Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Taking the Easy Way Out

Dr. A. L. Sharada

Director, Population First

Yesterday's report on the misogynist, rape posts by boys from a reputed school on a WhatsApp group sent shock waves across the nation. Many parents are petrified. I am sure, the girl students are also nervous. 

We need to act as this is the tip of the iceberg. The number of rapes and murders committed by young adults and adolescents reminds me of the filth that the sea throws back at us on Marine Drive during high tide in monsoons. The filth we are exposing our children through unregulated internet and social media is creating dehumanised young generation. I have been looking at some of the music videos of Yo Yo Honey Singh and  looking at the translation of the lyrics. I feel nauseous and sick, thinking how could someone promote violent sex and rape so blatantly. We don't watch Yo Yo Honey Singh right, we go to concerts by Shujaat Khan and Shiv Kumar Sharma, right. The culture gap between us and the youth we have not even thought of it.  I have been experiencing panic attacks just thinking about what must be happening to a confused, high on hormones adolescent who has no options of healthy conversations on sex, sexuality and relationships!!!

Time we introspect our responsibility towards children. Some parents said yesterday in a conversation, "how do we rob the innocence of the children by exposing them to issues like rape !!" I can understand but we have no option but to speak, move beyond good touch bad touch. Let's recognize that they are exposed to the toxic pop culture, rape videos and cyber predators. We need to pull our socks up and demand for good sex and sexuality education in schools.  Being prudish is not going to help. Let's face it head on.

It is sad that the only action that the school could think of is suspension, further marginalising and stigmatising the boys. The parents and students should undergo intense counselling sessions, individually and in groups to deal with the situation. 

I can understand how traumatic it is for the parents to know that their children are involved in such activities. I am sure they are the normal, well-intentioned parents like all of us. Let's not be judgmental about them. It could have  been our child also. Because increasingly, family and parental influence space is being encroached by mobiles, social media and pop culture. 

It's a serious issue. Let's not take the easy way out.

Source: @unwomen 

Quick Trials Not at the Cost of Fair Trials

Dr. A. L. Sharada

Director, Population First

Glad to see the stand of SC on expeditious trials leading to death sentence. While we all want the process to be expedited and justice assured to rape survivors, setting unrealistic deadlines like in the Disha policy of AP government may compromise investigative and judicial processes.

What we need is :

  • More Forensic labs and specialists
  • Better and professional protocols for investigation
  • No political interference in the police investigation
  • No corruption in the police and judiciary
  • Victim and witness protection
  • Fast track courts to deal with rape cases exclusively etc

Is there anyone willing to invest in these? Too much work and commitment, right? Instead pass populist laws that subvert the whole judicial process. Create a problem while trying to solve a problem.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Building resilience by investing in rural women

Dr Shiny Varghese

Image: Gaon Connection

While Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenage environmental activist has been championing the cause of climate change and many nations have lent support to her cause, there still needs to be a concerted effort to act against climate change which requires investment in sustainable infrastructure for quality services and high political commitment. Change will not be possible with only leaders or activists like her speaking for the cause, but the community needs to come together to build a carbon neutral world. In most countries, rural women and girls face myriad challenges and bear the brunt of climate related disasters, we however tend to forget the important role they play in building climate resilience. The International Day of Rural women recognizes the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty”

Rural women and girls play a very important role in agriculture, food security and nutrition, land and natural resource management. Globally, one in three employed women work in the agriculture sector which is time and labour intensive. These women are however neither adequately recognised nor compensated for their work. They also have limited or no access to stable and secure working conditions and social protection (International Labour Organization, 2017).

According to Oxfam (2013), around 80 percent farm work in India is done by women. Women and girls are also responsible to collect fuel and water in most households which are arduous tasks and pose risks to their health and well-being. They also hamper their ability to get good education, access to livelihood opportunities and be decision makers.

