Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Unity in Diversity: Notion or Reality

Unity in Diversity is a reality that we must acknowledge and live with. Unity will not come by making everybody alike rather by agreeing on certain common values and principles and leaving the rest to the people. The first principle being equality and equity to enable people to achieve equality. Do we have unity in diversity? Not entirely, the Indian government and a large number of fellow Indians refuse to acknowledge caste discrimination because caste is different from race but they expect dalits to have the sense of unity. Same with women's rights; the state apparatus, society and families continue to kill female foetus, burn women, rape and molest women and girls and deny them basic rights in the name of religion, custom, traditions and so on but when women cry and make noise they are told that they have sold out to foreign ideologies as if only these inhuman practices are the foundation of the 'Indian ideology'.

The issue of unity cannot be left to nurture itself and remain a reality on its own unless the problematic of caste practice, the practices of abuse, discrimination, and violence against women and girls, and the inequality at large are consciously addressed. Do these practices threaten the concept of Unity in Diversity? Yes, if diversity is taken to mean and allow casteism, sexism, and so on even when these are to be ended says the Indian constitution. Citizens need to revisit the role of diversity that India holds in the national identity politics and construction of a national identity. The political ideology of a cohesive nation and national integration will not go far unless diversity based on the principles of equality and equity is given true meaning by the practice of it.

Diversity is a complex reality in India as a deconstruction of this reality will reveal innumerable sects, social groups and socio-economic segmentation by end number of castes, sub-castes, religious, regional and linguistic groups apart from further division and of these by sex. With this layered and amazingly complex reality of diversity within the nation-state, the concept of ‘one nation’ was and continues to be thrown away every time an effort is made to silence certain voices against discrimination, state led violence, caste and religion led violence and gender based violence. Or, the concept is thrown off by the unethical and unscrupulous political actors who use the issues raised by the voices to serve their vested ends. Demands for separate states and autonomous districts, mosques for women and so on are the symptoms of one or the other form of rejection of the notion of ‘one nation’.

The architects of the Indian Constitution were far-sighted enough to recognize this and sought to bring about a sense of an overarching Indian identity by ending the discrimination, inequality and violence and by recognizing the reality of diversity through inclusion of the fundamental rights and protection of dalits and religious, cultural and ‘habitation’ minorities (the last terms means certain forest habitats and those citizens who inhabit those habitats). The overarching national or unified identity has to bear the imprint of myriad political, social, religious, gender, and culture based lives in the country. It cannot be the other way round that these give way to accept national unity at whatever cost.

The notion and reality of an identity coming from Diversity is necessary not just from a patriotic sense of belonging to one geo-entity but also from the point of view of a mass of people being protected from the exploitative globalized forces, for the sake of economic advancement of a considerable chunk of humanity consisting of both women and men, for ensuring that identities of some do not swallow the identities of all, and for recognizing that diversity exists at all levels and in every social strata and segment.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Up in the Air in Somalia

The Egal International Airport at Hargeisa in Somaliland
It has everything - a general waiting lounge, a VIP lounge, check in counters, a cafeteria, fuel depot, security check too!

Refueling over, aircraft checked, checked in baggage being loaded!

Passengers onboard! "Mind your head and keep your feet together", the Captain announces, "we are all set to go!"

Now at the Wajid International Airport ...
In case you missed it, look closely: The famous Tiki Lounge and all the directions for parking and entry - no entry without permission! If it is that lucky hour of the day, you may get a cup of nicely brewed chai in a little glass! 

The road from the UN compound. First round of checking before entering this gate is essential!

The aircraft arrives!

Time for security clearance and to check-in!

Multi-tasking! Refueling, loading and boarding ...

Garowe International Airport
This is the Old One, a new one has been in making ... may be already operating. Immigration used to have a room but the officer was always kind enough to go around collecting visa fee and stamping the passport, taking care not to use the whole page. If you were a frequent flyer to Garowe, you could get a discounted visa fee!

Passengers arriving at the airport and the aircraft coming to a halt ... arrivals are well synchronised!

Security check, ticket check, onboard!

And in the air again!

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Friday, December 11, 2009

The Education Catch

Education, now-a-days, is hardly being looked upon for educating the mind. Primary education, mostly as a means of acquiring the ability to read and write – to be able to read labels and signs, Higher education, increasingly, is seen as a means to acquire better jobs and to some degree set up businesses – an economic avenue. This way of looking at education is universal. Reading and writing may not have been required as a survival skill a century back and therefore treated as something important for the brain and intellectual growth. That is part of the reason why it used to be a pursuit of the wealthy, ruling classes and the like. With time and changes in the economic contexts education has become a commercial investment for individuals, families, institutions, and governments. A small woman farmer needs to be able to read the amount that she is signing in the account book of her self-help group or fill the form that the disgruntled staff member of a nationalized bank wants her to complete before s/he can tell her that she will get that little loan. Today, the critique of the commercial value of education is a privileged criticism. Education is no longer a delicacy to feed the brain or an ability to intellectualize the small matters of life that would make the person someone to whom the working classes would turn to for advice.

‘Social Returns’ or economic returns to the family or society against the investment made in a child/person’s education have become an important measure to assess effectiveness of education. And this is where the catch lies. Social significance attached to particular sex, class, caste, region (or location), etc influence the understanding of ‘who’ can bring higher Social Returns from education. This influence is critical, of utmost significance, as it is this understanding that makes a father or mother or the family determine who will receive education, who will receive what education, and who will receive education where. This understanding also influences social decision about which education will get prioritised and demanded and since society is a whole only conceptually, only those who hold power in a society get heard. The understanding also shapes the strategies of the institutions – governments, academic or otherwise who are capable of investing in education – as to who will constitute their ‘clientele’, what kind of education they would offer to whom, in which location they would offer the services and on what terms. Supposedly poor socio-economic worth of women, the supposedly lower castes and certain classes, forest dwelling communities or those living in remote areas where any form of economic development will require very high investment and would have a much longer gestation period, etc become disincentive to investment in their education by the families, institutions and governments.

Different types of education - primary, secondary, technical, higher education, etc – also pose different gendered challenges. The challenges that each type throws up require different responses. The situation is further complicated by the fact that although some problems cut across geographical barriers, education is a “State” subject in India and each state government has different legislations that affect education differently. The role of the family and society in making the changes in the state is of paramount but so is the orientation with which the party in governance comes to govern the state. For example in Kerala, higher level of literacy has been possible because of the communist elected government which forcibly introduced land and education reforms. But there has been a set back in the quality of education in Kerala in the recent years because the same government did not attempt to influence social traditions or practices and limited itself to reform as far as economics goes. This doesn’t meant that there have been no social change and reform processes going on. There have been but these have been led separately by individuals and groups who are concerned about gender inequality issues and caste issues. The poor synergy between the two or the state’s inability to go beyond economics contributed to what has been otherwise a smooth growth in literacy. Having said this, the fact that the communist government created a space to address these issues, which is visibly absent in other states, including the current day communist state West Bengal, made it possible for the individuals and groups to create a demand and desire for change.

The ‘Social Returns’ perspective needs to be continuously critiqued for its top-down approach as well as for being divorced from the socio-cultural analysis. It will benefit immensely by aligning itself with the social change and reform agenda and with the demand for reform in gender relations or the social allocation of roles and responsibilities to women and men and girls and boys in relation to each other and in the public space. Without this alignment, the claims made by institutions and governments that education will address and find responses to social issues will just remain a rhetoric without any value. Education cannot be looked at in isolation and it will bring ‘Social Returns’ for all only if we recognize and consciously work on the gender, class, caste, regional (or locational) and religious dynamics within families, societies and cultures.

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Sunday, December 6, 2009


Muddled in my thoughts
Erratic in my actions
I divide to be concealed and to be opened
And forget what belongs where

Not knowing the boundaries
Nor to break free
I time my existence
And lose track when to be where

A being of contradictions

Tell me
How to cross over
From multiplicity to a whole

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Violence in Religion or Violence with Religion?

