Gendered Spaces in India

Pranita Choudhry

Examining the spatial exclusion of Women in India

According to the latest census, in India, there are currently 37 million men in excess of women. A country that experiences the giant gender gap in population, also has an equally large gender gap in employment where only 20% women currently participate in the labour market (according to world bank data). India’s performance is among the lowest globally with stark comparisons to its neighbours: 36% in Bangladesh, 59% in China, and 35% in Sri Lanka and 80% women in Nepal are currently in formal employment. This is in the vicinity of 80% for men according to an ILO report. The reasons for India’s low global ranking are all too well-known and obvious – patriarchal society, preference of sons over daughters, fertility, domestic and care activities. While economic growth and rising overall education levels for women are reasons to celebrate, absorption of women in the labour force through creation of suitable job opportunities has been all too slow. Invisibilisation of women due to economic growth was further achieved through increased household incomes that no longer deemed it necessary for housewives to seek work outside, also known as the “income effect”.

“the majority of the women who do work are mostly concentrated in the informal sector. The jobs they perform are part of the highly labour-intensive informal workspaces including menial work within agriculture, construction, handicrafts, or within home businesses.”

On the other hand, the majority of the women who do work are mostly concentrated in the informal sector. The jobs they perform are part of the highly labour-intensive informal workspaces including menial work within agriculture, construction, handicrafts, or within home businesses. Among the minority who make it to the formal sector, most are performing tasks that are an extension of home duties such as nursing, teaching beauty, healthcare, fashion, textiles, teaching etc. Take the textiles industry, for example, where 71% of the workforce according to a World Bank report are women, but where they are subjected to low pay, extensive hours, exploitation and bad working conditions. Women’s primary role in society is seen as that of a ‘caregiver’, therefore even professionally they are engaging in activities that are an extension of the home. Professionals or homemakers, they are never excused from taking on the burden of household chores and responsibility as caregivers to children and the elderly. 

“On average, women do one hour less of productive work as compared to men, and yet are responsible for three times more home-bound care work.”

On average, women do one hour less of productive work as compared to men, and yet are responsible for three times more home-bound care work. Take a look at the graph below that showcases the Female to Male ratio in terms of the time devoted to unpaid care work i.e. domestic and household chores as well as care activities for children and elderly. Amongst the highest in the world are Pakistan and India where women devote 10.25 and 9.83 hours for every hour devoted by men (respectively).

Deshpande, A. and Kabeer, N. (2019) (In)Visibility, Care and Cultural Barriers. The size and shape of women’s work in India (with Ashwini Deshpande) Discussion Paper Series in Economics DP 04/19. Department of Economics, Ashoka University.

While this has shifted slightly in urban spaces, the status quo remains in rural areas. Even in urban areas, policies and compliance is meagre especially in the informal sector and thinking about alternative careers such as those in manufacturing or technology is a distant reality.

The spaces that women claim are largely private. At the end of the day, it’s all a tussle between the public and private spaces and how power is experienced and negotiated within them that creates the silent rules we adhere to in our jobs, relationships, and interactions as a society. Take a look at the picture below of a small village in Bihar, India.

If you visit the interiors of India, you will see this as a common sight. While girls are tasked with commuting from home, holding containers of material or water, often several times a day, boys are found out playing, being with friends, or just running on the streets, just being who they’re supposed to be – children. In other words, you would see boys claiming the public spaces early on, while girls are restricted to private “for their own safety”. The only times they must only be out is to study or related to housework. Here’s another image that’s not specific to rural areas, but all around us.

As I ventured into the rural spaces, I was struck by how hard women worked all day long, engaged in agriculture work day after day as well as performing household duties, ready to forego any payments or rights. While their husbands often roamed about in the evenings to visit their friends or drink at the local pub, women often spent their evenings ensuring the rest of the family members, including the livestock, are well-fed and taken care of. This is an accepted form of behaviour instilled early on in life. Most women I spoke to expressed their discontent at the unfairness of it all, but simply didn’t want to voice their unhappiness from the fear of bringing shame to the family. I noticed they continued to treat their sons differently, maybe unintentionally, contributing to this vicious cycle. It demonstrates the deep-rooted acceptance of norms that dictate our behaviour and accepted both by the oppressed and the oppressor, that leads to the inter-generational repetition and continuation of the status quo, in rural and urban spaces.

“it’s not about the immediate monetary benefits but the consequential and intergenerational impacts on the lives of women and children. Empowerment is a holistic concept that cuts across the economic, social and political realms. It’s not just about getting job opportunities, but to be in an environment that’s productive, safe, and where women have the freedom to make their own choices.”

But isn’t it a woman’s duty to take care of her children and elders? why should they be paid for the tasks that they do for their family? Well, it’s not about the immediate monetary benefits but the consequential and intergenerational impacts on the lives of women and children. Empowerment is a holistic concept that cuts across the economic, social and political realms. It’s not just about getting job opportunities, but to be in an environment that’s productive, safe, and where women have the freedom to make their own choices. Gender norms dictate that claiming public spaces is considered desirable, attractive, challenging and ambitious, and are largely “masculine”, while being in the private sphere, no matter how much work you do, is considered feminine, a duty that’s taken for granted, in some instances leading to ill-treatment and exploitation. It’s about control. Take a look at the positioning and space distribution below which was completely unplanned and in fact but took place organically, reflective of the power dynamics.

“Power is exerted in many ways, one of them being “dismissal”. The collective acceptance of a narrative by those in positions of power, mostly men in senior leadership positions, political leaders, and at a micro-level considered heads of households, are often quick to dismiss or are inconsiderate to any other voices or viewpoints and assume the role of a decision-maker. It’s a system that seeks conformity rather than rewards creativity.”

Power is exerted in many ways, one of them being “dismissal”. The collective acceptance of a narrative by those in positions of power, mostly men in senior leadership positions, political leaders, and at a micro-level considered heads of households, are often quick to dismiss or are inconsiderate to any other voices or viewpoints and assume the role of a decision-maker. It’s a system that seeks conformity rather than rewards creativity. Their dominant presence in the public spaces is what leads to an insecure and unsafe space for women, who face eve-teasing and harassment, and thus have to constantly sacrifice their share of freedom & mobility to participate in the workforce. When taking a non-binary gender view, the experiences of those from the LGBTQIA communities who face violence and discrimination are nerve-racking and are immensely invisible. On other hand, the well-meaning male allies try they find it hard to make changes given the deep-rooted structural shifts that are needed.

The only solution to breaking this imbalance is for more and more women and girls to step into the public sphere and are well-supported to do so. However, with expectations around marriage, fertility, and care responsibilities, the challenge for us today is to facilitate this process and ensure they enter and then remain in the workforce. As the Economist, Amartya Sen explained, women can become agents of change only if certain conditions are fulfilled – they acquire more than basic education; they have an independent income; they have land rights; and that they have the freedom to work outside the house. However, when it is achieved, it brings about development not just for women themselves but others too. On average, countries with greater female labor force participation generally see later marriages, fewer children, better nutrition and school enrolment, and higher gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. There is also research that suggests that choices made by women’s groups not only led to empowerment for women themselves but greater development for children’s education and health, and the community at large.  

“The female labour force participation rate was the highest at 33% in 1972-73, and has been declining ever since.”

The female labour force participation rate was the highest at 33% in 1972-73, and has been declining ever since. Therefore, the challenge is real, to drive women from the “Private” to the “Public”. Unfortunately, there isn’t any quick fix to a problem this deep-rooted and ingrained. A change to this lopsided social structure will manifest only if we put in place certain provisions and solutions that are unconventional and multi-dimensional. At a policy and systemic level, change takes time and various initiatives are underway to influence policy change by organisations such as Sewa Mandir that unionised workers.. At an organisational level, some evidence-based initiatives seem to have worked in the west in the formal sector that may help lead the way towards increasing and sustenance of the labour force participation rate for women. Provisions such as having work-life balance policies in the workplace, effective protections against dismissal for pregnant women, shared parental leave, flexible working arrangements, company provided care services, a robust workplace harassment policy are some of the ways to help women continue being in the workforce. Having mentors and role models is crucial to help access the next stage, and to chart a path less travelled before and keep confidence and self-esteem high. 

While the gaps are structural with empty policies, profit-seeking corporations, poor implementation of laws, or political will, it is as much about changing individual behaviours, mindsets, attitudes, that rests upon us. We as citizens must keep our eyes open and intentions intact by ensuring we put in place a safe and dignified working environment, policies and contracts for staff members, domestic workers, part-time employees, ensure protection in the workplace, and have borders that are defined for our “employees” and not “servants”. Within the household, it is to encourage boys and adult men to teach their children that it is valuable to do “house” work, and a necessary aspect of being truly “independent” and “empowered”. It isn’t enough for men to think and say they “let” their partners work and that they are empowered because they have a job, it will take an equal division of labour both at work and at home. For women to claim public spaces, they need their partners and allies to pick up the slack in the private spaces, only then will the balance be restored.

“The labour force participation of women is lower by 0.3% as a result of the pandemic and girls are dropping out of schools where 37% from poor households in India are at risk of leaving behind their education, and more and more women are at risk of experiencing domestic abuse and gender-based violence. Others are pushed into early marriage or teenage pregnancies. 2.5 million girls globally are at risk of child marriage, India being one of the worst.”

To top it all off, the imbalance recently has further been exacerbated by the pandemic. The labour force participation of women is lower by 0.3% as a result of the pandemic and girls are dropping out of schools where 37% from poor households in India are at risk of leaving behind their education, and more and more women are at risk of experiencing domestic abuse and gender-based violence. Others are pushed into early marriage or teenage pregnancies. 2.5 million girls globally are at risk of child marriage, India being one of the worst. These are areas of work being taken up by various charities, NGOs and multilateral organisations such as the United Nations and other civil society actors. While many of us may not be able to shift these outcomes by ourselves, being part of the larger interventions and contributing is the need of the hour. In addition, there are things we can do and changes we can make within our own lives to contribute to a fight that needs our contribution. The pandemic has indeed offered us a unique opportunity, as we stay at home, to truly re-imagine our roles and contribute equally to all household chores to ensure we aren’t just advocates but practitioners of equality. 

