Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Sexual Curiosity Is ‘Normal’ In Teens So Let’s Discuss The Real ‘Issue’ Here!

 [First published in Women's Web.]

When schools in Bangalore conducted surprise checks of the bags of students to see if they were bringing cell phones to school, they were in for a nasty surprise.

As this report in the Deccan Herald says, “In addition to cell phones, they found condoms, oral contraceptives, cigarettes, lighters and whiteners in the bags of students of grades 8, 9 and 10. To their credit, the school authorities handled the situation with maturity- instead of suspending the students, they informed the parents and/ or guardians and advised them to seek counselling for their wards.”

Schools, parents and society is shocked, but what is the real issue here?

People are, understandably shocked to find out that adolescents in the age group 12 to 15 years are potentially indulging in sexual intercourse. People largely fall into four camps–

  • Those that say that today’s youth are morally degenerate, and call for lesser freedom and greater policing
  • Those that recognise that if adolescents are indulging in sexual intercourse, it is good that they are using contraceptives which protect against both pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases
  • Those that say that neither school authorities nor parents (and/ or guardians) have the right to check the contents of school bags, and that it constitutes a gross invasion of privacy
  • But the largest camp is of parents of teenagers and pre-teenagers who are shaken up to find that adolescents of the same age as their own children are sexually active. Most of the people who fall into the earlier three camps are not themselves parents (or are parents of grown up children and so not directly affected), and therefore can take an intellectual/ moral stand.

Is my child also sexually active without me even suspecting it? This is the time for children to study- how do I prevent it from happening in my home? What can I do differently to ensure that my child confides in me? Are just some of the questions that they are plagued with.

We prefer to moralise and brush issues under the carpet

The main issue here is not one of morals- biology dictates that after attaining puberty, the body is ready to perform its reproductive functions. Sexual attraction to the same or opposite sex, curiosity about the sexual act, and the desire to experiment are all built into humans, and it is only social norms around virginity and fidelity that assigns moral values to sexual curiosity and sexual chastity. The larger issue, therefore, is the lack of formal sex education in schools and an environment where one can have healthy discussions about safe and unsafe sex at home.

As a nation, we like to pretend that if we ignore an issue, it will go away. Nowhere is that more evident than in case of matters pertaining to sex and relationships. We look away when children complain of being sexually abused by relatives and friends. We ignore the sexual, physical and mental abuse inflicted on women by their partners. We think that if we do not discuss sex, our children will remain ignorant of it. Nothing could be further from the truth, and children, adolescents, and vulnerable adults pay the price for this head in the sand approach.

We fail to teach our children about “good touch” and “bad touch” because we think they are too young to understand. Yet, children as young as three are victims of sexual abuse. The probability of preventing child sexual abuse, or at least nipping it before it goes too far, is increased if we provide the appropriate vocabulary to our children and create a non-judgmental space for them to articulate their concerns.

Women are forced to continue in abusive relationships, because of lack of support from families, friends and the larger community.

Formal sex education is such a necessity!

But perhaps the worst affected by this silence are the adolescents. At a time when they are naturally curious, there is great reluctance on the part of parents and teachers to discuss sex. Even the chapters on reproductive biology in text books are quicky glossed over, with no time given over to answering questions. In the absence of formal sex education, adolescents often turn to pornography or log onto online forums to seek answers to the questions they want to ask. This not only leaves them with incomplete information on contraception and safe sex, it occasionally compromises their safety and puts them in extremely vulnerable positions.

Formal sex education will, additionally, discuss consent. Bollywood movies glorify stalking behaviour and have heros who persist in “wooing” the heroine despite several rejections. An adolescent who learns about relationships through Bollywood movies cannot be blamed for thinking that “no” merely means “try harder next time”. However, once sex education is brought into the classroom, after screening videos like the ‘consent is like tea’ one there can be discussions on the nuances of consent. Adolescents of all genders will learn to draw lines and to respect the lines drawn by their partners. This cannot happen if sex is relegated to a dark and shameful corner of the room- the atmosphere in school and at home should be non-judgemental for adolescents to talk about the issues that they are perplexed by.