In Maharashtra sustained drought has resulted in crop failure, groundwater level depletion, increased climate risks, food insecurity and uncertain cash flows in absence of diversified livelihoods. This has made farming economically unviable for small and marginal farmers. Women and girls have suffered the most when access to natural resources and agriculture has been compromised. Women farmers are as productive and enterprising as their male counterparts, but have lesser access to land, credit, agricultural inputs, markets and high valued agri-food chains and hence no control over financial matters.  Socio-cultural barriers and discriminatory norms further hamper women’s access to productive resources and undermine their hard work even though their workload is increasing due to out-migration of men. Most gender and development indicators reveal that rural women fare worse than rural men and urban women and in turn experience poverty, exclusion as well as the effects of climate change.

The United Nations calls for empowering rural women as a pre-requisite for fulfilling the vision of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and this year’s theme for the International Day of Rural Women, "Rural women and girls building climate resilience" reiterates the fact that a sustainable future is unthinkable of without involving rural women and girls.

One of the most effective and efficient ways to tackle threats posed by climate change is by addressing gender inequality. Realizing that financial independence is a crucial element of empowerment which will enable women to address gender inequality and respond to climate change, we at Population First initiated a program titled Action for Mobilisation of community health initiatives (AMCHI). One of the many aims of the project is to improve women’s access to employable skills. It was felt that this would enable them have access to resources and in the long run empower them to take decisions at the individual, family and community level.

In 45 villages of Shahapur Block of Thane District, a program on vermi-composting was initiated. The program not only addressed issues related to declining agricultural yield by promoting organic farming but also created rural women entrepreneurs. Through this initiative, 45 vermi-composting units were created and are being run by 450 women across 45 villages. The program has not only improved women’s financial capacity but has also helped in promoting leadership which is essential to reduce the effects of climate threats.

Pursuing socio-economic empowerment of women by prioritizing sustainable livelihoods and rights will play a critical role in women adopting low – carbon technologies, spreading knowledge about climate change and help respond to climate change through agricultural production, food security and natural resource management.


Food and Agriculture Organization. (2018). Climate Change: United Nations Climate Change Conference. FAO.
International Labour Organization. (2017). Trends for Women 2017. Geneva: World Employment Social Outlook.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Empowering Girls to be the Agents of Change

Anuja Gulati

Consultant Population First

Picture Source: UNMIK UN Mission (

In 2012, the United Nations declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child to raise awareness about all issues concerning gender inequality and discrimination faced by girls around the world.  This day provides an opportunity to highlight, discuss and take action to advance rights and opportunities for girls everywhere.

We at Population First have been working to empower adolescent girls in Shahapur Block of Thane District as part of our Action for Mobilisation of Community Health Initiatives (AMCHI) Project. As part of this program we sensitise families and communities to create an enabling environment for girls to be enrolled and retained in school so that they can reach their full potential. We also work towards enhancing life skills of adolescents by building their health, social and economic assets, influencing their perspectives on gender and increasing possibilities of their leadership at the community level. We do this by providing adolescent girls with information on physical, sexual and reproductive health and linking them to appropriate services.

On this International Day of the Girl Child we would like to share some feedback from the ground. These are the stories of our adolescent girls from Ambarje village of Shahapur Block of Thane District.

Thirteen year old Pranali, who is studying in the ninth grade, takes pride in stating that she is part of the Enjoy Group of adolescent girls formed as part of the AMCHI project. She says “we are a total of 42 members in the group. As part of the group meetings we were given information on a range of subjects. It was for the first time I attended a session on body mapping and got to learn about body parts especially the reproductive organs. I would like to attend more such sessions as there is no other place from where we can get information like this. Even our teacher at school does not talk to us about these issues”. She further adds that the facilitator creates a nurturing and learning environment in the group and they do not hesitate to ask even the most embarrassing questions.

Pranali’s friend, 13 year old Akanksha adds; “menstruation is a subject that is never discussed either at school or amongst friends. At the group meeting we were told about why menstruation occurs, how to maintain hygiene during our periods and how to wash and dry menstrual cloth and dispose menstrual pads. We were also informed of a scheme about low cost sanitary napkins being available through the school. We discussed this with our teacher, who after a fortnight helped us get these pads. Each girl can now buy a packet of six pads for seven rupees.”

