Prajnya Gender Talks, June 2022 || Pandemic, Policy and Patriarchy: Process of Gender De-equalisation by Prof. Ritu Dewan

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June 2022

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

About the Speaker

Dr Ritu Dewan is the Vice President of the Indian Society of Labour Economics, Vice President of the Indian Society of Agricultural Economics, Visiting Professor at the Institute of Human Development, Co-Founder-Co-convenor of the Feminist Policy Collective, Trustee of The India Forum, Director of The Leaflet, President of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (2014-17). She was the first-ever woman Director of the Department of Economics, University of Mumbai, and the founder-member of the first Centre for Gender Economics in Asia.

Locating Pandemic Policy

Dr Dewan dives into the first part of her presentation “Locating Pandemic Policy” to highlight the degree to which previously existing inequalities were exacerbated during the pandemic due to the state’s conscious callousness. 

The pandemic began at a time when growth was already decreasing significantly in the country, especially at the low capacity utilisation levels. The development indicators of MSMEs had gone through demonetisation and the introduction of a convoluted GST, which was both anti-people and anti-women. At a time when MSMEs were battling to stay alive, they had to deal with rigid and highly bureaucratic procedures. India’s famous income inequality had been modestly improving before the pandemic. During the pandemic, this trend reversed: for the first time in 42 years, the percentage of people below the BPL increased. 

India’s work participation rates are one of the lowest in South Asia, but post-pandemic they became one of the lowest in the world, both for rural and urban areas, of which marginalities and vulnerable sections were of course worst affected. The gender wage gap increased for the first time and India witnessed the lowest minimum wage ever. There were also of course fewer salaried jobs due to the unpredictability of the pandemic. Reserve Bank reports have shed light on how people could not afford basic resources after demonetisation and even more so after the pandemic.

GDP was recorded to have fallen by 23% during the pandemic but if the informal sector were to be included, it fell by 50%. People around the country closed their PF accounts and the greatest driver of growth – household savings – also took a huge hit.  Every single global indicator fell during COVID, with even the health spending shockingly declining. India registered lower ranks of the hunger index and the democracy index. It also had the highest proportion of stunted children, as evidenced by both international and NFHS reports. Even at this time of global disaster, religion and caste were reinforced strongly, with women with these markers one of the biggest segments affected. Dr Dewan predicts that the damage on these marginalities is irreversible unless huge structural and systemic change is undertaken.

Gendered Impacts on Livelihood

Dr Dewan consciously uses the term “livelihoods” since “work” doesn’t cover unpaid work. Demonetisation hit the construction industry terribly affecting construction workers both before and after the pandemic. Handlooms, which had provided one of the largest revenues to the government for decades, were shut down during the pandemic – on Handloom Day.

Job losses were high all across but gender played a role here too, with 3/4th of men but 4/5th of women losing their jobs (it is to be noted that there is no macro data available so these conclusions are dependent on micro studies). Domestic workers are considered “regularly salaried,” and part of the only increasing area of employment for women since 2012 across India; but 85% of the domestic workers in India lost their jobs during the pandemic. They had to sell their clothes, jewellery, and utensils, and finally became indebted through consumption loans from informal banking, which will act as severe liabilities to future work due to predictable low repayment rates.

The monthly wage, which had already been the lowest in South Asia. fell even more, particularly during the brutal lockdowns. People did not receive wages even for work they had already done or if they did, they got paid in old notes which they had to sell at half-price. In Gujarat and Bihar, women worked 10 hours a day for 15 INR and sex workers charged 7-10 INR for each encounter. Sex workers have always been socially distanced but since physical distancing became the norm, their work suffered. NGOs and individual volunteers could not fill the vacuum left by state callousness at migration camps. The relief work they performed was willfully denied to transgender people by other religious relief groups. Migrants were without shelter and merely wanted to be with their families during the crisis, thus deciding to go back home despite all odds. But this natural human tendency was criticised by elites and the government. The migrants were to depend on MGNREGA for work and many begged for any work even if it was underpaid; only 23% of the demand was met and although MGNREGA had committed to 100 days of work for each labourer, it delivered on a measly 25 days. 