Pranita is an international development professional, writer and activist, working with charities and not-for-profits, specialising in research and evaluation in youth development, gender and inclusion.

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Women Social Reformers You Should Know About

Priya Jayakumar

Remembering India’s inspirational social reformers

Annai Meenambal

Annai Meenambal was born into a Dalit family in Tamil Nadu and migrated to Rangoon (Myanmar) to escape the brutalities of caste system. Her grandfather and father were great Dalit leaders who were part of Adi-dravida movements. She was the first Scheduled Caste woman President of Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF) founded by Dr. Ambedkar. She presided over two major SCF conferences in Madras and Bombay in the 1940s. Her major achievements include being the first Scheduled Caste woman to become a member of Madras Corporation representing Madras University senate and Deputy Mayor of Chennai Corporation, honorary magistrate for Madras Province and Director of Scheduled Castes Cooperative Bank. She was the one who gave E.V. Ramasamy the title “Periyar”(the great one) and was one of the radical feminist leaders of Self-Respect movement. She worked for the welfare of Dalit-Bahujans till the age of 80. 

Hemalatha Lavanam

Dr. Hemalatha Lavanam was the daughter of a renown Dalit Telugu poet Gurram Joshua. Since childhood she faced the rigours of caste and untouchability. The Jogini system is a social evil in which the so-called untouchable girls of the villages in Telangana are dedicated to the deities Ellamma and Potamma. The children are regarded as village property and any man from that village has the right to sexually exploit these children. Dr. Hemalatha worked for the eradication of this religious custom and rehabilitation of children. Dr. Hemalatha, along with Vinoba Bhave and Jayprakash Narayan, worked for the rehabilitation of criminal tribes in Chambal Valley. She also was in the forefront of various disaster reliefs and rehabilitations. She led a Unity March on foot for 1400 kilometers in 70 days, raising concern and voice against the caste violence that occurred condemning the murder of a Congress(I) MLA in coastal Andhra Pradesh in 1989.  Dr. Hemalatha’s commitment for the poor and downtrodden made her receive a number of awards. She was a well-known writer and poet and published a number of books. 

Dr. V. Shantha

Dr. Shantha was an oncologist and the chairperson of Adyar Cancer Institute, Chennai. In her medical career spanning over 60 years, she dedicated herself on organising care of cancer patients, study of the disease, its prevention and control, creation of specialists and scientists in different aspects of oncologic sciences. She played a key role in the development of the institute from a cottage hospital which initially had 12 beds to a comprehensive one. She started affordable and quality cancer treatment in India treating 60% of the patients free of cost or at heavily subsidised rates. She was the first to initiate a paediatric oncology clinic, first to establish a cancer research and treatment centre in India, first to offer postgraduate in oncology course, oversaw the opening of the first hereditary cancer clinic in India and also conducted one of the first major cancer surveys in India. She  received various prestigious awards including Magsaysay award, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan.

Mandhakini Amte

Dr. Mandhakini Amte dedicated her life to serving the Madia-Gond tribal community in the forest of Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra. She left her job as a lecturer in a medical college and settled with the tribal people in a hut along with her husband, Prakash Amte. She renounced her sophisticated life and committed herself to social work. There were no roads, electricity and water and she had to harvest paddy and vegetables for food. The Madia-Gonds feared civilized people and faced difficulties connecting with them. Slowly she won the trust of the people by providing treatment and medication to their ailments. There were no facilities and there were limitations in terms of instruments, infrastructure and medicine. She along with her husband started a project called the Lok Biradari Prakalp (The People’s Brotherhood) for the integrated development of Madia-Gond which now has a fully-fledged 40 bed hospital that caters to over 40000 patients annually and a residential school from 1st to 12th standard giving free education to nearly 650 tribal children. She is a recipient of the prestigious Magsaysay award.

Fatima Sheikh

Fatima Sheikh was the first woman Muslim teacher in India. When Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule were asked to vacate their ancestral home by Jyotirao’s father due to their reform, it was Fatima Sheikh who opened her doors for them and it was at the same building she joined hands with Savitribai to establish the first school for girls in India called “Indigenous Library” in 1848. She not only faced challenges from the Hindus for educating girls and the untouchables, but also from the orthodox Muslims as both the groups were against the idea of access to equal education. They pelted stones and cow dung at Fatima and Savitribai on the streets. But it did not stop the women from their contribution. Fatima Sheikh went from door to door encouraging families to send their daughters to school. She used to give counselling for hours to the parents who did not agree to send their daughters to school. Today’s women owe Fatima Sheikh for their right to education. 

Mahasweta Devi

Mahasweta Devi was a Bengali writer and an activist who fought for the rights of the downtrodden and tribal communities across India. Her literary works expressed concern on the landless labourers, tribes like the Santhals, Mundas and Lodhas, beggars and Maoist rebels. She lived in the Adivasi villages, befriended and studied their lives. She edited a Bengali quarterly – Borika, which stood as an embodiment of the voiceless. She wrote only on the marginalized communities and they were the protagonists in her novels. Even her fictional works contain socio-political messages. One of her most famous books is Aranyer Adhikar (Right to the forest) based on the life of the young tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda. She also voiced against the Industrial policy of CPI(M) government of West Bengal. Speaking about her inspirations, “the reason and inspiration for my writings are those people who are exploited and used, yet do not accept defeat. Why should I look for my raw materials elsewhere, once I have started knowing them?”. She was honoured with various literary awards along with Magsaysay award, Padma Shri and Padma Vibhushan.

Mangaltai Kamble

Mangaltai Kamble was a landless Dalit woman working as a farm labourer in the farms of upper caste landlords. The Dalit in her village were treated as untouchables and they survived on the leftover food of villagers. She decided to cultivate but she had no lands. So she took control of village grazing land for farming. The villagers laughed at her for deciding to cultivate on a barren land and taunted her that she had gone mad. During that time many farmers killed themselves due to frequent droughts that led to crop failures. But Mangaltai stood strong on her decision and requested her husband to help. Fearing the upper caste villagers, he refused. So she took the help of her neighbour Sunanda Kamble and the women took control of about two acres of grazing land each. There was no money, water or resources for cultivation. They even encouraged other women to take control of the lands and formed Self-Help Groups. During monsoon, they relied on food grin and vegetable seed varieties that grow on less water. As the landless Dalits turned into cultivators, the upper caste villagers and leaders turned furious, destroyed the crops and even used police force to throw the cultivators out of the land. This did not stop her and she continued to struggle cultivating just to make-ends-meet. 

Dakshayani Velayuthan

Dakshayani Velayuthan was the youngest and the only Dalit woman among the 389 members of Indian Constituent Assembly comprising of 15 women. She was from the Pulayar community and she was the first woman to wear an upper cloth and was the first woman in her community to earn a degree. She was also the first Dalit woman graduate in India. She was the only girl student in science subjects in her college. Her upper caste teacher did not show her any experiments in Chemistry. She learnt by looking from a distance and graduated with a high position in class. She taught in an Ezhava-dominated high school and there were various instances where she was discriminated against. She called for proportionate reservation of Dalits in panchayat and municipality. Dakshayani said as long as untouchability remained, the word “Harijan” was meaningless, like calling dogs as “Napoleon”. She spoke against the centralization of power in the Constitution and wanted decentralization. She argued in favour of Article 17 of the Constitution that makes untouchability a crime by law. After serving as a member of the Constituent Assembly, she retired from politics and worked for underprivileged groups. Later, she organized a forum for Ambedkarite women called “Mahila Jagriti Parishad” in Delhi and worked with the slum dwellers.

Priya is currently pursuing a Masters in Social Work from University of Delhi. She is an Ambedkarite and an intersectional feminist. 

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We refuse black coal, save Goa!

Suparna Chatterjee

An insight into the movement that seeks to protect Goa from becoming a coal hub and save the biodiversity of the state.  

The sea, sand and beach shacks along with some parties are what we have in mind when we think of Goa. But beyond that, the West Indian coastal state of Goa fosters rich biodiversity and dynamic cultural and political histories that have shaped the lives and livelihoods of the people and the ecology. All of this is currently under threat from a massive industrial onslaught. 

Goans are protesting against three infrastructure projects that will facilitate the transport of coal through the state. If allowed to proceed, as the protestors deem, Goa will turn into a “coal-hub” for the benefit of private players. 

Coal corridor through Goa? Environmental and socio-economic impacts

“Around 59,000 trees will be cut in Goa alone, and a total of over a lakh will be cut across Goa and Karnataka for the completion of these projects.”

The three infrastructure projects, namely the double-tracking of the South Western Railway line, a four-lane expansion of the NH4A, and the laying of a 400 kV transmission line, will all pass through parts of Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, and lead to a loss of 170 hectares of protected forest land. Around 59,000 trees will be cut in Goa alone, and a total of over a lakh will be cut across Goa and Karnataka for the completion of these projects. The forests in Goa are home to around 721 plant species, 70 mammal species, 235 bird species, 219 butterfly species and many other creatures, some of which are endemic to the area. The projects will result in forest fragmentation, habitat destruction and disturb the ecosystem stability of the area. It will directly impact the life of the communities that reside in these forests, and will have detrimental impacts on the health and livelihoods of a large section of the population from across socio-economic classes. 