A look at history is good enough to tell us that the history of religion is a history of violence. Not surprising; religion is indeed opium of the masses - quoting it even though it comes from a racist political philosopher - and the elite alike. Unlike any other aspect of life, this one offers a remedy for all, if you are willing to believe. People are taught to protect what can salvage them from any situation. When so much of ' the potential' is at stake, obviously it is easier to instigate those who are afraid for their well-being, vulnerable because everything else has not just failed but also told them that nothing can save them from the doom of one or the other kind. Unpredictability of the future scares all and each wants to minimize that unpredictability as far as possible. If a belief that offers some level of security to people is portrayed as under threat, people rise and react.

Religion has never been a private matter - practice of religion gives identity, the nature of that practice makes one visible or invisible in a larger whole. Religion therefore has to be a major tool in the hands of those who seek political power or clout. The element of power has created such close relationship between religion and violence. All major religions, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism are tainted with violence.

Violence is said to be not part of any religion but when religion is the matrix within which identity is crafted, violence gets embedded in religion.

The sheer number of people - just in the sense of population - frightens humanity because humans have demonstrated consistent capacity to harm and destroy. The fear, therefore, is not unfounded. The fear then becomes the basis for social organizing, whether it is through the family or religion or any other institution which can assure the larger society that things will not go haywire and that they are not at each-other's mercy. Family, clan, religion, etc are some of the oldest institutions that have been set up to organize the society in a manner that the social as well as personal behaviours stay within certain agreeable boundaries. Since these are human creations, they can be used by humans to serve or dis-serve the humanity.

Since religion carries with what people regard as incomprehensible truths - truths which cannot be easily understood by ordinary beings and the only way to benefit from those truths is by placing their blind trust in them - even the state has often bowed before the power of religion. State and politics aim to command allegiance and compliance for the right or wrong reasons and religion has historically demonstrated its ability to galvanize allegiance and compliance. It is not surprising, therefore, that the state and politics use and abuse religion.

So while it can be said that religion does not carry violence, if eyes and ears are kept open, it can be seen that by its nature religion makes violence pursue it. And to say that religion and violence are completely divorced is not to recognise that many form of practices of religion condone violence when it takes place in form of animal sacrifice or identity politics killigs. Religion is what people practice, ie, the reality of religion lies in its practice, not in the texts that the majority have not read, cannot read or cannot understand. And religions, even in their purest forms, have tended to stand side by side with violence.

Since religion is so close to the core of human beings, the political and state machinery mix up with religions allow them to acquire much greater role. Since it is believed to have come from a supreme power, who all can trust and who can solve all problems of humanity and so on, it also gains the legitimacy to be the factor that should direct every day actions of human beings. Where that happens, it is not impossible to see how religion begins to influence practice of social justice, gender equality, rights, etc. And in societies where more than one religion exists, the competition among them is directly correlated with the level of religious involvement in violence and political involvement in religions.

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Globalization of Withering Weather, Dwindling Economies and Precarious Lives

The number of natural disasters and human-made disasters seem to be increasing manifold, each new year. Humanitarian response organizations are pointing out to the alarming ‘trend’ of increasing unpredictability of weather and seasons and to the fact that these are aggravated by climate change. And climate change has its deeper connections with economic globalization and increasingly lopsided and unsustainable energy consumption patterns. While climate change seems to have caught some attention, at least among the ‘intelligentsia’, media, and civil society organizations, economic globalization and perverse economic development of countries is hardly being taken up as an issue that is negotiable.

Humanitarian agencies across the globe are finding hard to raise resources to cope with old and new forms of disaster. Increasing number of disasters equal increasing demand for funds which practically means that funding is going to be more and more thinly scattered. The situation is becoming acute in the light of the fact that availability of the funds is also getting increasingly influenced by political actions of War on Terror and the like. Destruction of subsistence economies and destruction of forests, water bodies and other natural resources by the Corporates and haphazard development are turning large populations into internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. These IDPs and refugees have to compete with IDPs and refugees created by the ‘democratisation army’ of the US of A and its associates and vice-versa. Often, the IDPs and refugees go through a cyclical process of being affected by impacts of both natural and human-made disasters. The line between the ecological or environmental IDPs and refugees and conflict/war IDPs and refugees is blurring at a faster pace.

Given that the political boundaries are becoming more and more stronger, the physical space that can accommodate the IDPs and refugees is shirking at a rate which is perhaps as fast as the change in climate. IDPs and refugees have become footballs to kick at all levels of politics. Scarcity of resources is further fuelling the tension that has always existed between the host communities and the IDPs and immigrants. IDPs and refugees are often attacked, murdered, raped, abused and denies basic right of movement because the host communities resent what they see as preferential treatment to the IDPs and refugees who get settled in their areas. Retaliation by the IDPs and immigrants also does similar harm to the host communities. The strain on the host communities’ resources leads to creation of newer IDPs and migrants from among these communities.

The globalized world has indeed succeeded in globalizing the natural forces and human lives. Is there a global will to accept that globalization would also imply owning the global responsibility for causing environmental violence and human tragedy and taking the global responsibility to remedy the situation? Or will the countries take individual responsibility in proportion to the damage caused by the country? We wait to hear from the negotiators in Copenhagen.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Being a Single Mother

Single parenthood in India is not really as much of an ‘aberration’ as it is made to seem like. If the invisibility of single parenthood is taken away, the existence may come across as a norm. Having grown up in a household under the parenthood of a married woman who for years struggled to run the household by balancing the needs of day-to-day existence of her children and herself while managing the distance control of an ever absent husband who only surfaced occasionally to abuse and leave a seedling behind, I am cripplingly conscious of the invisibility of single parenting by married women. Single parenthood is an insecure social subject of discussion even as one lives the life of a single parent in India. And, therefore, the tag of marriage remains a means to gain or maintain some semblance of respectability and some security from unwanted sexual and economic assaults and denial of basic constitutional rights.

Marriage is used to control access to many day-to-day facilities, social networks and relationships and legal rights and provisions. For a society so used to dealing with largely those who have the tag of marriage or are recognized as a dependent of a married couple, it doesn’t know what to do when it comes face to face with one without such a tag. So it does what an Ostrich would do; it blocks all the access points even to what may be basic or fundamental rights for the single parents and treats the single mothers as delinquent juveniles who must be judged and counselled by everybody else. As a single mother, I have experienced more than my share of unwanted ‘social support’ in the form of people jumping to conclusions about my abilities as a parent, my relationship with my child and of course have been condemned so often for leaving a child in a boarding school and ignoring the child even when I happen to be perhaps the only parent in that school who legally can’t take the child outside the country, has been running pillar to post to get the situation redressed and perhaps the only one who is flying across seas four times a year to manage the child’s needs and holidays.

This form of social engagement with single parents is not without basis though. Being a society of marriages and joint families even as they erode, it is nearly impossible even for the enlightened most to see that the basic support means are not available to single parents, that access to social and legal provisions are closed shut in our faces, that we struggle to eke out a living and cope with the perpetual fine balance between our desire to be a contributing member of the globe or the country and an imposed expectation to be a super sacrificing mother. The means of practical support for single parents like me, who are out and about on their own, are non-existent. So when even an iota of support need is expressed by the single parent like me, it is treated as a sign of our incompetence or it is that extra which entitles others to judge us.

