It has been a long time since I posted. Web links often don’t work, articles are archived, stored behind pay walls. I have posted below the text of some of my work which reflect my most pressing concerns.
For those who are new to this site, a brief introduction.
I am a journalist. Words and images are my tools of choice. I am in this profession because I firmly believe that words are not just a collection of letters conveying information. Words pack punch, and can break through barriers of geography, especially in today’s digital world. Over the past three decades, I have travelled the globe, reported from dozens of countries for Indian and international media, picked up awards, Fellowships, taught, been a mentor and spoken at various public fora.
It was curiosity and a certain craving to step outside my comfort zone that spurred me to become a writer and journalist. It is the same traits which have kept me there.
Here is a piece I wrote for The Chicago Tribune way back in 1997 which captures the terrain I report. (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1997-04-20/features/9704200426_1_saudi-arabia-saudi-police-national-language).
My syndicated columns in The Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle and Amar Ujala(influential Hindi-language newspaper) are among the very few in India which consistently focus on social and development issues, especially those impacting women’s rights and empowerment in the wider political, economic and social context of an emerging economic power battling a myriad inequities. In recent times, I have drawn public attention to female foeticide, rape, stigmatising of women as ‘witches’ and other issues which may seem anachronistic in a country aspiring to be a global power and where many women have assumed positions of leadership. Unfortunately, the dark side is as real as shining India.
I also have a special interest in public health and am currently consulting with the World Health Organization’s Eastern Mediterranean Region Office.
I blog at https://patralekhachatterjee.wordpress.com. Many of my recent articles are also uploaded at my public Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Patralekha-Chatterjees-columns-articles-monographs-and-photographs/105127266217614?ref=bookmarks. And I tweet at patralekha2011.
Symbol & substance
Many have pondered over the self without creating much of a stir. But pondering about a selfie — that self-inflicted and self-produced self-portrait taken with a smart phone — is something else. Especially so if the person pondering is a certain Mr Narendra Modi.
This week, during Mann Ki Baat, his radio talk show, Prime Minister Modi gave a shout-out to Indian parents, especially fathers, to post selfies with their daughters on social media. In a country notorious for its preference for sons over daughters and with several states with a disturbingly skewed child sex ratio (number of females per thousand males in the 0-6 year age group), a gesture aimed at rewriting the country’s gender-skewed script ought to be welcome. The idea of “Selfie with Daughter” was originally floated by a sarpanch in Haryana, among the states with the most imbalanced child sex ratios. Mr Modi cottoned on to the power of the symbol, linked it to his flagship “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” initiative, and full-throatedly promoted it in his radio address.
It caught the imagination of thousands of netizens and was soon trending on social media. Some saw it as an imaginative, powerful move. One radio jockey exhorted a listener to change the lyrics of Salman Khan’s latest hit song Beta selfie le le (Bajrangi Bhaijaan) to “Beti”. Quite predictably, others dismissed the move as tokenism. The matter should have ended there. Unsurprisingly, it did not.
It is a sign of the times that subjects on which there really should be no two opinions trigger a vitriolic, polarising discourse if there is the slightest hint of a connection with Prime Minister Modi. Modi-bhakts and Modi-haters and their army of trolls in cyberspace were soon at one another’s throats. Yet another hash-tag slugfest was under way. Somewhere the most important point has got lost. Symbols matter. They persuade. Let us not trash them. There is nothing wrong with the Prime Minister’s decision to spotlight “Selfie with Daughter”, a campaign that kicked off in a Haryana village with the aim of persuading parents to cherish, celebrate their daughters.
But symbols alone cannot change the ground realities. Nor should symbols and slogans be conflated with substance. This applies as much to “Selfie with Daughter” as to International Yoga Day or Swachch Bharat. “Selfie with Daughter” taps into a sense of pride and honour, very important in traditional India. Individuals and communities celebrating the girl child make for powerful imagery and can help trigger change in a highly patriarchal society.