These projects are part of the Sagarmala program which the director of the Goa Foundation, Claude Alvares describes as a scheme of turning the state of Goa into a dedicated coal corridor and says: “[..]..not designed by Goans for Goa by the Goa government” but is planned by a set of foreign actors. As part of this program, coal is to be transported from the Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) which is located in Vasco, Goa, and is well connected through the railway and highways, to the neighbouring states of Maharashtra (via roadways) and Karnataka (via railways). It currently has a handling capacity of 12 MTP (million tonnes per annum), which is projected to increase to 51 MTPA for increased coal supply to the thermal plants and the steel industries of the neighbouring states. Coking coal is scarce in India and is imported from countries like Australia and South Africa into Goa via the MPT. Three public-private partnership terminals run by JSW, Vedanta, and Adani Group handle coal at the MPT.  

“A report published in DownToEarth magazine in January 2018 explains how from 2001-02 till the current day the coal and coke carrying capacities of the MPT have tripled, causing disastrous impacts on air quality and life of the locals in the area.”

A report published in DownToEarth magazine in January 2018 explains how from 2001-02 till the current day the coal and coke carrying capacities of the MPT have tripled, causing disastrous impacts on air quality and life of the locals in the area. The three projects were cleared by the National Board of Wildlife governed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in April this year through a video conference, along with 30 other projects, which essentially cut down scope for public engagement in the process of providing these clearances. 

Goans against Coal: protest movements in Goa against the infrastructure projects

The protests against the three projects started soon after they were passed. In the early stages, there were petitions, letters to the Central and State governments from citizens, civil society organizations and Goan youths. In July, the Goa Foundation filed a PIL at the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court on this matter. The protests slowly gained momentum with the involvement of larger sections of people through the use of social media. Several individuals as well as groups like SaveMollem and GoyantKolsoNaka started trending the topic on social media platforms to educate people and gather attention on the environmental issues in the area. 

On the night of November 1, at around 10:30 pm more than 5,000 people gathered near a level crossing at Chandor village in South Goa. These people were opposing the construction of railway tracks being carried out despite the Bombay High Court staying the double-tracking project in the protected area until the next hearing scheduled in December. Amidst the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the people held a peaceful protest till 4 am. 

“Speaking to Bol Magazine, Sherry Fernandes, a youth activist involved with the movement since June says that when all other means failed, the protestors had no choice but to take to the streets: ‘[..]..People tried everything and this is (our) last resort.’” 

Speaking to Bol Magazine, Sherry Fernandes, a youth activist involved with the movement since June says that when all other means failed, the protestors had no choice but to take to the streets: “[..]..People tried everything and this is (our) last resort.” For this activist and many others like her, the beautiful association developed with Mollem over the years, along with the love of its rich biodiversity and communities is what has driven them to be a part of the fight to protect it. She is concerned about biodiversity: “[…]..Slender lorises, Mouse deers, Hornbills and so much of life in the forest”, are all currently under threat. 

The midnight protest included the middle classes of urban and rural Goa, civil society members, activists, indigenous communities and large numbers of the youth. Fernandes describes the protest as “[..].. something so beautiful and peaceful despite the agitation amongst people which had forced them to come out, risking their lives amidst the pandemic.” The immediate response to the protests was an FIR filed by the Goa Police against the six convenors of the two NGOs – Goyant Kolso Naka and Goencho Ekvott, for unlawful activity and wrongful restraint. Fernandes says that the news of an FIR being filed was shocking, mainly because of the extremely peaceful nature of the protests which displayed varied forms of Goan culture, and there was no rioting or damage to property. 

The protest at Chandor was covered by leading online media outlets, and a buzz was created on social media. Following this, several email and signature campaigns were launched in which people from across the country participated. However, large parts of the country that often dream of a vacation in Goa are still silent on the issue.

“This movement is not the first of its kind in Goa. For long several groups have been protesting unsustainable mining in parts of Goa, coal import into the state, and the Sagarmala project since its inception.” 

This movement is not the first of its kind in Goa. For long several groups have been protesting unsustainable mining in parts of Goa, coal import into the state, and the Sagarmala project since its inception. Groups like the National Fishworkers Forum and several fisherwomen groups from the region protested against the Sagarmala project and the autonomy granted to the MPT in 2016. There have been protests in 2017 and 2018 opposing the infrastructure development and increasing coal handling permits at MPT. 

“The government has also promised a capping mechanism on coal imports into the state. Sadly, such statements have not been backed by documented proof, and revisiting government response to similar movements in the past proves that such claims are an immediate measure used by those in power to pacify protestors without actually taking up concrete measures to accede to the demands.”

The response of the government to such movements has not changed over the years. In the current situation, following the mid-night protests and media-outrage over the destruction of the environment, the Minister of Environment & Power in Goa, Nilesh Cabral while speaking to the media said: “Goa will not be a coal hub.” He also suggested afforestation in other parts to counter the effect of the felling of trees. However, there is an absence of a plan regarding such afforestation which has been cited as an ineffective mitigation measure to counter the carbon loss due to the felling of 200-300-year-old trees. The government has also promised a capping mechanism on coal imports into the state. Sadly, such statements have not been backed by documented proof, and revisiting government response to similar movements in the past proves that such claims are an immediate measure used by those in power to pacify protestors without actually taking up concrete measures to accede to the demands. 

What are the stakes? Who benefits? 

Urban environmental movements of this kind are here to stay; the movements to Save Mollem and Save Aarey forests prove this fact. It becomes essential to study the nature of these movements to understand how the dynamics of environmentalism are playing out in India. 

“Environmentalism in developing countries like India has been termed as ‘environmentalism of the poor’, where concerns of material distributive justice force people to protest against environmental destruction in contrast to environmentalism in developed nations where post-materialistic concerns shape environmental justice movements.”

Environmentalism in developing countries like India has been termed as “environmentalism of the poor”, where concerns of material distributive justice force people to protest against environmental destruction in contrast to environmentalism in developed nations where post-materialistic concerns shape environmental justice movements. Another form of environmentalism which is gaining popularity is “bourgeois environmentalism” where the middle-class seek environmental protection through institutional machinery. While environmentalism of the poor emerges out of concerns for immediate loss of livelihood and habitat as a result of environmental degradation, the bourgeois environmental movements are usually shaped by health concerns and loss of beautification due to environmental degradation. Street action against such forms of degradation is usually viewed as a means used by the poor, who do not have access to other forms of protest, while the urban or in rare cases the rural middle class usually resort to court petitions and other institutional means to further their goals. 

However, movements led by the middle class have often been criticised as rooted in a feeling of contradictory consciousness among them who, unaware of their own contribution to the problem seek end goals that try to secure environmental justice for them while negatively affecting the livelihoods of the poor. They sometimes have an elitist undertone and a blatant disregard for the poor. 

“Environmental problems and environment versus development debates must be viewed in the backdrop of politico-economical and ecological interactions at the local, regional and national levels.”

Essentialist arguments by conservationists are sometimes made to gain political support for environmental protection in India, and it is often suggested that challenging the premise of such movements has a probability of weakening the larger political discourse around environmental protection. However, it is equally important to study and critique the premise of such movements regularly to improve and redefine the ways of environmentalism to suit the needs of the marginalized. Environmental problems and environment versus development debates must be viewed in the backdrop of politico-economical and ecological interactions at the local, regional and national levels. The incorporation of interdisciplinary professionals into environmental conservation has started the dialogue for maintaining an effective balance between ecological conservation and seeking social justice and livelihood protection for the marginalised.

The movement in Goa tries to overcome some of the aforementioned barriers by taking into consideration the livelihoods and lives of the marginalised and by targeting the Central government’s backing of a few private corporations in bringing coal into Goa. It is an amalgamation of the two forms of environmentalism- the protestors mainly belong to the urban and rural middle class, with some representation from the economically marginalised groups. They are using petitions and other institutional means as well as mass mobilization to secure environmental and social justice. Concerns of ecological sustainability and life and livelihood protection form the basis of this movement, unlike other middle class movements driven by elite notions of ‘beautification’ or ‘cleanliness’. 

The infrastructure projects in concern will have severe environmental and social consequences and the current movement is backed by scientific claims, giving due recognition to the dynamic cultural and political history of the state.

“‘National integration’ and ‘benefit’ have often been used as terms to pass such infrastructure projects, which serve no purpose to the populace of the region in concern, who also face the detrimental impacts of such projects.“

On the other hand, the government-corporate lobby supporting and pushing for the project is evidently disregarding concern for the environment as well as the livelihoods and habitats of the people. They are either hiding facts and making false claims to pacify the protests, or suggesting unrealistic mitigation measures such as reforestation to counter the claims of irreversible environmental and livelihood damage. “National integration” and “benefit” have often been used as terms to pass such infrastructure projects, which serve no purpose to the populace of the region in concern, who also face the detrimental impacts of such projects.  

“Public opinion at all levels is very much required, and the current draconian ways adopted by the government in prioritizing crony capitalist gains and infrastructure development benefiting a few over the livelihoods of the masses is bound to see more such protests in the near future.”

Public opinion at all levels is very much required, and the current draconian ways adopted by the government in prioritizing crony capitalist gains and infrastructure development benefiting a few over the livelihoods of the masses is bound to see more such protests in the near future. Therefore, it is very important to define the nature of environmentalism and the intellectual and political premise of such movements, to effectively counter such detrimental developmental projects and further the cause of environmental protection along with social justice. 

Suparna is an early-career researcher working with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) in Bangalore. She likes to explore and work on issues concerning the environment, society and gender. 

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Is Contemporary Feminism Radical Enough?

Raavya Bhattacharyya

Examining the digital-age ideas of feminism, where they stand in historical context and why they fail to challenge patriarchal capitalism

The feminist movement has consistently evolved to show the world the many ways in which women have been discriminated against and made to feel like lesser beings. Each wave of feminism emerged with its concerns – voting rights, equal pay, workplace rights, reproductive rights, and so on. Right from when it began in the early twentieth century, the movement allowed women to awaken to the systemic injustice that was all around them, the kind of injustice many of them had learned to internalise. This collective angst had finally manifested itself into philosophy and an ideology that placed women at the forefront, recognising them as human beings capable of living a life of dignity without male intervention. Women wanted to be seen as individuals with rights of their own, deserving of equality and respect. After centuries of oppression, women were finally examining their lived experiences to see how much was being withheld from them. 

