Sharing two pieces that highlight the stressful relationship that women seem to have with the institution of marriage. This Quartz piece from China that tells the story of married women who condone and finance criminal acts to eliminate their husbands’ mistresses puts the spotlight on an uncomfortable fact: that marriage is about social sanction and financial security. What about love, companionship, trust?
The other piece from The Guardian highlights this same stressful relationship that women have with marriage, but in the light of Muslim women in India who live in perpetual fear of “talaq, talaq, talaq” from husbands whose motivations to remain married to them are often purely exploitative in nature.
That women should be so dependent on marriage for their security in an age where more women are financially independent (not nearly enough though!) is a travesty. That women should constantly live in fear of the consequences of a failed marriage is also a sad reality, and it’s not just poor women we’re talking about here.
I’m sure men too are stressed about marriage and the responsibilities that come with it and that could be fodder for another conversation, but surely the idea is to move towards a social structure in which marriage is a matter of choice for both men and women and not a social tick mark burdened with so much expectation and anxiety?
Women’s safety has become a rallying cry in Delhi and its environs, where I live. Arguably, it’s become a talking point across India and in many parts of the world. Arvind Kejriwal’s election promise of 100% CCTV coverage reflects the widespread phenomena of the elite fencing themselves into gated havens, imagining they are keeping the unwanted at bay. Extend that thought and you have private cars ferrying kids to school when they should have taken the bus and girls being asked to restrict their choice of college because commuting is unsafe. Clearly, safety and the perception of safety is driving how people live and work, how productive they are and how they interact socially.
Well-designed quality infrastructure is non-negotiable
A large number of studies have shown us that it is quality infrastructure that will provide the base for making spaces safe and livable. A recent study that asked the question “What is the latest time in the day that you feel safe returning home alone?” in rural and urban spaces across India found that amenities and infrastructure had the largest impact on perceptions of safety.
It doesn’t matter whether it is urban or rural, basic infrastructure, including lighting, sanitation, electricity, streets, drainage and efficient public transport, is non-negotiable. More than any other interventions, including quick-fix technology, well-designed hard infrastructure for public use will empower everyone (not just women) and, over time, change attitudes too.
Technology is redundant if physical infrastructure is simply not there
The soft infrastructure that integrates tech can be a great complement, but fails when infrastructure is missing or badly designed. I’ll give you two examples.
#1 School bus alert systems
I get a set of SMSs everyday before the school bus arrives to pick and drop my kids. One of these gives me a time for arrival of the bus. The estimate is made by a computer based on an algorithm that factors in the route map, expected traffic at time of travel, etc. But the large number of uncertainties introduced by water logging, poor quality roads, mismanaged traffic etc mean that the estimated time is almost certainly off. Every afternoon, someone waits anxiously for a bus that announces it will arrive at 4:00PM when it actually shows up 8, 10, even 15 minutes later! A clear case of redundant technology.
#2 Women’s helplines
Asha, who worked as a nursing assistant for my grandmother a few weeks ago, pooh-poohs my suggestion for using the police helpline to report harassment, which she says she faces several times a day on her two-hour, 21-km long commute to work and back everyday. I would say she would not have hesitated to to dial the helpline if her daily commute was largely hassle-free, but as of now she has internalized the violence she faces and the technology appears redundant to her.
Let’s focus on the right things: Fix the pavements, lights, roads…just fix my city!
Personally, I don’t want the protection of my brothers and male friends when I get home late from work or a dinner appointment (As we know from the Nirbhaya case, this is no protection anyway). I want a lit pavement to walk on and the assurance of a late night bus service instead!
I don’t want a CCTV camera on every street corner of my city. Instead, I want clean, lit, accessible public spaces where families, young girls and boys, the elderly, basically everyone can access, frequent and make safe by their participation. The central park in Connaught Place (Delhi’s central business district) shuts down at sunset, while student theater groups who try to practice there have been asked to leave because they are a threat to security!
I don’t want a helpline that is flooded with requests and unable to help anyone. Instead, I want a safe city where the police can concentrate on those who really need their help because the majority of us are able to get on with our lives empowered by decent public amenities and infrastructure!
