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Shame and stigma: The taboo of menstruating in South Asia

Aditi Aryal

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Photo by Doug Swinson on Unsplash

The beliefs and practices that revolve around menstruation differ across societies. In some cultures, the menstruating women are victimised due to the regressive attitudes that exist around menstruation. In others, menstruation as a topic is not up for discussion; it is covered in layers of shame and stigma. Nevertheless, what remains common for the women who go under this natural biological phenomenon is that there exist different battles. Actually, these battles have to be fought primarily as a result of some concepts that render women dirty and their bodies polluted; as not sacred enough to befit daily activities. These beliefs reduce women into untouchables and sometimes compel them to live in isolation.

In the region of South Asia, the practices vary from culture to culture, and there is a stark contrast between urban and rural societies. In Hindu societies, families host figurines of deities in their houses that are worshipped regularly with full devotion. The concept of sacred and profane is very widely present in such families, and menstruating women are considered profane. Living in the same space as the god is sacrilegious.

In Nepal, 19% women are banished from their houses to ‘chhaupadi goth’, roughly translating to menstruation huts. Chhaupadi is a practice in the mountainous western Nepal that forces women to sleep and live in sheds for the duration of their period, due to the belief that menstruating women cause ill-luck to the family, crops, and cattle if the god is displeased.  The practice had been outlawed by the Supreme Court in 2005, and recently in 2017 was taken up in the parliament again because it caused death in huge numbers. In 2017 alone, the cases of Chhaupadi related deaths came up and it was immediately re-criminalised with a penalty for the offenders.

Despite this, the practice has not stopped. In interviews that were taken immediately as the nation was outraged by the frequent deaths that took place in western Nepal, the women were questioned if they would still practice Chhaupadior put their daughters through the same after the re-criminalisation and additional penalty. They responded that it was not up to them but on the very societies that coerced them to undergo such malpractice. Furthermore, criminalising the practice would mean filing formal complaints against the family members which is very unlikely. If the women had that kind of powers, they would not be banished to a shed in the first place.

Merely making and implementing of draconian laws is not enough because people house their belief systems in superstitious interpretation of religion. Vulnerable in those sheds, women fear snake bite and animal attacks, mosquitoes, asphyxiation due to inhalation of smoke from the fire built to fight the cold, and sexual predators among others. However, these families see it more deeming that a woman live in a shed outside the house in unsafe conditions just to prevent the house from being polluted by her presence. This all boils down to the fact that a death of a menstruating woman would be justified because at least, the god was spared from pollution, the crops and cattle were intact. It perhaps gets justified as a result of something she did, maybe touch a bottle of pickle, who knows?

A large section of the urbanised sectors lament, often in forms that take of troll posts and memes, about the so-called ‘feminists’ in the ‘East’ who limit their talk to menstruation to come off as empowered in contrast to the ‘feminists’ in the ‘West’ who battle real and important feminist issues like ‘equal pay’ and ‘glass ceiling’. Dissecting this, it dawns upon a realisation that people in these societies regard the women who talk about menstruation in the open as aggressively progressive. Moreover, they would rather dismiss the topic as something irrelevant and consider talking about it lesser important than talking about other inequalities. However, it is only fitting to be vocal about menstruation as much as required.

We forget to remember that women in remote areas with poor access do not benefit from the choice between various menstrual products at their disposal. In India, less than 16% of the women use marketed feminine products. In various parts of the country, women use sand, or wood shavings or pieces of cloth. Now, the issues that arise are of infections amongst other things. To begin with, these products are unsafe and pose a threat of infections like urogenital infection and bacterial vaginosis. The cloths are repeatedly used without being sun-dried because of the shame of exposure of the used cloths to men and other women. What also prevents these women from using hygienic safe products is due to unavailability for several kilometres, unaffordability arising out of poverty, and embarrassment to ask for even a sanitary pad, especially from male shopkeepers. In fact, 23% of the girls drop out of school upon starting their menstruation. The Indian government, along with entrepreneurs, and educators have worked hard to ensure all women have access to sanitary products. However, the lack of funds, expensive to afford one-use products, unable to maintain quality of the low-budgeted products, and failure to meet the needs of all women in the country are some problems that are faced.

