Sunday, August 26, 2012

Not Whispering to Stay Free

88% of women in India resort to using ashes, newspapers, dried leaves and even husk sand during their periods, according to a report by market research group AC Nielsen called Sanitatary Protection: Every Woman's Health Right. As a result of these unhygienic practices, more than 70% of the women suffer from reproductive tract infections, increasing the risk of contracting associated cancers.

These numbers are an account of how apathetic the Indian society is when it comes to women's intimate health. Of how a city bred girl like me cannot understand the wails and whines of a dame, twisting and turning in pain during mensuration and why she might have left schooling because it was the most favoured practice in her village might be the account I am trying to draw here.

Let's take a look at the numbers

A national survey conducted by AC Nielsen and NGO Plan India earlier this year found that 23% girls drop out of school after reaching puberty. Unicef, too, has reported that one in 10 girls in Africa drops out of school for the same reason. Why?

Firstly, the lack of affordable sanitary products hampers the mobility of these girls. Secondly, lack of facilities like toilets and running water which doesn't give them a place to change and dispose off the pads in safety and without being jeered, in the privacy of the school. Thirdly, the idiocrasy of the issue prevents them and society from talking about the problem. Such girls are often told by their mothers to stay at home to prevent themselves from becoming a mockery.

One man changed it all for them. A man who once saw his wife using rotten rags while she was menstruating. He says he would have never used that cloth to wipe his two wheeler which left him in a state of shock and disbelief as to how she could reconcile to the practice.? What followed was the combination of his weaving and entrepreneurial skills to make a low cost sanitary towel with waste banana tree fibre.

He has sold 643 machines to self help groups of women in more than 23 states also winning him a President's award for his innovation.

Only because this man wanted to help. Only because he was willing to discuss and openly debate about why and how we became so heedless when it comes to discussing sanitary pads, menstruation and women's intimate health.

Another initiative called Saathi by a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduates, a project to develop a machine that makes affordable sanitary napkins using natural resources. Their first machine prototype, built at MIT, is now being customized for the Indian market in collaboration with IIT Bombay and Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University. CEO of Saathi, Amrita Saigal says, "I was shocked to learn that more than 25% of rural girls/women miss up 50 days of school work a year due to lack of access to proper sanitary protection."

The Saathi napkins, costing Rs 2/pad, are made using waste banana tree fibre, but "we have designed our machine to accommodate a variety of filler material," she adds. One of the biggest problems Saathi has faced so far is "convincing older women that using sanitary pads over old clothes/rags is a good thing. We've found many mothers understand the benefits of proper sanitary pads and are willing to buy them for their girls, but are unwilling to change their habits," says Saigal. This might be due to the cost attached to buying a sanitary pad which the mothers want to save up to be utilized elsewhere and in erstwhile conditions.

It's never been easy to change centuries of beliefs, especially where women are involved. Kala Charlu, founder of Bangalore-based NGO MITU, says, "Some girls believe god has cursed them with menses. I have seen girls sit in a corner in schools because they don't have any protection. Most don't have even clean underwear. People donate clothes, but who donates underwear?"

And why go far even in a city like Delhi, sanitary pads are things sold by chemists and local kirana shops in black plastic bags especially used for this purpose. Once out of curiosity when I happened to ask a chemist about why they used such bags he shyily replied " Humein acha nahi lagta beta, khol ke dena. Koi dekh lega to tum logo ko sharam se lal peela hona padega humein nahi".

So if a man sees that label" Whisper" or "Stay Free" ogling out of a carry bag, will hell break loose on the world?

While I live in a universe, where women have taken to popping a pill to arrest the menstrual cramps and use the costliest of pads with side walls preventing leakage and sophisticated technology to convert the vaginal waste into gel, there are hundreds and thousands of women of my age and younger who do not have hygienic toilet facilities at home or school, who do not know what a sanitary pad is and have retorted to the usage of ashes, newspapers, dried leaves and even husk sand during their periods.
Who have to indulge in all sorts of strenuous labour at their households like drawing water from the well to milking the cows to cleaning and mopping during those days when girls like me do not leave the comforts of our bed sipping ginger tea and go to the aerobics classes for the Kegels exercises to bell the cat called pain and take Traxenemic acid tablets to stall a spasm.

And while the organizers of this competition are selling vagina tightening creams to the copious clan of the society a whooping 88 percent of the women in India still haven't seen and touched a sanitary pad. Irking irony, isn't it.?

If a man like Muruganandam saw his wife and mother walking out on him for testing a sanitary towel he made (only to return and understand his cause) and face the rousing ridicule of the women around him for discussing the effectiveness of his invention. And if this man could test it on himself by collecting goat's blood from a butcher shop and treating it chemically to prevent coagulation, he wore a bladder-and-tube contraption and women's underwear for a week. His homemade uterus would release a small dose of blood whenever pressed. And then the unsatisfactory results prompting him to distribute towels for free to women and asking them to return the old ones, brought at the end of this tireless testing a breakthrough technology and a social change, then why cant we the rich and the middle class educated and living in the wealthy warmth of our four bedroom apartments do our bit to sing a song of change.