“At home, in the workplace, and nearly every sphere of society, women are viewed as the weaker sex who are always in need of male guidance and are incapable of making their own decisions. These sexist beliefs have stripped women of their agency and their rights.” 

The core principle of feminism, as feminist author Bell Hooks succinctly describes in her book ‘Feminism Is For Everybody’, is “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” She’s careful to explain that sexism is the enemy, “all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult.” As a belief, sexism inherently privileges one sex over the other. For centuries, the world has privileged men and their experiences over women. At home, in the workplace, and nearly every sphere of society, women are viewed as the weaker sex who are always in need of male guidance and are incapable of making their own decisions. These sexist beliefs have stripped women of their agency and their rights. 

In the first few phases of feminism, women had concrete issues to tackle, problems that needed fixing in the form of new laws and policy change. Years of struggle saw a significant amount of change, women were finally given rights that men had taken for granted. But for many women, these changes in law and order never seemed to reach the world they were living in. Despite societal proclamations of emancipation and empowerment, women were still regarded as the inferior gender. Feminist scrutiny and inquiry had to take on new forms to understand complex gender dynamics. Feminists were interrogating social and cultural systems to understand how inequality and sexism were still intact despite changing laws and policies that were in favour of women. 

Where does modern-day feminism stand?

Modern-day feminism prides itself on being inclusive after having tackled major conflicts and contradictions the earlier waves had. The rise of choice feminism saw women reclaiming their agency, supposedly liberated from the shackles of patriarchy. The assumption was that the ability to make any kind of choice is a form of absolute and complete empowerment. What we tend to overlook is that choice doesn’t necessarily imply a decision free from patriarchal conditioning. As choice feminism has grown in popularity, there has been a visible shift towards a kind of feminism that is accessible to a fault. 

“Social media has been instrumental in peddling a watered-down, ‘accessible’ version of feminism. This kind of feminism seems to pride itself in brandishing catch-phrases like ‘girl-power’ without any real exploration of where women stand today or the kind of new struggles they face and how feminists must work to abolish them.”

Social media has been instrumental in peddling a watered-down, “accessible” version of feminism. This kind of feminism seems to pride itself in brandishing catch-phrases like “girl-power” without any real exploration of where women stand today or the kind of new struggles they face and how feminists must work to abolish them. The birth of a consumerist form of feminism, a kind that distances itself from nuance and exists solely for temporary placation is our biggest challenge, one we need to overcome to understand that the inherent discrimination between genders still exists. Our capitalist society has comfortably bought into this accessible version of feminism because it serves their agenda, there are now more things to “sell” to women, a way to monetise a movement that has always been against the very system of reduction and objectification. 

Decades of living within a system that privileges men and their needs over women has resulted in many women perpetuating the very biases they’re so sure of having rid themselves of. An important example here is that of women’s beauty and grooming. Beauty standards for women are incredibly unrealistic, but so many of us, despite calling ourselves feminists, give in to them. We call it our ‘choice’ when we get rid of body hair, our ‘choice’ when we spend time obsessing over how good or bad we’re looking, constantly worried about being ‘appealing’ enough. A closer examination of these choices will reveal our internalised misogyny, the diminished ways in which we regard ourselves because of the way we look. What does ‘appealing’ mean? What does it have to say about the culture of shame and stigma the beauty industry has taught women to accept as part of themselves? 

Existing power structures that uphold patriarchy are alive and well, while we’ve made tremendous strides in women empowerment, we still have a long way to go. Class, race, caste, and socio-economic challenges add to the layers of disadvantage to many women. These women don’t have platforms to show the world the struggles they go through every day. Dalit women in rural India are at the mercy of the upper caste, routinely harassed by them, on the basis of their caste and their gender. These women also face discrimination within their households, bound by strict gender roles. Mainstream media is selective in its outrage which is why these women continue to be victims of cyclical oppression. 

“Intersectional feminism has consistently highlighted the importance of inclusion in the larger feminist movement, the need for voices of women who are victims of ‘double-oppression’ as a result of their gender and race/class or caste to be heard.”

Intersectional feminism has consistently highlighted the importance of inclusion in the larger feminist movement, the need for voices of women who are victims of “double-oppression” as a result of their gender and race/class or caste to be heard. These women are doubly exploited – first on the basis of their gender and then on the basis of their socio-economic status, race, ethnicity and other social identities. American law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectional feminism in 1989 to describe how the overlap of social identities was responsible for “compounding experiences of discrimination.” She explains that intersectional feminism is “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. All inequality is not created equal.”

Women in rural India are still victims of brutal, regressive caste-based traditions that offer them no room for free thought and action. The latest data shows that four Dalit women are raped everyday, with many being raped on multiple occasions. Crimes against Dalit women are the highest as compared to all crimes committed against members of the scheduled cast. Gender-based violence persists, unchecked, at an alarming rate. Estimates show that  35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced some form of physical partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (not including sexual harassment) at some point in their lives. The stifling continues, but tokenisms on social media and the blatant commercialisation of ‘empowerment’ will have us believe that we’ve achieved all that we set out to. 

Choice feminism needs to be re-examined and questioned

Feminist author Jessa Crispin addresses similar concerns in her polemic essay “Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto”. She writes: “To understand how surface-level contemporary feminism really is, we need only note that the most common markers of feminism’s success are the same markers of patriarchal capitalism.” Crispin also sees choice feminism as inherently individualistic, a kind of feminism that is satisfied with token gestures in one’s personal life that only mimic true empowerment but still function within the accepted norms of patriarchy. We’re so consumed with “living our best life” and making choices that we think are radical that we don’t interrogate our mind-sets, our reasons for being and deciding. “Choice feminism blocks any discussion about consequences of how people choose to live their lives. Because the choice itself is feminist,” Crispin notes.

“Gender equality has not been normalised. Modern-day feminism has diluted many of the core, radical ideas that shone when the feminist movement first began. Early waves of feminism were focused on bringing down a capitalist, patriarchal society that privileged men and awarded them unchecked power.”

Many women feel a kind of dissonance when they look at the world around them. Posters proudly declare “the future is female” but women still have to “break the glass ceiling”, they still have to battle anxiety when they step out of their homes at night. They see women in positions of power struggle to consistently prove their mettle, they’re reminded every day what a “privilege” it is to even occupy such a role. Gender equality has not been normalised. Modern-day feminism has diluted many of the core, radical ideas that shone when the feminist movement first began. Early waves of feminism were focused on bringing down a capitalist, patriarchal society that privileged men and awarded them unchecked power. Feminism wanted women to have platforms that gave them the opportunity to make their own decisions while also promoting critical thinking. The fight for equal pay, reproductive rights and the right to education took place right beside the fight for a world that reimagined gender. Questioning and interrogating our corrupt, power-hungry social systems has always been intrinsic to feminism. 

Now we seem to be more interested in how a largely unjust system finds a way to benefit us instead of working to dismantle that very system, to question its immorality and the way it upholds oppression in the most insidious of ways. 

“Women empowerment is not solely about choice and agency, it is about a deeper investigation of the place of women in society, it is understanding that oppression can sometimes look a lot like freedom. A reclamation is essential, a need to make feminism political again, to make it more than the hollow shell it is becoming.”

Today, we need feminism more than ever to start conversations that have slowly been forgotten, buried under a shiny veneer of what we assume women empowerment to be. Our fight against patriarchy continues. We have to battle uncomfortable questions about the lives we lead as women that we wake up to the everyday and the casual sexism that relentlessly persists. We have to call out systems of oppression that don’t allow women a way out of their lives of misery. Women empowerment is not solely about choice and agency, it is about a deeper investigation of the place of women in society, it is understanding that oppression can sometimes look a lot like freedom. A reclamation is essential, a need to make feminism political again, to make it more than the hollow shell it is becoming. Our revolution must begin in our personal spaces where we reject patriarchy’s idea of liberated women. “Feminist thinking teaches us all,” as Bell Hooks says “especially, how to love justice and freedom in ways that foster and affirm life.”

Raavya is a pop-culture nerd who lives and breathes books and cinema. An unrelenting feminist, she hopes to change regressive mindsets through the written word.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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INTERVIEW WITH RAASHI THAKRAN: PART 2

ADITI KUMAR SPEAKS TO RAASHI THAKRAN WHO’S ACTIVISM LED TO THE CREATION OF INDIA’S FIRST NATIONAL MENTAL HEALTH HELPLINE KIRAN 1800-599-0019

Content Warning: The article mentions Suicide

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1800-599-0019 to reach KIRAN, a 24/7 national helpline set by the ministry of social justice. You can also mail icall@tiss.edu or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

We spoke to Raashi Thakran, a Mental Health activist who’s change.org petition “#StandAgainstSuicide: to Launch a National Helpline number for suicide prevention” with over 4 lakhs signatures became successful last month with the launch of KIRAN (1800-599-0019) a 24/7 toll free national mental health helpline for those in distress. 

Read Part 1 here.

EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW PART 2:

GATEKEEPER TRAINING

What policies can be implemented? 

Policymakers can help by making sure that Gatekeeper training is offered to people across the country. Gatekeeper training can be taken by anyone and everyone It’s a one hour long training. It helps you prepare and make sure that if someone in your vicinity is struggling with suicidal thoughts or with their mental health, you are able to respond. And you can yourself be the first responder. You can identify early warning signs and provide early intervention. 

Gatekeepers have played a very important role in suicide prevention and they are also able to then direct people they know to mental health services, to actual professionals. So now since we have this knowledge we can create an army of mental health warriors if nothing else. You don’t have to have a background or a degree. You can just be there and know the warning signs. This is the most basic thing we can equip ourselves with. 

