The missing daughters of India

April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here in the UK we have just finished filling out our census forms. Nothing too shocking is likely to come out of it, except a more accurate representation of the ethnic diversity of Britain and perhaps some interesting figures on the number of couples living outside of marriage.

In India, the country’s recent census reveals a far more noteworthy statistic. It has just recorded the lowest gender ratio  since India’s Independence in 1947. The gender ration says that there are 914 girls to every 1000 boys.

These gender imbalances don’t just “happen” by a quirk of nature. What it means is for every 1000 boys, there are at least 86 girls under the age of six who were killed before or at birth. And what this means is that there is an endemic culture of destroying daughters and protecting sons.

According to campaigning groups, girls are often dying as part of a campaign of neglect. If a daughter is ill, she is not always bought medicine. If there isn’t enough food, she is often the one who goes hungry.  The site Gender Bytes calls this “negligent homicide”,  supported by the fact that girls under five in India have got a 40% higher mortality rate than boys the same age.

An increase in ultrasound technology and the ready availability of tests to determine a baby’s sex has also lead to millions of female foetuses being aborted, according to the medical journal The Lancet.

And those that are born that are unwanted can face hideous circumstances – read some of them here – where mothers won’t feed their babies, or poison them, or abandon them. One shocking part of this report reads: “For despite the risk of execution by hanging and about 16 months of a much-ballyhooed government scheme to assist families with daughters, in some hamlets of Tamil Nadu, murdering girls is still sometimes believed to be a wiser course than raising them”

Social bigotry towards girls has a long cultural history in India, and stats like this bring home the serious human cost of outdated misogyny. The gradual increase of standards of living for women in India, better financial independence and more social mobility across the country will help to challenge these old stereotypes that having a girl is a financial and cultural burden.

Because there is no alternative – the country can’t carry on in this trend, with fewer and fewer women each census. The women who are brought up as second class citizens then raise their daughters as second class citizens – this census should prove a wake up call that it’s time to change the system before any more precious female lives are wasted, and all their life’s potential lost with them.

After all as woman one put it, after killing her second daughter: “ “Instead of her suffering the way I do, I thought it was better to get rid of her.”

This census cost the Indian state 22bn rupees.  I hope the cost can prove to be an investment with desperately needed rewards for women.

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Sexism thrives in the Chinese workplace

February 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Female workers in China are sexually discriminated against in the workplace, according to the country’s Women’s Commission. The commission has called for part-time workers to receive paternity rights to help counter discrimination against women who had to take pregnancy leave, and better rights for men to take time of to be with children.

Sharing the burden of childcare is something that’s been covered on this blog before  – but China is a particularly interesting country to look at. I heard a very plausible theory that China has flourished economically because of its commitment to getting women in the workplace – compare this with somewhere like India for example, where cultural and religious factors have traditionally excluded most women from the world of work.  If half of the population are kept in their homes, it can only hold back the economy and the state’s development.

Although historically women in China have been clearly placed as second class citizens – think bound feet, concubines, polygamy – the Communist Party brought with them a raft of rights for women, including the right to divorce and work. These principals have evolved over the last sixty years into a position where women traditionally control the household finances in the rapidly developing country. Men also vastly outnumber women due to the one-child policy and the status associated with having a boy, so when it comes to marriage and relationships, women are in a fairly strong position where they can afford to be picky.  

In the workplace however, two-thirds of women think they are discriminated against, and more than 70% of respondents thought men stood a better chance of promotion than women of similar age and abilities. This interesting post on the China Law Blog discusses how many women are keen to work in US or international companies based in China, because they are less likely to discriminate. A quarter of women even admitted they hold back at work and try not to be too successful because they know it might will cause trouble with their partners.

Almost half of men in a recent census said that they believed it was solely the man’s job to earn money, while the woman should remain at home and tend to the family.