I am contributing my two paisa for the cause by buying my maid servants daughter a pack and more, whatever she needs every month to not let her miss school during those days. I think charity begins at home and maybe in the future I will be able to do much more when it comes to this cause. For now the hushed habits of changing the channel when a sanitary pad advertisement is aired to discussing such issues only amid girls and women when much of the men folk must know about it is a practice that should not have seen the light of the day considering the changing times and our evolving economy.

What can be done to bring a change?

Isn't it high time that schools start imparting education about women's intimate health below the secondary school level and not just in the biology classes. Such issues have been buried in coffins for long, since these are issues that were concerning the women, and men having been kept out of the matter turned ignorant and insensitive and started calling it a controversy.

Health initiatives organized by the government especially targeted for the lower class and rural populations to educate them about the cons of brushing the issue under the carpet.

More funds being allocated by the government to build toilets in the villages and where open defecation is a reality rarer than truth, and girls have to think twice before cleaning themselves on a period or disposing off the used pad.

More inventive ideas aimed at creating low cost sanitary pads for the poor people on the lines of Murungandam's invention and the Saathi initiative.

Brands like Stay free and Whisper can associate with the health ministry and NGO's to create low cost sanitary pads. For a starter they can allot a part of their profits in creating such economical enterprises.
Stayfree Women for Change is one such initiative which is aiming at bridging the gap between the two contrasting worlds of the 22 percent of the privileged women and the 88 percent of the marginalized class. You can also sms SUPPORT to 56677 to know more about funding a woman/girl.

Sanitary pads can be distributed in the government hospitals for free only if the government maybe willing to risk a share of their funds for the cause.

Yes maybe, take care of the sanitary pad needs of your maid servant and her daughters to begin with. A few hundred rupees spent for the cause won't burn a hold in your pocket I guess.

And lastly to not start blushing or jumping to grab the remote when a sanitary pad commercial is aired on television. In short, to not feel ashamed to talk about it.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Of Independence day and Indian women