MSMEs are the biggest contributor to employment in the country. The country is touted to have a large women participation rate in MSMEs but we must note that women constitute a significant percentage only at the micro level, with only 5% of medium and 2% of small enterprises led by women. Despite the harrowing circumstances of the pandemic, the state provided no allowances or leniency to MSMEs. It did not reduce the GST or postpone taxes or arrear payments. Demand fell and the value-supply chain was disrupted. The conflict with China occurred and all Chinese imports – particularly the cheap ones – were banned. Since these were a mainstay for MSMEs, they went through a production shock. A credit link scheme had been announced in the previous budget but 85% of the MSMEs could not access it due to deterrant regulations and rules. On the other hand, many startups deemed themselves as MSMEs and accessed the credit. Thus, Dr Dewan states that data shouldn’t be taken at face value but examined for hidden meaning.  

The desperation levels of poverty rates hit the roof. People in extreme poverty live on 12-14 INR a day, and these is absolutely no data about gendered differences of this kind of poverty. Since frontlike workers like nurses and medical workers tend to primarily be women, 72% of the medical workers who died during the pandemic were women. Anganwadi workers were not paid and nurses were appointed on contractual level, without PF or pension. Jan Dhan accounts were created but remained in zero balance since people had no money to put in them. Sex wokers and sexual minorities had neither ration cards or shelters.

Gender-Specific Impacts: Women, Sexual Minorities, Sex Workers

The pandemic brought on a transition to digital education, causing massive dropouts from schools. However, even prior to the pandemic, the dropout rate for girls was at 40% which increased even further since only 11% of school-going girls own mobile phones due to social restraints. At a time when the state should have done all that was possible to make education reach even the farthest sections of society, it decided to stop scholarships for SC and ST students; this was in fact one of its first actions when the pandemic started. 

Consumption of staples like rice and wheat fell by 50% and dhal by 63%. The state also stopped school children’s midday meals. There is no financial transparency about what it did with the money that would have been pumped into these meals. ICDS was closed and immunisation stopped. These are fundamental needs especially at this time of hysteria. There was an increase in infant and child mortality rates, and due to natal services being limited from physical distancing, an increase in maternal mortality rates as well. 

Unsafe abortions rose to an all-time high of 60 million just between 2019-2020 and unplanned pregnancies to 26 million. One of the collateral results and biggest fallouts from any form of displacement, especially disaster, is the rise of child marriages. 30-40K child marriages occurred in Maharashtra (and we must keep in mind that child marriage is not just marriage but a transfer of labour from one house to another).

Domestic violence rose by such a large extent that it began to be referred to as the shadow pandemic. But even at this time, the government did not spend Nirbhaya funds; in fact three-fourth of the funds were transferred from the Ministry of Women and Children’s Development to the Ministry of Home Affairs. 

The increase in violence against women was unprecedented at a record 171%. This is not a surprise what with the state’s refusal to criticise violence and lynching, and the increasing internalisation of violence. Convicted prisoners began to be released to prevent overcrowding during the pandemic. But the first to be released were convicted rapists such as from the Hathra case. On the other hand, political prisoners are still in prison. 

When we speak about unpaid work, we need to particularly focus on women and single male migrants. Due to the Work From Home culture that arose, the number of hours women worked at home increased. The state increased cooking fuel and cylinder prices (the somewhat beneficial Ujwala scheme was stopped), adding to the burden on women from lower-middle class households. 

How can one conclude pain, Dr Dewan asks. So, in lieu of a conclusion, she talks about the Ordinance of Farm Acts, which clamped down on agriculturists, the only sector to have shown an increase in growth at 3%. This led to the most prolonged and historical agitation in the history of the world. 

Labour codes were modified, removing definitions of work, worker, and workplace; and taking away social security and the right to unionise. The circus of Atmanirbhar took away foreign-direct investments and public assets were sold at hugely discounted rates. In contrast, the reduction in corporate taxes were extended to 2025, where they pay a reduced 15% tax instead of 30%. 

The GST share of states was withheld from states that don’t adhere to the centre. With the state having to spend on COVID management, funding was taken out of development initiatives, causing development indicators to decline further. 

To sum up, all those who were not a part of the patriarchal slot were taken out of the relief equation. The state has become an anti-enabler and anti-equaliser, and is rooted in patriarchal structures and rigidities.

What’s love got to do with it?

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A guest post by Samidha S., reflecting on love, gender normativity, patriarchy and violence.