The sessions have not just helped the girls to understand their bodies and physical health requirements better, but also built their communication and negotiation skills as shared by Praṇali who says “we were told in the sessions that we should eat green leafy vegetables, salads, peanuts, jaggery and channa to help improve our haemoglobin levels”. At school we get a peanut and gur ladoo every day, however the ladoo tasted very bad. After the session we formed a small group and informed our principal about the same. We told her that the ladoo was so bad that most girls were throwing it every day. She talked to the person in-charge of the Ahaar scheme and ensured that the ladoo we get tasted better. We could do this only because we got the information that such a ladoo is good for improving our health and learnt to put our point of view to our teachers and adults clearly.”

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Let’s commit to invest in our elderly…this International Day of Older Persons

Anuja Gulati

Consultant, Population First

Population ageing is an inevitable consequence of the demographic transition experienced by most countries across the world. Declining fertility and increasing longevity have resulted in an increasing proportion of elderly persons aged 60 years and above. As per the 2011 census, India had around 104 million elderly persons – 53 million females and 51 million males. The number of elderly in the 60+ age group is expected to increase to 320 million by 2050, constituting 20% of the total population. Given the nature of demographic transition, such a huge increase in the population of the elderly is bound to create several societal issues, magnified by sheer volume.  A majority of the people at 60+ are socially and economically poor. Elderly women are more vulnerable on all fronts compared to elderly men. Nearly three out of five single older women are poor and about two thirds of them are completely economically dependent.

The elderly are more vulnerable due to poor health. A high proportion of the elderly reporting poor health are the oldest old (Age 80+), poor, illiterate and widows. A recent study[1] shows that a significant percentage of the elderly have acute and chronic morbidities. Morbidities are more prevalent in elderly women compared to elderly men, especially in urban areas. The study also showed that nearly two thirds of the elderly reported suffering from at least one chronic ailment like arthritis, hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, etc. They also lack access to health care facilities. 

The vulnerability of the aged is aggravated by urbanization and a recent shift from the joint family system to nuclear families. This has a huge impact on the psychological and emotional health of the elderly, leading to neglect, lack of respect and sometimes abuse and exploitation.
Family has traditionally been the primary source of support for the elderly in India. The elderly depend primarily on their families for economic and material support. In spite of the strong preference to live with families, one in ten elderly women lives alone. With nuclearization of families, the traditional support system for the elderly is dwindling, making them even more vulnerable. Social isolation amongst the elderly is another critical issue of concern.

The profile of elderly indicates low level of educational attainment particularly amongst elderly women. Over half the elderly report not having formal education with a higher proportion, almost two thirds amongst women.

Work participation among elderly men in India is as high as 39% as against 11% amongst women. Although work participation amongst women is low, they contribute to family chores enabling other adult family members to work. A majority of elderly (71%) work due to economic necessity and not by choice. This is particularly true of elderly women. There is a close link between current work participation and poverty and illiteracy.

Older women are particularly disadvantaged, facing structural, social and economic inequalities throughout their lives. The experience of widowhood in Indian society is generally associated with many deprivations and has many implications for the health and well-being of older women. Further, certain traditional widowhood practices result in situations of violence and abuse and pose a serious threat to their health and well- being. Widowhood is one of the leading factors associated with poverty, loneliness and isolation, as a widow suffers indignity, often losing her self-reliance and respect. Many widows are ignored by both family and society, including their own children and are left to fend for themselves.

Poor health, age related morbidities, income insecurity, illiteracy and physical and economic dependencies are factors that tend to make the elderly, especially elderly women vulnerable

Recognizing the vulnerabilities of the elderly, the Government of India drafted the National Policy on Older Persons and has initiated and implemented several programs and schemes for social, economic and health security of older persons.  However access to these schemes and programs can be improved.

