Broken Promises, New Pledges, and Possibilities on Women’s Rights in India

Deepali Gaur Singh

India is a country of contrasts in not just the multiplicity of religions and faiths but also cultural contexts. So while in one part of the country a law is formulated to safeguard the rights of women in live-in relationships in another part of the country women are facing physical assaults for being dressed in "western attire."

The past year has seen an increase in attacks
against women in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, culminating in series
of assaults on women in public spaces, with the
most controversial being the
pub assault in the coastal city of Mangalore

followed by numerous assaults in the IT hub of Bangalore. By saying
that there are far more attacks in other states of the country, official Nirmala Venkatesh made a feeble
attempt at keeping the myth of women’s safety alive but what she achieved
was to reduce women of the state and the country to mere statistics.
What she also seemed to have neglected is that her job description requires her to make every single woman’s and girl’s well-being and safety paramount;
that their liberties and rights are not to be challenged on the basis
of attire or profession; that they are treated equally under the Indian
constitution. Ms. Venkatesh’s brief was, obviously, different.  

The police commissioner on the other
hand has referred to the recent
attacks on women as mere incidents of "eve teasing." While eve-teasing
is itself a term specific to the South Asian region, associated with
unsolicited verbal harassment like catcalls, whistles and/or remarks
directed towards women, the incidents that he so casually referred to
were actual assaults on women for being dressed in western attire.
More importantly, even eve teasing calls for action against the perpetrators.  

What really constitutes an act of
violence against a woman or girl? That she is not treated equally under
the social and legal order? That she does not have access to basic needs
for a dignified existence? That she faces discrimination in the allocation
of daily needs for survival both within the household as well as socially?
If social, economic and political freedoms are the indices for development,
then women in the country constitute an important chunk of the population
who continue to be deprived.

India is a country of contrasts in
not just the multiplicity of religions and faiths but also cultural
contexts and subcontexts that define customs and rituals, roles and
positions. And it is against this background of mostly patriarchal and
feudal practices that issues concerning women get defined, refined,
formulated, modified, accepted and rejected. So while in one part of
the country a law is formulated to safeguard the rights of women even
in live-in relationships in another part of the country women are facing
physical assaults for being dressed in "western attire." And instead
of punishing the perpetrators the issue is being debated on the finer
nuances of semantics. That in a sense encapsulates the discourse on
women’s rights in the country.

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The status of women both in their
maternal homes and matrimonial homes is circumscribed by the lack of
sexual autonomy and it is this sexual control of women that in turn
provides the label for male authority. Self-styled vigilantes have very
often "punished" couples for inter-religious or inter-caste relationships,
a phenomenon that was once restricted to satellite villages has been
finding expression in towns and cities as well. The status of women
within their families and communities is specifically delimited by matrimony
and fertility, ironically, the two things they also have very little
control over. And yet with fertility at the core of their pre-assigned
social role reproductive health care conditions and accessibility continue
to be abysmal in the country reflected in maternal deaths – one in every seven minutes.

While the government has been struggling
with making healthcare accessible to each and every woman in the country,
conservative customs and beliefs associated with child-bearing and rearing
further aggravated by women’s low education and poverty results in the
under use of already scarce services. Poor reproductive health transmits
from one generation to the next not just undermining the survival of
individuals but the well-being of families contributing to the endless
generational cycle of poverty. With scarce accessibility and accompanying
restrictions women in remote, rural areas tend to rely on the same person
for all their health care needs associated more with levels of trust
and confidence on these people. This is what makes it imperative that
all health care needs are made accessible to these education-deprived,
poor women from a single source – an idea that the government is toying
through the important agency of midwives and other grassroot groups
who have better access to these women.

Similarly, the public awareness campaigns
around HIV/AIDS have also shown definite shifts. Some of the earlier
administrations had avoided the condom-use strategy and actually followed
a deliberate policy of sexual abstinence and marital fidelity in the
AIDS prevention campaigns using the argument of "decency" to remove condom advertisements from state-run television
networks. The more recent community campaigns around HIV/AIDS and domestic
violence have shown a departure from the earlier trends with the focus
shifting to the need to bring as many people into the fold of an open
discourse on the issue. Interesting and catchy campaigns of community
outreach like the condom
and the bell bajao
ring the bell) campaign
The latter draws in the public to participate and bring an end to domestic
violence, helping to make issues like this a larger public
and social issue by including men to take a stand against domestic violence.  