We need solution oriented thinking to make it safer and less traumatic to sex curious youngsters

Apart from knowing about consent and contraceptives, there is a third reason why it is critical to have honest and non-judgemental discussions with adolescents- the legal framework where even consensual sex with a minor can be treated as a criminal offence. The POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, 2012 which was introduced to protect children from sexual abuse clearly defines a child as anyone below the age of 18, and clearly fixes the age of consent as 18 years. According to the provisions of the Act, anyone under the age of 18 cannot give consent, and therefore any act of sexual intercourse with or among adolescents is treated on par with rape.

This law is often misused by parents of minors to break up relationships by bringing a false charge of rape against the person with whom their daughter is in a consensual sexual relationship. Though these cases have been challenged in the court and the rate of acquittal is high it is still an extremely traumatic situation for both partners. The minor girl is branded as the victim of rape, and has to go through the trauma of repeated cross questioning. The male partner is branded a criminal, is often kept in police custody for a short or long period of time, and goes through a harrowing experience till acquittal.

In the absence of an environment where adolescents can freely discuss sexual relationships with non-judgemental adults, it is unlikely that they learn about the legal framework which criminalizes even consensual relationships.

It has to be recognised that older adolescents are curious about sex, and have the right to explore consensual sexual relationships. If the age of consent remains 18, not only is the sexual relationship being criminalised, the young woman will struggle to find access to support in case of an unwanted pregnancy. The only long term solution to this is to press for legal reform, so the age of consent is reduced from 18 to 16, so the POCSO act serves the purpose for which it was created- to protect minors, instead of enabling their criminalisation.

This incident has thrown up a number of issues that need to be discussed, and one hopes that instead of taking firm stands, the various stakeholders talk about themselves, and do what is best for adolescents.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

What do you think of Greta Thunberg?

 What do you think of Greta Thunberg”, someone asked. The question was not directed at me, so I had time to think. What do I really think of Greta Thunberg?

When 15 year old Great Thunberg started sitting outside the Swedish Parliament with a sign saying “Skolstrejk för Klimatet/ School Strike for Climate”, she may not have expected to create a tsunami. Her simple message “since you grown-ups don’t give a shit about my future, I won’t either. I refuse school for the climate” resonated with young people across the globe. She inspired millions of young people to take to the streets demanding urgent Climate Action. She achieved what many others failed to do- she set in motion a movement that resulted in creating awareness about the Climate Crisis among a whole new set of constituents. While earlier, it was a relatively small set of people who were concerned about the need for urgent climate action, in less than a year, the terms Climate Change and Climate Action had become mainstreamed.

How did Greta Thunberg achieve what others far more experienced and influential than her failed to do?

It is hard to answer that question. Perhaps the image of a lone girl with long blond braids sitting forlornly yet defiantly struck a chord that well-articulated arguments couldn’t. Perhaps confused and frustrated young people who were looking for someone to show them how to articulate their anger and fears found a kindred soul in her. Perhaps the popular movement against Climate Change was looking for a person around whom to anchor their protests and she happened to be the right person at the right time. Maybe it was none of these reasons, or maybe it was a combination of all these reasons.

Whatever it was, Greta Thunberg became The Face of the Movement for many people who were earlier not too concerned with Climate Change. She influenced her generation to speak up against Climate Change, emphatically and effectively.

What do you think of when you think of Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future?

At an individual level, Greta Thunberg walks the talk by maintaining a sustainable lifestyle and forcing others around her to do so too. She turned vegan when she was around 10. She doesn’t travel by air and uses public transport as much as possible. She subscribes to the stop- shop philosophy which means you don’t buy new things or consume new things unless you absolutely have to.

Beyond the personal, however, Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future demand that world leaders do much more to stop and reverse the effects of climate change before it is too late. They do not claim to have the answers. What they do is to demand that world leaders do much more than just ‘business as usual’. Greta Thunberg’s widely quoted “How Dare You” speech encapsulates her anger and despair-

People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
“For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”
“For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”
“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.”
“We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

When Greta has achieved so much, why are people so critical of her?

When anybody achieves fame, people rush to discredit them. Greta Thunberg was no exception. Conspiracy theorists accused her of being a puppet put up by the militant Left. She was accused of being manipulated by her power hungry father, and of accepting money from energy giants. Even the then President, Donald Trump took to Twitter to accuse her of having anger management issues. None of these charges, except the last, stuck.