In Pakistan, 80% women do not have access to sanitary menstrual products. UNICEF reported that the biggest hindrance to sanitary conditions was prevented by the lack of washing facilities. In fact, for a country frequented by natural calamities and insurgencies in some areas, women should be educated and encouraged about using hygienic productssince there is always the likelihood of moving to temporary shelters in such circumstances. It was reported that a stunning number of girls are shocked upon menstruating their first time because they were not aware about it. In only a few years to follow, many drop out of school or stay absent from school when they are menstruating, thus hindering their education.

To sum it up, menstruation has been evolved as a shameful event in this part of the world. Menstruating women are shunned and indoctrinated as inferior and unchaste and they do not even fight against the practices but accept it as normal. Firstly, religion has a significant part to play as it is due to the god-fearing purity seeking individuals that seek to maintain the sanctity of their surroundings from where the concept of sacred and impure arise. But, how can any practice be religious if it causes the already disadvantaged more detriment? Secondly, unawareness and equating menstruation with shame and secrecy has worsened the situations to where women are not comfortable with their own bodies so much so that they from birth to death are unaware of their own anatomies. Where mothers are themselves not at peace with their body and bodily functions, passing it on to their daughters is difficult and discussing about it with their sons unimaginable. Lastly, this exclusion of men and terming menstruation as a ‘woman thing’ has led to men genuinely having no idea what the deal is about and why is it important for women to be safe, clean, healthy, and rested when they menstruate. Thus, a change is necessary by educating women, by subsiding sanitary menstrual products, criminalising discrimination against menstruating women, and by including men in this drive.

Aryal is a student of Social Science and writes about social and developmental issues pertaining to exclusion, inequalities, and gender disparities in the South Asian context.

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New Social Compact

Over 1,200 Migrant Children Deaths Recorded Since 2014, True Number Likely ‘Much Higher’

MD Staff

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In 2015, a photo of a Syrian boy found dead on a beach in Turkey after attempting to reach Greece made headlines across the world. Since then, many more children have died during migration, but the true scale of these tragedies is unknown due to a severe lack of data.

Since IOM, the UN Migration Agency, began collecting data in 2014 through the Missing Migrants Project, it has recorded the deaths of more than 1,200 child migrants, nearly half of whom perished while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. This figure represents less than 5 per cent of the total number of migrant deaths recorded during this period by IOM.

The real figure is likely to be much higher, given that approximately 12.5 per cent of all migrants are under the age of 18, and the number of children migrating around the world has been increasing in recent years. For example, roughly one quarter of the approximately one million migrants who arrived by sea to Italy and Greece in 2015 were children, and, in the case of Italy, 72 per cent were unaccompanied.

The call to action released yesterday by UNICEF, IOM, UNHCR, Eurostat, and OECD highlights the lack of data essential for understanding how migration affects children and their families – and for designing policies and programmes to meet their needs. Data on children moving irregularly across borders, and those who have gone missing or lost their lives during their migratory journeys are particularly scarce.

“We are aware that there are a growing number of children on the move, and that many of these children face significant risks during their journeys,” said Frank Laczko, Director of IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre, which hosts the Missing Migrants Project. “In only about 40 per cent of cases where we record a migrant death are we able to estimate the age of the person who died,” he said. “It is extremely difficult to find data disaggregated by age.”

Of the 1,202 deaths of child migrants recorded by the Missing Migrants Project, their age is provided in only 21 per cent of cases. Often, sources will only mention that the deceased person is a ‘child’ or ‘infant,’ which means that it is difficult to assess which child migrants are most vulnerable. Of the children whose age was provided, the average was just 8 years old at the time of their death. Fifty-eight of these children were infants under the age of 1, and 67 were between 1 and 5 years old.