QPR – Gatekeeper Training – Question, Persuade and Refer – Tells you how to question a person about suicide, how to persuade them and help them and how to refer them. It’s like CPR, people who know QPR are not doctors but they can save a life. People say it’s an American training that doesn’t apply to us. Fine, don’t go for QPR, create something for an Indian context and circulate that so it can reach the common people of the country and that’s how you spread awareness. 

This idea that everybody in the community also has a responsibility for those around them. So even if we don’t know that much about the technicalities of mental health the gatekeeper training or even a general idea that someone might be suffering can help us respond really fast. What would you suggest the community can develop to fight against the increasing mental health issues that people are having during Covid losing jobs, being isolated etc.?

Now more than ever we are realising the power of community. You need a support system to fall back on. Especially during such times. So, in terms of people losing jobs and unemployment, it comes back to the government and policymakers that it’s important for them to become more inclusive and have policies that help people. We are talking about Atma Nirbhar Bharat so actually go to the grassroots and create policies for migrant workers. The government needs to be looped in. 

As a community, it’s important for us to reach out. You don’t have to do something grand and change millions of lives but simply reach out to people in your circles who you think might be suffering. Check in with your friends and family, check in with the person who’s just lost their job. Check in with the person who’s at home but home is toxic for them. It’s a very difficult situation for a lot of us. Have gratitude for yourself and reach out to people who you know are struggling. That’s the least we can do. 

Right now more than ever it’s very important to understand that we’re on the same team and we have to work as a community and make sure you atleast are there for the people you care about. That’s what I’m trying to do. 

Since you’ve been conducting so many sessions. So, people must’ve come up to you with their own stories so can you share some stories of positivity and resilience? 

There’s so many. Every session I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say they want to share their stories. 

One incident that I always talk about and it’s very close to my heart. I had just finished giving the talk in IIT Delhi and I was waiting for my auto outside and this one lady approached me and said, “I was in the audience and I heard your story and I have myself been struggling with depression for a long time now and I haven’t had the courage to ask for help, I have even felt suicidal and now after listening to you I want to get better, I’ve booked an appointment already and I am going to see a counsellor this weekend.” She then started crying and we hugged and it was such a beautiful moment. Now she’s doing so well, she’s opened a restaurant and is nailing life. 

One of my friends reached out to me just yesterday and he said that last year he was going through a very difficult time and he used to self-harm and yesterday he messaged me and said it’s been a year since he had done that and just wanted to share that with me. It’s beautiful seeing how far people have come and how resilient they are. There’s so many stories. That’s why I love what I do and this is why I do what I’m doing because I get to meet such people and hear such amazing brilliant stories. 

That was really heart-warming. I have a final question, we have a lot of social activists writing for us. We understand that social activism can be stressful. How do you deal with the stress and pressure and what would you suggest to other activists who are trying to make a change in society? 

I’ve been doing this for a while, I am 22 years old and a lot of times what I face is the fact that I am too young to be doing this. There’s a lot of people who tell me that you’re 22 and we would like you to talk about certain things and not talk about certain things. That said, the response that I’ve received has been overwhelming and amazing. I know that my work also brings change as I am able to make sure that I’m able to help a couple of people. 

To activists who are driving change I think it’s very important to just keep doing what you’re doing. You will get comments and it will get very tough especially if you are sharing a part of yourself, like me, I have to share a very very personal story, a very tragic story and every time I talk about it, it’s difficult. But, it helps someone out there it helps people. So, I guess to anyone listening don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too young, too old or too qualified or not qualified enough, people always have something to say don’t let that get to you. Just keep doing what you’re doing and you’re amazing and awesome and you’re doing amazing work and I think that’s what matters. Even if you don’t see results right now you will see it in the long run you will see that you are driving change. All of us in fact, all our stories are so important and unique and they need to be heard and that’s what I’d like to say to anyone listening. 

This will really help our readers, if they are first time writers and this can really encourage them to write and share their stories. 

Stories are very powerful, they can inspire so many people. So, use that tool and own your story. I think that’s the most important thing. Kudos to you for being a platform that holds space for people. 

Aditi is a Law undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge, and recently completed a diploma in Conflict Transformation and Peace-building. Reading and painting in her spare time, she aspires to challenge the structural dimensions of injustice through her educationShe is a Deputy Editor of Bol Magazine.

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Time for Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Schools

Namitha Kuttiparambil

Examining CSE as a tool for Sex and Sexuality Education for adolescents and young people – its challenges and interpretation

In this digital age, with information available at their fingertips, adolescents and young people are increasingly turning to dubious sources of information to answer their questions on relationships, sex, and sexuality. This might cause them to fall prey to exploitation or lead them to acquire harmful behaviors that could affect them or people around them. So, it is essential to arm them with high quality, age-appropriate sex and sexuality education. 

“Differing views of policymakers, educators, and parents, along with prevalent societal perceptions, such as ones that argue that providing sex education to adolescents and young people would encourage promiscuity and experimentation, have led to multiple roadblocks”

For decades now, the curriculum, necessity, and delivery of sex education have been topics of contention across the globe. Differing views of policymakers, educators, and parents, along with prevalent societal perceptions, such as ones that argue that providing sex education to adolescents and young people would encourage promiscuity and experimentation, have led to multiple roadblocks. This is despite the fact that 179 governments adopted a Programme of Action at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 which, among other things, put forth the need to provide adolescents with appropriate services, information, and unbiased guidance in order to educate, empower, and address their sexual and reproductive health issues. Over the years, various approaches to sex education have been adopted including abstinence-only, stress-abstinence, and Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE). However, it was only pursued with renewed vigour after the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

“Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical, and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that will empower them to – realize their health, well-being and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their well-being and that of others; and, understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives.”

“The programme doesn’t restrict itself to reproduction, risks, disease and abstinence. All of which are topics usually highlighted when providing sex education to adolescents and young people”

With a definition like that, CSE is ambitious. The programme doesn’t restrict itself to reproduction, risks, disease and abstinence. All of which are topics usually highlighted when providing sex education to adolescents and young people. Instead, it focuses on providing learners scientific knowledge and helping them develop life skills and attitudes using a rights-based approach while concentrating on eight key areas. These are – relationships, values, rights, culture and sexuality, understanding gender, violence and staying safe, skills for health and well-being, the human body and development, sexuality and sexual behaviour, and sexual and reproductive health. 

Each of the key areas consists of multiple topics that are further broken down into “learning objectives”. These objectives deal with familial, platonic and romantic relationships, and attempt to inspect them through the lenses of human rights, culture and society, and its norms, stereotypes, structures and stigma. They also provide an insight into the interplay all of these have, not only with each other but also with sex, sexuality, and associated behaviours and responses including violence, gender-based violence, power imbalances, and consent. 

“tools have been included to help users to find reliable information, safely navigate the web of information and communication technologies, safeguard one’s privacy online and offline”

Conventionally taught subjects affiliated to the human body, reproduction and reproductive health are also included. Additionally, tools have been included to help users to find reliable information, safely navigate the web of information and communication technologies, safeguard ones privacy online and offline, and develop the skills required to make sound decisions and communicate and negotiate effectively.  

Learning objectives are taught in differing degrees to children of the four target age groups (i.e. age 5-8, age 9-12, age 12-15, age 15-18+). The objectives are presented in a manner that is best suited to each age group. Younger children are provided with simple concepts and a basic foundation onto which advanced information is gradually added. 

“CSE accepts adolescents and young people as beings with sexual feelings, desires and questions that need to be talked about and answered rather than shrouded under a blanket of silence, shame or embarrassment”

Through all this, it is evident that CSE accepts adolescents and young people as beings with sexual feelings, desires and questions that need to be talked about and answered rather than shrouded under a blanket of silence, shame or embarrassment. It understands that different populations (eg: LGBTI youth, young people living in poverty, young people with disabilities) have different CSE needs. It recognises that along with STDs, STIs, HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancies the impact that mental/emotional health, alcohol, tobacco and substance use, and information and communication technologies have on the interpretation of sex and sexuality by adolescents and young people also needs to be addressed.

That being said, CSE comes with its challenges, some of which have different meanings in diverse socio-economic and political contexts. A review of “The World Starts with Me” – one of the 18 programmes recommended as truly comprehensive in UNESCO’s (2010) International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education – sheds light on some of the major causes of concern when talking about CSE.

Ineffective Programme Delivery: According to the review, implementation assessments established that some learning objectives were not being delivered in the manner intended. Lessons, especially concerning sensitive topics (eg. abortion, masturbation) were shortened or skipped entirely and activities that are suggested to encourage and facilitate skill building were often neglected or deliberately avoided. 

“many teachers were still unable to let go of their traditional and cultural beliefs and continued to use fear-based messages to teach abstinence and propagate the idea that sex and sexuality are topics that are immoral or taboo”

Teachers Beliefs: Despite undergoing training, appreciating it and understanding and endorsing its positive impact, many teachers were still unable to let go of their traditional and cultural beliefs and continued to use fear-based messages to teach abstinence and propagate the idea that sex and sexuality are topics that are immoral or taboo, at least when it comes to young, unmarried people. This affects the positive impact of CSE by propagating the cycle of judgement and stigma rather than ending it.

Contextual Barriers: Implementing a programme like CSE becomes especially difficult in countries where not only the school administration and other members of staff, but also the education ministries at the local and national level endorse messages that are contradictory to it and may even have laws prohibiting the sharing of information or the conduct of certain activities (such as condom demonstration). In such environments, the tension between the programme requirements and the beliefs or personal norms of the teachers implementing it, are heightened. Moreover, in some countries, there is a lack of access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health and rights services. The program also fails in contexts where the students witness and learn conflicting ideas at home. 

An in-depth review of CSE in Thailand showcases additional challenges and observations. One of the points brought to the fore was that sexuality education in Thailand was aimed at solving specific issues (such as unwanted pregnancies among youth), which doesn’t adhere to the holistic approach and aspirations of CSE and contradicts research which notes that teaching topics related to gender, power, and rights enhance the effectiveness of the program, especially when talking about the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. 

