professional courses. The marks and ranks obtained practically determine the future of the student, unless of course the parents have the capacity to buy management seats. This is also the time when girls reassert their academic supremacy by faring much better than the boys. The Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education had announced Maharashtra class 12th results. Like in the earlier years, once again girls fared exceptionally well. The passing percentage of girls is 80.48 whereas for Boys it is 73.17. The overall passing percentage of the HSC examination is 76.36%.

It is shocking but not really unexpected to read about an emerging trend in some colleges of Bangalore to hike the cut off marks for girls because they outperform the boys in HSC exams.It is reported that the MES College and National College in Bangalore set the cut-off point for boys at 594 and cut off point for girls at 599.

This is just another manifestation of the societal attitude towards girl's education which makes parents prioritize investments in boy's education over that of the girls. This attitude at one stroke undervalues the achievement of the girls while reinforcing the gender inequities. It is interesting to note that the performance of the girls is trivialized by comments like "girls do not have extra-curricular activities or distractions and only focus on studies and therefore score well in exams". If we take this statement at face value, it raises two questions: why do girls not have opportunities to indulge in extracurricular activities or distractions and why is our education system discriminatory when it comes to promoting sports and outdoor activities for the girls. Not just our schools and colleges even at home girls and boys are not given the same freedom of movement and access to public spaces - parks, play grounds, etc.

Why do we always discount the achievements of women. If a woman succeeds at work place,it is because she uses her charms, if she makes a mark in politics it is because of her family connections and if she does well in studies it is because of
boredom!What about her aspirations, her ambitions and her commitment and hardwork?

It is sad that such attitudes actually make women and girls undervalue their own aspirations and achievements. In a survey conducted by Population First among youth, similar attitudes were expressed. A total of 521 parents and 642 students from all over Mumbai were administered a questionnaire on how they perceive gender roles. However, the attitude that came across was that girl's education or career is secondary to that of the boy's and that her education and career choices should be delimited by thatof her husband's. One fourth of the people interviewed felt that there would be problems in the family if the woman is more educated or earns more than the man. This reflects the unquestioned acceptance of the gender equations at home where men are seen as superior to women. Such attitudes justify and rationalize glass ceilings and should be questioned.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Whose "Dosh" is it anyway!

A few days back my attention was drawn by a friend to a news paper ad on the issue of how the sex of the baby is determined by the X and Y chromosomes. It is common knowledge that a woman who gives birth to a daughter or only daughters is considered "Manhoos" bad luck for the family and is a victim of considerable violence from the family members and snide remarks and sympathy from the community members. We need to change this, we need to communicate to people that sex of the baby is a question of chance and not choice. It is a biological phenomenon where the Y chromosome of a man plays a crucial role in determining the sex of the baby. No amount of prayers, offerings, vrats and visits to holy men can influence it. Violence against the woman is definitely not going to change it.

But what is more important is how do we communicate it to people. The above advertisement and many other communications also say that it is not the "dosh" i.e fault of the woman, as the sex of the baby is determined by the man. Does it mean then that the man is at fault, "doshi"? Are we saying that people should now direct all their anger and frustration against the man. Throw him out of the house, torture him and make him feel inadequate?

More importantly, are we saying that having a daughter IS a "dosh"- a crime, a mistake? What is so criminal about having a daughter?

By using the word "Dosh" in the ad we all are guilty of perpetuating a mindset that looks at daughters as a burden and as a failure. It is the responsibility of all the communication professionals to be conscious of such nuances and work on messages that do not further compound the prejudices.

It is also the responsibility of each one of us, like my friend, to keep our eyes and ears open to such "dosh" in communication and bring it to the notice of the authorities.

At times it may look like we are being too finicky about words. However, remember if we are not conscious of their nuances, we all are at "dosh" for the state of affairs.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bridging the Digital Gender Divide

May 17th is the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD)It marks the anniversary of the signing of the first International Telegraph Convention and the creation of the International Telecommunication Union in 1865. The day focuses on the possibilities that the use of Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICT) can bring to societies and economies, as well as of ways to bridge the digital divide. One of the major digital divides is between men and women.