Aside from judgments like those allowing an HIV positive mother
the right to bring up her child — which are a step forward in removing stereotypes
associated with the virus and discriminating against the victims — mostly
women who often have been the care-givers to the positive spouse only
to be abandoned by the family later. That the message of HIV is reaching
people is reflected in smaller towns and remote regions where young
people despite their limited education and conservative upbringing have
opted for pre-marital
HIV testing
with the support
of their families. 

The Criminal Procedure Code is also
in line for an amendment in light of the increase in rape cases in the
country. Seen as a landmark step for ensuring gender justice the amendment
is intended to protect rape victims from suffering further trauma during
the process of investigation. More importantly, it intends having women
judges presiding over rape cases in addition to the provision of in-camera
hearings. During the investigation stage, the rape victim can record
her statement at her residence and in the presence of a woman officer.
An insensitive machinery only aggravates the agony for the victim evidenced
in the suicide of Sarita who consumed poison in the presence of her
young daughters at the police station that refused to listen to her
complaints against one of their own. There has also been a suggestion
to set up special funds for the rape victims by the central and state
governments. This would be important keeping in mind the social ostracization
that many women face from the family and community apart from the direct
physical and mental trauma associated with the sexual assault.

And yet on the other side contentious
judgements like the Supreme
Court judgement

stating that gifts given by the wife’s side to the husband’s family
even after the marriage, did not constitute dowry only served to further
legally entrench the already controversial practice of dowry considering
that dowry harassment follows a continuous pattern into decades of marriage.
Besides, quite often falling prey to the temptation of meeting immediate
targets rather than more sustainable goals, the administration has contributed
to hardening stereotypes of manliness placing women in even more vulnerable
positions and the entire community in a volatile situation by opting
for schemes like the guns
for vasectomies

and palna
(cradle) scheme
the latter an emotive response to sex selective abortions. And yet,
female fetuses are regularly recovered from dumping yards with the
most recent case being the recovery of nine
female fetuses

from a river bank in a district of the western state of Rajasthan. As
per the 2001 Census, the sex ratio of the state is only 922 females
per 1,000 males, very close to the equally skewed national average of
933 females.

A case that hinged precariously between
emotive arguments of personal trauma and ethical issues was related
to the abortion law itself as evidenced in the denial of abortion of
a 24-week fetus with a congenital heart condition last year. The Supreme Cour only recently issued notice to the Centre on this
petition that challenged the law prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks
of pregnancy in case of fetal abnormality. Many
believe that the time has come to change the 1971 Act. 

The mixed bag of laws, bills, commitments,
broken promises, new pledges and fresh possibilities for women’s rights
comes with its share of anticipation and disappointments. Will promises
be converted into laws and will prejudices make way for a little more
tolerance and a little less chauvinism? Will social perceptions of women
and their traditionally assigned roles in society witness a change under
the collective pressure of government laws and social campaigns? And
will society eventually look at girls through the same lens that they
see boys? And yet hope survives…

Commentary Human Rights

When It Comes to Zika and Abortion, Disabled People Are Too Often Used as a Rhetorical Device

s.e. smith

Anti-choicers shame parents facing a prenatal diagnosis and considering abortion, even though they don't back up their advocacy up with support. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between defending abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others.

There’s only one reason anyone should ever get an abortion: Because that person is pregnant and does not want to be. As soon as anyone—whether they are pro- or anti-choice—starts bringing up qualifiers, exceptions, and scary monsters under the bed, things get problematic. They establish the seeds of a good abortion/bad abortion dichotomy, in which some abortions are deemed “worthier” than others.

And with the Zika virus reaching the United States and the stakes getting more tangible for many Americans, that arbitrary designation is on a lot of minds—especially where the possibility of developmentally impaired fetuses is concerned. As a result, people with disabilities are more often being used as a rhetorical device for or against abortion rights rather than viewed as actualized human beings.

Here’s what we know about Zika and pregnancy: The virus has been linked to microcephaly, hearing loss, impaired growth, vision problems, and some anomalies of brain development when a fetus is exposed during pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes these anomalies are fatal, and patients miscarry their pregnancies. Sometimes they are not. Being infected with Zika is not a guarantee that a fetus will develop developmental impairments.