So, as the economists put it, it is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. In places where the situation is actually changing, symbols have been accompanied by other initiatives. One example comes from a pilot project in six districts of Jaipur and Jodhpur to galvanise gram panchayats. Rajasthan is among those states where the decline in child sex ratio has been alarming — Census 2011 data showed that there were only 888 girls per 1,000 boys in the 0-6 age group down from 909 girls per 1,000 boys in 2001. Rural Rajasthan is seen to be contributing significantly to this decline.
The project involving the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR), an NGO, and the JRD Tata Trust, launched in 2012, used an interesting mix of approaches. In villages where traditionally the birth of a male child was heralded differently from that of a female child, badhai patras (congratulatory letters) were given to parents of new-born girls. The lead was taken by Keshavan panchayat in Rajasthan’s Jalore district in 2013 and later adopted by other district administrations. Till date, over 2,050 such letters have been distributed. Village sarpanches and other members of the community gather to celebrate the birth of a daughter and honour the family. That sends out an incredibly powerful signal.
But many more things had to be done alongside — birth registration camps, encouraging training and sensitising decision-makers and grassroots functionaries about the law banning female foeticide, sensitising village-level community workers, and so on. The result is that less than four years after the project started, there are promising signs. Between April 2014 and March 2015, the child sex ratio improved. There were 1,620 girls compared with 1,460 boys across 30 gram panchayats.
The need is for a combination of symbol and substance. Take the hoopla around International Yoga Day. Mr Modi performing yoga at Rajpath along with almost 40,000 people did create a buzz. As a promotional event, it was incredibly successful. Responding to the Prime Minister’s call, the United Nations has now adopted June 21 as International Yoga Day by a resolution, co-sponsored by 177 countries, including 44 Islamic countries. As Forbes pointed out, just the photographs from Delhi and other international cities holding yoga events themselves were a more potent PR tool than any number of images of leaders shaking hands or press releases trumpeting trade deals. This probably means a bonanza for India’s yoga instructors.
Yoga confers many health benefits, but a yoga day by itself will not lead to a healthier India, leave alone a healthier world. Yoga and other physical activities certainly help diabetics, those with cardiovascular disease and everyone wanting to keep fit. But yoga is not a one-stop shop for all diseases. Many other changes are needed as well — enough health workers, functioning health centres and hospitals, affordable medicines and timely treatment, safe drinking water, nutrition, clean air, healthy food and so on. Those form the substance without which the symbol is useless.
The same goes for the much talked about Swachch Bharat. A massive campaign to make people aware of the need for a cleaner India was necessary. More toilets in schools, public places and homes are vital. But a slogan and even the structure are only the first baby steps. Toilets have to be maintained, there should be water, streets have to be cleaned and, finally, people have to be persuaded to buy into the message.
Symbols stir; photographs have punch. And who can fault Mr Modi, the master communicator, for tapping into the growing international popularity of yoga or tuning into the craze for selfies. But the real story is what happens after that. The real challenges and opportunity follow the photo-ops.
The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies.
She can be reached at email@example.com
Dev 360: Method and the madness
It is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Enid Blyton moment. Instead of the mystery of the disappearing cat or the missing necklace, we have the gripping mystery of the missing show cause notice. Habitually controversial BJP MP Swami Sacchidanand Hari, better known as Sakshi Maharaj, kicked off 2015 by asking Hindu women to have at least four children to expand the flock. Predictably, furore has followed. Sakshi Maharaj is now the staple of prime time television.
Not that the member of Parliament from Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, is the only one who views the Hindu woman’s womb as part of a national project.
But as an MP from the ruling party opposing the government’s avowed goal of reducing the total fertility rate (TFR) the average number of children born to a woman from the current 2.3 to 2.1 by 2017, Maharaj has effortlessly morphed into a story the media loves.
An embarrassed BJP high command says it has served the MP a show-cause notice, asking him to explain why action should not be initiated against him for his controversial remarks in the recent past. Maharaj is supposed to respond within 10 days.
This has prompted the media to chorus that the BJP leadership is finally cracking down on the delinquents in the party.
