The politics of apoliticising gender in India

Bhoomika Joshi and Sanober Umar

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The widespread protests after the rape of a young woman in Delhi during December-January 2012-13 were analysed as signals of a mass awakening of gender consciousness in India by many commentators, especially among the urban metropolitan youth. Political parties across the spectrum registered their responses against the incident, ranging among demands for capital punishment, castration and life sentence.
However the incorporation of ‘gender’ as an agenda for electoral politics by mainstream political parties did not find an expression and still remains absent. The subsumption of gender as a platform of political ideology under other debates and the absence of taking into account the intersectionality of various identities within the category of gender has prevented the full expression of political consolidation of feminist ideologies at the state level. For the world’s largest democracy, ‘gender’ as a realm of political contestation and agenda remains subsumed under other ‘larger debates’. Elections in India are not fought, loss or feared by political parties over the need to address the impact of gendered discrimination. Gender as a principle of organized agenda for political action, especially at the larger national level has not garnered the same level of interest as other matters of political power, contestation, and negotiation.

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Getting this Straight: Decriminalising Gay Sex is an Idea Whose Time has Come

Karan Singh looks at the medievalism of the criminalisation of gay sex, and grounds his argument for the reversal of the Supreme Court judgment in India’s long history of social reforms.

Gay Sex World Map

India in respect to the world order on LGBT legilsation

On 11 December 2013, the Supreme Court of India overturned the 2 July 2009 Delhi High Court judgment decriminalising gay sex between consenting adults, bringing with it an avalanche of emotions, ranging from disappointment and betrayal to satisfaction and relief, from people who waited for the verdict but for diametrically opposite reasons. The subsequent political and media discourse was as much rooted in the religious beliefs, political climate and social conservatism as in human rights, personal freedoms, liberty and equality, and public health. Perhaps the sense of anticipation surrounding the verdict would not have heightened, or reached stratospheric proportions, had the apex court of the land itself not raised the bar, and with it people’s expectations, by delivering progressive judgments in the past. But as it turned out, the court, in its wisdom, lobbed the ball, as it were, into Parliament’s court, leaving it to the latter to take a view on suitably amending Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which is a 19th century relic of the British colonial era.

A reading of the relevant portion of the text of the Supreme Court judgment, though helps one to understand the position of the two-judge Bench, which, to my mind, did not want to be accused of judicial overreach or activism. It reads: “After the adoption of the IPC in 1950, around 30 amendments have been made to the statute, the most recent being in 2013 which specifically deals with sexual offences, a category to which Section 377 IPC belongs. The 172nd Law Commission Report specifically recommended deletion of that section and the issue has repeatedly come up for debate. However, the Legislature has chosen not to amend the law or revisit it. This shows that Parliament, which is undisputedly the representative body of the people of India has not thought it proper to delete the provision.” However, the sense of disappointment in the LGBT community stems from the fact that the limited question before the Supreme Court was whether gay sex between consenting adults should be deemed a criminal offence under Section 377 of the IPC, punishable with up to life in prison. In the instant case, other issues confronting the LGBT community, such as legitimising a gay marriage, as has been done in some countries where the discourse has gone beyond the criminality or otherwise of gay sex, were not under consideration. Also, for the Supreme Court to dismiss the LGBT community as a minuscule fraction of India’s population was a travesty of justice.

To my mind the Supreme Court’s judgment in the matter should not necessarily mean the end of the road for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights in India. Decriminalising gay sex is an idea whose time has come and I have no doubt in my mind that the legislature and the judiciary will eventually have to rise to the occasion.The government has filed a “review petition” asking the Supreme Court justices to re-look at the case. The review petition had to be filed within 30 days from the date of the judgment. There are other options available to the government. It could file a “curative petition” so that the case could be decided by a larger, five-judge Bench. It could also issue an ordinance till Parliament takes a view on it. Unfortunately, though, the response from the political parties has been more opportunistic than optimistic. The Congress party, which heads a coalition government, made the right noises, but shied away from committing to bringing about an ordinance. Ironically, this is the same party and ruling coalition that deemed it fit to okay an ordinance to negate the Supreme Court verdict on convicted lawmakers. Similarly, in the 1980s, the same party had passed an ordinance followed later by an Act after the outrage over the Sati by a woman in Rajasthan. The BJP, which is the principal opposition party, did not take a helpful stand either. The stand of the other parties of consequence can be described as hypocritical.