We need to know much, much more about Zika and pregnancy. At this stage, commonsense precautions when necessary like sleeping under a mosquito net, using insect repellant, and having protected sex to prevent Zika infection in pregnancy are reasonable, given the established link between Zika and developmental anomalies. But the panicked tenor of the conversation about Zika and pregnancy has become troubling.

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In Latin America, where Zika has rampantly spread in the last few years, extremely tough abortion restrictions often deprive patients of reproductive autonomy, to the point where many face the possibility of criminal charges for seeking abortion. Currently, requests for abortions are spiking. Some patients have turned to services like Women on Web, which provides assistance with accessing medical abortion services in nations where they are difficult or impossible to find.

For pro-choice advocates in the United States, the situation in Latin America is further evidence of the need to protect abortion access in our own country. Many have specifically using Zika to advocate against 20-week limits on abortion—which are already unconstitutional, and should be condemned as such. Less than 2 percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The pro-choice community is often quick to defend these abortions, arguing that the vast majority take place in cases where the life of the patient is threatened, the fetus has anomalies incompatible with life, or the fetus has severe developmental impairments. Microcephaly, though rare, is an example of an impairment that isn’t diagnosable until late in the second trimester or early in the third, so when patients opt for termination, they run smack up against 20-week bans.

Thanks to the high profile of Zika in the news, fetal anomalies are becoming a talking point on both sides of the abortion divide: Hence the dire headlines sensationalizing the idea that politicians want to force patients to give birth to disabled children. The implication of leaning on these emotional angles, rather than ones based on the law or on human rights, is that Zika causes disabilities, and no one would want to have a disabled child. Some of this rhetoric is likely entirely subconscious, but it reflects internalized attitudes about disabled people, and it’s a dogwhistle to many in the disability community.

Anti-choicers, meanwhile, are leveraging that argument in the other direction, suggesting that patients with Zika will want to kill their precious babies because they aren’t perfect, and that therefore it’s necessary to clamp down on abortion restrictions to protect the “unborn.” Last weekend, for instance, failed presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) announced that he doesn’t support access to abortion for pregnant patients with the Zika virus who might, as a consequence, run the risk of having babies with microcephaly. Hardline anti-choicers, unsurprisingly, applauded him for taking a stand to protect life.

Both sides are using the wrong leverage in their arguments. An uptick in unmet abortion need is disturbing, yes—because it means that patients are not getting necessary health care. While it may be Zika exposing the issue of late, it’s a symptom, not the problem. Patients should be able to choose to get an abortion for whatever reason and at whatever time, and that right shouldn’t be defended with disingenuous arguments that use disability for cover. The issue with not being able to access abortions after 20 weeks, for example, isn’t that patients cannot access therapeutic abortions for fetuses with anomalies, but that patients cannot access abortions after 20 weeks.

The insistence from pro-choice advocates on justifying abortions after 20 weeks around specific, seemingly involuntary instances, suggests that so-called “late term abortions” need to be circumstantially defended, which retrenches abortion stigma. Few advocates seem to be willing to venture into the troubled waters of fighting for the right to abortions for any reason after 20 weeks. In part, that reflects an incremental approach to securing rights, but it may also betray some squeamishness. Patients don’t need to excuse their abortions, and the continual haste to do so by many pro-choice advocates makes it seem like a 20-week or later abortion is something wrong, something that might make patients feel ashamed depending on their reasons. There’s nothing shameful about needing abortion care after 20 weeks.

And, as it follows, nor is there ever a “bad” reason for termination. Conservatives are fond of using gruesome language targeted at patients who choose to abort for apparent fetal disability diagnoses in an attempt to shame them into believing that they are bad people for choosing to terminate their pregnancies. They use the specter of murdering disabled babies to advance not just social attitudes, but actual policy. Republican Gov. Mike Pence, for example, signed an Indiana law banning abortion on the basis of disability into law, though it was just blocked by a judge. Ohio considered a similar bill, while North Dakota tried to ban disability-related abortions only to be stymied in court. Other states require mandatory counseling when patients are diagnosed with fetal anomalies, with information about “perinatal hospice,” implying that patients have a moral responsibility to carry a pregnancy to term even if the fetus has impairments so significant that survival is questionable and that measures must be taken to “protect” fetuses against “hasty” abortions.