Though the scarcity of data on child migrants means that it is impossible to say which migratory route is most dangerous for children, the available data indicate that crossing the Mediterranean, especially from Turkey to Greece, is particularly deadly. At least 396 migrants under the age of 18 died while crossing the Eastern Mediterranean since 2014, with a further 164 recorded on the Central Mediterranean route, and 16 on the Western Mediterranean route.

However, as less than 20 per cent of the more than 15,000 deaths recorded on these routes contain information on age, IOM’s recent Fatal Journeys report estimates that at least 1,300 children have died in the Mediterranean since 2014.

Worldwide, the Missing Migrants Project has recorded the deaths of 137 children migrating in Africa, 20 on the US-Mexico border, and 18 on land in Europe. By far the most deaths were due to drowning – 681 children have been lost while crossing a body of water, most of whom perished in the Mediterranean Sea or the Bay of Bengal. Sixty-eight children died due to vehicle accidents or suffocation during vehicular transport; 50 due to exposure to harsh environments during their journeys; 35 as a result of violence; and 23 due to illness and lack of access to medicine.

Some 803 of the children recorded in the Missing Migrants Project database were originally from Asia, including the Middle East, while another 171 of the dead were from African nations. Sixty-one were from the Americas, while the origin of the remaining 167 children could not be determined.

Gathering more and better-quality data on migrant children is extremely important at a time when states are discussing how best to achieve safer and more orderly migration. Finding better ways to measure and document child migrant deaths is also important given the inclusion of migration and age in the in the 2030 Global Agenda for Sustainable Development. According to this agenda, states have agreed to work towards promoting safe, orderly and regular migration, and to end preventable deaths of children.

Julia Black, Coordinator of the Missing Migrants Project, concluded, “We know that our data are incomplete. The truth is that the number of children who die during migration is much higher than what we know. Obtaining better data could help to reduce such tragedies in the future, as well as help families to identify their loved ones.”

International Organization for Migration

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New Social Compact

The daily reality of working poverty

MD Staff

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Louisette Fanjamalala, has worked hard all her life, yet, like millions of working poor around the globe, she barely makes enough to survive.

Fanjamalala, from Madagascar, lives with four teenage children – two of her own and two orphans she has adopted. Their home is a cramped one-room house in the Antananarivo suburb of Soavina. Her husband left years ago.

For years, she worked in textile factories, getting only short term contracts and earning as little as 70 000 ariary (about US$20) a month in some cases, and, at best cases 300 000 ariary (about US$90). That was barely enough to feed her family. Now, things are even worse.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to be hired because I am considered as too old. It is a shame because I am qualified, I work as fast as and even better than younger workers. However, nowadays, human resources departments usually turn down my request without even giving me an appointment,” she sighed.

Because she was also a victim of violence at work, Fanjamalala recently received support from an ILO programme which provided her with new skills and a sewing machine. She now makes some money by doing sewing work at home for people in her neighbourhood. She also makes clothes and curtains that she sells at the local market. However, getting food on the family table remains a constant challenge.

“Fanjamalala’s story is unfortunately very common in Madagascar and in many developing countries,” said Christian Ntsay, Director of the ILO Office in Antananarivo. “You only need to walk in the streets here and talk to people to realize that the findings of the World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2018  (WESO) on vulnerable employment and working poverty translate into a reality faced by millions of people,” he said.

“Ninety-three per cent of Malagasy workers like Louisette Fanjamalala have no other choice than working in the informal economy to survive,” Ntsay added.

1.4 billion workers in vulnerable employment

“Working poverty continues to fall but – again – just like for vulnerable employment , progress is stalling,” explained Stefan Kühn, lead author of the ILO World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2018.

”Vulnerable employment affects three out of four workers in developing countries. Almost 1.4 billion workers are estimated to be in vulnerable employment in 2017. Every year, an additional 17 million are expected to join them.”

In 2017, extreme working poverty remained widespread, with more than 300 million workers in emerging and developing countries having a per capita household income or consumption of less than US$1.90 per day.

Overall, progress in reducing working poverty is too slow to keep pace with the growing labour force in developing countries, where the number of people in extreme working poverty is expected to exceed 114 million in 2018, or 40 per cent of all employed people.