That was largely Greta’s own doing. When she said, “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders”, she would have known that she would be permanently branded “Angry”. And she was.

Though we know that she cares deeply for the planet, the predominant emotion one associates with Greta is certainly anger. Righteous anger. Anger that instead of action, we get words. “Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises,”

It was this anger that galvanised millions to join protest marches and climate strikes called by Greta Thunberg and Fridays For Future. It was this anger that forced otherwise apathetic people to start speaking up for Climate Action. It was this anger that ensured that media attention focussed on issues pertaining to climate change.

However, maybe the anger has now outlived its purpose. There is greater awareness. There are greater demands. There is talk of greater investment. Now is the time to act- to invent clean technologies, to phase out polluting industries, to ensure that concrete action starts replacing good intent.

What, therefore, do I think of Greta?

I admire Greta Thunberg for her commitment and single-minded focus. I admire Greta Thunberg because she walked the talk and demanded concrete action. I admire Greta because she inspired millions to question world leaders over their unwillingness to invest in technologies and implement policies that would reduce carbon emissions.

If Greta had not managed to get millions out on the streets, it may have taken world leaders much longer to take climate action seriously. Where many before her failed, Greta managed to serve as a catalyst to galvanise public opinion. Her job is now done. As she approaches her 20th birthday, she can be proud of what she has achieved, and can let others take over.

Emergency Message Protocols protect the vulnerable

 [First published in Women’s Web]

A lot has been reported and debated on the gruesome murder of Shraddha Walker, but one small detail of the case is not receiving as much attention as it should. The investigation has revealed that the accused Aftab Ameen Poonawalla used her Instagram account for almost a month after her murder to give the impression of her still being alive.

Why an emergency message protocol is critical
Presumably he did that to avoid the possibility of a search being launched before he was able to dispose off all the body parts. It now turns out that he need not have worried- Shraddha’s isolation was so complete that it was not till many months after the crime that someone cared enough to go to the authorities. But assuming her friends, knowing about the abusive situation she was in, were keeping an active watch on her, by continuing to communicate with them, he may have succeeded in deluding them.

Given how a large chunk of our communication is through WhatsApp, Messenger or Direct Messages, where we neither see the person nor hear their voice, it is important for all of us to have emergency protocols in place especially if we feel we are in a vulnerable situation.

My scientist friend and I have an ongoing joke between us- “If you ever receive a message from me saying ‘vaccines don’t work’, you should realise that it is my way of telling you that I have been kidnapped.” The joke started because both of us were equally frustrated by anti-vaxxers, but it doesn’t hurt to have similar code messages with friends who you trust.

Shraddha’s friends were aware of the fact that she was in an abusive relationship. If they had set up a code like the one my friend and I joke about, the friends would have been alerted to something fishy long before they actually were.

How secret safety codes work and are widely used
Many bars and restaurants have a variation of the secret code pasted in the ladies washrooms. If a woman feels unsafe, all she has to do is to order a specific drink, and the staff will ensure her is extricated from an unpleasant position with minimal fuss. In an ideal world, there should be no need to put such elaborate systems in place, but given the perils of dating, particularly online dating, it is a level of protection that is much needed.

Secret codes are particularly useful as a way to protect children and adolescents. A mother of a teenager once shared how before dropping her daughter off at sleepovers, they finalised a secret code which the daughter would use if she felt uncomfortable and wanted to return home. It was always an innocent phrase, and on seeing it, the mother would hop into the car and drive straight to the place where her child was, with no questions asked. The obvious benefit of the secret code was that both the mother and daughter knew that if things were starting to get out of hand, the mother could swiftly and neatly extricate her daughter. The additional benefit was that there would be no proof of an SOS being sent on the daughter’s phone, so she wouldn’t have to lose face in front of her friends.