But is that what it is? Just how low is the cost of making outlandish statements in Indian politics can be gauged by Maharaj’s insouciance in the face of such action.
At the time of writing this column, the MP was breezily telling reporters that he had no information of any notice and that it was an “internal matter” of the BJP, nothing at all to do with the media.
Is such a notice likely to reform Sakshi Maharaj? I doubt it. As many would remember, not so long ago, the same man started a row by describing Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse as a “patriot” and was forced to apologise in Parliament.
Those with longer memories or inclined to Google search would also know that in 2006, the Rajya Sabha unanimously adopted the recommendation of the eighth report of the House Ethics Committee for expulsion of Sakshi Maharaj, then a member of the Samajwadi Party. He had featured in a sting operation by a TV channel on the misuse of MP Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS).
Buoyed by Maharaj’s breeziness towards show-cause notices, in West Bengal Birbhum BJP joint district president Shymal Goswami has also taken to advising Hindu women on how many children they should have.
On January 12, while observing the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda at a school, Mr Goswami said Hindu women needed to have five children to counter supposed demographic challenges from minority communities.
In the season of competitive absurdities that has become the hallmark of much of the public discourse in the country, Ramesh Tawadkar, minister of sports and youth affairs in Goa, has also become an international celebrity after a local television channel showed him as saying he would set up centres to make gays and lesbians “normal”. He had details too the centres would be modelled on the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Predictably commotion has broken out and Mr Tawadkar now says he was misunderstood. Goa’s chief minister Laxmikant Parsekar has had to personally clear the air by emphatically stating that Goa has no intentions of doing any such thing.
Anyone who watched the video footage of the interview would wonder if the reporter was trying to bait Mr Tawadkar by asking how he planned to make lesbians and gays “normal”.
Nothing, however, excuses the phenomenally daft response, smacking of ignorance and prejudice.
Outlandish statements are not new. The political landscape is riddled with luminaries in every party whose words and deeds are jaw-droppingly bewildering. You can call them the lunatic fringe.
But many are in responsible positions. Madhya Pradesh home minister Babulal Gaur once said rape is a “social crime which depends on the man and the woman. It is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.”
BJP politicians don’t have a monopoly on bizarre and outrageous statements. Who can forget home minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, and Congress gaffe minister Sushil Kumar Shinde? In his reply to a debate on Assam riots in the Lok Sabha in 2012, Mr Shinde used the word “terrorist” instead of “territorial” for Bodoland Territorial Administration District (BTAD) triggering much mirth in the Opposition benches.
Ajit Pawar, former deputy chief minister of Maharashtra and Nationalist Congress Party leader, famously said, “Should we urinate in dams?” by way of response to a hungerstrike by drought-affected farmers demanding release of dam water.
Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi once said that any woman who has sex before marriage should be hanged.
Which brings one to the key question is there an ongoing contest for making the most bizarre statements or is there something more to it than meets the eye?
In a country with the second-highest population in the world, where millions of women do not have access to basic healthcare, including reproductive health, and which has one of the highest numbers of maternal and newborn deaths, how are representatives of the ruling party exhorting women to produce more babies?
Can a minister for youth affairs afford to be so staggeringly ignorant about the reality of LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans-genders)? Can a man tasked to oversee law and order be allowed to be brazenly crass on something as sensitive as rape?
Many commentators have been demanding that all political parties, starting with the one in power, crush the chorus of crazies amidst them.
Here, the question that must be asked is, are they really crazy? What if it is a game aimed at adversaries in order to throw them off balance and divert public attention from discussions of other more pressing issues? International relations experts call it “trash talking.”
One of its most brilliant exponents was former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The image of Mr Ahmadinejad as portrayed in mainstream media was that of a leader who is unhinged from reality.
But, as commentator Kristen Livingston pointed out in a piece in the Journal of Public Diplomacy, this is what we get when we focus on his rhetoric. Instead, the focus should have been on not what he said, but what he had not said.
