Au revoir

Yes, time for me to row row row a boat.

Right out of here, I’m afraid.

What I’m trying to say Erimentha, God bless her, is retiring.

Those of you who know me will soon know where I’ll be writing after this. Those of you who don’t, just email me at blog.erimentha at gmail dot com, and I’ll be happy to give you the new blog address. Or leave a comment on this post. Just de-lurk, will you? Because I’m going to.

R.I.P.

Do you?

You know her. Or someone very like her.

She’s about 14, and maybe she’s your maid’s daughter.

Or maybe she lives in the flat next door, or the large house across the street.

She’s studying, your maid says proudly, she’s not going to be married off till she finishes her Intermediate, at least. Nowadays, even girls must study, no? she says.

Her mother chats with you sometimes, tells you she’s studying hard for her engineering entrance exams. If she gets into a good college, gets a good degree and a good job, she can ‘settle’ well, her mother says. Or maybe her parents are sure she’ll get into a good college for her B.Com. Or maybe her B.Ed. A basic degree is necessary for girls also, her mother says to you. Maybe her husband will want her to get a job, or even allow her to study more, who knows? That will be good, no, ma?

She talks to you, sometimes, telling you about her elder sister who wants to do a course in a beauty parlour; which one is good, akka? she asks. This Shahnaz Hussain is very popular, no? Her sister experiments on her, sometimes – she shows off her bright red nailpolish (on her toes only, where shoes and socks cover it at school, so PT ma’am can’t catch her), one day, magenta coloured lipstick, even.

Or maybe she experiments with a different haircut, now that she’s going to intermediate ‘college’. Or even tries on her mother’s cosmetics. She comes and chats for a while, on a Sunday evening, after her coaching class tests, hoping you’ll notice and comment before she has to point it out. She talks about Shahid and Kareena, maybe. Or her freshers’ party, and the <giggle> boy who had to give her a rose ‘for ragging’.¬†

One day, the talk is a little more serious. She talks about ‘boyfriends’. Is it wrong to want to have one? It isn’t? Men are usually older than their wives, aren’t they? What do men do with their wives, anyway? Don’t tell amma, akka, she’ll have my hide for asking this… do they… touch? And… ? Is it true that…?

The talk could be about older men. Creepy older men, but some are nice too. Who decides what age gap is ‘appropriate’ in a relationship, anyway? You smile inwardly at her talking about relationships – how seriously we take our crushes at that age! You know, everyone at school says they’re doing it, she says. Probably not true, but some of them are actually going around, do you know?

You refuse to be shocked. You want to be mature and informative and kind, and let her open up, don’t you? From here on, it could be one story.

It is some time later. She tells you she has a boyfriend.

And then one day, the boyfriend did something that scared her. Will I get pregnant, she asks. You ask her what happened. She tells you. It was all her fault, she says. She should have known that men can’t control themselves. But it hurt her, and she’s still scared and confused. Who was it, you ask. An older man. She knows him, and he’s been her ‘boyfriend’ for ‘so long, now’.

You call your friend at the Centre. Take the girl down there. They talk to her. Take her to the police, record her statement. Take her home, tell her parents. You’ve slipped away quietly – you don’t want to be involved, or maybe there’s just no more that you can do. It’s been six months, and you haven’t seen her. Your maid quit/her parents avoid you. You know that’s inevitable. The people at the Centre say it’s a foolproof case – DNA evidence, and she’s a minor – just 14, for chrissake, and he knew it. The b***** paedophile is going away for a long stretch in prison.

Except he isn’t. Suddenly, there’s a wedding. She’s getting married. At 15. To the man who raped her. Her parents are happy he will now have the protection of Section 375.

You know her. Or someone like her.

To jolt me out of a stupor…

…it takes something like this. Just in case you aren’t the link-clicking type, this is what ‘Justice’s Arijit Pasayat and S.H. Kapadia of the Supreme Court of India have to say about the Janani Suraksha Yojana:

You cannot go on producing children and then make the taxpayer pay for it. We have to have some curb on population also

And in case you are wondering what the JSY is, this is what the ‘Guidelines for Implementation’ say:

 Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) under the overall umbrella of National
Rural Health Mission (NRHM) is being proposed by way of modifying the
existing National Maternity Benefit Scheme (NMBS). While NMBS is linked
to provision of better diet for pregnant women from BPL families, JSY
integrates the cash assistance with antenatal care during the pregnancy
period, institutional care during delivery and immediate post-partum
period in a health centre by establishing a system of coordinated care by
field level health worker. The JSY would be a 100% centrally sponsored
scheme.

So, what is this all about? This was the most detailed report I could find so far, and I’ll summarise again: there was once a scheme called the National Maternity Benefit Scheme, which provided that pregnant women above the age of 19, who lived ‘below the poverty line’ (BPL), for their first two pregnancies, could enrol with their local primary health centres for free maternal healthcare, and were given certain benefits to facilitate their better nutrition. This scheme was replaced by the JSY, which was more ambitious, but as badly inplemented, apparently, as the earlier one. (Didn’t I mention it was badly implemented? Well, it is the default state for government welfare schemes, after all) So there is a petition before the court, asking it to direct better implementation. The Government submits that the scheme has been modified to make its benefits available to all BPL women, not just those below 19, or just those having less than two kids.