In the interest of the LGBT community, one expects the manifestos of political parties for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to categorically commit themselves to bringing about a suitable resolution of the issue within a declared time table. In the event the judicial options do not succeed, there is still Parliament that can decide on the matter and the apex court passing the buck to Parliament need not be entirely unwelcome. A careful reading of the history of social reform in India will show any number of instances when legislations have been brought about in response to an overwhelming demand from a section of the society to address the issues of the day. The abolition of Sati in 1829 and the enabling of widow remarriage in 1856 are a case in point. Similarly, a 1872 law allowed inter-caste and inter-communal marriages and in 1891 a law was enacted to discourage child marriage.

In the 21st century there cannot be a justification for perpetuating centuries-old prejudices. On any metric, be it religious belief; politics; social custom; human rights; freedom, liberty and equality; and public health, there is a compelling argument to be made for the repeal of Section 377. This section of the law is as archaic as, say, a rule under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act that makes it difficult for terminally-ill patients to procure morphine for medical use, thus condemning them to a life in pain. As public health agencies and experts have been warning the government, treating the LGBT community as criminals makes it harder to take HIV/AIDS programmes to them. According to the UNAIDS, the Delhi High Court decision had restored dignity for millions of people in India, and was an example of the type of reform we need for supportive legal environments that are necessary for effective national AIDS responses. The UNAIDS also said that it wanted the government and civil society to be able to provide HIV information and services to all people, including gay and other men who have sex with men, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and for them to be able to access the services without fear of criminalisation. Again, for every religious leader who views the LGBT community with distrust there is also a Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who has come out openly in their support. “Homosexuality has never been considered a crime in Hindu culture. In fact, Lord Ayyappa was born of Hari-Hara (Vishnu & Shiva). #Sec377,” he said on his Twitter account.

After considering all these factors, on balance, it cannot be denied that there is merit in the argument that the Supreme Court verdict is regressive and retrograde. In one fell swoop, the court banished the sexual rights of the minorities back to the Stone Age. India finds itself back in the dubious company of countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, which regard the LGBT community with suspicion. This medievalism does not bode well for as ancient a civilisation as India, which gave to the world Kama Sutra and the temples of Khajuraho.

Karan Singh is the founder and CEO of N-Sight Consulting. He is an alumnus of the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics (LSE), the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore and The World Bank Institute.

Twitter: @KSingh_India

Rape – The Terrible Child Of Patriarchy

rapeShreeppriya GK

On a gloomy morning in the last week of the departing year, a few tube-lights shone down on a solitary teak desk. In the harsh light lay what had been, for the past several days, the daily harbinger of death and depravity – an array of newspapers.

The brutal gang rape and torture of a young physiotherapy student in New Delhi on the 16thof December had sparked national and international outrage over the state of women’s security in Delhi and the rest of the country. Her sad demise on the 29th of December after a heroic battle against all odds fueled further protests and agitations, calling for tougher laws and stringent action against rapists.

Newspapers were inundated by a deluge of freshly reported rape cases, with victims ranging from toddlers to senior citizens. The media and intelligentsia focused all their energies on making rape, its causes, its consequences and judicial clauses their prime-time issue across all channels of communication.

What causes rape? – they wondered aloud. Rapists do. That is the only truthful answer. But the geriatric gentry of my country, often going by titles such as Minister, MP or MLA decided to compete for the best foot-in-the-mouth response to that question. From short clothes and westernization to going out unescorted by a male family member to astrological positions - there was no dearth of opinions pinning the blame on the victim. It must be mentioned here, that the liberal media, now thrusting microphones into the faces of angry young women, appropriately flayed each of these commentators for their regressive views.

