Thursday, May 26, 2011

In India, a Woman May Speak in the 'House', Not in the 'Household'

Selective abortion of girls, especially for pregnancies after a firstborn girl, has increased substantially in India. Most of India's population now live in states where selective abortion of girls is common." It would appear, comparing information presented in both articles that follow, that although India's government boasts a female prime minister, speaker of the parliament and leader of the opposition, male power has yet to be challenged in the household.

The women who rule India

Mamata Banerjee (l) and Jayalalithaa
Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalitha were victorious in recent state elections
Is India now living on woman power? The most powerful Indian is a woman - Sonia Gandhi, chief of the ruling Congress party. India's President is a woman. The speaker of the parliament and the leader of the opposition are women. Mayawati, a Dalit (untouchable) woman rules India's most populous and politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. The urbane Sheila Dikshit rules the capital, Delhi. And last week, Mamata Banerjee created history by overthrowing a over three-decade long Communist government in Bengal to take charge of the state. Together, these three formidable women rule directly over a third of India's people. Most of these women are influential politicians in their own right, and Ms Banerjee and Mayawati belong to the fast vanishing tribe of mass leaders.

Certainly, many of these women are beneficiaries of family patronage and male mentors. Ms Gandhi took over the party as a privileged dynast. Mayawati and Jayalalitha were anointed successors by their mentors, one a leader of the untouchables, and the other a film-star. Ms Dikshit belongs to a well-connected political family. Only Ms Banerjee has earned her spurs as a rebel who emerged victorious after a decade of gritty street-fighting politics. However, most of these leaders have carved out their own identities and styles of functioning, however controversial they may be. Mayawati, with her penchant for diamonds, flashy birthday celebrations and statues, has managed to steer her Bahujan Samaj Party to become a formidable political force, seeking to give dignity of millions of untouchables. Jayalalitha led much-acclaimed rehabilitation work after the 2005 tsunami hit Tamil Nadu. Ms Dixit has won three consecutive terms in Delhi, thanks to her development work. But Indira Gandhi, the subcontinent's most powerful woman politician ever, was once described as a "dumb-doll" by a group of male Congress figures who thrust her to the political centre-stage, confident that they could control her.

Ms Banerjee has been physically attacked by Communist party workers in the past, and described as "that woman" by its leaders. Last month, a Communist MP was forced to apologise after he publicly called her a "loose woman" who was interested in "bigger clients like the USA". Most parties are deeply chauvinist - for all the glib talk of gender equality, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has no female leader of any standing. India also doesn't have a single Muslim female leader, and the matriarchal states of the north-east are all ruled by rather unremarkable men.

Women comprise nearly half of India's population, but their lot needs to improve. India's sex ratio remains scandalously skewed. Sex selective abortions, female infanticide and foeticide are rife in northern states. Men remain major beneficiaries of government schemes, a lot of women still die during childbirth - though the record is improving, and more girls drop out of school than boys.

The political empowerment of women is a remarkable achievement in this context. Many believe that the presence of so many women in powerful positions in politics is a quirk. I don't agree. Indira Gandhi's ascendancy through the Congress party to become India's most powerful and controversial leader was an an exception in South Asia those days, but things have changed. Female literacy is improving, triggering aspirations in a booming economy. Reservation of seats in village councils and municipalities has been seen as a fillip for women. In many unprogressive northern states like Haryana, spouses and male relatives still keep their female leaders indoors and run proxies, but in large parts of India, the political empowerment of women has been genuine.

How much of a real change will Ms Banerjee and her sorority bring for the people of India? It has not been a very inspiring record till now - Ms Mayawati seems to have belied a lot of expectations in the way she runs Uttar Pradesh, and Ms Dixit's record has been marred by shoddy infrastructure work for last year's Commonwealth Games. There is still no evidence that women politicians are less corrupt than their male counterparts. "To suggest that women in power will be less corrupt is fatuous, and contrary to all prevalent evidence," says journalist-writer MJ Akbar.

Historian Ramachandra Guha says the rise of women in powerful political roles does not mark a "new age" of gender equality. The reasons for their rise, he says, may be personal (their courage and drive) or historical (the impact of a generations of reformers) or political (universal adult franchise). Whatever the reason is and whatever its consequences, he says, the phenomenon is noteworthy.
PS: On second thoughts, is India's neighbour Bangladesh also in a grip of women power? The two most powerful politicians in the country are women and one, Hasina Wazed, is in power. Five of her top ministers are women too!

May 24, 2011

As Wealth and Literacy Rise in India, Report Says, So Do Sex-Selective Abortions

NEW DELHI — India’s increasing wealth and improving literacy are apparently contributing to a national crisis of “missing girls,” with the number of sex-selective abortions up sharply among more affluent, educated families during the past two decades, according to a new study. The study found the problem of sex-selective abortions of girls has spread steadily across India after once being confined largely to a handful of conservative northern states. Researchers also found that women from higher-income, better-educated families were far more likely than poorer women to abort a girl, especially during a second pregnancy if the firstborn was a girl. “This has deep implications,” Shailaja Chandra, one of the study’s authors and the former director of the National Population Stabilization Fund, said Tuesday during a panel discussion after the release of the findings. “The scale is very large and requires intervention beyond what has been done so far.”

The study, being published in the British medical journal The Lancet, is the latest evidence of India’s worsening imbalance in the ratio of boys to girls. The 2011 Indian census found 914 girls for every 1,000 boys among children 6 six or younger, the lowest ratio of girls since the country gained independence in 1947. The new study estimated that 4 million to 12 million selective abortions of girls have occurred in India in the past three decades.

The government has enacted legislation intended to prevent parents from using ultrasound screenings or other technologies to decide whether to abort a girl. Yet despite such laws, the situation has not improved. Few medical practitioners who violated the law have been prosecuted, while regulation of private health care providers is very limited. India is similar to many Asian countries in that many families prefer boys. In Hindu funeral rituals, only males, preferably a son of the deceased, may perform last rites; sons also usually inherit property (while daughters are married into other families) and carry on the family name. A cultural preference for sons is also common among many Indian Muslims.

Dr. Prabhat Jha, a lead author of the study, noted that the use of sex-selective abortions expanded throughout the country as the use of ultrasound equipment became more widespread. Typically, women from wealthier, better-educated families are more likely to undergo an ultrasound, Mr. Jha said, and researchers found that these families are far more likely to abort a girl if the firstborn is a daughter.
“This is really a phenomenon of the educated and the wealthy that we are seeing in India,” said Mr. Jha, director of the Center for Global Health Research at the University of Toronto. Census data has already confirmed that the problem has accelerated since 2001. The 2011 census found about 7.1 million fewer girls than boys under the age of 6, compared with a gap of roughly 6 million girls a decade earlier.

The Lancet study was conducted by researchers from several partner institutions, with the United States National Institutes of Health providing some of the financing. About 250,000 births from 1990 to 2005 were examined, using data from surveys conducted by India’s National Family Health Survey, as well as census data from 1991 to 2011.

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