And the hon’ble Supreme Court, reserving the order on the petition, sees fit to remark that providing healthcare to poor young women ought to be conditional on their observing State-recommended family planning norms. Because, of course, poor women below the age of nineteen are choosing to get pregnant so that upper-class judges’ salaries can be taxed to pay for their healthcare. And not only that, they are doing it again and again and again!!

How dare they!

Why I read the Guardian

Because I find gems like this. Read Part I, too, and wait for Part III.

The politics of abortion – II

Part I of this piece reviewed the Indian law on the regulation of reproduction, and I ended up making the point that if the law were to be based on autonomy, it would decriminalise both abortion and the use of PNDTs. While I agree with Rohit’s statement that the best way to reduce female foeticide is by educating and empowering women, I don’t think that the discussion is complete at that point.

At the end of the day, Rohit’s article is about why sex-determination should be legal, and he argues that any argument for abortion rights based on women’s autonomy cannot co-exist with an argument that the State must take measures to check female foeticide. This is, however, the typical liberal fallacy: an assumption that when we argue for a right, we are asking for mere liberty, or decriminalisation.

We argue that women should have the right to make a decision regarding whether or not to have an abortion, because they are autonomous individuals with rights over their own bodies. As autonomous individuals, they are entitled to full and complete information regarding their bodies and what the consequences of either choice could be. Women who are looking for options other than abortion should be given as many choices as possible, and full information about these choices too.

Thus, the State has a duty not only to recognise women’s autonomy and grant them the liberty to make reproduction decisions, but also to enable them to exercise that autonomy and realise the fruits of that liberty. Thus, the decriminalisation of abortion and PNDTs is not enough; it has to be accompanied by efforts to ensure that abortion decisions are made autonomously by women. Political will needs to be bent to the idea of empowering women to make these decisions, and that means making sex-selective abortion (which is based in a norm of women’s inferiority) unacceptable – socially, economically and politically. It requires the creation of a comprehensive publicly-funded reproductive healthcare system, which maintains confidentiality and provides counseling and advisory services. It needs the creation of a social security system that provides women who wish to defy their families with an alternative. The creation of a childcare system that gives women the option to give birth to female children whom they are unable to care for becomes essential.

As for what the law can do about female foeticide, let us remember that the problem with female foeticide is not that it is foeticide (which, as Rohit reminds us, is necessary to abortion), but that it is directed against foetuses that are female as punishment for their ‘femaleness’: an embodiment of the sentiment that women don’t deserve to live. If making sex-selective abortion illegal is the only manner in which the law can act to influence its occurrence, the law can do nothing: it is hampered by the impossibility of administration. But none of the list of necessary preliminaries that I’ve managed to come up with can come into existence without law, either.

It is about time we stop looking at the issue of reproductive rights as one of the grant of a liberty, and start looking at it as a matter of putting power in the hands in which it belongs: a matter, in short, of politics.

The politics of birth control – I

Blr Bytes recently sent me this link, and it provided me with the impetus to write about something I’ve been meaning to address for a while: birth control. Rohit’s article is partly a response to Pamela Philipose’s piece in the Indian Express, but is also a well-argued case for legalising sex-determination, on the same grounds as are used to argue for women’s reproductive rights – primarily, in western discourse, the right to abortion.

The western (primarily American) debate on abortion rights has a number of themes: female reproductive health, reproductive autonomy, foetal ‘rights’, paternal rights. People who self-identify as feminists and ‘women activists’, as Rohit calls them, have taken positions on both sides of the debate. The legal right has been rooted in many things, from the right to privacy to women’s autonomy. In India, on the other hand, the law on abortion starts not with the Medical termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, but with the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The IPC makes it an offence to terminate a pregnancy, and the MTP Act, taking note of the fact that this merely led to unsafe terminations, made it legal for pregnancies to be terminated by registered medical practitioner(s) in certain circumstances. The MTP Act is, therefore, conferring the privilege of legality upon certain kinds of abortions. The Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT Act) is meant to regulate the use of pre-natal diagnostic techniques, and especially to criminalise their use for sex-determination. The privilege of legality of the use of prenatal diagnostic technology is again granted selectively, to ‘approved’ persons, for ‘approved’ reasons.

Thus the law in India quite shamelessly seeks to regulate reproduction – it takes a number of crucial decisions out of the hands of parents and puts them in the hands of the State, or of doctors. It takes the power to make decisions about reproduction away from women, and on the basis of their disempowerment, makes the use of certain kinds of technology unavailable to them as well. To give them back the power, and ensure that they have the autonomy to use it, the State would have to decriminalise both abortion and the use of PNDTs.

In Part II (which I don’t have time to write just now)

What then, of female foeticide? If abortion and PNDTs are decriminalised, there would be no way to ensure that sex-selective abortions didn’t take place, would there?

We don’t need no education

Daddy Long Legs was telling me he needn’t have gone to law school to study law – with a reasonable grasp of English and access to the right books, he could have become a lawyer all by himself. I don’t mean to sound dense, but isn’t the point of college that you get access to the right books, and a chance to learn about the ones you haven’t gotten round to reading yet? Kanga and Palkhivala’s tome on Income Tax, for example?

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