On December 2012, I attended an event on violence against women, and the discussion eventually turned into a condemnation of popular culture, especially mainstream movies, and how they depict so much violence, especially violence against women. As one person pointed out, it’s almost as if every good story must have a rape scene in it. After all, how else can we have heroes? Imagining the alternative though, one thinks the movie would be so bland – what kind of a story is possible without ANY violence? If the princess is married to the prince and they’re living happily ever after – well, isn’t that where stories end?

In fact, this is at the heart of a very complex issue – it’s not that every good story should have a rape scene, but every good story should have some romance, a hero, a heroine, and of course, true love. Even if you make an LGBT movie, and the lovers are same gendered, this basic story doesn’t change.

Lauren Berlant’s critique of the love plot is worth revisiting if we want to think about why and how our ideas of love feed gender violence, and why it seems so impossible to tell a ‘good’ (read interesting) story without violence. The modern love plot requires certain things: it requires women to believe in the capacity of love to ‘rescue you from your life and give you a new one’. It is the romance narrative which constantly circulates this idea where a woman, who would never put all her savings into a risky business venture, would put her body, independence, social status, time and labour into a family of strangers. What enables her to commit herself, not only her present body, but her entire future, to a network of relationships that are unknown to her? The unknown is not only the people or the space (and sometimes this can be the geographical space of continents), but also the unknown of her time, of who she might be in the future and what she might want.

When we sweep aside the utopian dreams that love invokes – an almost sacred thing which shouldn’t be questioned (and love is precisely this violent – true love is utterly trusting, asks no questions) – we are left with some baffling scenarios. How can we understand the raising of a girl child in a completely ‘sheltered’ environment, where no man should have access to her body, only for her to be given over – literally – to a stranger, for the rest of her life? Married women are encouraged to make their new family their home, to automatically inherit relationships that had no prior context. When one looks at it unromantically, it is obvious that it can only be accidental that a husband would be nice to his wife, or that a mother-in- law would be kind to the bride. Not only is there no guarantee of real caring and respect, there is also no real socially enforced expectation. For the woman, it is the hope of ‘love’ that even makes possible such a leap of faith, this placing of herself in a vulnerable situation.

What about love marriages and relationships based on love? Berlant has a wonderful critique of what love is actually doing: first of all, the idea of a loving relationship separates the couple from the rest of the world. The loving couple is safe with each other, they support each other, and they can take on the outside world no matter how hostile. Add in the middle-class home and we suddenly have an insular space. The ‘safe’ space thus created can now exist in opposition, in isolation from the rest of the world. Poverty or discrimination in the outside world doesn’t matter except as affirming ‘news’, because the loving couple reassure and love each other. Intimacy here is taken to be a natural thing – not a set of ideas that we have been conditioned to think in terms of. Every movie about alien invaders, or world domination, or every ‘crisis’ can be read back to this space of loving-couple-home-space vs a world full of unknown possible threats. 

It comes down to this – what do we love when we love? If we love people, why is it necessary to make a future commitment in terms of fidelity, cohabitation, a certain kind of dress, conduct, sex, obligations in a contract that cannot be amended? Why is it that this contract cannot be questioned, even though it is continually violated by men? Is it not actually safety and security that we’re loving when we say love? And how ironic is it that the security we barter away all our future selves for (in this loving relationship) can become utterly violent – and yet, will not be given up because the ‘outside’ is so much more threatening. Women will not walk out of violent marriages, because of the stigma of being ‘outside’ – regardless of where the violence actually lies. The hysteria with which television news can show rape happening ‘outside’ in fact reinforces the idea that the inside space is safe. The same hysteria cannot be extended to the violence inside the house – it cannot be shown repeatedly on television, while the middle class sit ‘safely’ inside the house in front of that television.

Berlant points out that an important component of love is amnesia. Love requires that we forgive and forget a thousand disappointments, to set aside the practical context essentially. Because love is supposed to transcend these things, and in fact, is invoked precisely in these moments when we want to erase everything that doesn’t fit in. Love requires a smoothing over, to constantly try to ‘fix’ problems instead of trying to understand what that problem says about who we really are and what we really want.

And love requires the lovers – the woman who will believe in the future, in her man, who will sacrifice for him, who has this bag full of feelings and emotions. To the extent the woman doesn’t do this, she remains the storybook character who is ‘yet’ to arrive at the ‘right’ place in the story. While LGBT politics has the potential to critique this love narrative, it often ends up becoming a fight for inclusion into the same kind of spaces, the same kind of relations. Yet challenging heteronormativity is really about breaking this inside/outside where the outside doesn’t matter and the inside has to be constantly hidden. Instead of being disconnected amnesiacs, to really look at how we care, at the expectations that arise from that caring, and how violent that love can become.