“It highlights the need for more active parental involvement and open communication between the school and parents to not only appease parents anxieties about sexuality education but also to help them adjust their attitudes so that open lines of communication can exist between family members”

The review also noted that a lack of a monitoring and evaluation system that is based on clear indicators thwarted efficient imparting of CSE and suggests a review of the general framework of sexuality education in the country by policymakers. It highlights the need for more active parental involvement and open communication between the school and parents to not only appease parents anxieties about sexuality education but also to help them adjust their attitudes so that open lines of communication can exist between family members, which in itself would reduce a considerable amount of secrecy and stress between both parties.

This also serves as an example of the criteria to be considered when developing and adapting a CSE curriculum. Designing CSE for a given context is a crucial step in the entire process. It should strive for community and individual involvement of both, the target population and their parents in order to assess their needs against the resources available. This step is as important as curating and sequencing the content and activities based on it and assimilating scientific data to back it. Implementation strategies also need to be put into place and feedback/evaluation chains established to monitor and eventually scale up the programme. 

“the possibility of adapting CSE for any given context does add to its relevance and has a huge advantage, but on the flip side, it may also be one of the provisions that can be exploited in a manner that ends up hindering CSE implementation in the long run”

While there will always be challenges shared between various countries across the globe in terms of implementation of CSE, the context in which the programme is implemented is a major determiner of the specific challenges that may come up. Moreover, the possibility of adapting CSE for any given context does add to its relevance and has a huge advantage, but on the flip side, it may also be one of the provisions that can be exploited in a manner that ends up hindering CSE implementation in the long run, especially if evidence and progress aren’t tracked efficiently. 

That said, CSE could prove to be one of the most powerful tools for empowering future generations. However, in order for it to serve its purpose, educators, policymakers, and parents will have to attempt to address their values, ideas and prevalent societal norms through the eyes of evidence-backed science and logic. Youth-friendly services and policies are needed and the participation of adolescents and young people should be encouraged in every step of the process. 

This is especially necessary for countries like India where conversations about adolescent and young people’s sexuality and sexual and reproductive health and needs are still taboo. Misinformation is abundant and gender-based violence along with unfair social norms, stigma, stereotypes still exist.

Namitha is an Architect who finds solace in stringing dance moves and words together, though usually not at the same time.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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Talking Periods Beyond Gender

Kanika Malhotra

Women are not the only ones who menstruate, why it’s important to go beyond gender when talking about periods.

An individual’s gender is not defined by their sex. Sex is a biological concept that, in this context, defines “male” and “female”. Gender is an individual’s identity separate from their biological sex. It is not determined by hormones or chromosomes. So, an individual’s gender identity may be different from the sex they are assigned at birth.  As explained by French theorist and philosopher Simone De Beauvoir in her book “The Second Sex”, one isn’t born a woman, “social discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to be caused by nature”, rather, one becomes a woman. The behavioural traits that may define men and women are acquired and are not pre-determined by anatomy. Gender is, therefore, not a direct consequence of an individual’s biological sex. 

“Menstruation is highly misunderstood when it comes to trans and non-binary individuals”

Menstruation is a biological function commonly linked to the female sex, however, it is not limited to cisgender women. The term cisgender is used for people whose gender identity matches their assigned sex at birth. It is also important to note that not all women with female reproductive systems menstruate, and that can be due to various medical and non-medical reasons. This assumption that only cisgender women menstruate is reflective of the lack of understanding and ignorance around the subject. Menstruation is highly misunderstood when it comes to transgender and non-binary individuals. Like cisgender women, they also, may or may not menstruate. 

J.K. Rowling’s recent transphobic tweet regarding menstruation, which received backlash and was taken down by Twitter, reflects this ignorance and bias that people have against transgender and non-binary identities. In India, transgender and non-binary people face similar prejudiced and ignorant comments. Speaking to Bol Magazine, Saral, a trans woman, explains that when she came out to one of her close friends they were shocked: “How is it possible? Aren’t trans people by birth?” This statement is reflective of how little people know about gender identities. 

“They are vulnerable to societal exclusion due to rejection of their avowed gender identity. This exclusion leads to violence against people of the transgender community”

The term Transgender is used to describe people whose gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned, usually at birth and based on their genitals. They are vulnerable to societal exclusion due to rejection of their avowed gender identity. This exclusion leads to violence against people of the transgender community. If they choose to undergo a medical transition to change their primary sex characteristics, for instance, a person assigned male at birth and wishing to change to female, they may seek gender-affirming surgery or “sex change”. That said, they also face difficulties transitioning their sex. Gynaecologists often deny transitioning or charge excessively.  Moreover, there are not enough doctors or clinics providing  transitioning care.

A survey conducted in 2018 by the nonprofit organization Lambda Legal found that 70 percent of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals have faced discrimination in a healthcare setting. The ignorance of gynecologists and general practitioners (GP) has resulted in misery for various individuals wanting to transition. “My worst experience, as a trans man, was when one GP refused to help me transition and said they’d do everything but ‘that’, like transitioning is a disease” says Math Blade, a trans man from the USA. He reflects: “My experience has been bad if I don’t have my beard, or if I am on the phone. Depending upon the clerk I get asked to get my husband on the phone. If they continually insist I throw my voice deeper, which hurts, and finish the transaction.”

“Representation of periods in the mainstream is always about cisgender heterosexual women. It has never been inclusive of any other gender”

Menstruation for cisgender women is a taboo in Indian society, and while periods have been recognised and represented mainstream, the same is not true for transgender individuals. They continuously face the stigma of people not accepting or understanding the fact that they may also menstruate, depending on what part of their transition they are in.

Representation of periods in the mainstream is always about cisgender heterosexual women. It has never been inclusive of any other gender. The education regarding periods is gender-segregated, taught only for cisgender girls by cisgender women in schools and in homes. Not only does this cause alienation but also creates an atmosphere of ignorance about menstruation for other genders. 

Being able to afford menstrual hygiene products such as sanitary pads and menstrual cups is a privilege in India. An article by Deccan Chronicle revealed that a person in India spends 300 Rupees (INR) on pads every month. That is nearly equivalent to 1,40,000 Rupees (INR) spent on pads for their whole life. According to a National Family Health survey only 57% of Indian heterosexual cisgender women in urban areas can afford menstrual pads at MRP (Maximum Retail Price). High costs and taxes associated with menstrual products also make them inaccessible for trans people, who may not be able to afford them. 

“accessing public toilets is another challenge, because of the existence of male and female only toilets”

Moreover, accessing public toilets is another challenge, because of the existence of male and female only toilets. Men’s toilets are not conducive spaces for menstrual hygiene and so trans men don’t have a safe space to change pads, or any other period product. There are no dustbins for disposal of pads. In some public toilets for men there are no private stalls. There are also cases of physical, verbal and even sexual abuse behind the doors. In 2016 in India, the highest number of assaults on trans people occurred in public toilets. Trans and non-binary people are denied spaces where they can change clothes, use toilets or change pads. 

Talking about the lack of access to toilets, Sonal, a trans woman, explains this issue: “During the pride parade I wanted to pee but I didn’t know where. Whenever I go out, I don’t drink much water. The biggest issue a transgender or non binary individual faces is where to go for a washroom, where? I have seen that whenever I go to a women’s washroom I have seen some discomfort in some women and we don’t even have the option of gender neutral washrooms, so where should we go?” 

“Menstruation, toilets, uniforms, and changing rooms need to go beyond gender”

Menstruation, toilets, uniforms, and changing rooms need to go beyond gender. Travis Albanza, who identifies as trans feminine, was denied access to a changing room in a TopShop showroom in the UK. They told buzzfeed that they wanted to relax and chill with their friends but instead their entire day became politicised.

Menstruation is a biological function. Creating a safe and accessible space for all humans who menstruate, regardless of their gender, is essential. This can be done by setting up gender neutral washrooms and changing rooms, and incorporating gender neutral language and more representation in the mainstream. School uniforms are gender neutral in Wales, UK. This  means that when a list of clothing items is published by the school, they will not be assigned to a specific gender. This helps non-binary and transgender children to feel included and safe. It prevents the imposition of gender on children. 

“Parents should ensure that they are allowing their children the freedom to figure out their gender identity. This can be done by not restricting their choice of toys, clothing or the colour of their room because of their gender, pointing out and correcting transphobic language, and not misgendering them by using incorrect pronouns”

Parents should ensure that they are allowing their children the freedom to figure out their gender identity. This can be done by not restricting their choice of toys, clothing or the colour of their room because of their gender, pointing out and correcting transphobic language, and not misgendering them by using incorrect pronouns. Always, a brand which sells sanitary products has made a decision to remove “Venus”, a symbol used to represent females, from its packaging in order to be more inclusive of trans men and non-binary individuals. Using words like “menstruators” or “menstrual hygiene” is another way to be inclusive. 

Transphobic minds cannot be changed overnight but everyone deserves a safe place for basic needs like using the toilet and access to menstrual hygiene products. Everyone deserves to be treated equally and with dignity and respect regardless of their gender, and that can be accomplished only through an active effort towards a more inclusive society.

Kanika is currently in high school in 11th standard. She believes in feminism and advocates for inclusivity of the lgbtqia+ community. Writing is a medium through which she expresses her opinions and takes a stand. Her other interests are skating and films.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

Non-Violence in the Private Sphere

Kaushiki Arha

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” 

― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

For Virginia Woolf, what keeps a woman from writing literature is the absence of a room of her own, a room that lets her mind run wild, a room where she is free above all to encounter serendipity and experience what leisure is, a room that lets her write for herself. In mapping the boundaries between public and private spheres what is often missed is the porosity between these borders, so delicate yet definitive. Definitive enough to let philosophers welcome the state and the society into the bedrooms of individuals and pry upon what it calls the “private” and alter it as it suits the public. The access to this room or the lack of it brings in the question of violence. This question was conceptualised by Johan Galtung “as the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual” This article is an attempt to situate non-violence in the private sphere.