Conservative rhetoric tends to exceptionalize disability, with terms like “special needs child” and implications that disabled people are angelic, inspirational, and sometimes educational by nature of being disabled. A child with Down syndrome isn’t just a disabled child under this framework, for example, but a valuable lesson to the people around her. Terminating a pregnancy for disability is sometimes treated as even worse than terminating an apparently healthy pregnancy by those attempting to demonize abortion. This approach to abortion for disability uses disabled people as pawns to advance abortion restrictions, playing upon base emotions in the ultimate quest to make it functionally impossible to access abortion services. And conservatives can tar opponents of such laws with claims that they hate disabled people—even though many disabled people themselves oppose these patronizing policies, created to address a false epidemic of abortions for disability.

When those on either side of the abortion debate suggest that the default response to a given diagnosis is abortion, people living with that diagnosis hear that their lives are not valued. This argument implies that life with a disability is not worth living, and that it is a natural response for many to wish to terminate in cases of fetal anomalies. This rhetoric often collapses radically different diagnoses under the same roof; some impairments are lethal, others can pose significant challenges, and in other cases, people can enjoy excellent quality of life if they are provided with access to the services they need.

Many parents facing a prenatal diagnosis have never interacted with disabled people, don’t know very much about the disability in question, and are feeling overwhelmed. Anti-choicers want to force them to listen to lectures at the least and claim this is for everyone’s good, which is a gross violation of personal privacy, especially since they don’t back their advocacy up with support for disability programs that would make a comfortable, happy life with a complex impairment possible. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between the imperative to defend abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others. It’s a disturbing line of argument to take, alienating people who might otherwise be very supportive of abortion rights.

It’s clearly tempting to use Zika as a political football in the abortion debate, and for conservatives, doing so is taking advantage of a well-established playbook. Pro-choicers, however, would do better to walk off the field, because defending abortion access on the sole grounds that a fetus might have a disability rings very familiar and uncomfortable alarm bells for many in the disability community.

Culture & Conversation Politics

Latino Votes Count or ‘Why Would They Be Trying to Suppress Them?’: Dolores Huerta on What’s at Stake in 2016

Ally Boguhn

“We know that we’ve had this problem that Latinos sometimes don’t vote—they feel intimidated, they feel like maybe their vote doesn’t matter,” Huerta told Rewire. Huerta encouraged people to consider both what is at stake and why their vote might be suppressed in the first place.

Republican nominee Donald Trump launched his campaign for president in June 2015 with a speech notoriously claiming Mexican immigrants to the United States “are bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists.”

Since then, both Trump’s campaign and the Republican Party at large have continued to rely upon anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric to drum up support. Take for example, this year’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio—whose department came under fire earlier this year for racially profiling Latinos—was invited to take the stage to push Trump’s proposed 2,000-mile border wall. Arpaio told the Arizona Republic that Trump’s campaign had worked with the sheriff to finalize his speech.

This June, just a day shy of the anniversary of Trump’s entrance into the presidential race, People for the American Way and CASA in Action hosted an event highlighting what they deemed to be the presumptive Republican nominee’s “Year of Hate.”

Among the advocates speaking at the event was legendary civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, who worked alongside César Chávez in the farm workers’ movement. Speaking by phone the next day with Rewire, Huerta—who has endorsed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton—detailed the importance of Latinos getting involved in the 2016 election, and what she sees as being at stake for the community.

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The Trump campaign is “promoting a culture of violence,” Huerta told Rewire, adding that it “is not just limited to the rallies,” which have sometimes ended in violent incidents, “but when he is attacking Mexicans, and gays, and women, and making fun of disabled people.”

Huerta didn’t just see this kind of rhetoric as harmful to Latinos. When asked about its effect on the country at large, she suggested it affected not only those who already held racist beliefs, but also people living in the communities of color those people may then target. “For those people who are already racist, it sort of reinforces their racism,” she said. “I think people have their own frustrations in their lives and they take it out on immigrants, they take it out on women. And I think that it really endangers so many people of color.”

The inflammatory rhetoric toward people of color by presidential candidates has led to “an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom,” according to an April report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The organization’s analysis of the impact of the 2016 presidential election on classrooms across the country found “an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.” Though the SPLC did not name Trump in its questions, its survey of about 2,000 K-12 educators elicited up more than 1,000 comments about the Republican nominee, compared to less than 200 comments mentioning other presidential candidates still in the race at that time.