“Emerging countries achieved significant progress in reducing extreme working poverty. It should continue to fall, translating into a reduction in the number of extreme working poor by 10 million per year in 2018 and 2019. However, moderate working poverty, in which workers live on an income of between US$1.90 and US$3.10 per day, remains widespread, affecting 430 million workers in emerging and developing countries in 2017,” said Kühn.

“The findings of the WESO Trends 2018 report is a reminder that more efforts need to be done to reduce inequalities and to ensure better living and working conditions for people like Louisette Fanjamalala and the 1.4 billion workers facing a similar situation throughout the world,” he concluded.

Source: ILO

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New Social Compact

The Worst Horror Story – Rape

Aditi Aryal

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Photo by Zach Guinta on Unsplash

Rape in all its horrendous forms is a marred and an abhorrent trace of patriarchy and misogyny. The direct victims are majorly women, but the fact that men can be –and often are– victims cannot be discounted. Devising its roots in power-play and control, today it carries a heavier weight as a statutory offence with set penalties. Despite these penalties and a massive international attention taking forms of media outrage, studies, monetary and legal aid, awareness programs, and safe shelters, rapes of women – young and old are alarmingly high in South Asia by offenders of varying age groups.

In Nepal, as reported by a national daily, 78 rape cases have on average been reported every month over a course of five years, many of the offenders being septuagenarians and octogenarians. The Indian National Crime Bureau Report (NCBR, 2016) claimed 338,954 reports were made between 2015 and 2016 as crimes against women out of which 38,947 were rapes. It also reported an increase of 82% in the incidents of rape of children. Likewise, in Pakistan, Human Rights Watch asserts of at least one rape every two hours and one gang-rape every eight. In Bangladesh, 13,003 rape cases were reported between 2001-2017 out of which 85 were rapes by law enforcement agents such as police, jail agents, and the army. These data are only the tip of the iceberg as many cases are unreported by the victim, withdrawn upon coercion, or refused to be registered as a legit case by the authority

The Dynamics

The causes of rape are far too many, and differs from case to case. The reasons that surface commonly are sexual frustration in men, poverty, mind-sets and attitudes that reflect machismo, a sense of entitlement, unawareness, and acceptance. In 2012, a report by UNICEF published that 57% men and 53% women in India thought marital rape as not rape, and a sizeable number believed that beating of wives by their husbands was not violence. In India and Bangladesh, the legislations on what constitutes a crime declares it as not rape if the person is married to the victim and if she is over 15 years of age, excepting judicial separation.

We need to remind ourselves that in the South Asian countries, men often grow up being told and shown that they are superior to women who then grow old with a sense of entitlement as they deem it fit for a woman to be available on their demand. When these men are unable to earn for the family due to unemployment or otherwise, their frustration takes the form of rape to demonstrate their ‘masculinity’ and maintain superiority over the women.

Now, this mentality also works in reverse, where a woman is told be to weaker than men and should protect herself from them if she does not wish to get raped. In most South Asian families, females have lesser liberty of movement and choices as compared to their male counterparts. This obviously arises from expected gender behavior that good women should be meek, submissive, and obedient but is also centered around the fact that the families do not want their females to be raped.

This objective of giving women the security inside the family homes is flawed for two reasons. Firstly, rapes and molestation within the family very often exist. In January 2018, a baby girl of eight months was raped in Delhi, India by a relative in her house. Little girls of varying ages have been raped right next to a family member by another family member or neighbors in several instances in Nepal and they could do nothing, not even file a complaint because this façade of a domestic protection does not concern a female’s bodily security but societal reputation.