Younger children, especially those that lead semi-independent lives, are vulnerable to being tricked by strangers. It is not hard for strangers to approach a child who is waiting to be picked them up from school and trick them into accompanying them by saying that the parent got delayed and deputed them to pick the child up. Since there is a finite probability that there may be a genuine emergency where the child may have to be picked up by someone else, it is good to have a secret code. The child can be taught to go with a stranger only if they knew the code. My children and I had a code word, which we would repeat often so we did not forget. We never needed to use it, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

In State of Terror, the geo-political thriller jointly written by Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny, the protagonists use a linguistic play on words (An oxymoron walked into a bar… and the silence was deafening) to identify themselves to each other. It may appear childish, but it never hurts to have back-up systems in place.

Though Shraddha Walker had been systematically isolated by her partner, some of her friends knew she was in an abusive relationship. If she had a fool proof way of communicating to her friends that she was in danger, things might have been different. “Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst”, they say. Setting up secret codes with people you trust is a simple way of protecting ourselves.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Focus should be making Workplaces more Accessible for Mothers

[First published in Women's Web]

When a District Collector, Dr. Divya S. Iyer, took her child along to a private function and addressed the gathering holding him in her arms, her detractors immediately took to social media to criticise her “improper” behaviour. According to them, it was unbecoming of a senior government official to take her child along for a public engagement, and that she should have left the child behind at home. Others were quick to point out that the function was a private one which she was attending on a holiday in her personal capacity and that she had already informed the organizers that she would bring her child along. 

As the debate over the propriety raged, her husband took to social media to remind people that such a discussion was good in one way, since it highlighted the challenges that working women need to overcome in order to fulfil ‘their multiple roles as wife, mother and so on, besides handling professional duties.’ “Working mothers do not need anyone’s sympathy”, he added. “But, the society should give them a positive space to work.”
There are two major issues here, both of which need to be addressed.
The first is of inclusive workplaces. While it is easy to pass judgement on parents who bring their children to work, the fundamental question that needs to be asked is why they need to do so. Given a choice, parents would certainly prefer to work without the distraction of a child- that they need to bring the child to work indicates that they do not have enough flexibility to stay at home on days when they are not able to arrange for childcare.
People who say that it is “unprofessional” of an employee to bring a child to the workplace should reflect on whether they will say the same thing if an organization expects an employee to respond to official phone calls and check the official e-mail after office hours. If no eyebrows are raised when work spills over to the home, why should people have an issue when in an emergency personal life spills over to the workplace.
In this particular case, specifically, the official engagement was on a holiday, and the employee was well within her rights to say that she will only attend provided the child could be brought too.

The second point which, unfortunately, is lost completely is on the role of the woman. Dr. Divya’s husband took to social media to talk about the many roles that a working woman is expected to play. On the surface, this would seem like an extremely encouraging statement, because the emotional load of a woman is almost always overlooked. However, the pertinent question to be asked is what the role of the father is in all this. If a marriage is an equitable relationship, why is the wife expected to fulfil the roles of a “wife, mother and so on”? If both partners take equal responsibility for housekeeping, caregiving and parenting there would be no need for a woman to take on as many responsibilities as she now does.

Instead of merely celebrating women for juggling multiple roles, shouldn’t society encourage both partners to share the responsibilities, so they can both reach their full potential at home and at work? For this to happen, things need to change at various levels.
Men are celebrated for doing even the basic minimum, while women are expected to do it all without appreciation or acknowledgement. New mothers often complain that even when the fathers pitch in to burp the baby, to change diapers or to soothe colicky babies, the reaction of others embarrasses them to such an extent that they stop doing those chores at least in public. This needs to change if there is to be a more equitable relationship between both partners.
Workplaces should also encourage their employees to maintain a better work-life balance in order to facilitate more equitable relationships. If fathers of young babies are expected to work extremely long hours and/ or take official calls at home, it restricts the time they can spend with their children. The mother is, therefore, forced to take on the major share of caregiving, which in turn makes it extremely difficult for her to return to work when the maternity leave gets over. This leads to reduced labour force participation of women, and to women taking on increasing amounts of the invisible workload.

Many of us have grown up spending weekends and holidays at our parents’ workplace. Indira Nooyi once shared that her daughter had slept under her desk so often she regarded that desk as her own and didn’t want it given away. If they cannot find reliable childcare at home, employees often find it easier to concentrate on work if the child is with them at the workplace.
Ideally, all workplaces should provide child care facilities for their staff, both male and female. Most organizations do not want to invest in childcare facilities because the number of female employees is low and the number of female employees with young children even lower. What these organizations do not realise is that if they provide child care facilities, it will be much easier for them to recruit and retain women employees. Women who know that their babies will be well looked after in the office premises will be far more likely to return to work on completion of their maternity leave. If organizations set up child care facilities, even male employees might access it so their wives can go back to work- this will help retaining male employees, since the this would serve as an incentive to remain in the same employment.