Going by the ceaseless drip-drip of outrageous statements, one is tempted to think that the lunatic fringe in this country too is not as mad as made out to be. Or rather there is a method in madness. Look out for all the issues that are being pushed to the background because the crazies are in the limelight.
The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee @gmail.com
Death in Operation Theatre
How many deaths will it take to realise that too many young women in their prime have needlessly died? Despite the anger and outrage in the wake of the Chhattisgarh sterilisation horror story, the depressing answer is that it is hard to tell what will change and how soon.
There are, however, the certitudes — 13 young women in their prime are dead. Many more are in a serious condition. The final death toll? Who knows? Almost all the women who died in Chhattisgarh’s mass-sterilisation drive this month left behind a child less than an year old. They were, without exception, dirt poor.
A field report in a newspaper has chronicled the background of the women who died. The husband of the first victim, 26-year-old Janaki, is a daily labourer. The couple and their three children lived with her parents as Janaki’s husband found no work in the village. Twenty-five year-old Dularin, another victim, was from a family of landless labourers and masons. Twenty-nine-year-old Chaiti Bai, another casualty, was a Baiga, a vulnerable tribe protected under the law.
Who is responsible for the death of Janaki and Dularin and all the other women casualties in this sterilisation drive? Was it contaminated medicines, possibly mixed with rat poison, as alleged now or was it non-sterilised equipment, violation of standard protocols by a much-awarded surgeon as alleged initially or all of the three which caused these deaths?
The buck passing is in full flow. Meanwhile, chief minister Raman Singh has ordered a judicial probe. The local police has arrested the surgeon, who conducted the sterilisations and the drug manufacturer, who supplied the tainted medicines. Everyone who is in the dock denies wrongdoing. The Chhattisgarh branch of the Indian Medical Association is in protest mode about what it perceives as scape-goating of the doctor who conducted the operations — more than 83 tubectomies in just a few hours in a ramshackle private hospital.
The allegations and counter-allegations about who is guilty in this specific episode will continue till the next disaster knocks Bilaspur off the news map. But there are broader concerns we must not sweep under the carpet irrespective of what the final probe report states. Here are some key questions that need to be at the heart of the public discourse. First, why is female sterilisation the cornerstone of India’s family planning programme? Second, what does “consent” to such sterilisation mean when it is from people who have little knowledge, awareness or access to other family planning options and when their marginalised status makes them too ill-equipped to negotiate safe surgery?
Finally, if government doctors are being pressured to meet official sterilisation targets, and in the process there is scant attention to the government’s own clinical guidelines, what should they do? Should or should they not collectively speak up about the potential risk to patient safety? This is not the first time that women are dying during a sterilisation drive in this country. Two women died after undergoing a sterilisation operation at a primary health centre in Bihar’s Purnea district in 2010. Many incidents go unreported.
“Government doctors are under pressure to meet sterilisation targets. Camps are sometimes held in the rural interior where basic facilities are lacking and standard procedures are not followed. But what can a doctor do? He is asked by his bosses to go to a camp and perform surgeries. If the government wants its guidelines to be strictly followed, it should take the necessary steps. Why blame the poor doctor who is just doing a job?” Dr M.K. Saraf, former president of the Chhattisgarh branch of the Indian Medical Association told this writer in course of a telephone conversation.
Dr Saraf is saying nothing new. Anyone who has travelled through rural India and spoken to government doctors and frontline workers will tell you pretty much the same. “Health workers who miss sterilisation targets because they give proper counselling and accurate information about contraception risk losing their jobs in many parts of the country,” asserts Aruna Kashyap, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, an NGO. Government manuals exist, as do Supreme Court directives.
But as a public statement by Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, Sama Resource Group for Women and Health and host of other NGOs and health advocates recently pointed out: “The surgeries (in Chhattisgarh) were conducted in complete violation of the Supreme Court orders (Ramakant Rai vs Govt. of India, 2005 and Devika Biswas vs Govt. of India, 2012). These orders instruct that a maximum of 30 operations can be conducted in a day with two separate laparoscopes only in government facilities. Also, one doctor cannot do more than 10 sterilisations in one day. Despite this, the surgeon in Chhattisgarh performed about three times the permissible number of surgeries (83) in less than six hours in a private hospital, which has reportedly remained closed for 15 years. This is evidence of how these operations were not done under standard protocols.”