But the 2016 election presents an opportunity for those affected by that violent rhetoric to make their voices heard, said Huerta. “The Latino vote is going to be the decisive vote in terms of who is going to be elected the president of the United States,” she continued, later noting that “we’ve actually seen a resurgence right now of Latinos registering to vote and Latinos becoming citizens.”

However, a desire to vote may not always be enough. Latinos, along with other marginalized groups, face many barriers when it comes to voting due to the onslaught of voter restrictions pushed by conservative lawmakers across the country—a problem only exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling gutting portions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) meant to safeguard against voter suppression efforts. The 2016 election season will be the first presidential election without those protections.

As many as 875,000 eligible Latino voters could face difficulty voting thanks to new restrictions—such as voter ID laws, proof of citizenship requirements, and shortened early voting periods—put into place since the 2012 elections, a May analysis from the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials found.

When it comes to restrictions like this, Huerta “absolutely” saw how they could create barriers for those hoping to cast their ballot this year. “They’ve made all of these restrictions that keep especially the Latino population from voting. So it’s very scary,” said Huerta, pointing to laws in states like Texas, which previously had one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. (The state has since agreed to weaken its law following a judge’s order).

“We know that we’ve had this problem that Latinos sometimes don’t vote—they feel intimidated, they feel like maybe their vote doesn’t matter,” Huerta went on.

Huerta encouraged people to consider both what is at stake and why their voting rights might be targeted in the first place. “What we have to think about is, if they’re doing so much to suppress the vote of the Latino and the African-American community, that means that that vote really counts. It really matters or else why would they be trying to suppress them?”

Appealing to those voters means tapping into the issues Latinos care about. “I think the issues [Latinos care about] are very, very clear,” said Huerta when asked how a presidential candidate could best appeal to the demographic. “I mean, immigration of course is one of the issues that we have, but then education is another one, and health care.”

A February survey conducted jointly by the Washington Post and Univision found that the top five issues Latino voters cared about in the 2016 election cycle were jobs and the economy (33 percent), immigration (17 percent), education (16 percent), health care (11 percent), and terrorism (9 percent).

Another election-year issue that could affect voters is the nomination of a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Huerta added. She pointed out the effect justices have on our society by using the now-decided Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case as an example. “You know, again, when we think of the presidents, and we think of the Supreme Court and we know that [was] one of the issues that [was] pending in the Supreme Court … whether what they did in Texas … was constitutional or not with all of the restrictions they put on the health clinics,” she said.

Latinas disproportionately face large barriers to reproductive health care. According to Planned Parenthood, they “experience higher rates of reproductive cancers, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections than most other groups of people.” Those barriers are only exacerbated by laws like Texas’ HB 2, as the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health explained in its amicus brief in the Whole Woman’s Health case prior to the decision: “Texas Latinas already face significant geographic, transportation, infrastructure, and cost challenges in accessing health services.”

“H.B. 2’s impact is acute because of the day-to-day struggles many Latinas encounter when seeking to exercise their reproductive rights,” wrote the organization in its brief. “In Texas, there is a dire shortage of healthcare facilities and providers in predominantly Latino communities. Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured adults in the country, and Texas Latinos are more than twice as likely as whites to be uninsured …. Additionally, the lack of public and private transportation creates a major barrier to accessing health services, especially in rural areas.”

As Rewire’s Tina Vasquez has reported, for undocumented women, the struggle to access care can be even greater.

Given the threats cases like Whole Woman’s Health have posed to reproductive rights, Huerta noted that “Trump’s constant attacks and misogynist statements” should be taken with caution. Trump has repeatedly vowed to appoint anti-choice justices to the Supreme Court if elected.

“The things he says without even thinking about it … it shows what a dangerous individual he can be when it comes to women’s rights and women’s reproductive rights,” said Huerta.

Though the race for the White House was a top concern of Huerta’s, she concluded by noting that it is hardly the only election that matters this year. “I think the other thing is we have to really talk about is, the presidency is really important, but so is the Senate and the Congress,” said Huerta.

“We’ve got to make sure we get good people elected at every level, starting at school board level, city council, supervisors, commissioners, etc. state legislatures …. We’ve got to make sure reasonable people will be elected, and reasonable people are voted into office.”


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