Archive | March 2016

Unshackling the Sterotype

“This Junior Engineer is motivated, diligent, hardworking, responsible and dedicated. All the  targets of the sub-division have been achieved, consumer complaints are promptly  redressed, electricity theft has been controlled considerably in the area , the sub-division is very well run” the Superintending Engineer pointed out the Junior Engineer  to me, “all this has been achieved by her despite being a girl”, he went on to add. I looked at the Junior Engineer being pointed out to me , the only other girl in a roomful of men. She blinked back at me, half smiling, a little taken aback at the praise from her immediate boss.  We were at a review meeting of the Discom in a district in Western Rajasthan. In a largely male dominated organization, her efforts had been lauded, approved of and appreciated, with the disclaimer related to her gender of course. I turned to the beaming Superintending Engineer, “I am glad to know she is doing a good job ,but does it surprise you that she has done it inspite of her being a woman? ”

The mindset I encountered in that meeting is not unusual in most workplaces in India today. Success achieved by a woman is usually appended with a footnote that alludes to her having achieved it despite the odds stacked against her, the biggest being her gender. Women have shattered the proverbial glass ceiling across careers and assumed leadership roles across sectors. Post the liberalization era and with the opening up of the economy women have been able to take up diverse careers breaking the myth of them excelling in the traditional careers requiring them to be care givers and in a nurturing role as teachers and nurses. Today with increasing opportunities of education and training available to young girls the sky is the limit as far as achieving financial independence is concerned.

While the last few years have seen a sea change in employment patterns and brought women into fields hitherto thought to be the sole prerogative of men, there is still a lot to be done as far as altering the stereotype. A well known riddle illustrates this concept.  A man and his son are in a horrible car accident. Both are rushed to the hospital, and the son is immediately sent to the operation theatre for a life saving surgery. The surgeon enters and, horrified, exclaims, “I cannot operate– he is my son!” How can that be, if the father was injured?

You may have spotted the answer straight away, but most people don’t. The answer is simply that the surgeon is the boy’s mother, but many people get confused as they make the assumption that the surgeon will be male. This is because of the biases engrained within us that are deeply embedded in our psyche.

The journey of women’s empowerment has crossed several hurdles and milestones. Women have come to a point where they neatly juggle various roles as care-givers, home makers, tutors to children, experts on interfamily relations as well as those in the board room or workplace with aplomb. This has required them to overcome various challenges personal, professional, social and still be comfortable in their own skins with their new identity. Yet for every Naina Lal Kidwai and Chanda Kochhar there are hundreds of women who have faced discrimination at the workplace due to their gender or an inability to rise to their true potential because of social and family pressures.

As part of a study conducted by Catalyst Research in Europe, senior managers were asked to rate leadership attributes they associated with a man or a woman. The study showed that “taking charge” was perceived as a male trait, while “taking care” was associated with women. The gender bias that is reflected here is reflected across careers and countries. The truth is that there is a greater likelihood of there being greater differences between men and their male colleagues and women and their female colleagues than men and women per se. But the assumption stems from the engrained stereotype  that often pervades organizations and becomes instrumental in preventing women from taking  on a larger role in the organization.  We have become  so steeped in the patriarchal premise that toughness and strength are male attributes and ultimately necessary for leadership in any organization that it is hard to visualize otherwise.

While the 21st century has seen women breaking out of the moulds of patriarchy, there is still a need to create a mentality that encourages economic participation by women. For too long, women have remained under-valued and under-paid dominating the informal, unorganized sector doing unskilled work. Globally greater economic participation by women has driven economies to do better. So there is no argument against ensuring greater involvement of women in the economy. Women are not just drivers of the economy through greater aggregate demand creation; they are more likely to spend on health and education leading to incremental changes across the economy. Education remains the springboard for women’s empowerment. Along with being an enabler for women, education needs to expel the flotsam of gender stereotype that pervades the mindset of a large majority of people.

While unshackling women from the patriarchal stereotype is necessary for the true empowerment of women, the route can only be travelled once women unburden themselves from their own doubts and fears. All too often, women hold themselves back from excelling in their chosen avenues and careers due to a sense of under-confidence and lack of self belief. This too needs to change if we truly want a more empowered society.

More than the glass ceilings, many of which have been broken to smithereens over the last sixty years, what needs to be shattered and broken are the beliefs and compartmentalized labels we place  on men and women. Women are donning the mantle their careers throw at them but it is time society breaks out of the conventional mold so that we can make sure that nobody ever again will doubt for even an instant that a woman can be an effective engineer or a top notch surgeon.


The Battle Against Open Defecation

Her eyes misted over as she clutched the edges of her “ghoonghat” trying to pull it down to cover her face. I had just asked her why she was out late at night. I had seen her in a group of women silhouetted in the headlights of my car as we returned from a ratri chaupal in the adjoining village. “We don’t have a toilet at home”, she mumbled while shuffling anxiously. “We have to wait until dark before we step out so no one spots us” chipped in one of the elderly women in the group from behind her.