But the common thread running through most of these responses was the passivization of the act. They spoke of rape as something that ‘happened’, not as an act that was committed. This somehow absolved the culprit of most of the blame, making it look like what he did was some inevitable reaction to external circumstances beyond his control. Rape is not a natural disaster that ‘happens’ unexpectedly, qualifying for us to have ‘precautions’ (mostly things that women should/shouldn’t wear or do) in place to prevent it. Rape is a crime and should be treated as such, not just constitutionally, but socially as well.

There are several factors that allow a patriarchal society to use rape as a tool to suppress women and their cries for equal rights. Some of them are explored here.

The Myth of Modesty

An overwhelming majority of the population believes that short, revealing clothes are ‘provocative’ and incite men to commit sexual crimes. Rape statistics have proved that the victim’s clothing has little to do with the crime as opposed to her vulnerability as perceived by the rapist. Women in burkhas have equal chances of getting raped as those in short skirts. However, this doctrine has two distinct benefits in a patriarchal society. Firstly, it lures women into a sense of denial and false security, convincing them that they cannot be possible targets because they do not dress in a certain way. Secondly, it reinforces male control over the female body, allowing men to dictate how women present themselves in public. Nigerian writer Amaka Okafor-Vanniin her piece ‘Nigeria Has A Rape Culture Too’ says:It is in this policing of a woman’s body and the hyper-vigilance of the female sexuality, which dictates and subordinates what the woman wants or does not want, that the problem lies. This policing and hyper-vigilance translates to the society telling the woman that there is something inherently wrong with her body. Thus she must be told what to wear (or not wear) to limit the exposure to men and when she doesn’t conform, and is assaulted or arrested, then she is responsible. In other words, if a woman’s body is visible, it ought to be available for sex or punished for this visibility.

The last line especially rings true, going by some of the popular male sentiment on internet forums. The notion that a woman wearing revealing clothing is a legitimate target for sexual advances is largely prevalent. What is more concerning is that there is barely any difference made between a woman seeking consensual sex and getting raped. To them, the act is just sex.

It Isn’t Surprise Sex

The idea that rape is a fallout of sexual repression or over-sexualization in our culture is advocated by several religious groups and Khap Panchayats (unauthorized kangaroo-courts). Rape is seen as an act of agitated sexual relief, an urgent need to quench sexual desires aroused by the aforementioned garments or suggestive behaviour. The University of Minnesota in its sociological findings on rape states the following:Rape is experienced by the victims as an act of violence. It is a life-threatening experience.While sexual attraction may be influential, power, control and anger are the primary motives. Most rapists have access to a sexual partner. Gratification comes from gaining power and control and discharging anger.Rape is a lot more than an unwanted sex act, it is a violent crime. Many rapists carry a weapon and threaten the victim with violence or death.Rape is an act of violence, not passion. It is an attempt to hurt and humiliate, using sex as the weapon.

In several cases, rape is used as a tool to ‘teach the woman a lesson’ on modesty, how to conduct herself and what not to do. If her conduct is seen as an aberration in the patriarchal scheme of things, the man takes the righteous responsibility to punish her for her waywardness.

In a sexually conservative country like India, overt sexual representations in mass media are met with protests, bans and public interest litigations for obscenity. How then, does the average male get along? Indians are the second largest searchers for porn on Google. There is a thriving market for locally and globally made porn movies in shady single screen theatres that resist crackdown using accomplices in the system. To maintain high moral standards in public while also enjoying sexual gratification from the objectification of the female body, there is the indigenous concept of ‘item numbers’ in films. These are peppy songs wherein a skimpily clad woman gyrates suggestively in front of a group of drunken, leering men, providing much needed eye candy to the front - benchers. What’s more, the censor board passes these with a U (Universal – suitable for all) certificate and these songs get inserted in ‘family films’. The respectable average citizen cannot, of course, be seen as condoning such raunchiness and improper conduct. Therefore, we have filmmakers conveniently splitting the representation of women into two: the pure heroine and the sexually charged vamp.

The Madonna - Whore Concept

A brainchild of Sigmund Freud and part of his psychoanalytical theories, the Madonna-Whore concept talks about the male notion that sees women as essentially belonging to two broad categories – the pure, virginal, motherly Madonna and the debased, characterless whore. The man would want to raise a family with the Madonna and claim her as his own in public while the whore would be his outlet for sexual desires, also evoking his sense of disdain. When a man suffers from the Madonna – Whore complex, he cannot see his wife as a sexual partner, except for procreation. Therefore, he seeks sexual intimacy outside of his marriage with women who satisfy his physical needs, while he looks upon them with virtuous contempt.