The Milne Do hash tag on twitter piqued my interest today. Apparently, there is a petition doing the rounds to request both governments to ease visa restrictions to allow Indians and Pakistanis to visit each others nations easily.
Thousands of families that were displaced during Partition would get a chance to see the hometowns if their forefathers, some tweeted. Others highlighted the tourism potential if the visas were eased.
It’s quite a thought isn’t it? When we were kids, our make believe games comprised of Indo-Pak wars. Pakistan was the worst possible enemy and this was a hatred you had to embrace to prove your patriotism as an Indian. Over the years, much has changed. India travelled down a very different path and has emerged as a significant economy with global impact. Pakistan has progressed too, but it’s increasing leaning towards extreme Islam places it on shaky ground on the global stage.
Relations between our nations has improved hugely diplomatically and in the popular imagination but intelligence and security networks still paint a picture of suspicion and intent to harm.
I can understand a government being paranoid and refusing to ease visa restrictions when a Pakistani national has just been sentenced to death for an act of heinous terrorism against India. And yet, perhaps easing travel will serve another quite different purpose of discovering cultural similarities that might obfuscate the need to place religion or terror at the center of the debate. It will be interesting to see how this debate unfolds. All I know is that if the visas were possible, I would be on a train to Lahore and Harappa in a jiffy!
So this is how the conversation went between this little street girl outside a Gurgaon market and me.
Child: Didi, paise de do, pen khareed lo [Sister, give me money, buy these pens]
Me: Pen to bacche ye acchhe nahi hote, par batao paise ka kya karogi? [Child, these pens are useless; tell me what you will do with the money?]
Child, instantly: Pichkari loongi! [I will buy a water pistol]
Me, having just done the rounds in the market: Pichkari to bahut paise ki aati hai. Wo to jut nahi paaenge. Kahin aur kharch ho jaayenge, hai na? [The water pistol would be too expensive. You will have to save money for it and that will get spent elsewhere, no?]
Child: To phir kuchh khila do! [Then give me something to eat!]
Eventually, Rahul walked across to the little streetside shop and bought her and her tinier companion bread and double egg omelettes. We were struck by their spontaneity, honesty and complete lack of self-consciousness. They knew the best chance they had was to ask for what they really wanted and hope we were in a benevolent mood! We were rewarded with lovely smiles at the end of this, but I cannot stop thinking about what their lives must be like. I have seen this same girl child the past few years, from when she was rather little to now, when she is much more grown up and very confident. Denied of any form of security, with no access to education or opportunity, these kids stare into a future that is bleak. Yet, because they are kids, they can smile, be witty and spontaneous; you may argue that these are only survival skills, but I find it hard to believe all of it is put on.
The recently releases ‘The state of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’ brought out by the United Nation’s Children’s Fund underlines the need to pay attention to children amongst the urban poor. What future are we talking about for our nation and our people if we let our children go hungry, get raped, remain illiterate and ensure their innocent smiling faces turn into those lined with bitterness, misery and hatred? I think this everyday and I wonder what more I can do to change things around me.
I kept hearing about Barkha Dutt’s interview with Oprah all day. I just got around to seeing a part of it myself. Her’s is a hugely inspirational story, rags to riches, from a nobody to one of the most influential people in the world, etc etc.
Coming from poverty herself, Oprah pointed out today that very few people who live in poverty (that is without money, running water, 24X7 electricity, etc) know that they are poor, till they are in a position to compare their lives with that of someone else.
I had the opportunity to do some community consultation work in the slums Sundernagari in East Delhi a few months ago and I tried to review Oprah’s statement in the light of my experiences. We (as in mHS) had been engaged to involve the community in the process of developing an in-situ redevelopment scheme in which their families would be allocated housing units in the same location where their slum stands today.
We worked in two slum blocks, one predominantly a community of scheduled caste shoe makers and other a majority-Muslim community engaged in buffalo-rearing, embroidery and metal work. Both communities are extremely poor. Our survey shows about 31% of the households in the first community and 32% in the second have a household income of less than Rs 5000 per month (with an average household size of about 5). The highest reported family income in both blocks was about Rs 15,000 a month!
