The women rights movement in India that gained prominence in the 1980s and 90s has often been claimed to be a success. True, India has seen some improvement in women trafficking cases and rapes,inter alia but the situation is far from perfect. For instance, sexual violence is still a huge problem with around 30% of married women facing it at least once in their lives and the figures for stalking and related incidents are equally shocking. Not only the oppressive social structure, but also the response to it has also been the culprit. Many elitist feminist movements post independence failed to question the social order which perpetrated patriarchy, instead satisfying themselves with freebies for women or some philanthropic work. However, some of the post-70s organisations realised that women rights in India can be talked about only to a certain extent without discussing the more pressing need of changing societal structures and thus have since worked for the betterment of women. The policymakers on the other hand, have been lenient in addressing root causes and are unaware of ground realities, something that this article tries to understand. It seeks to re-explore the core issues on which Indian feminism stands and what is meant by ‘social transformation’.
There are broadly two aspects in a typical Indian woman’s life that sustain the patriarchy which this article specifically deals with, first, the trade offs that they face such as that between education and children and second, the role of marriages in their lives and how it shapes their societal position.
Women, Children & Jobs
“No one wants to hire a mid-career mom”-Devyani Shahane-Carvalho,a housewife recently told a newspaper. Unfortunately, the statement also reflects the plight of many other Indian mothers. This problem manifests itself in various ways and has several dimensions.
Firstly, higher educated women choose less children. The average fertility rate of college graduates is 1.9 kids per woman,3.8 for illiterate women. This shows that education for women comes with a realisation that having children has an opportunity cost in terms of their lost careers. Education being an able means to provide the requisite understanding of how women are being deprived of decision making,this is perhaps why rural India still prefers to keep its women uneducated. This in turn, deprives them of agency and informed life choices thus maintaining the authority of men. Women resisting the system have often been seen as unhealthy by the society thus forcing them to choose children over education.
Secondly, women are considered second-class citizens and are systematically discouraged from choosing work. This has ample evidence. For instance, the women who in the 70s and 80s worked in the informal sector dropped out when the average household income rose after liberalisation. Similarly, educated women in financially sound households are disinclined to work perhaps because working women are seen as a social stigma in that they are considered to be “forced” to work thus reducing the family’s social status. Also,a Pew research claims that 84% Indians believe that men should be preferred for jobs over women in times of financial crisis.
All this in turn, cements the belief that they are only apt to work at home, something quite emphatically depicted in the recent Anubhav Sinha release,Thappad. The women,Amrita like lakhs of others becomes so attuned to her everyday routine, which largely includes ensuring that her working husband is well-fed,has adequate rest,stays fit among other things, that people around her start taking her for granted. This lack of financial independence and reliance on her family reduces her to an inferior creature who is then subjected to violence(let alone a slap). This is the plight of India’s many Amritas and shows that their social standing and familial importance gets reduced because of the roles society assigns them.
The Institution Of Marriage
Marriage as an institution and the watertight social norms that accompany are an equally organised agency of perpetuating patriarchy. It not only decides the status of women after but also before ‘the sacrosanct union of two souls’.
The problem lies in the societal attitudes towards marriage. The ordinary Indian parents for decades,preferred sons over daughters because they believed the girl to be a burden on their households who would get married into someone else’s home and not be able to support their parents in their old age. Women financially supporting or living with their parents after marriage is considered a matter of suspicion and shame.This in turn perpetuates their inferior treatment in terms of education, health and jobs, accompanied with an urge to marry them off early.
When asked in a poll about the number of boys that women in India wanted,60% preferred at least two sons and an additional third wanting at least one. This desire for boys over girls has led to 63 million women “missing” from our population. Albeit a larger number of women are getting educated,are participating in national level politics or getting better property rights but if Indian parents still have an unmistakable bias against girls then it seems that marriage has been able to resist any change in societal structures and that too,quite successfully. This is also partly due to the fact that women are effectively constrained in making choices in regards to clothing, sexual freedom and relationships.
Legislations And Alternative Solutions
Before delving deep into understanding the possible changes that can be made at the society level,let’s have a look at how the laws have also failed Indian women.