There is an amazingly near blindness to the realities of the realities of the lives of single mothers. Women have been seen as ‘un-earning’ members of a household who derive economic means from family assets and properties, which they may not even own or control, to meet the child care responsibilities. This perception is so settled that there is no realization that a woman may need to make money to be able to keep herself and her child alive and to meet her child’s and her own basic needs. And where this is pointed out and the single mother demonstrates her ability to be more than a mother, she is immediately branded guilty of being ambitious and violating the stereotype of ever so sacrificing mother. Couldn’t she just eke out a measly living in the neighbourhood, why must she go after challenging work opportunities and even if her work contributes to the betterment of the society, can’t she leave that for somebody else to do that and focus on her child alone … the list of questions raised is long, unending, tiring. If the single parent was to be a man, he would be pitied, glorified and would be advised and pressurized to get married to bring a socially accepted carer for his child. As a single mother who wants a life as a person, she is a bad example or someone who has just too much going on. Either way, she is off limits and, therefore, must be stigmatised, condemned and reprimaded.

For the child it is not easy either. It is never a normal life – the norm in their lives covers pity even when things for them should be done as a matter of their right and because they are legally required to be done, unreasonable indulgence where they should not be indulged and being reprimanded for their independent views, and being told all the time that their family is abnormal and that their parent is not capable. Matters of their personal life, which they may not want to share with the rest of the world or may not be legally required are subjected to vicarious scrutiny by individuals and institutions and get recorded in files that, legally speaking, should not exist in the first place. Their opportunities to go out and make their own mistakes like any other child are sealed by the fears of either the mother or their own of being judged unreasonably, of sex vultures who sit waiting to pounce on a single mother and her child as soon as they get an opportunity, and the rebuffs by a few over protective well-wishers among others.

I am ranting and generalizing because I’m trying to not single out anyone just in case someone decides to use the social or bureaucratic authority to deny the basic right of my child or make my life more difficult. I certainly don’t want to deny that sometimes this is done by people’s genuine belief that they are doing the right thing. But would they dare act and react in the same manner or in the same proportion to a child whose parent has a marriage tag implying that there is a socially approved father somewhere or to a parent who is in a relationship of marriage? No, not to my knowledge. People make assumptions, they pass judgments, make harsh and interfering comments, they shut the single mother off into cell where she has to be forever grateful for small and big acts which allowed her and her child to have a human life that they are entitled to. But it has not been all bad all the way for me. Some of my friendships have strengthened because I am a single mother, some broken because I saw the opportunism and superficiality in them, some people I came to know of and who I respect – people, who I probably would not have come across if it were not for single parenthood. For sure, single parenthood has made me far more empathetic and probably more aware of the challenges that we as women face and prejudices that even the supposedly progressive persons could practice.

I can only imagine the challenges that parents, who chose to be parents outside the wedlock, face. If I compare what I face with stigma, violence and social problems coming from stereotypes and prejudices that they have to face, I suppose I can feel better. But the question that bothers me is that why despite the apparent changes, social and legal systems and such a large majority of individuals continue to believe that a family with both parents is normal. I would understand if they were to regard it as predominant. I read somewhere recently that 49 percent of children in India are from single parent homes, yet single parents are being treated as aberration and nothing is being done to facilitate the transformation of the social and legal systems to meet the needs of this change. The Ostrich like lack of recognition of this change will only result in a large number of children growing up in environments which does not care for child rights and a society and country that does not care for half its population.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009


Despair in muteness
Deftly paralyzes near and far vision
Hope promises the future

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Friday, October 23, 2009


Stillness of the night
Breezed past the narrow veins
Warm blood stood frozen

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Thursday, October 22, 2009


The evening carried away
Tumultuous whispers of the day
The night is silent

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Created, Checked and Managed

Therefore, I was told
You are potent
My womb was recognized
Uncontained menstrual blood
Signaled fertility
The process of condemnation was redefined

And I was advised
You be compliant
My power to be unruly was interpreted –
A curse of the cunt
The irony of sensuous tits that nurture
The symbolic threat was validated

So it was suggested
Not to incite unpredictability of my body
The instability of my emotions must be encapsulated
Subversion of natural order
A warehouse of dangerous desires
Therefore I am marked

And so I know
To keep unharmed
I have to be contained, separated
Life in my existence is forbidden to surface
Dark and foreboding I stand
My role drawn, solidified

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Can identity be taken for granted?

Within the country, I may be a citizen but I still need a passport, driving license, property ownership paper, voter’s id card, and not to forget the good old ration card, which meant to be a food security mechanism for the poor but ended up being an id card for the most;  less by the lack of any other mechanism, more by the insistence of babus in the government offices and by virtue of the procedures drafted by the babus of the babus. And if you are a woman, not to leave out, the legal or illegal requirements or demands of producing the father’s or the husband's name; else be prepared that you may not get any of the above identity documents. Did somebody mention ‘constitutional equality’? Well, it has been said out and loud innumerable times that we have a constitution in crisis from the time it was accepted. Now we have a historically alarming pattern by the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha members of operating outside the constitution, of blocking the bills and laws that yield to the constitutional principles and spirit, and of no meaningful oversight by the Rajya Sabha and Vidhan Parishad. So dear women, let’s persevere on! But to be back to the issue of identity in general, outside the country, it is the passport and resident permits, work permits, etc that rule!  But is that all to identity?

Though you or I may not ask ourselves about our own identify, at least not often, and we may think that I know who I am, the problem of identity surfaces when it is undermined, ignored or not seen as important by the others. Below the surface, identity is connected to a way of life one has grown up in and to all the factors that the particular way of life, visibly or invisibly, contains. So when any of these are touched or ignored in ways that we do not like, the complexity of identity surfaces. In such a situation, I, for example, feel that my identity is being denied or seen in a rather basic manner without recognition and respect for its context. It makes me feel as not being seen who I am because I feel that some vital aspects of my existence that give meaning to me as a person are being looked down upon or ignored or missed. The visible and invisible factors are important because they give meaning to the body that is identified as me and are a foundation upon which my life is built and views personal or political, local or world, are formed.

Am I saying this to make a point … May be …or just mumbling.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Patriarchy Factor in Dowry and Intercaste Marriages

An Indian with a sense of belonging to India but can I take away the cynicism that I have about so many things in India? No, perhaps that is also a trait of a typical Indian – the Argumentative Indian, as Amartya Sen puts it. The cynicism of the day is the caste factor in the intercaste marriages in India. A large number of upwardly mobile urban-dwelling people, except those who are on the right to the centre in their ideologies, believe that with India’s economic growth and development a few changes will happen automatically. These ‘foreseen’ automatic changes include decline of the caste system, the end of women’s subjugation, and consequently, of the practice of dowry. It is believed that women’s migration from unpaid care work and unorganized sector to paid employment and organized sector would push the way towards the end of dowry as an institutionalised practice. The fact is that from being a practice of a select few castes in some regions of India, the practice of dowry has now spread to almost all castes and regions in India, including amidst all major religions. This is despite the fact that women’s participation in the labour force and their contribution in cash to household monthly income has grown.

Similarly, it is believed that when intercaste marriages take place, they lead to erosion of the caste system. Is it really so? The answer is not a complete yes or no. There is erosion, of the woman’s caste, in most cases that I know of. But even when the man’s caste does not really gain or lose a caste-conscious member in its fold, it often gains a new practitioner of its values. It is similar to what happens in many inter-religious marriages. So unlike the practice of dowry, where there is a distinct growth in the practice, in case of caste, the growth in much more understated. This is mainly due to the prevalence of patriarchy. Women upon marrying a man from another caste, take upon the man’s surname, his family practices, his family’s language, and his family’s values. They may or may not give up their own but they tend to assimilate into the new. In keeping with the patriarchal tradition, children of such marriages take on the caste of the father. So while there may not exist an overt caste affiliation, the practices and values of caste are passed on and inherited. The same applies to inter-religious marriages, where children are treated as being born into the father's religion.

The manifestation of patriarchy's influence is not limited only to the practices of dowry and intercaste or inter-religious marriages. Patriarchy combined with the ‘caste power’ also takes all those – women and men – who do not belong to politically identified religions or are agnostic to be Hindus. So applying Hindu identity and upper caste practices to abandoned and orphan children in the institutional care, abandoned or unknown dead, believers in animism with or without a label of religion, etc are common.