On this International Day of older persons, it is important to focus immediate attention on creating an enabling environment and decent living for the elderly, especially women. For this, it is suggested that Government, Multilateral agencies and Corporates invest in:

·                     Undertaking studies to understand increased morbidity and disability amongst elderly women, despite their longer life expectancy.
·                     Mobilizing greater resources for geriatric care, especially care of elderly women.
·                     Developing health promotion programs with outreach facilities and other services such as medical insurance to meet the long term care needs of elderly women.
·                     Addressing financial insecurity amongst the elderly women by formation of Self-Help Groups (SHG). These SHG’s would be formed with an objective of improving their livelihood and enabling them to become economically active through small loans and other required support.
·                     Ensuring convergence between various government departments for improved access to services and schemes for the elderly
·                     Promoting and assuring the participation of elderly women in the process of development.
·                     Amending laws that discriminate against women with regard to property and inheritance rights, providing housing support for elderly women who are property less and creating employment opportunities for them free of discrimination.
·                     Developing training programs to build life coping skills of elderly women.
·                     Providing services for older disabled women and disabled women who grow old.

[1] UNFPA India (2012), ‘Report on Status of Elderly in Selected States of India, 2011

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Why is women’s right to safe and legal abortion being compromised?

Dr Shiny Varghese
Programme Manager, Population First

“My husband does not use any contraceptive method and I am very afraid of undergoing a sterilization operation……I did not want another child and hence wanted to get an abortion done when I became pregnant……however the doctor in the Government hospital refused to provide me with abortion services as I did not have an ultrasound report and he suspected that I had come after sex determination……I had to then go to an unqualified local health service provider to get my pregnancy terminated”, a woman from a vulnerable community of a city in Punjab, who had severe complications after an unsafe abortion.

Abortion services have been legal in India under certain conditions since the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was enacted in 1971.  As per the Act, abortion is legal if the continuation of pregnancy would involve risk to life of pregnant woman or cause grave physical and mental injury, including pregnancy due to rape; risk of physical and mental abnormality in child and contraceptive failure. They are legal up to 20 weeks of gestation. Pregnancy can be terminated by a registered medical practitioner registered with the State medical register.

Unfortunately in an overzealous effort to implement the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, the law pertaining to sex selection, implementing authorities on various occasions instead of monitoring sex determination, target abortion services, not understanding that abortion is not the cause of the problem of sex selection, it is only the consequence of it. This misunderstanding and a perceived quick fix solution, has on various occasions resulted in restricting women’s access to safe abortion services, especially second trimester abortion. Anecdotal evidence has shown that in order to curb sex selection, access to abortion is being limited by:

  • Restricting access to medical abortion, with pharmacists refusing to stock medical abortion pills.
  • Pregnancy tracking, to ensure pregnant women don’t undergo sex selective abortion, thereby compromising on a woman’s right to legal abortion for genuine reasons.
  • Suggestions that contraceptive failure should not be included as a condition for second trimester abortion.
  • Provision of abortion services only if followed by sterilization.

Reactions such as the above have increased challenges faced by women in accessing safe abortion services, with most women commonly resorting to unsafe abortions at the hands of untrained providers.

A recent study undertaken by the Guttmacher Institute brought out that around 15.6 million abortions take place in India every year (Guttmacher Institute, 2017). The study also revealed that of the total abortions done, 81% abortions were medication abortions, and with access to abortion, especially medical abortion getting restricted, a very large percentage of women seeking medical abortion would access facilities that are unsafe and illegal adding to the burden of maternal morbidity and mortality.  It is estimated that around eight per cent of maternal mortality occurs due to unsafe abortion.  Abortion related complications especially those arising from unsafe abortions are also the third major cause of maternal deaths, after haemorrhage and sepsis.

While it is extremely important to implement the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal diagnostic techniques Act, to prevent the practice of gender biased sex selection, the Medical termination of Pregnancy Act which aims to prevent unsafe abortion should not be compromised in any manner. The two Acts should be implemented in letter and spirit without impinging on the object of each other.

This presents one aspect as to why women’s access to abortion services is restricted, however abortion services in India need further strengthening by;
  • Expanding the base of qualified and trained providers in rural areas equipped to conduct safe abortion
  • Building capacities of paramedical staff on counselling women during and after abortion
  • Undertaking communication campaigns on women’s right to safe and legal abortion
  • Conducting audits of both public and private sector facilities to ensure quality service provision
  • Investing in technology and research as well as better clinical practices

 Access to safe abortion is one of the many aspects to ensure women’s right to quality reproductive health which will also help her attain autonomy and equality. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Warp and Weft of Life

Swathi Chaganty

For the last five years we have been seeing the resurgence of the small-town family stories in our Hindi film industry. And its success at the box office as well as the ratings from the critics indicates that we as a nation are willing to immerse ourselves in the stories of authentic characters and relationships.