For instance, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act,2005 is one of the many laws that have proved to be quite impotent. First, one can’t impose criminal penalties on the accused unless a protection order is violated. Also, the definition of domestic violence is too broad to be made any sense of by the courts. Second, the relief in the act is to a huge extent, based on the Protection and Residence officers’ discretion leaving less for the judge to decide, jeopardizing the sensitive issue of justice to the victim.All this is not brow-raising when women constituted only 8.29% of the parliament when the law was discussed and passed in 2005. Not only that,there is a huge backlog of cases and victims are told to wait for as long as 3 months. Judicial attitude is equally to blame. For example,in 2006,SC restricted legal definition of shared household in relation to the act to that belonging to or rented by the husband to avoid “societal chaos”.
For a deeper understanding,a cursory glance at some other laws is desirable. For example, The Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act 2013 demands that firms have internal committees for sexual harassment complaints but has near to zero compliance or the Dowry Prohibition Act,1961 which is rarely enforced in letter or spirit.
Howsoever,acts such as Prohibition of Sex Selection Act,1994, or Hindu Succession Amendmnet Act,2005 and many similar laws have helped but have poor enforcement,the police often siding with the accused or the case not being reported in the first instance.
Women rights organisations have suggested several other measures to rectify the solution. For example,role-reversals is a much suggested solution. The women do the job,the men the household work,giving the former greater financial independence and social acceptability over time. Even though women might take up the task of breadwinner,the society or men will not accept themselves in their new tasks,not because they are not suited to it,but because the household work has no dignity.
Nuclear families,which are considered as another possible answer, have not provided definitive help in ending patriarchy and it comes at cost of reduced social security and frequently, severance of familial ties. Also,much acclaimed self defence techniques have neither shown concrete and verifiable results nor have they changed attitudes.
The Meaning Of ‘Social Transformation’
It is not that the laws or similar abovementioned alternative solutions are completely impotent but they can’t be really effective without political and social willpower. This boils down to the societal attitudes which straitjacket women and their aspirations. Perhaps that is where social transformation comes in. It is,however,quite a broad term. It is generally what people make of it thus giving it different interpretations and it is upon the society to accept one of them. However,there is general consensus that the root problem lies in how we perceive the institution of marriage and how it affects even remotely related issues like Indian parents’ birth decisions or education given to girls,as illustrated above. Social transformation will help adress this root problem.
This can be achieved by changing the belief that the girl’s parents are not her responsibility needs to be changed. Parents need to be made to realize that their children, both men and women, have shared duty in this regard. Perhaps, effective implementation and appropriate amendments to laws such as Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act,2007,which sets the legal framework in relation to the shared responsibilities of children towards parents, would help.Also, the legal process needs to be flexible and easier for victims of patriarchial violence or discrimination.
Also, the woman, along with her husband, needs to be given greater autonomy,if she wants to move into her husband’s home. She should not be forced to concede to patriarchal norms of the residing place of women after marriage.
In addition to that, patriarchal narratives need to be changed by altering how parents bring up their children(teaching boys to be strong and girls to be emotional and docile). Everything,from the toys girls play with(dolls etc.) to the movies they are ‘supposed’ to enjoy more(rom-coms,etc.), needs to be changed and both boys and girls be given the freedom to make their own choices in this respect. This could help erase the inherent gender bias against women and ensure that men don’t feel privileged over women.
Sex education plays an equally important role in that it helps break sexual stereotypes and bring to an end,biological misinformation. Boys and girls need to be taught the importance of private space of others. Children need to be made aware of regular biological processes like menstruation so that they don’t need to see them with suspicion and a sense of confusion.
Most importantly, there is a need to give up those traditional values that advocate the persistence of male-headed households and physically and socially constraining women for sake of preservation of social order,before it starts to hurt the ever changing Indian society. The society decides what is right for it and if some customs don’t fit into the present-day social structure ,they shouldn’t be carried on for their own sake. The social transformation that has since been vividly discussed, essentially refers to this societal change, notwithstanding the different interpretations that people give it.
Will COVID 19 further exacerbate xenophobia and populism?