In sum, if caste and practices like dowry are to be done away with, the practices of patriarchy must change.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Why Are We Talking About Violence Against Women???

“Why are we still talking about violence against women?” “When will women stop talking about violence, men are facing violence now!” “Why violence against women must always infect all programmes whether development or conflict resolution?” “Give education and the problem of violence against women will be resolved!” “If women walk at 1:00 hr in the night, they are definitely asking for the trouble.” “Dress appropriately, if I see some, I want to see more.” “You can’t trust anybody, don’t leave the girl alone at home.” “Let the taxi drop you first and then me, it’s late and this place is not safe.”

The above are some of the comments I have heard between 29 of June till today. All while discussing work. The first four comments question the relevance of the issue of violence against women and the latter four answer why the need to prevent violence against women and support for the survivors remains relevant.

It is true that when we talk about violence, particularly domestic violence and sexual violence, we tend to speak of such violence as experienced by women and girls in forms of sexual harassment, rape, sexual slavery, genital mutilation, and so on. It is not often that we talk of paedophilia affecting boys, assault on gay men or of homophobic harassment, and ridiculing and denigration of transgendered. These are equally condemnable and all coming from deeply ingrained gender role stereotypes and age related vulnerabilities. This is mainly because as on this day the number of women and girls who experience violence and abuse remains far higher than the number of men and boys. It does not minimize the violence that men and boys experience, not it undermines the need to prevent and respond to violence against men and boys. Wide-scale prevalence of violence against women and girls, however, shows the need to name this violence as ‘violence against women’ as it is because of being woman or a girl that such a large proportion of the population continues to face violence and abuse day in and day out. Raising voice to demand action to end violence against women and girls is not to provoke men to be competitive. More than often it is women who rise to raise voice against sexual exploitation of children and violence against men, gays and transgendered people.

Violence against women, particularly sexual violence, occurs as a means of as well as is a manifestation of social control of women and girls. It occurs to keep them under check, because the powerful are not always held accountable for their behaviour or conduct and in relation to women and girls, men and boys hold greater power in most countries. It also occurs when individuals dare to step out of traditionally defined gender roles or challenge the established power relations between women and men. Being gay or transgender is seen as a trespassing of the established gender roles and so people who dare to define them as such also face societal discrimination and violence.

The widespread sexual violence against women and girls in conflict and post conflict societies or when there is inter-community conflict, also shows how closely the control of women’s sexuality is linked to male honour and prestige. Women’s bodies and their sexuality, therefore, cannot be theirs because the value these have belong to their male relatives, and male dominant communities and the larger society. Since it is treated so, and because sexuality is such a central pillar of societal expectations and limitations, sexual violence is often used as a weapon of control of women and girls and to shame and dishonour male family members and the community.

Violence against women affects all aspects of a woman or a girl’s life and the impact lasts often lifelong. As indicated in the comments in the first paragraph, violence or even a threat of violence limit women and girls’ movement and, therefore, their ability to participate in public activities. Since their bodies are not controlled by them, if they dare raise opinions in their homes whether for getting basic need fulfilled or to claim their rights, the controller of their bodies use their bodies to punish them.

This form of disempowerment cannot be done away with only education (as in literacy) or economic empowerment efforts. The social control, the constant fear of violence, the internalized fear of provoking violence or the sense of being in some way responsible for violence by doing things which women and girls are told not to do is ‘psychological disempowerment’ that affects every woman's life and controls every aspect of a woman or a girl’s life.

And, therefore, my dear sisters, we must continue talking about violence against women and girls while we talk of gender based violence. And, brothers, join us in ending violence against women and girls with the same spirit that we have when we raise our voices to end violence against men and boys, gays, transgender and other marginalized people.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

About translating partition

Translating Partition The melee settles down

There is a world all over again

But no place for me

You will find me tucked in one corner

Copyright © Katha 2001

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Reducing gender differentials in education for high social returns

‘[Education] is a component of wellbeing and a factor in the development
of well-being through its links with demographic as well as economic and social factors.’

(UN, ICPD Chapter XI, Para 11.2, P76)

The moment of recognition of education as a tool of development is an outcome of years of advocacy supporting associations between women’s education and social welfare aspects like GNP per capita, life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality rate, total fertility rates and so on. It was also a moment establishing women as a major tool of development. Development economists and international institutions have indeed put forward higher social returns or the larger benefits that the society gains from education, particularly primary education, as a major argument to invest in women’s education from 1960s until now. This is the key reason behind my decision to focus on rates of social return and its broad implication for women. However, I acknowledge that in any society, the approach towards education and the impact of that approach are mediated by a range of other socio-political and cultural issues like ideology of those holding political power, political and governance systems, political, traditional and cultural values of the people, principles of social composition and so on.

At first, I will give a background of the human capital theory and a brief overview of the international institutions’ perspective and arguments and examples from my direct and indirect work experiences in the Eastern, Northern and Western Indian states and the Southern state of Kerala to substantiate the statement. In the second part, I will examine the validity of the arguments for higher social returns and explore various arguments for and against the social returns perspective to analyse its potentials and limitations. While examining potentials, I will argue that the social returns perspective needs to be continuously critiqued for its top-down approach as well as for its treatment of women as nothing more than mere tools for development. I am making this critique in knowledge that education without remunerative economic implication may not be a viable investment option for most people, especially the poor. But I am persuaded by the fact that it often results in girls and women being used for economic benefits of the family, community and society and this happens without any changes in the traditional gender relations, which could benefit women.


The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) memorandum’s roots could be traced to the rates of social return theory and efficiency approaches, specially the human capital approach in works like Uzawa’s Optimal Technical Change in an Aggregative Model of Economic Growth, Burns & Chiswick’s Analysis of the Effects of a Graduated Tuition Program at State Universities, Cohn et al ’s Benefit and Cost of Higher Education and Income Redistribution: Three Comments, Lucas’s On the Mechanics of Economic Development, Benhabib & Spiegel’s The Role of Human Capital in Economic Development: Evidence from Aggregate Cross-Country Data, and Aghion & Howitt’s Endogenous Growth Theory. The authors of these works have been trying to establish theoretical as well as material connections between education and growth. According to Schultz, Most early human capital theorists, however, did not include sex/gender as a category of analysis (qtd. in Woodhall 9). He viewed the theorists’ failure to this end as a tendency to see human capital as a unique male preserve, which initiated the process to engender the rates of social return theory through women’s education. It led Benham to analyse the positive influence of wife’s education on husband’s wages or market returns to marriage and labour market benefits to the family over and above increments to women’s own earnings (Benefits of Women's Education within Marriage S57-S71).

Over the period, the concept of the rates of social return has been widened to lay emphasis on externalities apart from private returns like increase in wages and women’s improved reproductive and care skills. The emphasis on externalities has highlighted the benefits which may occur to other social agents and larger society from spill-overs. Currently, rates of social return theory imputes both economic and non-market returns. It regards education important not only for women themselves but also for their family members and social development. Schultz argues that private returns or private benefits like increased individual and household gains from market productivity and non-market gains to the household, and social benefits like enlargement of tax base and positive externalities, should be the reasons for the governments to invest more in girls’ education. He considers investment in education for girls as the factors responsible for higher rates of social and economic growth in South-east Asia, East Asia and Latin America and poor investment in girls’ education for limited growth in the Middle-East and North Africa (Why Governments Should Spend More to Educate Girls 207-208). Recent publications like King and Hill’s Women's Education in Developing Countries: Barriers, Benefits and Policies, Hartnett and Heneveld’s Statistical Indicators of Female Participation in Education in Sub-Saharan Africa, Subbarao et al’s Women in Higher Education: Progress, Constraints and Promising Initiatives, Chakrabarti’s Women and adult Literacy in China: A Preliminary Inquiry and Kwesiga’s Women's Access to Higher Education in Africa: Uganda's Experience , which are focused on education and gender support and education for social change also reflect development economists' and international institutions’ focus on educating women to achieve higher social return.