Reference: Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Duke UP, 2008)

“Patriarchal mindsets mar modernisation” by Asha Hans

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Another of our friends, Asha Hans, has written in this Sunday’s Indian Express, “Above all, though India ‘modernises’ and lets in global market forces converting people to newer branded consumer items, our patriarchal mindsets have not changed.”

Read: Asha Hans, Patriarchal mindsets mar modernisation, Sunday Express, May 22, 2011.

Full text copied here, in case the URL is not stable:

There are many blessings in India showered on a new bride, such as “may you have seven sons” or “may you be the mother of 100 sons”. Outdated as it may seem in a world increasingly promoting fewer children, the cultural dimension of son preference remains entrenched deep in societal thinking. In a country where women constitutionally have the right to equality, this blessing has become a significant marker of discrimination, as reflected in our declining child sex ratio.

The Census 2011 brought some cheer as the sex ratio showed a seven-point increase from 933 to 940. Kerala remains the state with the highest female sex ratio of 1,084 females vs 1,000 males. In contrast, Haryana reflects the lowest with 877 females. Broken down further, the state-level data shows the ratio in districts going down to as low as 583 in Leh and 533 in Daman.

Unfortunately the 0-6 child sex ratio has shown a drastic decline in India, having fallen by 13 points. There are deep variations, with Jammu and Kashmir falling an unbelievable 82 points and Maharashtra falling below the 913-mark to 883. The northwest states, which have always been in the danger zone, showed overall improvement with Punjab going up from 798 to 846. Eastern and southern India unfortunately demonstrate a widening regional decline.

In general, research on sex ratio has shown that the economies of gender are explicitly reflected in the demand for dowry and income potential of a son. There are also the socio-cultural needs of a male heir to make one’s identity known through one’s name in this world, and help one’s entry into the next. In this demand-driven world, the result is the practice of female infanticide and female foeticide. Though the government passed the PCPNDT legislation banning sex determination, it has made little change to the now disturbing trend of missing girls in India.

China is facing a worse problem due to its one-child policy which is acting as barrier to development. It is, therefore, advocating two children in some regions, but this policy as reported by the media is not paying off. To some extent, this is also reflected in India’s skewed sex ratio where now increasingly parents do not want more than two children. And those two, as observed, are sons.

As society is masculinised, violence against women is increasing, including rape, abduction, trafficking, slavery and polyandry. Muna, a small shopkeeper from Punjab, could not find a wife in the neighbouring countryside and had to pay a broker to get a wife who was a Bangladeshi migrant. Nimmi, a woman who was detected to be carrying a female foetus, had to undergo a DNA test as the priest had predicted she would have a boy.

There is another expected danger we should be aware of. The presence of large numbers of unmarried men in general will create more aggression and violence across the country. If the sex ratio in Jammu and Kashmir, for instance, is skewed so much in favour of boys, the state will see even more violence in future because there will be an imbalanced masculinised social structure.

With newer and cheaper sex detection technologies emerging, the state is losing control. It is, therefore, no longer only the context of rich districts with high numbers of sonography centres with sex ratio problems, but also tribal and poor societies which are coming under the sweeping force of cheap technology.

Above all, though India ‘modernises’ and lets in global market forces converting people to newer branded consumer items, our patriarchal mindsets have not changed.

The writer is former director of the School of Women’s Studies, Utkal University.

Where would one begin?

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Rajesh Sinha, “Bigamous Baalu drops a gas bomb”, Daily News and Analysis, April 25, 2008.

“Baalu’s two wives are shareholders in the companies. His being bigamous does not attract penal action but his admission that he pressured officials invited protests.”

But were one to wish to comment or take penal action, would there be a protocol and hierarchy as to who should be arrested first? Would people be offended that their violation of the law was noticed first or last, or worst, insignificantly in-between? Would there be class-caste outrage over the sequence of arrest and action? Would politics trump cinema  and cinema industry, or would the common  bigamist trump them all? Do we have jail-space and court time enough?

I am sure it is these questions that deter public commentary and penal action, and not the patriarchal view that boys will be (bad) boys. And good girls shouldn’t bat an eyelash.