This comes after a decade of rising xenophobia driven by the fallout from the global financial crisis of 2008. Duarte, Trump, Erdogan, Bolsonoro, Johnson, Xi Jinping and Putin all traded successfully in these waters. Last year the United Nation’s Secretary-General António Gutiérrez formed a special UN team to combat hate speech. As an example of the growing hate discourse he cited ‘how the debate on human mobility, for example, has been poisoned with false narratives linking refugees and migrants to terrorism and scapegoating them for many of society’s ills.’ The fear now is that as the global economy enters a prolonged period of economic recession this will create a fertile environment to extenuate further xenophobia along with its populist political cheerleaders.
2020 also saw the Black Lives Matters movement emerge into the political and social discourse in what seems like an epoch defining way. Add it all together and it seems that we have reached a tipping point of global racial discord and distrust of the ‘other’.
History can be instructive here. The onset of the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 was bookended eleven years later by a global financial crash in 1929. The exact opposite sequence has now happened. The global financial crisis of 2008 has been bookended by COVID 19, also eleven years later in 2019.
This disrupted sequence may actually prove significant. The first (financial) crisis in 2008 ushered in many populist politicians; the second crisis (health) exposed them. Many of the most badly affected countries, as a consequence of poor crisis management, come from this pool of populist administrations.
The economic consequences of the shutdowns are already playing out and more pain will follow through into 2021, but electorates and populations do have the near history hindsight of populist promises post the 2008 financial crisis to consider. This may well in time steer populations away from the same fiery promises of nationalist exceptionalism and sunlit uplands.
Some commentators think the advent of vaccine nationalism will provide political deliverance for these same populist leaders. Yet if countries with a large number of cases lag in obtaining the vaccine and other medicines, the disease will continue to disrupt global supply chains and, as a result, economies around the world. That is in nobody’s interest.
Additionally, the assertion that xenophobia and discrimination are all on an upward trajectory can be contested. For example, according to a 2019 Pew Research Centre survey of 18 countries, in 1994 63 per cent of US citizens felt immigrants were a burden on the country. Fast forward 25 years and the figures are reversed. By a ratio of two to one, US citizens are pro-migration. According to the same Pew survey, majorities in top migrant destination countries, which host half of the world’s migrants, say immigrants strengthen their countries. Majorities in the UK, France, Spain, Australia, Canada, Sweden and Germany all agree with the statement ‘migrants make my country stronger’.
There is also a generational shift in play. According to the results from the 2017 ‘Global Shapers Survey’ by the World Economic Forum, for a large majority of young people, identity is not about region, geography, religion or ethnicity; they simply see themselves as ‘human’. This is also the most popular answer choice across all regions. Majorities in the US among Generation Z (born after 2000) and Generation Y (born after 1981) say increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the US is a good thing for society. In 1958, only four per cent of Americans approved of inter-racial marriage, according to Gallup polling. Support only crossed the 50-per-cent threshold in 1997. It has now reached 87 per cent.
All this is has been feeding into the calculus of global companies who are becoming unlikely champions in the fight against xenophobia.
According to a 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 69 per cent of employees who believe their senior-management teams are diverse see their working environments as motivating and stimulating. And 78 per cent of Millennials who say their top teams are diverse report that their organizations perform strongly in generating profits. Firms seen as diverse and perceived to have a diverse workforce are rated highly by Gen Y and Z. They want to work for them and buy their stuff.
In many ways, COVID 19 will probably push the private sector further in the diversity and inclusion direction, although the need to do this is in a more structured way (a recent global survey found only 35% of companies gathered data on company diversity).
Diversity particularly in decision-making brings multiple perspectives to bear on problems. This is not just corporate guff – this stuff really matters. There is plenty of empirical evidence to back all this up. In the 2008–09 global financial crisis, banks with a higher share of women on their boards were more stable than their peers and the evidence suggest that banks run by women might be less vulnerable in a crisis.
This is not to downplay the pervasive threat that xenophobia presents. It continues to impact on millions of people’s daily lives, often in most distressing ways. Migrants are still being washed up on Greek beaches while the well-heeled look the other way.
Yet, there is plenty of counter evidence for optimism. Populist leaders have been found out. Greater global connectivity is helping create greater awareness of different perspectives, views, cultures and ways of doing things. Many Front line workers in hospitals treating the victims of COVID 19 (along with supermarket workers and cleaners) are migrants leading to a greater appreciation of their role in societies.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell remarked that collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.
With so much talk of ‘herd immunity’ COVID 19 has clearly demonstrated that we are all in fact part of the same herd.