Perspectives of International Institutions

The international conferences on women in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985) brought global attention to women in the low income countries. They led to formation of women’s departments, organizations, etc with a focus on improving women’s productive role through education. This women specific and women related programming came to be termed as women in development (WID) approach. The gender neutral way and lack of context specificity however resulted in maintenance of education gap between women and men (Leach Practicing Gender Analysis in Education 9; Kelly & Elliot Women's Education in the Third World: Comparative Perspectives 336). WID approach focused mostly on infrastructure development, such as the provision of rooms to conduct classes, in hope that a large number of schools will make education accessible to girls. Indeed, the availability of schools close to residences/homes does matter but in the absence of budgeting for complimentary and critical resources like quantity and quality of teachers and planning of school time table and curricula to meet the needs of the girls, investment in construction of school buildings is a waste. Sights of small school buildings without teachers or half complete rooms abandoned by the local government and people across rural areas in states like Bihar and Jharkhand are not uncommon.
Disenchantment with WID, beginning in 1980s, led to the emergence of two main schools of gender and development (GAD) approach. In development parlance, one is known as the efficiency approach, and the other as the empowerment approach. Both attempted to incorporate gender analysis in planning of all development projects including education. The purpose of gender analysis in the efficiency model, which is an adapted form of WID’s rates of social return theory, has been to ensure greater effectiveness by including women in economic development. The empowerment model focuses on increasing awareness of gendered structures and power relations amongst women. Derbyshire feels that both approaches are constrained in the sense that they ”focus on what women could do for development rather than what development could for women” (qtd. in Leach 10). The empowerment approach, however, has been more effective in a country like India. The focus on power analysis helps see gender, caste and class based fragmentations within educational curricula. Such fragmentations affect the quality of education available to women and men. This approach has been widely used by the civil society organizations including women’s organizations to develop educational methodologies and curricula to enhance egalitarian social and cultural capital and to influence educational and employment/livelihoods choices available to women.

The limitations of the efficiency and empowerment models paved the way for gender mainstreaming approach which attempts to combine strengths of efficiency and empowerment models and proposes integrating women’s and men’s concerns throughout the development process. The ICPD conference and the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) can be seen as two historical events in this process. In the context of India, gender mainstreaming approach brings to focus what has long been argued by feminists and gender sensitive educationists, namely that education is not merely about literacy rather it is an issue of gender and social justice. This approach provides the opportunity to analyse gender roles as a dynamic division and to induce changes in gender relations not just by empowering women but also advocating for changes in roles of men. But there are threats to the practical application of this approach. Often, development organizations and educational institutions across the country tend to perceive traditional gender role divisions as stagnant. Mainstreaming is, therefore, limited to accommodating existing gender needs but does not lead to an analysis of gender relations for a more egalitarian future. Mainstreaming is seen as making the same educational opportunities available to women and men. So, we do have newer areas of education and training opening up for women and some changes in the basic education curricula but there is not enough support like changes in pedagogy and curriculum, advocacy to address barriers arising from attitudinal issues and facilitative mechanisms for women to raise many other substantive issues which affect the learning process. Women still have to compete and perform in systems which were developed with little regard to women’s perspective and needs.

Also, adoption of mainstreaming approach does not imply that the ideas of rates of social return theory have been discarded. Despite these simultaneous processes and international feminist movement’s emphasis on gender mainstreaming, rates of social return theory or the efficiency approach continue to be used. For example, although the World Bank has moved on to mainstream gender through sector-wide approaches (SWAps), its publications like Wheale’s Education, Externalities, Fertility, and Economic Growth, Psacharopoulos et al’s Poverty and Income Distribution in Latin America, and Summers’s Investing in All the People: Educating Women in Developing Countries show theoretical and programmatic orientations indicating that education has been promoted either as a direct objective for improving women’s economic efficiency or as a strategy to facilitate social development. Similarly, bilateral donor agencies like DfiD or erstwhile ODA, USAID, AusAID, Japan ODA, etc hold on to the perspective that limited access to education lowers women's status and affects their capacity to effectively contribute to development programmes related to health, nutrition and family planning and livelihoods. Hence the need for intervention to make education available and accessible to women. Using Kabeer’s idea of institutional analysis in social relations approach it could be concluded that the policies and practices of international political, bilateral, lender and aid institutions influence the course of the low income countries’ policies and practices (qtd. in Leach 86-92). The emphasis on universal access to education emphasized by donor and bilateral agencies is a carryover from WID approach. Universal access may secure equal enrolment of girls and boys and wherever it has happened it is definitely used as a trump card by policymakers. For example, till recently, Kerala was cited as an example where universal access to education led to 100 percent literacy. It is also a state where property ownership and inheritance among women is higher compared to other states. Nowadays, however, it is not uncommon to hear about a decline in the literacy rate, increasing unemployment among women, an ever increasing workload of women and the segregation of women in care jobs like nursing, teaching, and so on. The reason is not hard to see. The emphasis on universal access to basic education requires much less resources. It is also important to note that this emphasis is laid mostly at the level of basic education. I feel that a tangible output like enrolment and retention of girls in basic education is used as a cover to hide the absence of political will which is critical for adopting principles of gender equality in education and for investing in curricula and systemic transformation of education. The WID approach improves women’s economic efficiency to the extent that women get access to the formal economic sector but it also lead to their segregation in lower level and care jobs. In my view, due to the absence of qualitative and ‘gender just’ transformation of education, despite universal access to basic education there has not been much qualitative change in gender gap in higher and technical education or in gender relations across Kerala.

Validity of Rates of Social Return & Efficiency Arguments

Theorists and researchers have differed over the argument that education increases the rates of social return and therefore contributes towards efficiency. Woodhall in Investment in Women: a Reappraisal of the Concept of Human Capital found that the private rates of return from education among women in relation to men were relatively less but she advocated that non-economic benefits must to be taken into account while estimating human capital (10). There are findings that support Woodhall’s suggestion that non-economic benefits may increase as result of education. For example, Hartnett & Heneveld in Statistical Indicators of Female Participation in Education in Sub-Saharan Africa used gender disaggregated data from six developed and three developing countries to prove that women’s education brings higher social returns. They estimate that each additional year of schooling decreases mortality of children below 5 years by 5-10 percent and the fertility rate declines by 10 percent. Unlike Woodhall who suggested that private returns to women remain less than men despite improvement in education, Psacharopoulos in Returns to Investment in Education: A Global Update suggested higher private returns from women’s education (1327). Psacharopoulos attempted to establish that investment in women’s education is an attractive investment opportunity because the aggregate of social and private rates of return for women is marginally higher than rates of return for men. The social and private rates of return are usually analyzed by comparing the amount of public cost on education with the approximate cost of improved reproductive services that the society and family gains as a result of women’s education and the extra tax that a state is able to generate on resultant improved earnings of women.

According to Kanbur in Education, Empowerment and Gender Inequalities, the arguments supporting women’s education on grounds of social returns suggest that women are not able to efficiently use certain opportunities and there is low supply of women’s economic effort because of labour market discrimination. Ultimately, it results in inefficient utilization of provisions like common property resources. Similar arguments exist to establish relationship between education and fertility, etc. The assumption is that addressing such constraints through education and legislation can increase efficiency (8-9). However, as apparent from the difference in Woodhall, Hartnett & Heneveld’s and Psacharopoulos’s findings, the rates of return are not consistent.