Of course the people we worked with in Sundernagari are acutely aware of their poverty. Its hard for them not be, not to compare themselves with the more fortunate while living in Delhi surrounded by middle income neighborhoods. Many women from these slums work as domestic help in the middle income colony nearby, entering every day more fortunate homes and observing closely a life of relatively much much more. I find it hard to believe that Oprah’s statement can be true of any community of the urban poor anywhere, in fact.
While aware of their poverty, I do not think these slum dwellers live life in a depressed or dejected fashion. They simply live, focusing on finding jobs (mostly in the form of informal labor, skilled or semi-skilled) and spending their money wisely so as to feed their families and educate their children. Their grievances are not with living in a slum, in poverty. They simply ask for basic services and security for their children, no more and no less.
Which brings me to Oprah’s other point about poverty. She sees education as the only way out of poverty, something that opens the door of opportunity. While interacting with young people in the slums, I was struck by their cheerfulness and complete lack of ambition. These were people who attended or had attended school, but did not believe that education would give them the opportunity to progress and find their way out of the poverty they were born into. So they simply lived in a status quo fashion, doing whatever work they could find, if they could find it (sadly, many young people didn’t appear to take on the trades of their parents, finding show making or buffalo rearing to be derogatory work).
Instead of offering them opportunity, the government has made these poor households dependent on subsidies and pro-poor programs. They now believe there is a certain power in their poverty. They believe the government will never throw them off their land and that they will be able to endlessly leverage their poverty to eek out survival for themselves and their future generations.
Of course, many we spoke to did dream of a better life, did see through the falseness of the security these programs offer; but in the collective mentality that is at work here, few offer a dissenting opinion. And life goes on….
It’s Friday, the 13th and I’m not scared of the friends from the world beyond, but the weirdos from our own planet! Two stories reported by friends this week outline the precariously dangerous lives we lead in the urban environs of Delhi. One woman friend’s car was stopped by motorcyclists, who threatened and verbally abused her in a state of inebriation. Only her crisis management skills got her out of that situation safely. Another friend told me about a gory incident in which guys in an auto teased a woman two-wheelerist. They then lodged a stick on the handle of her scooty, bringing it down and dragging her on the tarmac. No one stopped to help and the girl needs cosmetic surgery and is nursing a broken jaw as well!
Stuff like this is a nightmare; we all (and its not only women, I know men friends who have faced worse) hope to God we aren’t involved in any such situation. We can talk endlessly about why these things are happening. In my view, these are clear fallouts of rapid, unplanned urbanization; the clash of conflicting cultures and lifestyles and above all, a large young, unemployed, direction-less population.
The problem is no one is addressing these issues. These situations need a two-fold response; swift disciplinary action by the police and a parallel awareness and outreach campaign that goes out to urban villages, low-income settlements, RWAs and even corporate organizations in the city.
The outreach should:
1- clearly outline what is wrong
2- publicize a zero-tolerance policy
3- set up a complaint/counseling cell & encourage people to approach it
4- hold workshops to sensitize people about what to do in such a situation, and to talk about their experiences openly
However, all of this will only stand good if there is a committed backing from the police force and political class. The Gurgaon police however, in a recent interview, blamed the deteriorating crime scenario on “migrants” and that seriously confused me! The large majority of Gurgaon’s population would come under this banner, rich and poor, illiterate and super-educated alike! It’s easy to target the poor (and I mean economically impoverished) Bengali and Bihari migrants, but who disciplines the moneyed, lawless testosterone-charged local youths who brandish desi guns and strut around like they still own the land the rest of us live on? Doesn’t law apply to everyone? And since the city is one of the highest tax generating areas in the country, what right does the police have to differentiate between locals and migrants, given many of us migrants pay taxes here? Whatever protection we need, we are entitled to it, right?
I know this sounds like a rant….my apologies. I also know that the perception of crime can be vastly greater than the reality. However, when the authorities make excuses instead of coming down hard on goons, it doesn’t instill much confidence in citizens. Living in gated communities and stepping into a lawless hell outside your gates doesn’t make for sensible living. We all need to work harder and make more noise for those in power to understand, recognize and act on this!