The distinction between the public and the private is maintained primarily on the grounds that this separation is “natural”. Whether or not the public and private divide existed across time in societies, the idea is rooted in modern common sense, that each gender has a distinct sphere (the public – man and the private – woman) to which one “naturally” adapts. While rejecting the “mechanistic separation of the two spheres” and not denying the real consequences following from it, it is useful to consider the private/public as an analytical concept for its decisive role in the allocation of powers and resources, an issue raised by Woolf. To question the natural premise of this separation is not to forget the vital role played by private/public in the beliefs we tend to hold about how society ‘works’ and should work.

“The contemporary question of sexuality too is deeply entrenched within the family”

Within the Aristotelian teleological system, the function of the household is to maintain a biological existence, thereby a gendered division of labour and a lack of freedom of choice, speech, and justice are all subsumed under the banner of the ‘natural’ and the biological. The modern equivalent of an Aristotelian household is the conjugal family based on heteronormative sexual ideals. This conjugal family, just as the Aristotelian household, is constituted of hierarchically positioned gender identities shaping their relation vis-à-vis the public. The contemporary question of sexuality too is deeply entrenched within the family. This ends up taking away from the non-normative genders their right to form one of their own.

“An individual is firstly defined by their position within the family and secondly within the deeply hierarchical social structure is as free in the market as a woman in the patriarchal family to decide for herself”

The private sphere, however, steps outside the household to enter the market whose relation with the individual (within or without the family) is again deemed to be outside the purview of the public domain; the state is reduced to operating as an intermediary and any intervention is deemed to be an intrusion of the “free” market. An individual is firstly defined by their position within the family and secondly within the deeply hierarchical social structure is as free in the market as a woman in the patriarchal family to decide for herself. Formal freedom provided by the public realm sanctions commission of omission with regard to questions of right and justice in what it construes as the personal. Accruing to a remarkably similar modus operendi deployed in family, the private adds to the power of the market in dispossessing the individual of any agency to strike a fair bargain. 

Examples range from the recent farmers’ agitation in India where the crisis could have been postponed in the name of being agrarian. However, it has reached the urgency of a civilizational lacuna that forgets and masks the number of farmers committing suicide every day. This is not only because of market inequities but the sheer lack of acknowledgment of the nuances that a farmer’s identity entails, the policy intervention it requires only to not mention the trauma and social handicap their families face after subsequent suicides. 

“the social construction of a woman’s identity that defines how the market views her as a customer, from selling life-threatening beauty standards to limiting the actual choice of a woman in education and jobs”

Other examples include the social construction of a woman’s identity that defines how the market views her as a customer, from selling life-threatening beauty standards to limiting the actual choice of a woman in education and jobs; the stereotyping of minorities (social, cultural, sexual) by a cultural industry that feeds off an unjust private life premised upon a superficially autonomous idea of entertainment, one that does not concern itself with the social and political reality within which it is produced. This brings us to the question of violence – what constitutes violence? and is non-violence adequate to challenge violence? 

As noted earlier, violence according to Johan Galtung is not simply a coercive physical act intended to cause harm but one that limits the very possibilities of one’s being. Violence is systemic and structural so much so that the very nature of the structure invisibilises the violence inherent to it. Within the institution of the family, the question of justice has been ridiculed to be too petty since family is made of “higher virtues” such as love. The existence of love external to the concept of justice fails to register any concern among progressive theoretical discourse on substantive justice. 

“The family, therefore, has failed to address the violence that is both physical – domestic violence, sexual abuse, and female infanticide – and structural – gendered division of labour, inequitable distribution of resources, and construction of oppressive gender norms”

The question of gender in this regime of love is unheard of as it confronts the family with seemingly lower, pettier concerns of unequal access to resources to women, higher unpaid working hours among others only to be met with the there is no “I” is the “us” of a family response. The family, therefore, has failed to address the violence that is both physical – domestic violence, sexual abuse, and female infanticide – and structural – gendered division of labour, inequitable distribution of resources, and construction of oppressive gender norms. The market, on the other hand, works in conjunction with existing pre-capitalist forms of oppression, leaving little scope for the individual to act freely upon their choices since their identities shape their bargaining power. 

Non-violence too is not simply to be seen as a negative: as only the absence of violence but a positive condition that requires conscious action. For Gandhi, non-violence requires one to reform oneself through action. It is both a means and an end in itself. He has a  teleological understanding of non-violence or ahimsa, which serves as a basis for his search of truth, for truth can neither be found nor realised in the presence of violence. For him, non-violence is an active force of the highest order. It implies a positive quality of love for one practicing non-violence is to not hate their oppressor and every person has a role to play in society and in family which they must fulfill. He laid great emphasis on physical work. According to Gandhi, everyone must contribute their labour to the best of their abilities to become self-reliant. 

However, even Gandhi preferred violence over injustice and cowardice, for him any sort of injustice should be resisted even if it calls for violent measures in extremities since he did not tolerate the prevalence of injustice out of fear. The emphasis on injustice here is crucial because it brings us back to the assertion that the supposedly ahistorical separation between the public and the private sphere invisibilises violence which is inherent to any dichotomous conceptualization of the simultaneity of our lived experiences. 

“The political and legal battles being fought on the streets of Delhi by farmers, in media by women, in the courtroom by the LGBTQ+ community and struggles world over are exemplary of the need of porosity between these neatly drawn borders”

It is imperative to repetitively note that the public and the private distinction is politically and historically constructed so much so that the claims to universality and natural necessity are a legitimation technique employed to downplay the violence that holds this distinction together. This argument is being made in light of the politically charged assertions being made by groups and individuals seeking to reconcile this gap between the two spheres which continue to oppress them. The political and legal battles being fought on the streets of Delhi by farmers, in media by women, in the courtroom by the LGBTQ+ community and struggles world over are exemplary of the need of porosity between these neatly drawn borders. There has come about a need to discard these boundaries with questions of justice, equality, democracy, and freedom which through a long drawn historical struggle laden with nuances of diversity in our communities have acquired a universal status. A universal that has so far been external to the regimes of “love” (family) and “choice” (market).

Kaushiki is currently pursuing a Masters in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

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India’s Rising Population – The Political Scapegoat

Anupama Nair

Does India, the world’s largest democracy, need to control its population? No it does not. Here’s why.

We have heard about how the human population has increased exponentially over the past few decades. We have also heard of overpopulation draining India’s natural resources and being a major cause for concern with regards to the wellbeing of citizens and the environment. What a lot of people might not know, however, is the fact that India’s overall population growth has declined considerably over the past few decades and is now stabilising. We are, in fact, very close to the point in our demographic transition wherein the population size of the following generation will be the same size as the current generation.

A widely used indicator for measuring population growth is the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), which is the number of children a woman passing through her reproductive years would be expected to have during her lifetime, based on prevailing age-specific fertility. In most developed countries, a TFR of 2.1 is considered as the “replacement rate” that is, the TFR at which each generation exactly replaces its previous generation in terms of numbers, without migration. For long-term stability of population size, a woman is expected to give birth to two children in her lifetime, one of whom is expected to be a girl who would go on to give birth later in her life. The 0.1 accounts for factors such as infant mortality and sex ratio. 

 “India’s population is not growing by a high margin anymore and is almost at the replacement rate”

As per the Indian government’s most recent SRS Statistical Report, India’s TFR stood at 2.2 in 2018, all the way down from 5.2 in 1971 and 3.6 in 1991. In other words, India’s population is not growing by a high margin anymore and is almost at the replacement rate. There are regional differences, however, as the TFR varies between states. At the lowest end are Delhi and West Bengal with a TFR of 1.5, and at the higher end are Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh with TFRs of 3.2, 2.9 and 2.7 respectively. The states that continue to have higher fertility rates also happen to have low socio-economic indicators, especially with regards to women. Bihar, for example, with the highest TFR also has the second-lowest female literacy rate. 

Additionally, the TFR in urban areas collectively stood at 1.7 whereas that in rural areas stood at 2.4. Aside from reasons such as more women going to school, working, and marrying later, as one moves to the city, the costs associated with having more children tend to increase considerably. Declining fertility rates in India can, therefore, be attributed to factors such as rising levels of education for girls and urbanisation, and have had little to do with coercive means to control population growth.

Many notable academics and activists have made a serious case for population control based on influential population growth models and theories, especially since the 1960s. Fear of the human population outgrowing food supply and resulting in increased poverty and famine influenced some states to implement coercive policies, such as China’s one-child rule and India’s forced sterilisation camps. However, these measures are not only violations of human rights but also have other negative long-term consequences.

A declining fertility rate and increased life expectancy in China is now resulting in an enormous ageing population that needs to be supported by a much smaller active labour force. Moreover, a cultural preference for sons in China has led to a higher number of men than women.  Fewer young men are now able to find wives and are labelled as “bare branches”. As more women work and earn well, they tend to become increasingly selective of their potential husbands. However, the prevalence of highly patriarchal norms, and a government that is now concerned about its shrinking youth, continue to pressurise women to marry young. Those who remain unmarried beyond their late twenties are also given a label: “leftover women”.

“in spite of an agenda based on women’s reproductive rights and health adopted by the UN in 1994, following the backlash against coercive population control measures, the legacy of sterilization-based family planning programmes in India persisted until as recently as 2016”

Sterilization programmes in India were funded by many international aid organisations and largely comprised of men and women being paid to undergo sterilization. Between 1976 and 1977, over 8 million men had been forcibly sterilized. The loss of the ruling party, Indian National Congress, in the following general elections led to a shift in focus from population control. However, in spite of an agenda based on women’s reproductive rights and health adopted by the UN in 1994, following the backlash against coercive population control measures, the legacy of sterilization-based family planning programmes in India persisted until as recently as 2016.