This is the nation where nine goddesses are worshiped for nine days during Navratri.! This is the land where the feast of the assumption of St. Mary is celebrated to honor a mother and a woman. And in another street corner, a woman is stripped naked and the waste from her womb paints the town red while the authorities responsible for protecting and upholding a citizen's rights are sleeping to glory under the effect of booze and a bum too careless to move from the crippled wooden chair.
While a few days ago, the facebook culture in the country was busy tagging friends in pictures of flags and wishing each other a happy independence day presuming that it will make them the most patriotic of the people around, I was wondering about the importance of independence in the life of an Indian woman.
Are Indian women really independent.? Are these the moral values we pride ourselves in, rapes, molestation and harassment of women on an hourly basis.? Where are the laws that boast of a fair and free democracy by the people, for the people and of the people.? After the Guwahati incident we have stooped down to the lowest possible of paradigms we could go to with a paltry promise of getting buried in the earth's crust being the most homely of inglorious belittlement we can go down to. Let's examine the Guwahati incident that exposed the laxity in the law and led to the celebration of modern day patriarchy.
A mob of 20 men mocking and outraging the modesty of an incapicated teenaged girl was a prime time show we all heartlessly saw on the tele tube. While no one in the crowd of more than 100 had the audacity to stop a mob of twenty, the show was filmed on camera to be sold later to news channels for the kind of TRP even Ekta Kapoor's serials might not have managed till this day. Sexual predators are by now confident that they need not fear the law enforcement agencies — the police and the courts, says Rashme Sehgal.
The police while failing in its duties by following a "prevention is better than cure" policy, brought one news journalist who spent the next thirty minutes filming this girl pleading with her assaulters till an elderly man played the saviour.
Guwahati-based Nandita Konwar, of Women Power Connect who has followed this assault case very closely is surprised at just how many counts the local cops played false. The local police chief, when asked why the police failed to rescue the teenager, said, “the police is not an ATM machine dispensing instant justice.”
The police on its part and from peaking pressure by the CM Tarun Gogoi (who thought that such incidents should not happen in public again while doing them behind closed doors would have made it easier for him to indulge in a Pontious Pilate act) did their job with a few arrests being made with the main accused guilelessly declaring it on national television that the young girl was drunk and needed a lesson in morality just shows how deeply the parasite of patriarchy has bitten the people of this nation. Much like it happens in the Taliban land, where women are killed for being disobedient and the crowd jeers and excitedly celebrates the weakness of a woman with applauding amusement. Women have no reason to celebrate Independence day in a country to where surveys rank its treatment of women as being better only than Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The result is there for everyone to see. The National Crimes Record Bureau informs us that rape is the fastest growing crime in India and has seen an exponential 600 per cent explosion from 1971 followed by kidnapping (again, largely women victims) which has seen an over 350 per cent increase.
Brinda Karat, member of the CPI(M) Politburo admits that crimes against women are on the rise and one of the main reasons for this is 'the low rates of conviction'.
“People seem to believe they can get away with these crimes. The appearance of women in public life is something that our patriarchal India is coming to terms with,” she said.
“Take the case of the recent khap panchayat in Asara village in Baghpat which had issued a diktat that women must cover their heads when they leave home, they have imposed a complete ban on love marriages and disallowed mobile phones for girls while only women above the age of 40 years should be allowed to venture out of house for work.”
Why has the political class declined to hit hard at this kind of a diktat.?
Rather, the Samajwadi party leader and minority affairs minister Azam Khan issued a statement saying there was nothing wrong if a 'group of villagers come together to express their opinion'.
Meanwhile, in a cliff hanger show of solidarity, women from three UP villages in Muzaffarnagar district have vowed to 'burn their jeans and tops and to dress much more judiciously'. The India where even women are themselves not aware of what their rights are and how thanklessly a patriarchal society is twisting these women to fit them into their whims and fancies is just too hard to accept.? I wonder whether I should call these women free.?
Khap panchayats have joined hands at a crucial juncture but for what.? To put young girls on display as show pieces in the arranged marriage market. But Naresh Tikait, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union and chief of the Baliyan khap panchayat insists their diktats are not anti-woman.
“We also oppose the dowry system and female foeticide but that is not being highlighted. Instead the decision we take for orderliness in the society in accordance with our traditions are dubbed as ‘taliban’.”
Do they really oppose the female foeticide practice existing in their society that has prompted to smuggle and sell brides from places like Kerala to such hell holes with a slanted sex ratio flaunting the dominance of boys.
Akhila Shivdas of the Centre for Advocacy and Research believes the rumblings in these khap panchayats have been triggered by the release of a recent study of the Population Council of India that found that rate of premarital sex as higher amongst girls than boys.
Girls, according to the study, are also willing to indulge in risky sex without using contraceptives. Police believe the attitude of the younger generation of girls has undergone a sea change.
The collapsing of law and-order ( chain snatchings - seven within two hours one day in Mumbai apart from rape, molestation and its daughter called eve-teasing on the roads, buses and suburban trains) has seen some supporters of the hockey stick wielding controversial assistant commissioner of police Vasant Dhoble in his efforts to control drugs and prostitution in Mumbai’s parties and bars. Will moral policing of the order of the Taliban bring down the crime rates.?
Women activist Sujata Madhok attributes the increasing crime rate in the city to the migration of population coming from the villages.
“There are no social restraints (in our cities) and the obsession with national security and VIP security has forced the police to move away from their traditional duties of looking after law-and-order.”
India needs a separate law to deal with sexual harassment and assault. Bailable offences against sexual harassment and molestation and even heinous atrocities like rape have in no way tried to bring the perpetrator to book. Some of the archaic laws of the land that were exclusively designed to make the women weaker in case of a mishap have been made bailable with a bond of surety in cash that can free the culprit.
Introducing new laws (With no granting of bail) alone is not the answer, their implementation in reality is the key to a safer India. The streets of our cities need to be patrolled with greater strictness in order to secure the women both physically and emotionally, today and in the future, with deployment of women police to look into matters concerning the women and their safety. The helpline numbers should work at the drop of a hat to help women in need and not harass them further with speeding action for the disposal of a case (Special courts for hearing of rape and molestation cases can be an alternative), as opposed to the present times when it takes ages for a victim to get justice.
Numbers say it all
* 2,61,000 cases of crimes against women, including sexual harassment, cruelty by husband/his relatives, kidnapping, human trafficking last year.
* 42,968 cases of molestation of women last year.
* 873% rise in rape cases between 1953 and 2011.
* 22 minutes - A case of rape every 22 minutes
* 58 minutes - A case of bride burnt for dowry every 58 minutes
On second thoughts Rinzu says,
I don't think an Indian woman can call herself free, since there has been an 873 percent rise in rapes since 1953, that being the time we freed ourselves from the shackles of the British and weren't this educated and finacially sound . The numbers say that the society in those days was not this sexually repressed as it is now. While evils like sati are a thing of the past now, we have newer evils like sexual harassment and the lesser of the devil, eve teasing to hound on women like us.
After a case of harassment, most of the dodgy police men have the 8 pm rule and "no short skirt" law to pass with very little scope for speedy and fair justice to save the victim from being decried. Where are we heading towards.? To a new low that will make our culturally rich society as cut throat as the Taliban. I stopped celebrating "Independence day" since the time a gang of goons had tried to molest me while I was in my third year of graduation.
My wings just couldn't fly from that day and, on any day, I come home before 8 pm and wear modest clothing to avoid another eventuality dogging my destiny, for trusting the limping arm of the law to protect me would be an act of adventure I will always regret for.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Defining Surnames for Malayali Women

One of my cousins recently married and added her husband's surname to the surnames of her father and our grandmother, which already follow her name. Although this is a common practice of Malayali Christians, her decision has made me question why people add names to express identity and respect. Like many women, my cousin is socially obliged to show public appreciation for her husband and new family, but I want to explore the other motives that underlie her decision.