Yes, by bringing her child to an official function, Dr. Divya, IAS did stir up a debate. However, instead of debating whether or not she should did something wrong by bringing her child to work, if we discussed the need for more inclusive policies at work it would better serve the cause of improving the labour force participation of women.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Hijab Ban Verdict And The Need To Prioritise Girls’ Fundamental Right To Education

 [First published in Women’s Web]

Yesterday, the two member bench of the Supreme Court handed a split verdict on the appeal against the Karnataka High Court judgement upholding the hijab ban by educations institutions in the state.

Those of us who have been following the case in the Supreme Court expected Justice Hemant Gupta to dismiss the appeals challenging the decision of the Karnataka High Court. It was no surprise to anyone that his judgement dismissed the plea by the young women that they should be allowed to wear hijabs in the classroom.

However, the judgement of Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia gives hope.

When the young women filed a petition before the Karnataka High Court seeking permission to wear the hijab in the classroom, the High Court dismissed the petition by stating that unlike the turban in the Sikh faith, the hijab was not an “essential religious practice” of the Islamic faith, and therefore they were not exempt from the guideline issues by individual educational institutions.

While ‘hijab’ is mandated in the Quran, there are different interpretations on what ‘hijab’ actually means. The High Court, therefore, should not have based its judgement on whether or not the hijab is an “essential religious practice” or not- if some women consider it an “essential religious practice”, it is not for the High Court to decide that their interpretation is not the right one.

Instead, the High Court should have realised that by upholding that hijabs were not permitted in the classroom they were forcing may young women to choose between following the dictates of their faith and getting an education.

There is little to be gained by creating a “hijab ya kitab” (hijab or book) binary- in a patriarchal country like India, young women already have to navigate complex minefields, without the system adding yet another level of complexity.

Many people who had absolutely no skin in the game, claimed that they were trying to free young women from a patriarchal society that forced them to wear a hijab. False equivalences were drawn with the anti-hijab protests in Iran to underscore the point that hijabs should be shunned.

So from some of the things Justice Gupta said, one had feared that the judgement too would be along similar lines, and the hijab ban would be upheld.

It is here that the judgement of Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia gives hope.

Justice Dhulia dismissed the need to establish whether or not a hijab was an “essential religious practice” and stated categorically that “when protection is sought under Article 25(1) of the Constitution [which states that all persons have the right freely to process, practice and propagate religion], it is not required for the individual to establish that what he or she asserts is an essential religious practice. It may or may not be a matter of essential religious practice, but it still is, a matter of conscience, belief, and expression.”

“If she wants to wear hijab, even inside her class room, she cannot be stopped, if it is worn as a matter of her choice, as it may be the only way her conservative family will permit her to go to school, and in those cases, her hijab is her ticket to education.”

By stating that, Justice Dhulia showed an astute understanding of the practical meaning of “choice”. When we make choices, we always choose between the alternatives that are available to us. For many young women (though certainly not for all) the choice often is “don the hijab and go to school” or “refuse to wear the hijab and drop out of school”. When schools/ colleges ban the hijab, the young woman doesn’t get mysteriously “empowered” to shun the hijab- often she just ends up dropping out of school/ college.

Justice Dhulia then went on to add: “But the thing that was most important in my mind while deciding this case was the education of a girl child. It’s common knowledge that already a girl child, primarily in rural areas and semi-urban areas, has to face a lot of difficulties. She has to help her mother in daily chores, in cleaning and washing, before she goes to school. There are other difficulties as well. What I ask is are we making her life any better?”

This part of the judgement will be quoted for many years to come, because it strikes at the heart of what the judicial system should do- keep the interests of the most vulnerable people at the center. As Justice Leila Seth says in her book, Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India, “treating persons who are in an unequal situation equally does not do away with the injustice. This situational imbalance has to be rectified first.” While educational institutions can and must uphold their rules, if these rules deprive young people of an education, the rules must be overthrown.