An important factor to consider when discussing population control is the persistence of unintended pregnancies, a common phenomenon in developed countries as well. This is largely due to the continued lack of reproductive rights, no access to sex education in schools, lack of access to contraceptives, lack of freedom to plan a family, or terminate a pregnancy.  The focus should be on creating equal opportunities for women through education and ensuring reproductive rights for all rather than coercive or punitive measures to control population growth. The choice to decide if, when, and how many children to have should not be a privilege, but a basic human right.

“Due to huge inequalities in consumption levels between countries, a child born and raised in a developed country is likely to have much greater consequences on the planet than one born in a developing country”

While it may seem like a declining human population is beneficial for the planet as a whole, in reality, population size is far from being the most significant determinant of environmental wellbeing. Equally important are the roles played by consumption levels and the prevalent norms of production. The developed world consumes maximum energy and food and is responsible for around 50% of cumulative carbon emissions since industrialisation. Due to huge inequalities in consumption levels between countries, a child born and raised in a developed country is likely to have much greater consequences on the planet than one born in a developing country.

“population control tends to be used as a scapegoat by politicians and policy-makers when they fail to deliver adequate and efficient services to the public”

At the same time, it is imperative to improve living standards in developing nations and bring millions out of abject poverty. If we are to achieve this goal without causing as much harm to the planet as has already been done, it would necessitate limiting consumption levels of the rich and involve vast changes in current production norms. More often than not, those who call for population control make no mention of consumption and production. Population control tends to be used as a scapegoat by politicians and policy-makers when they fail to deliver adequate and efficient services to the public.

The question of controlling a “population explosion” in India has been raised by the government again, after decades. A Population Regulation Bill was tabled in the Rajya Sabha in July 2019, which proposes incentives such as tax cuts and free healthcare to families that have two children or less, and penalises those who have more by withdrawing concessions from them. More recently, a Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2020 has been introduced in the Rajya Sabha, seeking to include similar measures in our constitution under a new Article 47A. There is little doubt that India’s population is overwhelmingly large, considering we account for 18% of the global population but only 2.4% of the total landmass. However, it seems as though the renewed concern for controlling India’s population growth seems misguided and ill-informed.

As explained earlier, India is no longer undergoing explosive population growth and this has happened without strict interventions by the government. By incentivising having two or fewer children, the government is likely to waste resources on families that would probably have decided to have fewer children anyway. On the other hand, it will mostly be the poor who would be disproportionately impacted by punitive action against those who have larger families, decreasing their chances of socio-economic upliftment. 

“one cannot ignore the history of unethical population control methods and their social consequences”

Moreover, one cannot ignore the history of unethical population control methods and their social consequences. Like China, India also has a cultural preference for sons and India’s sex ratio is already skewed, with men outnumbering women by millions. Population control measures are also associated with targeting specific social groups, based on racism, xenophobia, and communalism. The false rhetoric of Muslims having more children to outnumber the Hindu majority in India has been used by politicians and is widely believed. We should be asking how population control legislation might affect these issues in our country?

Educating and empowering girls, and decreasing income inequality have been suggested as far more effective ways to address issues of resource scarcity and poverty, as compared to incentivising people to have fewer children. These will also address a myriad of other problems that plague Indian society. Family planning programmes are important so long as their objective is to provide access to safe contraception and family planning services. There exist many other well-researched suggestions to improve the state of India’s environment and increase resource use efficiency, without any need to address population growth at all. If poverty, resource scarcity, and environment were truly primary concerns for our legislators, surely they would consider better means of intervention than population control.

Anupama is a researcher at the Divecha Centre for Climate Change Indian Institute of Science, currently trying to figure out how her work could help improve the environment and society at large.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

The Farce of Self-Defence

Ananya Agarwal

Why promoting self-defence is a negligent and weak attempt to solve the rape crisis in India

Content Warning: Rape and Sexual assault 

Rape and everyday instances of sexual violence are a lived experience for Indian women. In 2018, the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked India as the most dangerous country in the world for women. This follows from the 2012 gang rape that shocked the nation, made headlines globally, and brought the conversation around sexual violence to the forefront. 

One would assume that since then, the number of rape cases in India would have gone down. However, as per the Crime in India 2012 report released by N.C.R.B. (National Crime Report Bureau), the number of reported rape cases rose from 24,923 in 2012 to 33,356 in 2018. These numbers are limited to rape and do not include reports of other forms of sexual violence, such as an attempt to rape, sexual harassment in different forms and, stalking, etc. It is important to highlight that most cases of these various forms of sexual violence go unreported. 

Under these circumstances, we see many advocating for self-defence as a solution to rape. A prominent example is a statement by the Delhi High Court advising girls to learn self-defence. There are several instances of Indian actors advocating for self-defence. When asked about the threat of harassment and assault that women face on a daily basis, they suggested that women should learn how to defend themselves. Actor Sushmita Sen shared her own story of being harassed recently by a 15-year-old boy and how she was able to detect him out of a crowd and confront him because of her self-defence training. She advised girls to learn self-defence.

“It is important to understand how sexual assault is rooted in a display of dominance and power over women”

The argument for self-defence goes back to the 1960s and the 1970s when it was seen as a means of empowering women. If women could learn to protect themselves against their attackers, there would be a decline in the number of rape cases. It is important to understand how sexual assault is rooted in a display of dominance and power over women. Tearing down the patriarchal mindset was and remains a humongous task. It may have been easier for women to take their security and well-being into their own hands because the system failed to help them. 

“The idea of self-defence is problematic for many reasons, primarily because it gives in to the idea that brutal attacks are impossible to stop, that they can ‘happen’ to anyone, anywhere, and therefore, the victim-survivors should stay alert and be well equipped to defend themselves”

Even though women’s position in society has arguably improved since the 1960s, the self-defence argument remains popular in the mainstream. It is problematic for many reasons, primarily because it gives in to the idea that brutal attacks are impossible to stop, that they can ‘happen’ to anyone, anywhere, and therefore, the victim-survivors should stay alert and be well equipped to defend themselves, at all times. This leads to transferring the responsibility from the attacker onto the person who is being attacked – creating a very clear shift of blame.

On invoking the idea of self defence, like in the bygone decades, we make the debate about a victim-survivor’s ability to protect themselves. However, it is not a question of whether a victim-survivor is able to protect themselves when they are in that situation. It is a question of why they find themselves in that situation in the first place. If we think that self-defence can prevent rape, we must question if victim-survivors will stop being targetted by rapists once they learn how to defend themselves. Will learning self-defence prevent an attack? The simple, and yet harsh answer is no.

“More often than not, the attacker is known to the victim-survivor”

When we think of rape, what comes to mind is a vicious attack by a stranger in a dark alley.  But more often than not, the attacker is known to the victim-survivor. It takes place in their own house and in their bedrooms. As per the data provided by N.C.R.B. (National Crime Records Bureau), in 2018, 94% of all sexual offenders were family members, friends, neighbours, employers, live-in partners, etc. In such cases, the victim-survivor may not be able to use the strategy of self-defence while under attack. This can be due to many reasons, for instance, the internal conflict caused due to familiarity with the attacker can lead to a range of feelings like fear, betrayal and bewilderment.  

It is also imperative to emphasize the concept of re-victimization. An individual who has experienced sexual assault earlier in their life may struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (P.T.S.D.), which may cause physical as well as psychological trauma. When faced with a similar situation again, their brain and body may react by shutting down to prevent further trauma rendering them incapable of defending themselves in any other way. Research shows that it is common for the victim-survivor to freeze in cases of first-time assaults as well. Sexual assault is not a natural interaction wherein people can apply their common sense and know how to react. It can be an extremely traumatic event and advocating for self-defence makes the victim-survivor answerable for it.

“The lack of acknowledgement that a person who is being raped may already be in a physically vulnerable position and self-defence may not be an option at all is a big blind spot when considering it to be the solution”

Moreover, the use of self-defence can result in escalating the situation and lead to even more harmful consequences. The lack of acknowledgement that a person who is being raped may already be in a physically vulnerable position and self-defence may not be an option at all is a big blind spot when considering it to be the solution. Victim-survivors often have to make the difficult trade-off between defending themselves and potentially aggravating the attacker(s) further, risking immense pain and even more severe injuries. 

In 2018, it was found that every fourth rape victim in India was a minor. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, 34.7% of all crimes against children are rape cases. Sexual offenses also take place, for instance, against physically and mentally disabled, as well as aged people. Cases of sexual assault have surfaced while people have been in custody, by police personnel, public servants, jail staff and others. Last week, a custodial rape case came to light in the state of Orissa where a 13-year old tribal minor was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the Inspector-in-charge. Citing self-defence as a solution to rape and sexual assault does not address the plight of minors, physically and mentally disabled, elderly, who may not have the physical capacity required to defend themselves.

“Much like many other cited solutions, some of which seek to restrict and confine people within societal boundaries “walk around in groups”, “show no skin”, “don’t step out after dark”, self-defence also does not provide a concrete solution”

Today, many understand that sexual assault is immoral and look down on it, but they are not cognizant of why it’s wrong. Before we instill fear in potential sex offenders, it is essential to educate them about why it is wrong and how they could be violating someone and impacting their life in immeasurable ways. Much like many other cited solutions, some of which seek to restrict and confine people within societal boundaries “walk around in groups”, “show no skin”, “don’t step out after dark”, self-defence also does not provide a concrete solution. 

While the idea of self-defence may be attractive, it is an unsatisfactory attempt to solve a larger and more foundational issue. The attention, instead, should be on challenging the systemic conditions that allow rapes to happen as frequently as they do while letting rapists get away without justice. It is critical to focus on creating awareness about sex education and consent as well as fighting the stigma surrounding sexual assault and supporting victim-survivors.

 A management consultant by profession, Ananya is a part of team Bol. She enjoys experimenting with different creative mediums and seeks out all things chocolate.

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