It is a fact that the IT revolution has brought more and more women into the organized sector. What is significant is that many of them are employed in BPOs and KPOs which are unconventional in their work culture demanding night shifts, performance targets, long hours etc. The industry responded to the influx of women by trying to make the work environment women friendly. However, every now and then we hear about women BPO workers being raped and murdered by the taxi drivers, sexual harrassment at workplace etc.

A recent study titled "Empowering the Women" conducted by Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham)looked into the work satisfaction levels of women in public sector and in the BPO sector. The study concluded that women found greater work satisfaction in the public sector employment which provided them reasonable remuneration, job security and convenient working hours.

A similar study with men may also come to the same conclusion considering the fact that job-security, less stressful, less competitive environments are preferred by many. However, since this study is about women there is a tendency to see it as a gender issue - leading to the conclusion that women are incapable of working hard shifts and be competitive. We should remember that the issue is not one of capability - women are as efficient and successful as men upto a certain level in this sector. However, one cannot deny the existence of the glass ceiling when it comes to reaching the senior management/CEO levels. There is also tardiness in putting systems in place - be it safe housing, safe transport or redressal mechanisms for sexual harrassment in workplaces.

Social factors like double burden of working women, inability of couples and families to redefine gender roles to allow men to take up household chores etc. also influence the way women percieve the suitability of employment in a particular sector.

There was a report sometime back that the demand for brides working in the IT sector had increased during the slump. Many young men prefer a working wife to tide over in case of loosing the job. Infact, women are less likely to change jobs and are thus better employees than men especially when the economy is in recession.

While IT is providing more employment opportunities and increasing access of women to more information, services and institutions it is equally important to address the gender issues at home and in the workplaces to ensure that the digital divide as well as the gender divide is closed.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Laadli - taronki tu rani

Who can forget the lovely melody by Lata Mangeshkar "Laadli oh meri laadli"  from the movie Andaz. Just as the song, our girl child campaign Laadli also works to evoke feelings of love, adoration and affection for the girl child. But how sad that in many minds, hearts and families, a girl child only brings feelings of dread, dislike and distaste.

Lets look at some of the warped logic and thinking.

We do not want girls because they are seen as wasted investments. What is the point of a having a daughter when she is likely to get married and leave for her husband's home? She cannot take care of us in our old  age and nor can she run our business or protect our property. There are many other justifications for the discrimination.

What about the problem of dowry demands. Remember a girl is a parayadhan and the job of protecting her virginity till she is married to someone is such a responsibility!

Anyway a woman's position in the family and society is determined by her ability to give birth to a son - the Vamshodharak (one who will continue the lineage). If we can afford to have two children, it is fine to have a daughter.  But a son is a must, even if it means that the woman has to undergo repeated sex determination tests and illegal aex selective abortions. What difference does it make if in the process she becomes anemic, sick and dies.  Atleast she would have fulfilled her responsibility as the daughter in-law of the house and as a wife. Any way for a man of resources, getting another wife is not a big problem.

So unfortunate that such thinking is still dominant in the upper and educated classes of our society.

The medical practitioners also use such arguements for justifying their unethical behaviour, siting the above mindsets. The prospect of the woman facing violence at home if she does not give birth to a son is oftern given by them as the reason for their indulging in the practice of assisting in pre-natal sex selection .

I wonder how openly they will assist somebody  wanting to give up life for whatever reason. Not many medical professionals would justify such an act on humanitarian grounds and fewer still will get away with it.  Why do the same medical ethics and qualms do not hold good when it comes to pre-birth sex selection?

 If it was purely a social issue,as many claim, how come we did not have a problem of falling sex ratios till the introduction of prenatal diagnostic tests? It is worth mentioning that the less intrusive the technologies are and  more aggressively promoted,  higher is the decline in the sex ratios.Is this just a coincidence or is there a correlation?

Aggressive marketing of diagnostic technologies, desire for smaller families, rising aspirations and social insecurity are conspiring against the girl child making her more and more scarce in our population. Ironically, she defies the economic principle that shortage would enhance the demand and value of the product. Lesser the number of girls more are the atrocities and restrictions - honour killings, social restrictions, trafficking, sexual violence and exploitation.

I would like to share with you in great detail my thoughts and experiences regarding the girl child. I invite you all to respond to my blog and help us make every girlchild a Laadli.