And one such character that has evolved over the years is the female lead in these stories. Once characterised as one-dimensional village or small-town girl, supporting the male protagonist, a naïve prop, a damsel in distress, has now slowly evolved into educated, progressive, ambitious and somewhat idealistic young woman. Be it Jaya from Toilet Ek Prem Katha or Bittu from Bareilly Ki Barfi, be it Sandhya from Dum Laga Ke Haisha or Sugandha from Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, these women are strong, opinionated, assertive and a welcome sight on screen. However, on the other hand, we still do have female characters like Radhika Apte’s Gayatri from Padman from a small town in Madhya Pradesh who still believe that it is better to die in shame and silence then to disclose your discomfort of menstruation; and that is the truth of the matter, and depiction of these characters is also important for us to know the long road ahead of us in terms of addressing gender based issues. But then there is another character that graced the silver screen in 2017, Mamta from Sui Dhaaga. 

On cursory glance Mamta is anything but Jaya or Sandhya. She is the head covering, kitchen bound, hardworking daughter-in-law; someone we have seen before. So much so, Anushka Sharma who plays Mamta initially did not want to play this character despite loving the script. And when asked on FC Unfiltered by Anupama Chopra, Sharma replied that she was not confident that she would be able to convince the audience of the character of Mamta since she was quite the opposite in her real life.

So, what makes this character stand out, why does Mamta stand with the Jayas and Bittus of our new small town and village girls? She might follow the rules of the milieu, fulfil the responsibilities of the house, and look homely which lends authenticity to the character from a small town in India but there is strength in her quiet presence, and she is definitely not at loss for words when the need arises. She is not the “bechaari” that Harleen Madam, a ready-made garment manufacturing owner, an interesting rather one-dimensional foil for Mamta, thinks her to be.

She is self-respecting voice of reason when inherently jovial and unaware Mauji, her husband, is insulted at a wedding by his boss. She is a leader that encourages him to make his own path—as a tailor, a trade that was his and his family’s forte once upon a time. And it is her decisiveness and persuasion that actually leads the couple to compete in the Fashion Fund in the third act. While the movie rests on the shoulders of the hero’s story arc, his relationship with his cantankerous father and ailing mother, conflict with his brother, and his struggle to make it in the tailoring business, the story of the heroine is not left behind. Mamta is a brilliant negotiator and adept at marketing and advertising much to Mauji’s surprise; not because he was indifferent to her talent or contribution, but because the “milieu” of a working-class family does not offer them the time or the privacy to get to know each other, and neither does the conservative set up help them which the movie subtly presents to us. It is through this journey of having their own business that both the characters learn about each other and their relationship develops which is crucial for the characters to succeed in their endeavour.

While the story draws our attention to the dying art of handloom, and small-town professions like tailoring and weaving in presence of the ready-made garment factories and malls, it is the realness of the characters of Mauji and Mamta, their relationship, and their trials and tribulations that give us an insight into the lives of real artisans. More often than not these artisanal tradition runs in the family where both the husband and wife contribute to the product with their skills and the decline in any artisanal industry impacts both the men and women, more so women because of the lack of financial autonomy. Apart from the relationship of the two characters the movie sensitively shows their aspirations of recognition and furthering their art going unfulfilled, and their desperation and frustration as they see their inheritance being poached by computers and machines for printing on cheap textiles that will be flooded back into those very same malls and shops they pass by every day. Both Mamta and Mauji go through a journey that knocks their naiveté down but they rise up to the challenge and make their dream come true as partners.

While there is a long way for us to go in depicting different types of layered female characters and layered relationships vis a vis their male counterparts, Mamta definitely stands among the new age rural women shaping our country’s stories on screen and her relationship with Mauji reflects the thousands of relationships that already exist among our working-class and rural professions and industries.