Even if people think that the hijab is a patriarchal construct, the way to “liberate” women is by enabling them to get an education so they are economically and emotionally independent, and therefore empowered to take decisions which may go against societal expectations. Anyone who genuinely cares for the empowerment of women should oppose the hijab ban, as Justice Dhulia pointed out.

n an ideal situation, one would have hoped that the Supreme Court bench would have dismissed the High Court judgment that upheld the hijab-ban. However, in light of the many pronouncements that go against the fundamental rights of women and minorities, the judgement handed down by Justice Dhulia is a ray of hope. As Harper Lee wrote in her book To Kill a Mockingbird, after Atticus Finch kept the jury out for hours in the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman:

“You think about that,” Miss Maudie was saying. “It was no accident. I was sitting there on the porch last night, waiting. I waited and waited to see you all come down the sidewalk and as I waited I thought, Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And I thought to myself, well, we’re making a step- its just a baby step, but it’s a step.”

This judgement is a baby step, but it holds hope.

With a split verdict, the case will now go to the Chief Justice, who will give the final verdict on whether educational institutions in Karnataka can enforce a hijab-ban. One hopes the verdict will be in favour of the young women. Justice Gupta will retire at the end of the week- this may be his last significant judgement. Justice Dhulia’s judgement will, however, continue to be quoted for many years to come.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Is a woman obliged to carry to term a baby that is the "nishani" of the father?

[First published in Women's Web]

A retired official, and advocate at the High Court recently narrated a story of the widow of a Kargil martyr who was pregnant at the time of his death. From a purely practical standpoint, her parents advised her to have an abortion, but her in-laws wanted her to have the child since that was the “nishani” of their son. When the lady insisted she didn’t want to have the child, her in-laws went to the District Collector who, purely on humanitarian grounds, ordered the woman to stay with her in-laws, carry the child to full term and hand it over to the grandparents to bring up. Though the person posting this story was deliberate vague on whether it was a recent case or an old one, she by specifying that there was nothing in the rules to permit it, admitted that the decision of the District Collector was purely arbitrary. She used it to argue that decisions around pregnancy should not be left to the mother alone, because issues like ‘inter-personal emotions, traditions and responsibilities’ also come into play. 

Looking at the case purely from the facts that were shared by the person, there are several aspects that are extremely disturbing.

The choice of the woman is not mentioned anywhere in the narrative- it only talks of her parents advising her to abort the child, and her in-laws demanding that she bear the child. This is, unfortunately, the reality in India. A woman has very little agency in deciding what she wants for herself. She is caught in the expectations of various people, many of whom do not even have a stake in her well being, which severely restricts her ability to think dispassionately for herself. In most conflict situations, the woman’s opinion is not even considered- different people face off among themselves to determine which of them gets to decide her action. This is the reason why women try to seek a powerful ally within the external family if they want to do anything that they think the family may not approve of.

In this case, the parents of the woman have a more pragmatic approach. Given that this is her first child, one assumes the woman is not very old, and perhaps not even equipped to have a professional career. Like it or not, remarriage is the most sensible option for her, and remarriage will be much easier if the woman is not burdened with a child. Even if the woman is not thinking of remarriage right away, it is extremely hard to be a single parent, and this may not be the appropriate time where she can take a decision on whether or not to have the child. Anyone who has the best interest of the woman at heart will remind her of the practical considerations, and request her to keep that in mind while taking a decision.

The in-laws, on the other hand are acting in a purely emotional way. Having lost a child, they want to substitute him with a grandchild. In stating that they will bring up the child themselves, they have clearly not thought the issue through. At their age, are they physically and emotionally ready to bring up a baby single handedly? Will they expect the mother of the child to breast-feed the baby for six months, or will they be able to make alternate arrangements? Who will look after the child after they are no more? Is it fair to expect a grandchild to look after their grandparents like they would a parent? 

There are other issues too, which pertain to the well being of the baby. Should a baby be brought into the world with the weight of other people’s expectations on them? How will a child feel knowing that they are not an individual by a “nishani” of their dead father- that people do not necessarily care for them, except as a reminder of someone else who has passed on? When the child asks about their mother, what will the grandparents tell them- would a child really want to know that their mother wanted to abort them, and that she abandoned them soon after giving birth?