Euthanasia, Living Will and The Analysis In India
Euthanasia, i.e. mercy killing, refers to the act of painlessly putting to death a person who is either very old or very ill to prevent further pain and suffering. It is basically a practice that is done on people suffering from incurable diseases or incapacitating physical disorder wherein they are allowed to die by the withdrawal of artificial life support system or withholding of medical treatment. On 9th March 2018, the Supreme Court of India, in a historical decision, legalised passive euthanasia and the right of terminally ill persons to give advance directives for refusal of medical treatment. Therefore, the concept of ‘living will’ was recognised which essentially refers to the document that the person writes in a normal state of mind seeking passive euthanasia when he reaches an irreversible vegetative state or when he gets terminally ill. For a comprehensive understanding of this whole topic, we have demarcated between different types of ‘mercy killing’ in the next section. Also, we will discuss the concerned judgement in detail not forgetting to mention the backdrop that led to the much-anticipated move. Additionally, we will try to summarise the arguments of both the supporters as well as the dissenters of the move before finally moving to the conclusion.
Active Euthanasia, Passive Euthanasia, Indirect Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide
Active Euthanasia refers to the deliberate act of ending the life of a terminally ill or incurable patient through the administration of a legal drug or injection by the physician. Passive Euthanasia is the withdrawal or withholding of artificial life support system when the patient requests to do so or when prolonging of his life is termed futile. Indirect Euthanasia means the provision of treatment with an aim to reduce pain and suffering, but which eventually speeds up the process of death. And, assisted suicide (also called physician-assisted suicide) refers to the situation when the doctor intentionally and knowingly provides the patient with the knowledge and/or means to commit suicide. The laws regarding euthanasia differ throughout the world. In countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, euthanasia has been legal since 2002. The practice of ‘Assisted Suicide’ is legal in European countries of Switzerland and Germany. In England, both euthanasia, as well as assisted suicide, are illegal. In most of the U.S., euthanasia is illegal but physician-assisted suicide has been legalised in ten of its states. In India, passive euthanasia was legalised two years back. The next section discusses the same in detail.
Euthanasia in India: The Aruna Shanbaug Case and the Common Cause Judgement
The case of Aruna Shanbaug has been quite instrumental in changing the euthanasia laws in India. Ms. Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug was an Indian nurse who in 1973, was sexually assaulted by a ward boy in the hospital as a result of which she went into a vegetative state. In 2010, a plea was filed by activist Ms. Pinki Virani before the Supreme Court seeking euthanasia for Ms. Aruna Shanbaug. The Court took up the plea and finally, on March 7, 2011, delivered the historical judgement. Ms. Virani’s plea got rejected but at the same time, broad guidelines were issued legalising passive euthanasia in India. It was held that the decision to withdraw life support must be taken by parents, spouse or other close relatives in the absence of all of whom, the ‘next’ friend would be entrusted with the responsibility. In this particular case, the hospital staff that had been taking care of Ms. Aruna for years was called the ‘next friend’ and not Ms. Virani. In 2015, Ms. Aruna Shanbaug, after 42 years of constant suffering died of pneumonia at the age of 66 but not before playing a vital role in influencing upcoming euthanasia-related laws in India.
In a separate move, ‘Common Cause’, an NGO working for people’s rights, approached the Supreme Court under Art. 32 of the Constitution in the year 2005, wherein they prayed for the declaration that ‘Right to Die with Dignity’ be made a fundamental right under Art. 21  i.e. Right to Life. Additionally, they requested the court to give directions to the government with regards to the execution of living wills in case a person gets terminally ill. The argument was that subjecting terminally ill people or the people suffering from chronic diseases to cruel treatments denied them the right to live with dignity. On February 25, 2014, a 3-judge bench of the Supreme Court led by the then CJI P. Sathasivam started final hearing in the case wherein it came out that the previous judgements given in the case of Aruna Shanbaug v. Union of India (2011), as well as the case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab (1996), were inconsistent. The matter was then referred to a 5 Judge Constitutional Bench. And finally, on March 9, 2018, in a historical decision, CJI Deepak Mishra led bench recognised the concept of ‘living will’ that was to be drawn by terminally ill patients for passive euthanasia and also laid down comprehensive guidelines for the same. Hence, the ‘Right to Die with Dignity’ was held to be a fundamental right.