Filmmakers in conservative societies probably suffer from this complex, for it is very clearly manifested in their work. They seem to provide a clear demarcation between the Madonna who is ‘marriage material’ and the vamp, who is there to merely titillate. The deeply entrenched hypocrisy in allowing a man to take the moral high ground while enjoying access to both the Madonna and the whore as he pleases is what slowly manifests into a warped civil society. This also serves to bridle female sexuality, offering the woman either virginity or promiscuity in a blunt bargain.

Counting On Fingers

There is no wonder then, that questions on the victim’s character are considered normal during a rape trial. Though the constitution does not take into account any aspect of the victim’s sex life while making observations on rape, the flawed forensic evidence does not even let the victim take it that far. Human Rights Watch reports that the use of the Finger Testis still prevalent in Indian hospitals to determine if rape has occurred:In the finger test, also known as the two-finger test, the examining doctor notes the presence or absence of the hymen and the size and so-called laxity of the vagina of the rape survivor. The finger test is widely used in efforts to assess whether unmarried girls and women are “habituated to sexual intercourse.” Yet the state of the hymen offers little to answer this question. A hymen can have an “old tear” and its orifice may vary in size for many reasons unrelated to sex, so examining it provides no evidence for drawing conclusions about “habituation to sexual intercourse.” Furthermore, the question of whether a woman has had any previous sexual experience has no bearing on whether she consented to the sexual act under consideration. The continued use of the finger test points to a gulf between Indian forensic and legal practice and current scientific knowledge and court decisions that recognize women’s rights.

The Finger Test allows defendants to strengthen their case when the assault involves women habituated to sexual intercourse. Though the law does not discriminate between the different kinds of women that can seek protection under it, the enforcers often draw the line. A ‘promiscuous’ woman has less chances of seeking prosecution than a virgin who was violated. In her article ‘We Are All Part of the Rape Culture’, Akshi Singh writes:Sex workers and domestic workers are at the receiving end of systematic sexual violence but the violence faced by them is normalized in the structure of our society.

Our politicians have gone to the extent of trivializing rape cases involving commercial sex workers as a transaction gone wrong and not a crime.

Regardless of whom the rape physically ravages, the predominant perception is that it damages the family’s honour the most - the family, nominally represented by male heads.  It allows for rape to be a tool for one man to carry out attacks against the other by defiling his woman. This is often seen in community skirmishes where women are raped in the presence of their husbands to teach the men a lesson. Damaging the woman is equal to damaging the man’s property – she ceases to be an individual entity in these cases.

There is a certain pattern in the relationship establishment that is mandated by popular culture, particularly films. A man (often the hero) is seen to be slotting the women he comes across into three neatly divided categories: mother, sister, (potential) girlfriend. He is fiercely protective of them and his righteous anger directed at anyone who harms them is consistent with the rightful dominance he exerts over them.

I have often argued that there is a fourth category – the stranger. The woman on the street, in the train, at the mall. Here is a woman who is a separate entity, devoid of male ownership.

She should be left alone, and unconditionally, at that.

Our glorified hero has no business with her, regardless of what she’s wearing, where he spots her or what time of the day/night it is. He also has no rights to her body regardless of her age/marital status/vital measurements.

It seems like quite a simple concept to grasp, but the slew of male chauvinistic films that reiterate a man’s default ownership over any woman he sets his eyes on often run to packed theatres, and this is a worrying cultural trend.

Religion, ritual, culture and relationships have for long tied women down to abusive social and moral structures. Patriarchy works out a bitter deal – it takes away freedom and hands out blame. It will, as long as we continue to believe that honour lies in an unbroken hymen.

Shreeppriya GK is purusing M.Sc. in Social Anthropology at Oxford University. 