There is a possibility, however low, that the mother will bond with the child and not be able to give the child up. What if she chooses to bring up the child on her own, and denies the grandparents access to the child? Is that a possibility that anyone has even considered?

The biggest question is the one that everyone avoids- the grandparents are presuming the child will be male. What if the child is female? Will they still consider the child a “nishani” of their martyred son? Or will the grandparents put the child up for adoption after having forced the mother to give birth?

Lastly, why should the District Collector be involved in something that is purely a personal matter? No laws were broken, nor were any evoked. The District Collector should have sent the in-laws away by saying that this was outside their ambit of responsibilities. Not only did the District Collector not do that, they chose to issues directions that impinge on the rights of the pregnant woman and could be easily challenged in court.

As if illegally coercing a woman to not abort a foetus was not bad enough, the District Collector has compounded the injustice by forcing the woman to stay with her in-laws till she delivers the baby. The logic behind this would have been to ensure that the woman wouldn’t quietly have an abortion and then declare it was a miscarriage. However, now the woman has been forced to live in a hostile environment for several months. The woman who is silently grieving the loss of a husband will not only have to bear the emotional fluctuations of a pregnancy she doesn’t want, she will have to do it in a house where her only identity will be that of a receptacle of her dead husband’s “nishani”. It is extremely likely that during the period of her pregnancy she will virtually be under house arrest and may not even be allowed to visit her parents or have them stay with her for emotional support. We also do not know how long after delivery the house arrest will last- will she be compelled to stay till the baby is weaned off?

What is even more disturbing is the fact that so many people are hailing this story, and using it as an example to prove that in case of medical termination of pregnancy, the woman should not have the right to decide.

People are taking it for granted that as a pregnant widow”, it is the moral obligation of the woman to give birth to the “nishani” of the “shaheed”. Without irony, the woman sharing the story says, “This decision, of course, was under no Rules and purely on humane emotions. Humanity and society is not a mechanical thing. It runs on. Our Hon. Supreme Court needs to understand that “my body my choice” is OK till it does not intervene with others’ rights.”

However, what “rights” are people talking about? The parents of the martyred soldier need grief counselling to help them get over the loss of their only son. A grandchild cannot, and should not, be a substitute for a dead child. Even if it temporarily numbs the pain of losing a child, it is not fair on the grandchild to bring them up with such expectations.

If anything, stories like this underline exactly why abortion laws should give the mother and only the mother the choice to decide whether to carry the child to term or not. While people may argue that the father of the child also has a say in whether or not to abort the child, in a healthy relationship, any decision taken by the mother will be one that is discussed by both partners. If the parents are not aligned, the only person who has the right to decide is the mother, since she is the one who will go through pregnancy, childbirth, and carry the larger burden of child rearing.

“My body, my choice” is not a western, feminist import as people claim it is. In the often repeated tale from the Mahabharata, Ganga agreed to marry King Shantanu on condition he will never question her. The story of her multiple pregnancies and child-births is the most powerful example of the agency that a woman enjoyed in the time of the epics.

The recent Supreme Court verdicts that reiterate the body autonomy that women enjoy is a welcome step. And stories like this only underline why it is important to tighten the laws so nobody can compel a woman to do something she doesn’t want to.

Friday, September 30, 2022

The Real Reason Why Ridiculing A School Girl’s Request For Cheaper Pads Is Problematic

[A very large percentage of young women do not have access to a hygienic method of menstrual protection, and the request made by the student was a valid one. I write in Women's Web.]

At a workshop on Empowered Daughters, Prosperous Bihar, a student from an economically marginalised family asked Harjot Kaur Bamhrah, Managing Director of Bihar’s Women Development Corporation whether it was possible for the Government to give sanitary pads to students of government schools.

Instead of acknowledging the very valid demand, the IAS officer responded by saying that there was no end to such demands. She went on display her utter lack of sensitivity by arrogantly adding, “Tomorrow you will say the government can give jeans pants too. And after that why not some beautiful shoes? Eventually, when it comes to family planning you will expect the governemtn to give you family planning methods and condoms too. Why is there a need to take everything for free?”