In the public imagination in this country, coercive mass sterilisations are associated with the dark days of the Emergency in the mid-seventies when many Indian men were forced to undergo the procedure as part of the national family planning programme. Today, nearly 40 years later, men are barely part of the family planning conversation, and the burden of population stabilisation appears to be entirely on women, mostly poor women. India has one of the world’s highest rates of female sterillisations. Men’s unwillingness to use contraceptives or be sterilised pivot around cultural taboo. This continues despite higher cash incentives for male sterilisation.
India’s new health minister J.P. Nadda says “Sterilisation is not a target but demand driven programme and doctors have been directed to strictly adhere to the norms to ensure that Chhattisgarh-like tragedy doesn’t reoccur.” But how often do frontline workers discuss vasectomies as a suitable alternative to female sterilisation and how often are women counselled on other options? How functional are mechanisms to make sure that universal precautions are followed and standard clinical protocols are observed during sterilisation surgeries in rural India?
It is important to get to the bottom of the specific lapses in the way the sterilisation camp in Chhattisgarh was organised. But one should not lose sight of the role played by the policies and practices of successive governments in the area of family planning services in the country. What do women want? When it comes to family planning, it often depends on what they have been told. It also depends on whether they are allowed to exercise their choice. If Mr Nadda means what he says, he can start a serious conversation on all these issues. Will he?
The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies
“Where will I go?” The young woman had burns on 80 percent of her body. She was in a New Delhi hospital where the doctors expected her to die any moment. She had been set on fire by her husband And that was what she told me when I asked why she had not left him earlier and why she put up with all the beatings and torture.
What I learnt that day as a young reporter remains just as true almost two decades later. It is essential for a billion to rise against gender violence – as they are doing on this day dedicated to love. It was essential for almost all Indians to come together against the rape in a Delhi bus last December. It is essential to protest and legislate against gender discrimination from the womb to the last rites. But it is not enough.
In language that India’s economist Prime Minister will surely understand, it is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
What will bring it closer to sufficiency is to find satisfactory answers to that question, “where will I go?” Given the scale of gender violence and gender discrimination in this country, the number of safe and supportive places to which victims can go is negligible. That is the hard part which must be done if we are to make any dent in the overwhelming patriarchy in which we exist. And there is very little sign that such steps are being taken.
We now have a vocal minority able and willing to raise their voices against gender violence and gender discrimination. But we must not forget that it is a minuscule minority, compared to the number of victims. These victims, sometimes emerge as ‘survivors’. But the journey is not easy. A wife beaten by her husband does not want to stay on with him. A woman molested or raped wants justice. The problem that most of them face is that if they take the steps they should logically take, the patriarchal society fights them all the way. When a young woman goes crying to her parents and says she has been beaten by her husband, most Indian parents say she should “adjust” instead of going with her to the police station and lodging a complaint. Why do the parents do that? Because they fear what their “society” will say, they fear they will not be able to get the other women in the family married off. That was the exact reason the burn victim had given me. “I have five younger sisters,” she had said from her hospital bed. “If I left my husband’s house and gone to my parents, the sisters would not be able to get married.” And if she ignored all that and decided to go out on her own, I asked her. “Where will I go?”
We have to realise that part of the effect of gender discrimination is to make most victims unfit to face life by themselves. Unless we are able to help these victims, processions and demonstrations and marks of outrage in the social media will have very limited impact. I am talking about actual brick and mortar help – shelters to which the women can go without any fear that they would further victimised physically or psychologically; proper rehabilitation programmes so that they could make a life for themselves without staying economically dependent on that very same abusive husband or those reluctant parents. And when I talk of economic independence I do not talk only of their ability to earn a living. I include the ability to negotiate day-to-day lives by themselves, simple things like opening and operating a bank account on their own, getting life and health insurance policies, paying utility bills, filing tax returns. There are far too many things for which far too many Indian women depend on male members of the family – first the father, then the husband, then the son. This applies also to educated women who should be able to do all this with perfect ease. It is a part of gender discrimination that women are not encouraged to make financial decisions that affect their lives. Those who are able to take that power need to do so. The rest need to be helped to reach that position.