The Aftermath

Once a person is subjected to rape, the victim becomes unchaste and impure and is thought to bring dishonour to the family. The terminology in Pakistan is kari, referring to someone who has lost virginity outside marriage and an honour killing, karokari, is subjected by the village council. The victims often commit suicide or are killed by their own families for tainting the honour. In 2002, Mukhtaran Bibi challenged this status quo by not committing suicide after a gang rape that was ordered on her by a village council but filed a case against all her rapists. Initially, they were sentenced to death but in 2005, five of them were acquitted due to lack of evidence. In 2011, the sixth offender got acquitted too. In 2017 in Multan, Pakistan, a jirgah (village council) ordered revenge rape on the sister of an offender. In all these years, nothing has changed and even today revenge rape is still being ordered on innocent girls for no fault of their own as punishment.

The victims in other countries face social stigma and have to live in fear because once someone falls victim to rape, they are prone to more rapes because the value of a person is reduced from that of a human to a commodity that is free for public use. In Haryana, India, a girl was gang-raped twice by the same set of men who were out on bail after raping her the first time six years ago. A take-home message is that the onus lies on a woman to protect herself from men who are always lurking in hunt of a prey to rape, yet again asserting that the victim befalls such fate on themselves due to their actions, or in Pakistan actions of their family members.

Rapes are justified for godforsaken reasons and victims told they were ‘asking for it’ by travelling alone at ungodly hours, dressing provocatively, being friends with men, or indulging in so called notorious activities like smoking, drinking, and partying. The way these protectionist measures are advised always revolves around victim but never around the offenders, due to the notion that men have an insatiable sexual appetite and if women portray themselves to be ‘easy’, they are raped. Ranjit Sinha, head of Indian Central Bureau of Investigation once commented that if women couldn’t prevent rapes, they should enjoy it.

In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, victims of rape are subjected to a two-finger test to determine their sexual activeness. This procedure exists despite so many pleas from within these countries and outside to get rid of it on the bases that it is flawed on so many levels as it renders women who chose to be sexually active out of consent as lecherous and dirty who have already been touched by a man. This violation of a victim’s body is backed by the government in the form of a random stranger determining of their worth. This is of course scientifically inaccurate, and extremely irrelevant in case of rape.

Equally exasperating is the fact that women should remain pious and dedicated to only choosing to be sexually active with their legally married husbands but when their husbands rape them, it is not recognised by the legislation. O. P. Chautala, an ex minister in India, once stated that girls should be married as they turn 16 so that sexual needs of women are met and they will not go elsewhere and rapes will reduce. However, even statutory age of marriage is above 16 in India, and marriage is not a way to end rape. Rather, such a statement renders women as cattle whose ownership belongs to the husband.

These instances prove time and again that the role of a woman is always reduced to pleasing her husband in bed without considerations.  In fact, marriage is a holy sacrament that can undo rape – perhaps why victims are married off to their rapists in South Asia who then continue to rape them for the rest of their lives.

Most importantly, the police and other protectors of law find ways to make money out of instances of rape. Like, in January 2018 in Kathmandu, Nepal, a woman of 22 years withdrew her report of rape after few days and it was later revealed that the police were involved facilitating monetary settlements between the accused and the complainant with a personal gain. In Bharatpur, Nepal in February 2018, police coerced a woman to withdraw her rape complaint. So many more cases have surfaced in the southern plains of Nepal where the police have been involved as middlemen.

Hindrance to Justice

The reasons behind rape are men-centric but they have been ingrained in the societies as acceptable by both men and women. Reporting of rape has been increasing in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan but the cases are not dealt with caution. The victims face injustice and have to go through denigrating treatment by the police and health officers, questioning their character and morality.

The portrayal of a victim in the media is a stereotypical one, a non-provocative, harmless, and morally upright person with no past sexual history. Any victim deviating from this stereotype probably brought it on themselves. Further, the media has been reporting on sensitive issues like rape without sensitivity like revealing the victim’s name which is illegal or slut-shaming the victims.

Lastly, even death penalties are not enough to deter people from committing rapes. In Pakistan and India, rape can be punished with death but the crime is still on the rise. After the 2012 Nirbhaya case in Delhi, India, a strong plea was made to change the judicial system and a fast-track hearing was introduced for rape because national outrage by the citizens was not deemed enough to bring a change. In Nepal, the fast-track court is in practice too, but the problem arises in procuring evidence which is substantial in these cases.

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