As a senior IAS officer, Ms. Bamhrah should have refrained from insulting the student who made a perfectly valid request, especially at a workshop presumably organised to ‘empower’ young women. More importantly, as the government officer in charge of implementing schemes for women and children in the state, she should have been aware of the ground reality.

As per a 2014 report nearly 23 million girls drop out of school annually due to non-availability of sanitary napkins and/ or lack of awareness about menstruation practices. The sure shot way to empower young women is through Education, and providing sanitary pads and safe toilets is one way of ensuring students aren’t forced to drop out of school after attaining puberty.

The statement made by Ms. Bamhrah also displayed her sheer privilege.

While most of us live in cities where you can easily purchase sanitary pads from groceries and pharmacies, the distribution network often doesn’t extend to rural areas. In most villages, even of you can afford it, you cannot just walk into a store and purchase sanitary napkins. According to the National Family Health Survey, 2015-16, the percentage of women in the age group 15-24 years who use sanitary napkins is 58% in urban areas and 48% in rural areas. This clearly shows that a very large percentage of young women do not have access to a hygienic method of menstrual protection, and the request made by the student was a valid one.

This is just the tip of the iceberg that considers sanitary napkins a non-essential item…

Though Ms. Bamhrah, IAS, on account of her gender and the position she occupies should certainly know better, she is not alone in considering sanitary napkins an non-essential item.

The recent floods in Pakistan affected over 33 million people, of whom nearly 7 million have been internally displaced. While humanitarian organizations swung into action to deliver food, water, medicines and other essentials to the people in relief camps, the women soon realised that the relief packages didn’t include sanitary napkins. When they understood the issue, women and women’s groups swung into action and started mobilizing and distributing sanitary napkins to the women in relief camps.

When a few women took to social media to raise funds for this, they faced an immediate backlash from men who decided that sanitary napkins were not ‘essential goods’ and that relief organizations should concentrate on food, water and medicines only.

Some of the statements made by men showed how little they understood the issue, on which they had such a strong opinion. They said things like-

“Why do women need sanitary napkins? They can use a rag or something.”

“The women can sit in a corner and the shalwar will soak up the blood. Pads are not essential.”

“In case of emergency like flooding etc, women can endure with blood & without fear of infection etc. Women are biologically equipped to deal with that. Where people are dying food/water is most important things. Napkins can wait…”

Some even came up with dubious statements like “During situations of stress, the pH of the urine changes, and this temporarily stops menstruation”.

Needless to say, most of the people had only a vague understanding of the physical and psychological issues around menstruation, yet, they felt they were competent to declare that sanitary napkins were not essential items, and therefore their distributions should not be prioritised.

Ideally, all relief kids given to families with women who are menstruators should include sanitary napkins, but people seemed to have an issue even with women raising funds for procuring and distributing sanitary napkins to the flood affected women!

Yet, sanitary napkins are a genuine need. During the Kerala floods some of my colleagues were involved in supplying food and other materials to the people in relief camps. While they were grateful for the support, a few women took the female colleagues aside and whispered that they desperately needed sanitary napkins for themselves and their daughters. When they received them, they were extremely grateful, because some of them were so embarrassed of their blood-stained clothes, they didn’t even want to go to the toilets for fear that someone may see them and judge them.

Lack of sanitary products and toilets reduces access to public spaces

Seeing how aggressively some people declare that sanitary napkins are not an essential item, I often wonder if denying sanitary napkins to women is a way of reducing their mobility.

There is immense stigma associated with menstruation, and unless she has a fool-proof menstrual product, a women will not go out in public during her periods for fear of potentially exposing herself. Restricting access to sanitary napkins keeps them bound to the house for a few days every month, and this would affect their education, employment prospects and their participation in community activities.

It does not take genius to understand that in order to increase public participation of women, it is imperative that sanitary napkins be provided to women who either do not have access to them or cannot afford to purchase them, and sufficient awareness created on usage and safe disposal of these products.

That is the main reason why it is so distressing to find women in positions of power being so insensitive and ignorant about the challenges faced by women.

However, I do hope that after this controversy, more people will understand some of the challenges faced by women and girls, and display greater sensitivity towards finding solutions that work.


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