Some attitudes are slow to change, but bringing in some of the laws proposed by China’s Women’s Commission would send a very clear message that family life is something that both men and women are responsible for, and a note of optimism for the masses of women who work in China and are struggling to choose between career or children.

Dedicated to the gods, abused by men

February 1, 2011 § 2 Comments

 A post here dedicated to the misogynistic and dangerous practice of Devadasi. If you haven’t heard of it, it is an ancient Indian custom that has been used in more recent times as an excuse for the abuse and rape of vulnerable young girls.

The ancient tradition saw a girl ceremoniously dedicated or married to a deity or temple, in order to serve the goddess Yellamma – it was once a high-status role, if a dubious honour.

The practice has now been made illegal in law, but it still goes on, with the added exploitation that sees young girls, once they reach puberty, forced to have sexual relations with the men in their community in order to better serve the goddess.

No, I don’t understand the logic either.

I only learn of this practice recently, and the more I learn the more I am horrified. The women targeted are typically from lower castes – and in India that still tends to mean they are less educated, poorer and more vulnerable (the attitude persists in the country that rape is more acceptable in lower caste women, because it protects those higher up the social ladder)

And I cannot emphasise enough – this is not a small problem. There are 50,000 Devadasi in southern India.

Particularly sad is the overwhelming poverty that can leave families with seemingly little option but to give a child to the corrupt Devadasi system – and children of Devadasi are often dedicated into the system themselves.

An excellent BBC programme  aired in January highlights the Devadasi system. Also, visit EveryChild’s website   – they are a inspirational international charity working on the ground to urgently protect girls from being sexually exploited.  Measures include trying desperately to keep girls with their family, helping to increase opportunity for girls in low-caste groups, running workshops, setting up credit societies for women-only to help raise the status of women in society, and helping with the work of Child Rights Protection Committees being run at village level to intervene on behalf of children at risk. The last one in particular is a great idea, working with the only people who really have the ability to challenge the system: the people of India.

India starts to take much-needed action on brothels

January 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

The arrest of two pimps in a raid in Chennai is a very welcome sign from the Anti-Vice Squad. Prositution is a massive problem in India for a plethora of reasons: poverty, women being trafficked, caste prejudice, drugs, the tourism sex trade, conservative attitudes. But a mountain is to be climbed stil as the police often remain reluctant to act on the mammoth problem. Pimps and the human sex trade provides healthy bribes to the authorities, and a policy of “don’t see, don’t act” has been the effective policy of the police.

18 women were rescued from the prostution ring in this raid, and the two pimps, both in their 50s were arrested.

The women were allegedly lured into the brothel after being promised work – then forced into sex work. The story is old. At any one time, estimates are that there are 15 million prostitutes in India, with a staggering 27 million children and women being forced to work as slaves in the sex trade each year.

Chennai police also cracked down on ten prostitution centres operating under the guise of spas – in 2009 there was not a single “spa” closed down by police. Assuming that these brothel spas have not all sprung up in a year, it is a very significant change in measures taken by Chennai police.

For the 18 women in their twenties, time for a new start and a new life. For countless others, the story is less positive and the problems are complex.

Brothel girls in India: taken for the Theatre of the absurd blog

Lack of coverage on “honour killings” shames us all

December 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Having the word “honour” associated with any type of crime is a contradition in terms, and honour killings have to be one of the least spoken about crimes against women, in my opinon.

A report from the UN finds today that Afghan women are still at massive risk of violence and “honour” crimes. The government is simply not doing enough to protect women – probably because they are not really adressing issues like education or financial independence, which have the power to place women in a much stronger position than simply bringing in a new law – which they have done. Laws are easy to bring in, but not to enforce, particularly in a difficult scenario like this which delves into the heart of private communities.

Women in Afganistan

The other day I was on the Stop Honour Killings site, and with less than five minutes on it you can see examples of recent honour crimes in Iraq, the UK, India, Kurdistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Sweden, Turkey and Uganda  – and it really hammers home that this is a worldwide  issue. This site has a gallery of victims on its homepage of honour killings, and it makes chilling viewing to see so many women assualted or killed in the most gruesome of circumstances, in cases that never made it into the papers.

Perhaps because it goes on typically within smaller or more private communities, or perhaps because they frequently take place in Islamic communities where the press is wary to probe, these crimes just don’t seem to get the press coverage you’d think they would.

Our real shame in these crimes is that we just don’t hear enough about them – shocking when the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that as many as 5,000 women and girls a year are murdered by members of their own families. Many women’s groups in the Middle East and Southwest Asia suspect the victims are at least four times more. So, as many potentially as 20,000 women and girls are directly affected – and many reports suggest that incidents are increasing in the last 20 years. The victim’s family members – male and female, guilty or innocent – are affected. Their communities are affected, by implication their economies are affected, and the country is affected.  

How many more people have to be affected before this stops being a “women’s issue?”

This book changed my life

December 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Half the Sky: How to Change the World

I’ve never written a book review before – and I don’t intend to do one now. All I will say is simply that if you are interested in politics, international development and any issues relating to women’s rights should read the book Half The Sky: How to Change the World by two American journalists, Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn. I’ve just finished it, and I genuinely think it’s fair to say it changed the way I think about issues relating to women forever.

To quote from the opening chapter: “We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way – not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.”

The phrase “half the sky” is from a quote from Mao Zedong, who for all his (massive) faults did mange to bring in some measures which benefitted women enormously. In fact the organisation Half the Sky  targets Chinese orphans in reference to this famous quote. This book looks at issues relating to the sex trade, war, maternal mortality, women’s involvement in politics, education – in short, all the things this blog writes about. It details real examples and individual cases, but counters it with how they fit into the worldwide scheme of poverty and development. The main thrust of the book is that if only half of the population of any country are being educated, working and contributing to the economy, then the country can only ever reach half of it’s potential. Some parts of this book are easier to swallow than others, inevitably, and some parts will make you cry and stay with you indefinitely. But what is so brilliant about it is the way that it takes a real hands-on, grass roots approach. The final chapter is entitled Four Steps you can take in the next ten minutes and the back is a full index of charities, NGOs and women’s groups worldwide that you can get involved with, and how to contact them. It is the bible of women’s rights and I know I will be referring to it again and again. Let me know what you think.

“Sensationally interesting – I think this is one of the most important books I have ever reviewed” – Washington Post
 

Indian women banned from using mobile phones…

November 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

…..for their “own protection”, of course. I’m not sure who broke this story first, but it seems to have exploded everywhere now. A friend even emailed me today from halfway across the world to say he’d read it in the Egyptian Gazette. It’s a good example of how the media can take a story and really raise awarenes of an important issue we wouldn’t have heard about otherwise.

Photograph: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters/Corbis: Indian Woman uses her mobile phone

In the small village of Lank, in northern India, single women have been banned from using their mobile phones. It subjects them to the temptation of elopement, apparantly – reinforcing the idea that women cannot be trusted to make their own mature sexual and romantic choices.

Unmarried boys can of course still have phones, but are only supposed to actively use them under parental supervision. Good luck effectively enforcing that one. 

Does it apply to emails? Will letters be monitored? Are landline telephones forbidden? What about social networking sites? There are so many anomolies and problems with this as a tactic that it becomes ridiculous – it smacks more of an excuse to rid women of their independence as much as target any particular cultural concerns.Although this story is as much one of race prejudice (the village was reacting to more than 30 recent inter-caste marriages which went against the parents’ wishes) as sexual discrimination, it is a spot on example of how women are punished more than men. Of the ways that in times of cultural change and controversy, it is the women who are cracked down on, suppressed, seen as the irrational and irresponsible ones. Case in point: this article outlines so-called honour killings where three women were beheaded for eloping with a boy from a different clan.

There is no justification and no logic in this outdated, racist, sexist and frankly ridiculous measure.

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