Healthcare for Women: Should be big agenda for Elections 2014

Sucheta Tiwari

ImageThe three waves of feminism seem to have overlooked the Indian shores. We are a country where any conversation about gender issues tends to get lost within layers of complexities ranging from predominantly patriarchal societal norms to misrepresentation of women in government offices. The issue of women’s health weaves through all of these layers and emerges as one of the most complex, yet one of the most poignant issues of the day. Mr. K.D. Singh brought up the issue of sanitation and drinking water facilities in his post. I will try to delve deeper into the healthcare issues of Indian women.

Indian healthcare stands on a unique ground for a variety of reasons, the most obvious one being the lack of a well defined healthcare system. The rural-urban divide in healthcare facilities is representative of the dichotomous nature of almost all aspects of living in India. The uniqueness of our position does not end at a gaping chasm between the preventive and treatment facilities available to the populations in these areas: it extends to the disease spectrum that our population is heir to. On the one hand we have one of the heaviest burdens of lifestyle diseases like diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease, and on the other hand our infant mortality rate and our maternal mortality rate remain among the worst in the world. While the prevalence of diseases like cancer requires cutting edge medical science for control, we also have heavy disease burdens of completely manageable conditions like malaria, dengue, malnutrition and anaemia.

Add to this the unique position the Indian woman finds herself in. That our society’s patriarchal methods have led to disastrous consequences for women is seen statistically in our persistently skewed sex ratios. Female foeticide still remains at large despite the Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act coming into effect nearly twenty years ago. Our maternal mortality has improved slightly and we are now at 212 maternal deaths per 100,000 per year; but this is far from the MDG target of 109 by 2015. (We are much closer to attaining the MDGs in areas like Infant Mortality, HIV/AIDS control, Malaria management: which probably hints at inadequate efforts invested in understanding the situation of maternal mortality in India).

Even when we put gender-specific public health issues aside, Indian women are faced with a plethora of completely preventable but utterly mismanaged conditions. Seventy-five per cent of pregnant women are anaemic from low levels of iron. In a country that can’t really boast of basic public amenities for sanitation, it is the women that bear the brunt of our Open-Toilet culture. From the obvious public health disaster that an undeveloped sewage disposal system is to the lack of menstrual hygiene, the problem of sanitation in women creates a domino effect that affects not only their health and the health of their children; it also results in adolescent girls dropping out of school for fear of embarrassment.

This brings me to the taboos associated with womanhood that have ingrained themselves in our culture. Menstruation is shameful, sex education is a far cry from reality, and domestic violence in most segments of the society is so well-rooted that it is considered a way of life. The infamous Delhi gang rape case of last December brought about social mobilization that, if sustained, can be the beginning of change. But it’s important to realize that violence is as much a public health issue as it is a social one. The signs of violence need to be identified, proper medical care systems- both physical and mental- need to be in place for victims of violence. Most importantly, public health campaigns to promote awareness of ongoing violence and human rights movements at the grassroots level need to be targeted towards women, so that they can take charge of their own lives- the one thing that hasn’t happened in sixty six years of independence.

While health policies like the Janani Suraksha Yojana are a great way to promote safe healthcare practices among women, monitoring their efficacy is vital if any real change is to be brought about. Training Anganwadi workers, ASHAs and ANMs in the community has been a good step to empower women while improving the health of their communities. But again, even with regular training programs in place, their actual efficacy must be monitored by an external agency if we want to see results. Without an actual measure of the results that a policy brings about, all policymaking is mere tokenism in the name of governance.

It is well known that several healthcare plans have been put forward by the planning commission; most of them are well rounded and well researched initiatives. The real problem lies in their implementation or lack thereof. WHO recommends that governments spend at least 5% of their GDP on healthcare. In India’s fledgling attempts to achieve this, we have only managed to spend 3.9% of our GDP on healthcare- an even lesser amount on issues specific to women. Funding is only one part of the picture. We need people working at the grassroots level on issues of sanitation, safe births, violence, nutrition- and we need impartial, third-party review of their work.

The issue of women’s health as a whole needs to be broken down into components. We need the government to work in collaboration with NGOs, individuals and organizations with vested interest on these components. And we need periodic reviews of the larger picture for targeted improvement. While the problem may seem insurmountable, it can be tackled by persistent dedication and action.