Some theorists like Baden & Green critique the methodologies which are used to impute these social returns (3). Another factor which makes it difficult to fully substantiate rates of social return theory is the near impossibility of quantifying entire range of externalities or social benefits. As a consequence, many wider externalities are often not included in calculations which tend to lower estimates of social returns and also lead to differences in the findings of different economists. Looking at the rates of social return theory from the perspective of gender equality, I see another gap. The theorists and promoters of the theory did not make any attempt to quantify the benefits that may accrue to women themselves as a result of education. The trend to leave the benefits to women out from the calculations has reinforced the role of women as tools of development and has prevented transformation of social expectations from women in a ‘gender just’ manner.

Arguably, there is a connection between women’s education and rates of social return. But the emerging picture from the developing countries belies the social return theory that the over all benefits arising from women’s education benefits women as well. The empirical findings suggest that women’s education has not always enhanced gender equality as it fails to account for regional variations in outcomes and cultural and gender specific constraints. The empirical findings also suggest that outcomes of education for women are not always favourable for women. Jeffery & Jeffery’s study titled Killing My Heart’s Desire: Education and Female Autonomy in Rural North India shows that with the improvement in women’s education among the ‘lower caste’ families in Nangal Village and emulation of ‘upper caste’ practices, there has been a gradual withdrawal of women from the wage work. Another example is the ever increasing work load of women. Education has facilitated women’s participation in paid work in many parts of the world but in the absence of any change in the traditional gender relations, women’s workload has also multiplied.

Arguments For and Against the Rates of Social Return & Efficiency Approaches

The rates of social return theory and efficiency approach are useful in explaining how the labour market discriminates by rewarding women's education less well than men's education. Kingdon in Gender gap in India's schools and Schultz in page 217 of Why Governments Should Spend More to Educate Girls argue that this is one of the reasons which discourage parents from investing their daughters’ education. While, the rates of social return and efficiency approaches identify one of the critical reasons that discourages parents from investing in their daughter’s education, these approaches do not adequately explain other reasons. They tend to give rather simplistic explanation that if market pays well then parents will send their daughters to school. They treat the household as ‘unitary’ structure unaffected by power dynamics. That is, as long as outside parameters benefit the household, the household will make a pro women’s education choice - when returns from schooling improves, household will get women educated and deploy their labour outside and vice-versa. This limitation arises because the rates of social return theory and efficiency approach tend to see the relationship between education and social returns as value free. It fails to take note of gender bias that affect the actualisation of benefits from education. This limitation can be evidenced by the fact that though literacy level has gone up in states like Punjab and Haryana, which also happen to be the richest in the country, and in Gujarat and Maharashtra, which are among those with the fastest economic growth, education does not seem to be a major factor in improving economic status and condition of women. Women in these states continue to be segregated in the informal sector and low wage jobs. Kanbur suggests that the rates of social return theory and efficiency approach also assume that credit constraints, land inequality, and a range of other external factors that constrain households are constant and do not have a gender dimension (9-10). Even if one were to accept that by adopting this approach wage differentials could be reduced, it does not reflect on gender differential of income indicator. Higher wages do not mean that women would have access to their own wages or they themselves benefit from the social returns.

The strength of the social returns perspective is in its ‘sensemaking’ efficiency arguments which can justify governments investing in women’s education than men’s. As discussed earlier, these approaches did influence the national governments as well as international bodies and led to investment in educational infrastructure development. But Longwe points out that hardly any substantial change in women’s situation was achieved (23-24). One of the major reasons for this is pointed out by Moser in Gender Planning in the Third World: Meeting Practical and Strategic Needs. These approaches define production in a rather limited way and do not value reproductive and community work. A fallout of this understanding is the assumption that women’s time is unengaged and readily available for ‘marketable productive’ work. If at all, these approaches increased women’s responsibilities by seeing household labour of women as surplus. Unless these issues are addressed in the educational policies and programmes, programmes to promote basic education will continue burdening women by a blanket reinforcement of traditional role divisions and ever increasing expectations of paid work in the economy and activism and participation in schemes like those under Integrated Child Development Programme.

A case for the efficiency approach is made possible by its finding that the highest returns to schooling occur at the primary school level and rates tend to decline at secondary and higher educational levels. This general pattern of diminishing returns to schooling justifies expanding primary education to begin with in low income countries where it may not be cost efficient to make large investments in higher education or to divide the investment equally in overall distribution of schooling. Though the need to invest in primary education is hard to refute, the limitation of the efficiency approach could be understood in terms of the gap between the policy objective and programme strategies that are adopted to achieve policy objectives. So completion of primary education by girls might be a policy objective but a programme developed to achieve this objective will not be a choice for parents as long as it does not address the need to link poverty, education and gender constraints. Leach points out that acquisition of literacy does not automatically lift people out of poverty nor does availability of education opportunity increases school enrolment, retention and socio-cultural worth of women (11). It is, therefore, important that the programmes developed to achieve the policy objective use strategies that link education with poverty, knowledge and skills, and gender constraints. In most parts of India, curricula and teaching materials remain gender-biased to a great extent. There is very little initiative from the side of the state, which dominates primary education, to make education sensitive to the specific needs of women which would help them gain economic and social equality. There is hardly any attempt to link primary education with non-traditional vocational skills. The tendency to ignore relevant science that relate to women's work experience and failure to give recognition to roles women play in agricultural and other traditional production practically means that the available education does not offer opportunities to upscale women’s knowledge and skills in productive work. This state of education deprives women of education and training that they could apply to improve their daily lives and enhance their employment opportunities in non-traditional areas.
The rates of social return theory can be supported from the perspective that often people pursue education not for its intrinsic worth but for improving their income earning capacities. From this perspective, the social return theory’s concern with economic productivity sounds valid. However, as pointed out by Gordon, empirical findings suggest that this approach could help perpetuate traditional gender division of labour by not challenging it (53-58). The kind of vocational training that is given to women in different parts of India, (eg, tailoring, cooking, and so on) are welfare oriented and are not effective in promoting women’s participation in formal economy. Though the social returns perspective highlights the linkage between education and job market, it does not explain why feminization of lower level jobs in the economy is growing. Similarly, it also fails to take into account other non-productive and non-economic factors which may increase the demand for education. For example, Jeffery & Jeffery’s study in India find that the changes in the eligibility pattern for marriage have led to increased demand for both primary and higher education.

According to Schultz, ”social externalities associated with reduced child mortality, increased child anthropometric capacities, […] decreased fertility are all linked more positively to women's schooling than they are to men's schooling, and these outcomes are valued by society” (215). The potential of arguing from this point is that since these outcomes are valued by the society they would make efficient arguments to invest in women’s education. This argument can be critiqued from Moser’s perspective of strategic gender needs or the needs which must be met to address women’s subordinate position in society (Gender Planning and Development: Theory, Practice and Training 39). Schultz’s argument does not advocate changing existing roles rather it reinforces them and therefore sees women as mere tools of development.

Schultz points to the potential of rates of social returns theory to highlight how it could yield more taxes for the national economies. He argues that with more educated women working more hours in the market would lead to enlargement of the tax base of the tax base which also opens the possibility of reducing existing tax distortions (215-216). However, this potential could become functional only if there is substantial change in women’s current circumstances and gender roles to allow them to get quality education and high wage jobs in the market. The nature and quality of current education opportunities available to women remain conventional. Usually girls do not get either the time or the opportunity to get technical and professional education which is more valued in the job market. Margolis & Lazarus in The way Girls Learn: A Patchwork Quilt of Impressions Gordon in Girls Cannot Think As Boys Do: Socialising Children Through the Zimbabwean School System and The Southern Natal Gender Committee hold the opinion that the educational systems tend to help retain male control over technology. The near absence of a relation between primary education and science that takes into account gender needs from the educational scene in India impacts women’s capacity to participate in advanced study in science and technology. This relation is essential for preparing women to participate in advanced study and to take an active role in the technological and industrial development. The rates of social return and efficiency approach have a narrow perspective towards education for women. Their scope is not wide enough to encompass a diverse approach which is needed to address the linkages between education, gender needs and economic development.