I am not going list the myriad ways in which women are discriminated against, from the womb to the last rites. We know that. We also know that it is perhaps inevitable in a society that remains deeply feudal and totally patriarchal despite the patina of equality of all human beings in a democracy. The question is, what are we going to do about the situation? And when I say we, I mean people who are at least in a position to start protesting. We know what a small number that is. If we want to enlarge that, if we want to help the majority of victims of gender violence and gender discrimination, we have to go beyond protests. We have to take concrete steps to counter discrimination – from ensuring that the laws against sex-determination tests are implemented, to ensuring that girls in government-run schools are not pulled out due to lack of toilets, to building a network that will complain to the police whenever anyone hears about a child marriage, and so on.
Let us rise, one billion and more, to say “no” to violence against women, and to affirm love. But let us also make sure that those who muster courage to fight bravely against violence have a concrete support system. We need many more shelters and rehabilitation centres all over the country. And they must be shelters and centres where their purpose is served honestly, both in physical and psychological terms.
Campaigns against acid violence spur change
Bangladesh is one of a number of countries trying to prevent acid violence through legislation while providing specialized care for victims, but attitudes to women need to change for there to be further progress. Patralekha Chatterjee reports.
“Acid is used because men don’t want to kill, they want to disfigure.”
“It is only in countries where there is an Acid Survivors Foundation mobilizing public support and working with the government that action is taken.”
It happened twelve years ago, but Asma Akhtar still remembers the assault vividly. A spurned suitor in his late 20s sneaked into her family’s mud shack in the village of Jhalakhandi in southern Bangladesh and poured acid over her face while she was sleeping. She was 14 years old. “[The acid] trickled down from my forehead, dribbled into one eye and stung my right cheek. I screamed,” Akhtar recalls. It was her mother who bravely grabbed the man before he could escape. “Unfortunately,” says Akhtar, “the damage had already been done.” Because there was no doctor in the village, Akhtar had to travel by road and then by boat to the nearest health centre, a four-hour journey, and when she got there no one knew how to treat the injuries. In the end a family friend put her in touch with the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that had just been set up in the capital, Dhaka.
“Acid is used because men don’t want to kill, they want to disfigure,” says Monira Rahman, ASF’s executive director, who explains that while acid violence is sometimes perpetrated by spurned lovers, it can also be used to attain other objectives. Acid burns can melt the skin away down to the bone so they often require expensive medical treatment. Legal redress is time-consuming and thus also expensive, so acid violence is often used to ruin families. Nor are the victims always women. “Studies of chemical burns caused by assault over the past 40 years reveal that while in some settings most victims are women, overall men are at greatest risk,” says Dr Alexander Butchart, coordinator of the prevention of violence unit at the World Health Organization (WHO), citing Jamaica as one country where women are reported to have resorted to acid violence against men more often than men against women.
However, the studies are limited in that they cite only cases that have actually been reported. Campaigners say this is just the tip of the iceberg and that the true extent is much greater because women are often too afraid to report acid violence while many more live in fear of acid attacks. In Bangladesh and most other countries in Asia and in Africa where acid violence occurs, campaigners say the violence is typically male on female.
For Butchart this is an important consideration since addressing the problem effectively requires defining who is at greatest risk of perpetrating and becoming a victim of such violence. Butchart says that, with its partners, WHO is developing a manual on best practices for the prevention of burns and care provision for survivors, including a section on burns due to acid violence.
There are no global estimates of the number of victims of acid attacks each year. Apart from Bangladesh, acid violence has been reported in Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, India, Jamaica, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa and Uganda. There have also been a few isolated cases in Europe and North America. In a highly publicized case in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the model and television presenter Katie Piper spent more than a year undergoing surgery and physiotherapy to rebuild her face following an acid attack in 2008.