Sucheta Tiwari is an MSc Global Health Science student in the Oxford University Nuffield Department of Population Health. She completed her MBBS from Lady Hardinge Medical College, New Delhi

Women as Political Actors- Rethinking Strategies

Aprajita Pandey 

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Civic engagement on gender issues has seen a massive recent shift from catering to women-specific laws, policies, and programs to questioning the fundamental structures that propel gender inequality. The influence of active women’s movement in India is visible in research, academic exchange, democratic institutions and larger political debates. Rather than stereotyping women as apolitical, disinterested parties, women are now more fully acknowledged as active political agents.

However, there is still a stark difference between women’s engagement as a political class versus male engagement in the political sphere. Women’s networks are largely circumscribed to the domestic / private sphere, segmented off from the more dominant public politics of men. While women’s groups may organize themselves, develop solidarity around their issues, and make decisions on the personal front, these decisions are commonly viewed as apolitical and unique to women, and thus weaker than the “active” politics of the traditionally male sphere.

Government institutions are extensions of the society’s culture, mindsets and power relations. Any step forward to reclaim democracy and political rights for women necessitates a parallel step to dismantle the structures undermining women’s autonomy. While women’s groups have resisted these structures from outside the system, low female voter turnout and miniscule female representation in positions of power proves there is a long way to go until women within the prevailing system are equally heard.

As Mr. Singh states, this is a radical time to reinvigorate consciousness of gender inequality and to bring women’s voices to the political front. In states like Meghalaya, Uttar Pradesh and Goa we have witnessed remarkable increases in female turnout and recognition of female voices on safety and culture. This rise of consciousness or dialogue needs to be tapped in the upcoming Delhi State assembly elections as well as during the National elections.

Haiyya as an organization believes in filling this gap through people-powered change. Collective power only comes when people band together – and the strongest collectives use shared identities, shared experiences and shared values to build commitment. That makes this aggregation of women’s voices together becomes highly crucial. In our Rise Up! Campaign in Delhi, we use the shared identities, experiences of marginalization and empowerment, and shared values to aggregate women’s voices for power. In the constituencies of Malviya Nagar, Kasturba Nagar, Karol Bagh, and Model Town, Rise Up! Captains and volunteers are creating women’s voting blocks where women grow from disparate voices into an organized network focusing on using democratic governance to address their issues.

Large-scale policy changes, programs and laws are a way to reduce gender-based disparity, but for an organizer – and for civil society – the most important, step is to empower women to raise their voice. By coming together, discussing their issues, engaging with governance, and making an informed vote, women can truly come to yield political power.  The challenge, however, lies in emphasizing shared struggles associated with gender, rather than falling into divisions of socio-economic class. Through the discussions that Haiyya sparks to yield powerful voting blocks, women have found a space to spark a more constructive and inclusive society.

Aprajita Pandey is Partnerships, Communications and Research Associate at Haiyya. 

Haiyya was founded in February, 2013 by Deepti Doshi, who is a graduate in Public Administration from Kennedy School at Harvard University.  Haiyya (www.haiyya.in)  is a mission-based, non-partisan, Mumbai-based organization that  promotes leadership and community building as a means to foster civic engagement. Currently, Haiyya is working on Rise Up! Campaign in Delhi for aggregating women’s voices in the upcoming State assembly elections. 

2014 Elections: An unprecedented opportunity for the Women of India

Dr. K.D. Singh, Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha

KD Sir Passport Size Photo

Hierarchical classifications and gender disparity are broad terms used to identify the plight of women in India. Delve deeper and the manifestation of these attitudes stare back at you: Security, nutrition, sanitation and healthcare. The growing incidence of rape across the country has amplified some or most of the fears and insecurities that many Indian women face today. However, the 2014 general elections have the potential to be a turning point as women constitute 49% of the voters in these elections. This is an unprecedented opportunity for women to highlight their issues and bring them to fore in the national consciousness.

In India, women got the right to vote in the year 1930 but they are still not seen as a coveted constituency. Even after coming to occupy some of the highest offices in India today, women members of Parliament account for about 85 seats in a total strength of 787 MPs (in both Houses of Parliament). The Women’s Reservation Bill, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2010 but not by the Lok Sabha so far, is hanging fire.