There is a need to recognize education’s connections with factors like ideas, beliefs and attitudes. As suggested by Longwe in page 23-26 of Education for women’s empowerment or schooling for women’s subordination? and Malhotra & Mather in page 604-607 of Do Schooling and Work Empower Women in Developing Countries? Gender and Domestic Decisions in Sri Lanka, there is a need to have simultaneous processes of education and curricula intervention, poverty redressal to meet the practical needs of women, and empowerment of women by removing access barriers, challenging gender norms, socio-cultural awareness, and structural changes. These are essential to help women exercise control over their lives, bodies, take on leadership roles, make decisions within and outside home and enable them to use their skills to negotiate more effectively and to deal with structures of power. These processes need to be supported by proactive policies which must recognize that strategic and practical gender needs are prerequisites for each other and one cannot be withheld till the other is met.


Incorporation of the gender mainstreaming concept in education and development is a relatively new phenomenon. The gradual emergence of the human capital theory and the rates of social return theory in the 1960s and 1970s made the world more receptive to the idea of `women' as a distinct rather than residual category which made its appearance in international education and development in the 1980s. Recognition of the role of women in economic development was a notable accomplishment in the discourse of education and development and a major achievement of feminist movements and theorists. It led to feminist theorizing on economics, the development a number of feminist approaches to education and most importantly it led to critical examination of gender inequalities in education.

Up till now the education intervention on women’s equality has been influenced by the social returns perspective insofar it is aimed at bringing economic output of women at par with men and improving women’s reproductive efficiency. Consequently, the reduction of gender differential in education has been the articulated goal in all the internationally agreed development targets. National development agendas, too, have mainly tried to address the ‘stereotypical deprivations’ of women, like, health, infant mortality, family planning, school enrolment, market based economic equality, etc.

The empirical results and assessments of social returns pointed to the association between education and gender bias. These findings reveal that socio-economic development does not necessarily mean gender development. I argue, alongside efficiency based initiatives, for gender development to happen as part and parcel of socio-economic development, variables such as socio-political empowerment of women, changes in the social structures, and so on that directly influence women’s ability to exercise agency must be recognized. The gradual realization that reduction of gender differential in education is closely connected to women’s capabilities as agents of change has paved the emergence of empowerment and mainstreaming approaches to education. In order to give priority to long term and seemingly intractable gender issues, gender equality goals must be incorporated in macro-level and SWAps. But compliance to macro-level policies and SWAps will come if the agenda is owned and led by local stakeholders and has an inclusive approach embracing governments, lenders and donors and civil society. But difficulty in mainstreaming gender, as Terry opines that that as long as men dominate the policy discourse ‘efficiency is likely to take precedence over equity’ (qtd in Leach 14). As long as the agenda to educate women will continue to be guided by a desire to improve social returns, nature and the content of education will be geared to maximize economic and reproductive benefits from women’s labour without much change in gender relations. Though the rates of social return theory, managed to convince donors, lenders and governments to invest in girls education to an extent, it does not offer even scant regard for improving women’s position at home or outside.


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Friday, March 27, 2009

A Woman of Dreams and Dryness

A woman of dreams and dryness
Holding moist memories
And a heart saturated with feelings
Treads cautiously on water

A child captured naked
Pierced through and through
Skin burnt by sharp dancing eyes
Floats on fire
"What have you been up to
You shameless audacious creature
Shame, you are a shame"
Cries fill the air

Free in a room locked from inside
Seeds of fear sprout
A fence made of fresh cacti
Springs from the floor

Years of violence branch out all around
Miles and depths of life get covered
Escape from memories now made unimaginable
The inner self offers a mask to cover agony

Menacing heat of the sun
Rays like rain breaking the pores
Mask melts and is washed away
A naked woman remains
Desperate to fade away
In the air beyond every hand’s reach
Lying face down on the earth
A child cowers to cover her naked body

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A Woman of Dreams and DrynessSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Friday, March 13, 2009

Gender and Migration

DSC01705 I find the commonly used term ‘migration’ highly political in nature. In humanitarian crisis parlance it refers to “the movements of refugees and internally displaced people” (IDPs). It is and cannot be a value-neutral word in humanitarian contexts because in such contexts migration is not self-induced. Humanitarian workers like me have not seen prior desire or motivation to leave among the migrants or if at all there has been a motivation, it has been induced by poverty or armed conflict or war. Not surprisingly, the main causes of migration remain wars and armed conflicts, although in many other contexts natural disasters and large-development projects are also to blame. For example, migration forced by ‘development induced displacement’ in the states of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh in India. There are other types of forced migration as well, but these are not rigid categories since overlaps are common.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are some 50 million displaced people around the world, including both refugees and IDPs. Around 75-80 per cent of them are women and children; women and girls account for an estimated 50 per cent of any displaced population. The causes and effects of forced migration vary and range from political, socio-economic, environmental and cultural factors, and according to factors such as gender, class, age, race, or ethnicity. The proportion of women refugees and IDPs vis-à-vis men from the same context is particularly affected by the cultural factors.

Globally, since the 1980s, there has been growing recognition that not adequate attention has been given to women in conflict situations, and their needs and capacities did not form the basis of planning and implementation of humanitarian assistance. But the growth in recognition remains slow and limited and results of this recognition have not led to more than a few women/girl child specific projects.

Throughout the 1990s, women’s rights advocates raised the issue of women’s bodies being used as battlegrounds by the warring factions in a conflict and sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls in humanitarian response and in development induced disaster situations. The adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Charter of the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1325, and the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women by the UN have been milestones in the effort towards gender mainstreaming and recognition of women’s/girls’ rights.

In the humanitarian and development fields, I find that gender analysis of the needs and capacities of women and men and girls are being taken into account but regrettably in an ad-hoc manner. Culture, tradition, family unity, religion, etc continue to be used as excuses for not responding to transformative gender needs. This observation is not a reflection on only small community based or local level non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rather it is based on experiences with larger international NGOs, international institutions and organs of the national governments. At the national, regional and international governance level, gender based discrimination and denial of the rights of women asylum seekers continue to be a reality. It is not surprising that even in the programmes run by the international institutions and large international NGOs, immediate protection and assistance of women/girl IDPs with their participation and decision-making remains a need yet to be met. The process to engender the migration discourse and response is relatively new and still evolving. There is increased awareness of the differences in wider effects of migration caused by conflict, large infrastructure development, or natural disaster. International and humanitarian organizations are waking up to these considerations. But most of the recognition remains limited to the text. Action on gender analysis and implementation of gender guidelines and policies is still weak. Gender issues have been relatively readily accepted in protection of and assistance to refugees. The same cannot be said of assistance to the IDPs. Also, among IDPs in context of natural disasters and ‘development induced displacement’ acceptance of engendering approach is the least.

In the recent times, a major development has been the move towards seeing the rape and sexual abuse of women and girls during wars and armed conflict as a deliberate strategy and a crime to be punished, as reflected in the UN Security Council Resolution 1820 passed in 2008 and the statutes for the War Crimes Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. However, the move does not always cover the sexual exploitation and abuse that take place as a consequence of political instability and conflict. For example, in Nepal, the conflict between the Maoists and the State, put Nepali women in the eastern hill areas at a higher risk of abuse. At one end women were being pressurized to join the militia, at the other end, if they fled to escape poverty and militia, trafficking for sex work was a major threat. Such women, even if rescued, were rarely reintegrated with their communities because of the associated stigma. The situation has not been any different for Bantu women in Somalia, a country located far from Nepal in East Africa. Starvation and sexual violence were the two most important factors for fleeing Somalia during war in 1990s. Bantu women, young and old, suffered multiple rapes while fleeing and in the IDP and refugee camps. Rape created an acute sense of disempowerment among both women and men. While women and girls were being raped, men and male children were forced to watch the sexual persecution of their female relatives. In the camps it was not uncommon to find sexual exploitation of male children. Most of these cases went unreported out the fear of stigma or out of a not-so-far from reality belief that no action will be taken either by the state machinery or the international actors.