Before 1999, few countries were even talking about the subject, but since then, supported by United Kingdom-based NGO Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), ASFs have been established in several countries, including Cambodia, Pakistan and Uganda (ASFs are also planned in India and Nepal), and acid violence is increasingly on the policy agenda. “It is only in countries where there is an Acid Survivors Foundation mobilizing public support and working with the government that action is taken,” says John Morrison, ASTI’s chairman and founder. Morrison points out that apart from offering support for victims, ASFs raise awareness and spur the review or creation of much-needed legislation.
The Government of Bangladesh was one of the first to do this with the enactment, in 2002, of the Acid Control Act. Under the Act, the unlicensed production, import, transport, storage, sale and use of acid became punishable with a prison sentence of three to 10 years and the same applies to the possession of chemicals and equipment for the unlicensed production of acid. Bangladesh has also adopted measures to expedite the judicial process with the establishment of dedicated tribunals. The Government of Pakistan is also about to pass new laws, while the Government of Uganda is reviewing laws relating to acid violence with a view to strengthening them. In Cambodia a government committee tasked with drafting new legislation to curb acid violence was formed in February 2010, after a spate of attacks that began in late 2009. Legislation is likely to regulate acid sales and can impose harsher sentences on attackers including life imprisonment, according to drafting committee deputy chairman Ouk Kimlek.
Even though acid violence is getting more attention in Bangladesh, much more needs to be done to prevent attacks in the future and to address the needs of victims. For one thing, conviction rates for such assaults remain very low – ranging between 10–20%, according to Rahman. For another, Bangladesh still struggles to meet the needs of victims on the clinical front. Fourteen of the 15 qualified plastic surgeons in the country work at the 50-bed burns unit in Dhaka, leaving just one located at a burns unit in Chittagong, in the south-east of the country. One of the biggest challenges in treating acid burn patients is to act without delay, so the lack of facilities outside Dhaka is a huge problem. For Dr Samanta Sen, project director of the burns unit affiliated to Dhaka Medical College Hospital, one solution would be to train more doctors and paramedics. “There is a need to have an independent burns and plastic surgery institute,” Sen says. Meanwhile, the government has initiated steps to open a burns unit in the country’s 13 medical college-cum-hospitals.
Ideally, attacks should not happen in the first place, and the government is working to make this a reality by developing links with local and national media to focus attention on the problem. One of the main targets of the government’s awareness-raising campaign is Bangladeshi males, a focus ASTI’s Morrison applauds, noting that the national cricket team has publicly condemned acid violence. Community outreach of the kind being undertaken by the Bangladesh Acid Survivors Foundation (BASF), which has developed close links with other grassroots NGOs such as Nariphokko and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), can also play a role in prevention.
For the time being there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the future in Bangladesh, where, according to Morrison and Rahman, despite the low conviction rate of perpetrators and the inadequate provision of specialized health care, acid attacks have come down from an estimated 500 in 2002 to fewer than 100 in 2010. The ASF in Dhaka must take a lot of credit for that and, of course, for picking up the pieces of Asma Akhtar’s shattered life 12 years ago. Akhtar underwent plastic surgery in the Dhaka Medical College and was also sent abroad for treatment. “My eye was already damaged when I arrived in Dhaka so nothing much could be done about that,” she says, but since that terrible night she has been able to put her life back together, working as a peer counsellor for the foundation, marrying and becoming the proud mother of a three-year-old girl.
Start talking to understand stalking
Who amongst us has not followed girls?” With that infamous interpretation of “stalking” while Parliament was debating the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2013, Janata Dal (United) chief and NDA convenor Sharad Yadav has elbowed his way back to the top of the list of people who outrage liberal India.
Mr Yadav, of course, revels in such attention. A compilation of 10 sexist remarks by Indian politicians by a magazine last year includes Mr Yadav’s legendary snipe at “short-haired women” (“par-kati auratein”) some years ago.