Until now, political parties have been using electoral strategies like distributing saris and cookers to women instead of addressing the real issues such as women’s education, health, sanitation, security, etc. However, these elections could potentially rewrite the rules of the game.

Women voters in the recent state general elections outnumbered men courtesy of increased political and social awareness. According to the election committee statistics, the turnout of women voters in states like Uttar Pradesh increased from 46 percent in 2007 to 59.48 percent in 2012. In Goa, the turnout increased to 81.74 percent in 2012, which is 11.23 percentage points up from 2007 results. Women voters also outnumbered men in states like Punjab and Uttarakhand in last year’s state elections.The increase in women voter turnouts is a very positive trend for the country. However, this increased awareness needs to be channeled to shape agenda so that the long ignored concerns of women are addressed.

One of the outstanding women issues that have been poorly addressed since independence is provision of sanitation and drinking water facilities. The 2012 United Nations Millennium Development Report shows that 626 million Indians do not have access to a toilet and they are forced to defecate in the open. Access to clean and private sanitation facilities will not only improve the health of the women in the country but also have a salutary effect on rape and other forms of sexual violence. Almost every report or study on sanitation makes the point that toilets afford women security, improved health and dignity. Also, proper sanitation could bring down the infant mortality rate.

Difficult access to clean drinking water also severely impacts the lives of women. Women especially in rural India spend as much as 25% of their time to fetch water from distant places. Even in urban slums, many women forego employment opportunities so that they are at home when drinking water is delivered through water tankers. . It is clear that inadequate provision of drinking water affects the choices for women, keeping them away from realising their potential. The future governments in India also need to be prepared to meet the rising demand for clean water which is expected to go up to 1, 093 tonne kilolitre by 2025.

Another major concern for women is provision of adequate food for their families. The UPA government in the recent monsoon session hurriedly passed the National Food Security Bill, 2013 in an effort to woo women voters. However, without controlling the rising food inflation, this Bill’s potential to ensure food security is an eye wash. Under the current Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), subsidies depend on the classification of households as APL (Above poverty line), BPL (Below poverty line) or POP (poorest of poor or Antyodaya Anna Yojana). But if these goals weren’t achieved in the past 15 years since the introduction of TPDS, then how will this Bill satisfy the stated objectives.

It would have been more rewarding if the government took lessons from states like Chhattisgarh, which successfully implemented the Food and Nutrition Security Act of 2012 by effectively reducing the amount of grain lost through corrupt practices. The increasing household expenditure is a real worry for women across India and they are unlikely to give into the government’s desire to fuel their electoral prospects through this Bill.

Having discussed all of the above issues, there is no doubt that crime against women needs to be addressed in a systematic manner. It is a shame that crimes against women have shot up by 200 per cent as compared to the previous year’s NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) statistics. On an average, between 2008 and 2012, crimes against women have increased with cases of kidnapping and abduction rising by 7.6%, dowry death by 4.5%, cruelty by husband and/or relatives, 7.5%, assault on women with intent to outrage her modestly 5.5%, and insult to the modesty of women by 7 %. Not to mention that these facts as per the NCRB are only the tip of the iceberg; many such cases do not get reported due to the stigma and societal attitudes or pressures. The 2011 Census reveals a shocking statistic on sex ratio with a state such as Haryana reporting an estimated 877 women per 1,000 men.

The government was quick to pass the anti-rape Bill under public pressure after the Delhi gangrape case, however, it has done little to introduce educational initiatives to attack the patriarchal mindset, improve law enforcement agencies and empower the rape victims through legal assistance. The problem of crime against women needs to be tackled through the education system and improving access to judicial system thereby improving law enforcement.

The media has done a tremendous job of turning the spotlight on the malice of rapes in urban India however; the state and the central governments are doing little to improve security for women in rural areas where rape is an everyday phenomenon.

I believe that the time has come for women to organise themselves as a constituency that political parties and politicians alike can ignore at their own peril. I hope that women come out in large numbers to vote in a government that is sensitive to their real interests. With increased women participation, 2014 has the potential to be a landmark year along India’s democratic curve; I hope that Indian women will make the best use of this opportunity and register their interests on the national agenda.