As District Magistrate  in  district Bikaner, one of the most disturbing sights late in the night, were lines of women squatting along the roadside in the dark springing up to stand if the headlight of the passing cars fall upon them. These women wait until it is “dark” and “safe” enough to step out to defecate away from prying eyes in order to retain some modicum of dignity ,as little as is left once they defecate in the open.

This is a reality that affects thousands of rural women across India. Around 595 million people, which is nearly half the population of India, defecate in the open. India accounts for 59 per cent of the 1.1 billion people in the world who practise open defecation. The issue is not just one of the dignity of women alone. Open Defecation has huge health implications and in turn implications for the entire economy. Diarrhea kills more than 2195 children in the world every day, more than the number killed by AIDS, malaria and measles combined. This hard statistic is an even grimmer reality in India which reports the HIGHEST number of dihaorreal deaths in the world of children under five. Frequent bouts of diarrhea weaken the immunity system of children making them more susceptible to other infections like pneumonia and making them severely malnourished. According to World Bank research, interventions in sanitation and hygiene can be a huge propellant to economic growth. For every $1 spent on sanitation, approximately $5.50-worth of economic benefits are generated, including school days gained, and a reduction in medical expenditure.

Open Defecation is therefore not just a social and economic problem but also an issue of human rights.

Owning a toilet is not an aspirational need in India. It is easy to find households in rural India which own mobile phones and television sets but continue to practice open defecation. Social values and traditions have also had an impact and the topic of toilets and defecation not discussed in public. The issue is not just that of economic deprivation or social mores but more a behavioural one. Despite health problems, problems during pregnancy and illnesses women in Bikaner continued to defecate in the open since it was something done for generations and because toilets were never a felt need and thus they had no access to them.

Therefore the clarion call of the Prime Minister to end Open Defecation in India by 2019 is one of the most challenging developmental goals today. The 2011 census showed that only 31 % of rural households in India had access to toilets. Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen) for the first time talks about the creation of Open Defecation Free Gram Panchayats and the monitoring of not just the output (toilets) but also the outcomes ( their usage). Since 1951, Government of India has spent close to Rs.1,57,000 crores on Water and Sanitation programmes in rural India; Govt data states that 87 million toilets  were constructed across Indian villages  under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. The 2011 census however, found that the total number of toilets was 52 million (including toilets constructed much earlier), indicating that, at the very least, 35 million toilets were either constructed on paper or fell apart later.

Closer home a country like Bangladesh has only 3 percent of the total population defecating in the open. What varies in the approach of the Bangladesh programme to end open defecation and the earlier programmes in India is the difference in focus. Instead of merely running the scheme as a toilet construction programme there has to be an attempt to bring about behavioural change in the people. Toilets  have to become a means to the end of creating an open defecation free community. States like Himachal Pradesh and certain districts in  Maharashtra and Rajasthan have successfully implemented a programme to bring about behavioural change.

What Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen) does differently, is it allows states the enabling freedom to devise a programme with a focus on ODF communities. It is based on the premise that a mere subsidy programme to build toilets with concurrent IEC activities is not enough. Merely lecturing people through slogans and posters has failed to deliver on the goal of creating ODF communities. In districts like Bikaner, the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach was adopted with miraculous results. Sanitation is a public good and must be recognized to be one. Its benefits will be achieved when the whole community adopts it. Even a single household or person defecating in the open puts the entire community at risk. Once a community is “triggered” to realizing the risks they are putting themselves to, the collective behavioural change is a result. Toilets are not just constructed but also used.

One of the weaknesses of the earlier govt sponsored programmes has been the non usage of toilets after they are constructed. Earlier programmes allowed third party construction either through the gram panchayat or NGOs without bringing about any behavioural change. These toilets ended up as becoming stores for household items or shelters for domestic animals.

The campaign in Bikaner conversely stressed on a household building its own toilets. This facilitates a feeling of ownership and ensures usage. Once a collective mind-set change was ensured, communities came together generating innovative practices at the grass-root level to ensure that each and every person in the village, constructed and later used the toilets. Ensuring ODF status through early morning nigrani become the interest of the community. Toilets ,therefore became an aspirational need and a symbol of the dignity and pride of the family and the community as a whole.

By reorienting the administrative set up in Bikaner to act as facilitators (of behavioral change) and not providers (of individual toilets), the collective conscious of the community was kindled. This led to a massive increase in number of Open Defecation Free villages in Bikaner and increase in percentage coverage of toilets from 29% (2011 census) to 82% (in March 2015). Over 1,99,000 toilets( the highest in Rajasthan) could be  constructed in the district during a 2 year period re-emphasising the point that when the focus in on creating Open Defecation Free Communities, the toilets get built on their own. Over 200 Gram Panchayats were declared ODF.

As we complete one year of the launch of the SBM-G there is need to exercise caution. While there is tremendous increase in the understanding of the programme and an appreciation of the requirement of sanitation, there is a need to ensure the focus remains on collective behavioural change so that usage is ensured. In the rush to achieve targets just building toilets will be detrimental to the larger goals of the campaign. The focus of the Prime Minister has sounded the battle cry on Open Defecation. Now it remains to be seen whether the administrative system can reorient itself to ensure that the war is won.