It is not such an uncommon knowledge that displacement affects women and men differently because of the pre-determined gender division of roles and responsibilities. Though war is seen as a ‘male affair’, mostly women, children, the elderly, and the disabled are the main victims of wars. It is estimated that they constitute 30-90 per cent of casualties[1]. In low informal low-key armed conflicts, women and children are 80 per cent of casualties by small arms and the rest are military causalities. Among such casualties the number of young men is far higher. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) men account for 96 per cent of the detainee population and 90 per cent of the missing, and women and children represent a majority of the displaced. For example, it is estimated that 70 per cent of the IDPs in Somalia are women and children. In Nepal, a large percentage of IDPs are women in the age group of 20-35 years of age.

It is generally said that a war does not discriminate and that it targets all in its range: women, men, children, livestock, and so on. The reality, however, is that women are not just affected as civilians or targeted because they happen to be in the range. Rather they are targeted because of their gender. Armed conflict usually aggravates social and gender inequalities and makes those who lack social power or have disadvantaged position in society particularly vulnerable. Weaker population groups and women usually have less access to education and training opportunities and have poor employability and entrepreneurial skills. Because of their low educational and training levels, they are not among the ‘favoured’ type of migrants. Due to their poor social status and their traditional productive and reproductive roles they are also not used to mobility. This is one of the reasons that lead to higher mortality and morbidity among women and impoverished minorities during armed conflict. Other factors include a lack of access to basic goods and services, and gender discrimination against women.

Since a larger portion of the migrants are women and because they are a group without marketable skills and education, and are denied rights to own and control assets and property, they experience distinct economic and social problems as migrants. It is much harder for them to earn a living and support themselves and their families financially while continuing to be the traditional ‘carers’ at home. This pushes them further towards hunger, malnutrition, and exploitation. Not surprisingly, among displaced populations, women and girls ‘voluntarily’ resort to sex work. A recent survey by UNHCR in Bassaso IDP camps in Somalia reveals that considerable number of young women offer sex in exchange of basic services to meet their own and their families’ basic needs or for protection. In Nepal, poverty and conflict have been two major factors prompting women to seek opportunities in neighbouring India as well as far away countries. A Nepali NGO, Saathi, has reported an ever increasing number of women leaving villages. Many of these women are falling prey to traffickers who lead them to the brothels in India or to the Arab countries. In some cases women know the consequences, yet they have gone ahead ‘voluntarily’ as they had no option. Between June 2003 to February 2006, the Kathmandu Post regularly reported the increase in rural to urban migration as a result of insurgency and increase in violence. They reported dramatic increase in sex work along the highways and in the dance and cabin restaurants close to Kathmandu.

Migration is also associated with the lack or disruption of basic services, including healthcare. The absence or disruption of the health services during high migration period when women and girls are at a greater risk of being sexually abused, exploited, contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and getting pregnant and infected by HIV/AIDS complicates women’s vulnerabilities. The spread of HIV/AIDS is further fuelled by sexual violence in the armed conflict contexts. HIV positive women and girls are targets of socio-economic violence.

The increased inequalities caused by globalization have increased women's vulnerability to violence, particularly in the context of economic migration and trafficking in persons. A new survey from Somalia conducted by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in conjunction with the AIDS Commissions of Somaliland, Puntland and the South-central Somalia found that internally displaced women, illegal immigrants and street children were particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and HIV/AIDS, often resorting to ‘survival sex' to earn a living, with some women accepting food or items for their children or qat (a mild intoxicant) in exchange for sex. According to a survey conducted by General Welfare Pratisthan around the market of Hetauda in Nepal in 2004, 98 per cent of the sex workers, most of whom are displaced women, are aware of the use of condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS and spread of STDs, not more than 60 per cent have been making use of condoms. The reason is their poor bargaining capacity in relation to their customers and no power in relation to their abusers and exploiters.

However, not all effects of migration on women are bad. Some women gain greater mobility and are able to use opportunities to learn new skills and assume new roles. In many countries, some migrant women regard changes in their lives as a result of migration an empowering experience as has been reported from some of the Tamil IDP camps in Sri Lanka. I also saw this in Somalia. However, such gains for women do not go without contentions which create further tensions in gender relations. In the meetings held on the issue of increasing political participation of Somali women in the governance and democratic institutions, I often came across an argument from men that women should not be allowed equal representation and participation because they are already the breadwinners of majority of the Somali households. Research conducted in Nepal indicates that men find it difficult to cope with their reduced ability to fulfil their traditional responsibilities. In such instances men use the social power over women more aggressively leading to higher incidence of violence against women and girls. But women facing domestic/social violence find it harder to gain refuge in another country. The 1951 Refugee Convention, popularly known as the Geneva Convention, on which most countries’ asylum laws are based, considers refugees “persons outside their country of nationality who have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”[2]. The Geneva Convention does not include violence against women or gender based violence as a form of persecution despite decades long struggle of women’s rights advocates to get the countries to recognize violence against women or gender based violence as a ground to seek refuge.

Migrant women and girls living in the refugee/IDP camps suffer from rape, early pregnancies, kidnapping, and forced marriage. Girls and young women from the marginalized ethnic groups are one of the most vulnerable. For examples, in Somalia, rape and sexual abuse in IDP camps is common but marginalized ethnic Bantus and Ogadenis women and girls suffered from greater risk. Traditionally, shelter is organized in consultation with men Somali women and girls living in refugee camps in Kenya have also been the target of rape and sexual attack by other Somalis, Kenyan police and soldiers. In some instances, the design of camps adds to women’s and girls’ discomforts and insecurities. For instance, communal housing offers no privacy for women, while lone women and girls housed in marked tents may become easy targets of sexual abuse. The survey conducted by the UNHCR in Bassaso, Somalia indicates that women are often sexually or physically attacked going out for toilets or for the collection of fuel wood and water.

The women/girl child-specific projects of the national and international NGOs and international institutions are not at all enough to address gendered needs of women migrants. Though there is a move towards an inclusive approach but it has focused attention on wider issues but the attention is usually around the immediate needs of women. Conceptualization of transformation of gender roles and relations to eliminate inequalities in the long-term are greatly lacking. Unless gender role and relation transformation is aimed and greater attention is paid to the impact of policies and programmes on the displaced in general, and women in particular, the issues around women’s participation and decision-making in redressing their challenges around migration cannot be secured. In the absence of a vision for gender role and relation change, encouraging women to assume new roles may merely increase their work burden. It is not possible to get women to perform leadership roles or an equal role without challenging the gender stereotypes and biases because they will not have institutional or social support to fulfil these roles.

While specificities may vary from country to country and culture to culture the broader trends indicate that women are more vulnerable to sexual and other types of gender-based violence, and they are frequently forced to cope with more and different roles in the search for their survival and that of their families. They are forced to take on greater role and responsibilities than before in an environment of gender-based discrimination and disempowerment. Such inequalities have to be confronted and addressed to allow women to acquire more skills, confidence, and gender and political consciousness. There is also a need to engage with men towards changing the gender roles and relations to ensure that their coping capacity in context of displacement and their abilities to evolve in the face of challenges to their traditional gender roles and identity is adequately supported.

Another significant thing to remember is that not all women and men are affected in the same manner and proportion by displacement. Factors such as class, age, race, ethnicity, and rural/urban differences, as well as wider political and socio-economic issues affect their experiences. In order to address the ‘involuntary’ migration, the issues affecting both marginalized men and women and particular challenges of women need specific attention. The start off point towards that is to improve representation of marginalized men and of women in the decision-making in such contexts.


[2] Mertus, J.A., ‘War’s Offensive on Women. The Humanitarian Challenge in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan’. Humanitarianism and War Project: Kumarian Press, 2000.

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