Dr. K.D. Singh is a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha. He is also the patron of KD Singh Foundation which provides legal, medical and rehabilitation support to rape victims in Haryana. Twitter handle: @KDSingh_India

This article is a part of a special series on Women and Elections 2014. For contributions and suggestions write to policyblog@oxfordindiasociety.org.uk .

Food for thought: The route to food security

Rohit Sinha

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With less than a year remaining for the UPA-II government, it has pulled out a surprise trick from its closet. The Food Security Ordinance was unanimously approved by the Cabinet and was subsequently signed by the President of India on July 5th, 2013.

A quick glance at the timeline of the controversial legislation will give one a glimpse of the desperation of the government to introduce this Bill. The first promise was made by the Central Government in 2009, followed by the introduction of the bill in 2011. The bill after its introduction was referred to the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution for examination. The report was presented by the Committee in January 2013. The recommendations made by the Committee were incorporated and listed in the legislative business for the budget session of the Parliament.

Repeated attempts by the UPA governments to push for the passage of the Bill have failed and as per the concerned spokespersons, they were left with ‘no-choice’ but to go through the Ordinance route.

So what changed?

Food security was one of the major promises made by the UPA government in their 2009 election manifesto. The Election Commission has announced September 22, 2013 as the date when the model code of conduct kicks in time for the state elections. Would it then be wrong to conclude that the Ordinance route is a deliberate attempt by the UPA to bypass parliamentary scrutiny for short-term political gain?

The step by the Cabinet raises the inevitable question – has this route become an instrument to discredit and undermine the Parliament’s legislative authority? Since 1950, a total of 622 Ordinances have been promulgated, averaging to about 10 a year. However, deeper insight on this topic shows that the rate of Ordinance promulgation goes above the average in a Lok Sabha election year.

One can almost see the duplicity of approach followed by the UPA-II government. When a large section of the Indian society was galvanized in support of the Lokpal Bill spearheaded by Anna Hazare, the idea of the Ordinance route did not seem a plausible idea, yet the Food Security Bill was significant enough to push for one. The government felt the need to discuss, negotiate and find common ground on the Lokpal Bill, but suddenly feels that it could do without the debate when it comes to food security.

Considering there is significant opposition to various provisions of the bill, a debate in Parliament on critical aspects needs much more than lip service. There is merit to the opposition to the provisions of the Food Security Bill. If the government of the day cannot accommodate opposing views on contentious issues and strive to work towards a common ground that is acceptable to all parties, then what good is a parliamentary democracy?

One of the primary arguments by the government has been that Rs 90,000 crore has already been sanctioned in the Union Budget of 2013-14 for the Food Security Bill. The argument though valid, should not be lead to the assumption that because the amount has been budgeted, it is deemed sufficient enough to push for an Ordinance.

According to Article 123 of the Indian Constitution, if at any time (except when both Houses of Parliament are in session), the President is satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary for him/her to take immediate action, the President may promulgate an ordinance as the circumstances appear to him/her to require.

Fiscal discipline has been missing from the agenda of the UPA governments and markedly the Rs 90,000 crore could be instead used to narrow the fiscal deficit.

Additionally, the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC) of 2011, which would form the data base for identification of households, is yet to be completed. The government is yet to prescribe guidelines on the manner in which eligible families are to be identified based on the SECC database. To be able to fully implement the Ordinance in such a short period is unrealistic and is bound to create undue administrative obstacles. State governments of non-Congress allies have been critical on this front as this exposes them to administrative difficulties and unwarranted criticisms.

As argued above, one cannot dismiss the fact that it is the election year. As evidenced by previous governments, the populist agenda usually overshadows medium- and long-term policy decisions. The reason for this particular Ordinance raising so many questions is that it would set a precedent for governments to push for populist-contentious issues without the scrutiny of the Parliament. It is about time the Ordinance route was revisited.

 Rohit Sinha is a research scholar at the Centre for Politics & Governance at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He also worked as a Legislative Assistant to Mr. Piyush Goyal (Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha) in the past