But to focus on Mr Yadav and his ilk in the fight against sexual assaults and violence against women is to miss the larger point. Sadly, millions of Indian men within the political class and outside do not “get” the huge difference between courtship and stalking. That was evident by the peals of laughter from male parliamentarians which greeted Mr Yadav as he went on to explain his opposition to the provisions on stalking and voyeurism in the bill. To Mr Yadav, and all those men who grinned and guffawed, stalking was just a variant of romancing, and to criminalise it is to discriminate against men. “We have all followed women around in youth,” continued
Mr Yadav. “Women don’t talk to men first; we men have to follow them and get them to talk. So now will you put all young men in love in jails? There aren’t enough jails here. We are all men, after all,” Mr Yadav said.
To accept that stalking is a serious matter, one has to first recognise what is not stalking. But where will that understanding come from for people who are born and brought up in a social milieu that does not formally accept either a relationship between a man and a woman outside marriage, nor a woman’s right to privacy and personal space? Most young Indians are not taught that a man and a woman have a right to spend time with each other if it is by mutual consent, but no one has a right to force oneself on another and that it is incumbent to take a “no” for a “no” and not persist if the other is not similarly inclined. How many young men and women in this country grow up in families or neighbourhoods where this vital distinction is made clear? How many families even in urban India let their children study in co-educational schools and colleges?
The bill states that anyone “who follows a woman and contacts, or attempts to contact such woman to foster personal interaction repeatedly despite a clear indication of disinterest by such woman; or monitors the use by a woman of the Internet, email or any other form of electronic communication; or watches or spies on a woman in any manner that results in a fear of violence or serious alarm or distress in the mind of such woman, or interferes with the mental peace of the woman, commits the offence of stalking”.
This definition is perfect. The trouble is, most men in this country do not fully comprehend what this really means and why it is important.
To realise why, let us start with the dictionary. In a standard English-Hindi dictionary (edited by Rama Shankar Shukla), stalking has no synonym, and the nearest explanation is “chori chori peecha karna” (to follow stealthily). This captures neither the possibly criminal intent of the stalker nor the terror and trauma of the victim.
Then there are all those scenes in popular cinema that generations of Indian men and women have grown up watching. No film hero worth his salt ever takes “no” for an answer. Persistence pays — that is the unequivocal message. So the hero typically ambushes his “target” with song and dance everywhere she goes, often aided and abetted by friends. What if the heroine genuinely does not want to be chased like this? Popular cinema and culture refuse to accept the possibility. Is it any wonder that Indian men growing up on these films also think that the woman they are chasing is just being coy?
In real life, stalking is menacing and can lead to a violent end. India does not have any official statistics on acid attacks by stalkers, but we all know the stories of women who have been scarred for life through such attacks by men who refuse to take “no” for an answer. There is the notorious case of Sonali Mukherjee who was blinded and disfigured by a stalker and whose story shook the nation when she appeared on Kaun Banega Crorepati in 2012. Last year, Chennai was convulsed by the equally horrific tale of Vinodhini, a 23-year-old software engineer. She was blinded after a man whose overtures she rejected threw acid on her face. Vinodhini died of her wounds. Many more such victims remain unknown.
Once the bill becomes law, stalking will become a criminal offence. This is also the first time that acid attack is specifically defined as a crime in India — acid attacks will send culprits to jail for at least 10 years, extendable to life. Some activists argue that stalking being bailable for first time offenders is fraught with risk. It is tough to speculate what will happen once the bill comes into force. But one thing is certain: while this law will help, crimes such as stalking cannot be tackled only by law.
In a country where there is often a great deal of awkwardness in social interactions between young men and women, it is going to take a lot of effort to have a frank conversation about what is acceptable and what is not. But if we want our young men to consider stalking as the crime it is, we have to make a start. This will not happen if we continue to fear free mixing between men and women. Outing sexists, whether in Parliament or outside, is necessary but not sufficient. Mr Yadav would not have said what he did if he was not sure that many of his colleagues and large numbers of people outside share his worldview.
The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies