Track media coverage on the 16 Days Campaign at the Prajnya website: http://www.prajnya.in/16d08media.htm
Track media coverage on the 16 Days Campaign at the Prajnya website: http://www.prajnya.in/16d08media.htm
The most chilling news items remind you that you had a narrow escape. “That could be me.”
¨ India’s declining juvenile sex ratio is a good example. Take the decade I was born. According to the 1961 Census of India, there were 941 girls per 1000 boys and by 1971, this figure had declined to 930. What good fortune made me part of the 941 and 930 rather than the 59 and 70 girls who did not survive?
¨ Most rapists are known to the victim and a horrendous number (around 75%) are members of the family or its inner circle. Most middle class Indians grow up in large extended families, open households where family and friends come and go. If we did not experience this devastating combination of violence and betrayal of trust, to what do we owe our good fortune?
¨ Marriage is all-important in our society; how many parents of brides are able to resist last minute demands for dowry? According to official records, the number of dowry deaths is actually growing from year to year. If we have not been charred by kerosene burns, what did we do to deserve that escape?
“That could be me” comes with two imperatives: a debt to repay and the duty of empathy.
Our lucky escapes create a debt to society. How do we make the world as safe for others as it has been for us? How do we show the less fortunate in our circle that we are not blind to their trauma? In a society that cloaks family violence as shame and codes violence against women in the public arena as “provoked”, what is the opportunity we make to end our silence?
The second imperative is to acknowledge that there is no difference between those who have become victims and survivors of violence and those who have escaped this fate. Most women anywhere can recall some day, some time, some place, some person, and some trigger, that makes them shudder inwardly at what might have been.
“That could be me.” And if there is no difference, then your trauma is my trauma and my strength should be yours.
Among activists and scholars in this area, it is a truism to say that violence follows women through their life-cycle. With pre-natal sex selection becoming more and more popular in spite of all the legal measures against it, even birth is a chancy affair. Sexual violence, structural violence and violence in the name of the community haunt their lives, making life a series of traumas or lucky escapes.
Unfortunately, as a society, we trivialize this violence. We are beginning to code sex selection as reproductive choice or family planning. We euphemistically refer to street sexual harassment as eve-teasing. We are unflagging in our efforts to reunite battered wives with their abusive spouses and in-laws because we tag their attempt to survive as family dishonour. We have an endless encyclopaedia of excuses for abuse—deficiencies in the wife, failure to deliver dowry, frustration at work—that are trotted out in our entertainment media uncritically as reflections of our culture.
The fact however is: Violence against women is violence.
It is not passion. It is not lust. Not provocation. Neither catharsis, nor punishment. Just brute force, coercion, violence.
And once we open our minds to this, we know that violence against women is one strand in a larger story. It is related to other forms of violence against those who are powerless—children and sexual minorities, for instance. The term ‘gender violence’ recognizes this interconnectedness.
By ‘gender violence’ we mean violence that is experienced by anyone by virtue of their being a woman, man, girl, boy or aravani. It includes sexual violence of all sorts as well as socially sanctioned practices like dowry-death, honour killings or sati. Because women and sexuality are the most sensitive markers of a community’s identity, the inclusion of these practices in such a list is contentious than the practice itself.
Further, gender violence is related to other forms of violence in society. Although it gives the impression of being personal, with individual victim and perpetrator, it connects easily to other faultlines of violence, such as class, caste and community. It is easier to perpetrate across these faultlines and even stands in for these, almost as if thereby limiting collateral damage! That is, it would seem easier in a riot to rape women than to stage street-fights. It would seem easier to abduct girls from refugee camps than to sit at a negotiating table. Certainly, those who would rape or molest or harass would be more likely to pick victims with less social power than they—domestic workers, poor relatives, orphans.
Crises exaggerate existing vulnerabilities. Thus, intimate partner violence and family violence rise with levels of militarization in a society. In times of disaster or conflict, levels of violence within the household and in the neighbourhood go up.
Now recognized as a public health crisis, because gender violence routinely affects those with the least power, it does not attract attention. Nevertheless, the cost to society of providing health care and counseling to victims and the cost to the economy of their lost working days mount as do levels of violence. Children are brutalized by experiencing and witnessing violence; we are raising a generation prone to violence, desensitized to it and accepting of it as one language of interpersonal and social relationships.
November 25 is the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women. This year in Chennai, Prajnya and partner organizations have put together a full schedule of public education events and activities as part of the Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence. A popular strategy worldwide, the 16 Days Campaign begin on November 25 and culminate on Human Rights Day, December 10.
Remember, this too could be you. Do your part. Speak out against this pervasive social malaise. Because gender violence hurts us all.
|Widows sold as bonded labourers 100 kms from Bangalore
22 Nov 2008, 0321 hrs IST, Rishikesh Bahadur Desai, TNN
TUMKUR/BANGALORE: If Bangalore has entered e-age, barely 100 km from the city stone-age practices still persist.
Unbelievable though it may sound, widows are treated like cattle, are ‘bought and sold’ in a custom treated as sacred by the ‘Handi Koracha’ community. Worse, local authorities well aware of the issue are not lifting a finger to help the victims of this de-humanising tradition.
Selling widows is a routine custom of the pig-rearing Kunchalu Koracha or Handi Korachas. The centuries-old ‘Ruka’ tradition is a norm with the community that lives in hamlets along the Karnataka-Andhra Pradesh border.
They run errands and do menial household work. Of course, similar rules do not apply to men. Unfortunately most community members don’t think of ‘Ruka,’as evil and few victims protest.
“This is a common practice. Even today, women are bought and sold,” Sunkappa, an elderly member of the community, told TOI. His sister Nagamma was sold by her in-laws four years ago. When this news hit the headlines, it created a sensation. The state government promised to help her and uplift the backward Handi Koracha community.
A caravan of officials descended on R Hosakote village September last. The villagers were promised free houses, loans and pigs at subsidized rates. “Over 300 applications were received. But not a single one seems to have been processed. No one has got any assistance till now,” says Sogadu Venkatesh, a social worker who is campaigning against the practice.
Kunchalu Koracha or Handi Korachas live in Kolar, Tumkur, Davanagere and Bellary districts. They are a sub-sect of Korachas, listed under the Scheduled Castes in Karnataka and under Scheduled Tribes in Andhra Pradesh. Their occupations are pig-rearing and broom-making.
None among the commmunity has ever been to college. Around 20 students are in school now with girls outnumbering boys. They have had no political representation till now. No Handi Koracha has made it to the panchayats or the assembly or parliament.
What is Ruka?
It is a counter-dowry practice in which the parents of the groom pay money to the bride. During marriage, a bunch of coins tied in a piece of cloth is given to the bride to keep for life. This is treated as a solemn promise from her that she would serve her husband and in-laws for life. This provides her parents-in-law absolute control over her life. In case of her husband’s death they can sell her if they feel it is expensive to keep her and her children in their household and feed them.
Social welfare minister D Sudhakar said he was shocked to hear about such practices. He said he would provide a free house, loan to Nagamma for self-employment and free education for her children. He said the matter would be investigated and the guilty would be brought to book. He also said educational programmes would be taken up to wean away the community from such practices.
When reminded that similar promises were made by the government four years ago and that they were not met, he said he would call for details on their status and take up follow-up action. He may have to start from the fundamentals as the state government is yet to appoint chairpersons for the state women’s commission and the state SC/ST commission.
G K Karanth, director of the centre for multi-disciplinary development research, feels all the stake-holders – the government, community and the civil society – have a role to play in abolishing this practice.
The government should assess why such barbaric practices persist. What are the hindrances to ending them; whether it is ignorance, exclusion, economic opportunity, or die-hard preservationism. Solutions can be evolved based on such data, Karanth who is the joint editor of the book ‘Challenging Untouchability: Dalit Initiatives and Experiences from Karnataka’ said.
He also felt that evil practices should be condemned even if they are part of community or tribal customs. “While I uphold the cultural rights of indigenous communities, I feel the need for a cultural ombudsman to look at these things and suggest what can be done,” he said.
NGOs ready to help
Bangalore-based women’s rights group Wimochana conducted a fact finding study about the practice last year.
They could not get much material as many people did not speak about it openly. “However, we are in touch with some local groups that are working at creating awareness against such practices,” Wimochana’s Madhu Bhushan said.
She said long term measures were needed to tackle such issues. “The government should take more responsible steps towards educating the communities and ending poverty among the community members that is the root cause of such practices,” she said.
In October, two Catholic nuns from India made news.
First, news broke about the gang rape of a nun in Kandhamal on August 25, 2008. Her rape was part of the anti-Christian mob frenzy that followed the killing of Lakshmananda Saraswati. She was dragged out of her hiding-place, raped and paraded naked in the market-place. She alleges that the police were watching and did nothing. Neither did others in the marketplace.
Second, Sister Alphonsa was canonized and India celebrated. Saint Alphonsa’s miracles were remembered and her followers and faithful interviewed, as we watched the Vatican ceremony live. Those who had never heard of Alphonsa before that day now know a great deal about her, her hometown, her miracle and her schoolfriends.
Within us, live two Indias.
The first India I know is that of my great-grandmother, walking down from her home to pray at “Alphonso kovil” in the neighbourhood, a ritual we continued on every visit to Chennai. The nun from Kerala, her contemporary, became a much-loved part of our family pantheon.
The second India, also somewhere within many of us, has responded to communal violence against Christians in Orissa and Karnataka in a shamefully muted way. It is petulant about the pride we felt collectively at Alphonsa’s canonization, pointing out that India has other women saints.
But this article is not about my family, communalism or ‘Indias,’ old and new. It is about the way in which women become the currency or the medium through which we transact or express identity politics. In October, what the Orissa nun and Saint Alphonsa had in common is that their lives and stories were drawn into political battles far removed from their own experiences.
Women, their bodies and their lives are too often gadgets deployed in political struggles over delineating what defines a national (or local) community and what relationship each part of society shall bear to this whole.
The symbols of the group are cast as women, whether as Mother India, Britannica, Thamizhthai or Rosie the Riveter, inspiring the group to act upon its self-definition. The symbol is given attributes—a nurturing temperament, the spirit of battle, divinity, chastity, sacrifice, discipline—that are then extrapolated onto women in the group. This works, first, to stereotype women in the group; they are uniformly nurturing, feisty, adventurous, chaste, and so on. Then it serves as a moral code for women, laying out do’s and don’ts for them of dress and behaviour. Expressing the group’s values, these become custom, ritual and norm, into which all the members of a group are socialized and to which they are expected to conform. Women, who live this code, become its first teachers; prisoners becoming jailers, one might say. Transgressions of this code are punishable by the group, physically, through shaming or ostracism. These codes also assure that when Mother India and Rosie the Riveter are done with their work of inspiring the troops, they can return to the private sphere to live and teach the group’s code.
Because women come to embody the group, its values and the continuity of the code that defines it, they are the most effective target for its opponents. Historical and contemporary case studies around the world show that subjugation is often expressed through sexual violence. The abduction, rape and enslavement of men and women is a common detail in accounts of most military encounters. The acquisition of concubines and wives from the enemy’s ranks is a symbol of military victory. This is what Helen of Troy ultimately stands for. The recognition of rape as a weapon of war is an acknowledgment that interpersonal acts of violence are not isolated from hostilities between groups.
‘Jauhar,’ ‘sati’ and ‘karo-kari’ all express the belief that the honour of the group (whether community, family or clan) lies in the bodies of women. Women must die rather than risk the loss of this honour which does not bind the group’s men in a similar way. (That this honour is in strange ways tied to property, inheritance and succession is the subject of another article.) Riots and mob violence pose particular threats for women and girls, because rape, especially rape by a gang, is both to act out and to express hostility and dominance. The war begins elsewhere, but is ultimately waged on and over female bodies.
Gender stereotypes, gender roles and behavioural codes have one unintended consequence. In times of conflict, they create an unexpected space for agency. Women are able to act as mothers, even when the demands of group honour restrict their movements in the name of protection. ‘Mothers’ have organized to search for missing children, to tend to the wounded, to organize supplies and to rally for peace. Where daughters, sisters and wives are confined to the so-called safe haven of the home, mothers cross its threshold into public action, time and again in Chile, in Kashmir, in Northern Ireland, in Sri Lanka and other conflict zones.
The two nuns, working in Kerala and Orissa, could have scarcely imagined that their lives would be a part of a political discussion that also evoked Mother India, Helen of Troy or the Chilean Mothers of the Disappeared. Patriarchy unrelentingly weaves them all into the politics of identity as symbols, as vectors and as battle-grounds and makes their lives currency in battles over conscience, culture and history.
Swarna Rajagopalan directs Prajnya Initiatives (www.prajnya.in).