Euthanasia- a good or a bad thing?
The proponents of Euthanasia argue that allowing an incurable patient to die will alleviate the constant pain and suffering that one has to go through when in the vegetative state. The other point which they talk about is that ‘right to die with dignity’ is a matter of personal choice and no-one else should be allowed to interfere in the patient’s decision. It has also been said time and again that timely executed euthanasia could also relieve the financial burden on the family of the patient which in case of absence of the law, could exert a lot of financial burden on poor households.
Moreover, coming to the major points that the opponents say, the fact that the law on euthanasia could be misused is always talked about. It is argued that children of old and ill parents would certainly want to neglect their parents when they are needed the most. This does not fit with the kind of social and cultural environment that we have in India, where parents are supposed to be provided with care when they get too old. Also, the opponents lay emphasis on the sanctity of life and reckon that accepting euthanasia would lead to a reduction in society’s respect for life.
Benefits of recognising Living Will
Recognition of Living will indeed have some good impact. The concept essentially requiresa person to write the will as an advance directive when he is capable of making a sensible decision. And, thus, this rules out the possibility of the situation when the patient, being too ill, is not able to make an informed and competitive decision especially so in the case of Mentally Challenged patients and the patients who are incoma. Also, the living will, to much extent, would relieve the moral burden from the family member who actually takes steps for euthanasia, for ultimately, he would be fulfilling the informed wish of the patient only. Passive Euthanasia could sometimes, in exceptional circumstances, lead to the allegations of murder so the existence of a living will have a role to play in preventing such situations. In and all, the legalisation of ‘living will’goes a long way in effective implementation of the laws of euthanasia in India.
In the course of this article, we tried to explain with clarity the concepts of euthanasia as well as ‘living will’. We listed out the arguments of both the proponents as well as the opponents of euthanasia and also mentioned how the ‘living will’ is going to have a positive impact. Giving due importance to the judgement of the Supreme Court in the Common Cause Case, the long-anticipated Fundamental Right to Die with Dignity has finally been accepted. The legalisation of Passive Euthanasia, along with the recognition of ‘living will’ would make a lot of difference in how the severely ill patients meet their death. Having a dignified death is equally important as having a dignified life, so in that respect, the laws on euthanasia would come out to be of vital importance. As far as the living will is concerned, it is definitely going to simplify the entire process of euthanasia. In the end, we could just hope that the laws are able to achieve the desired objectives.
The Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 32.
The Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 21.
 Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug v. Union of India, (2011) 4 SCC 454.
Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, (1996) 2 SCC 648.
 Common Cause (A Regd. Society) v Union of India and Anr, 2018 5 SCC 1.
Reimagining Governance after Covid-19
What will it take to rescue the global economy in the wake of COVID-19? Are adjustments, improvements or amendments enough? Haven’t we done this before? Maybe it’s time to rethink this with a mindset, not of ‘starting again’ which would tend to invite ‘again’ thinking, but instead to begin with a completely blank slate – no preconceptions – just goals.
I suggested a new paradigm, a total reset.
Change most often happens incrementally, over decades, if not centuries and many historical truths define the present long past their relevance. For one, the fundamental principles of our global economy still rest on the agrarian and industrial revolutions. Tilling the soil and staffing factories remain the foundations of today’s economic planning – despite the fact that we have well entered the digital, automated world.
Another of these historical, yet increasingly outdated conventionsis the pervasiveness of male leadership.
The position of women has evolved incrementally and at best- unevenly – throughout the world. Although women comprise half the population, the world’s political, economic and social systems continue to be based on designs stemming from and reflecting men’s nature.
All things being equal, it is very costly to knock down the entirety of something and start from scratch. Perhaps fortunately, the devastation caused by COVID-19 is happening at a time of acute and increasing awareness of the imbalance in society. This offers a rare, first-ever opportunity to revisit the definition of effective.
That is whyit make sense to re-architect these systems now, imbuing governance with a mix of qualities of success that are peculiar to women as well as those of men.An op-ed in the British Medical Journal recently noted that to avoid ‘groupthink’ and blind spots, policy decisions must include representatives with diverse backgrounds. But during the outbreak of covid-19 the male-led governments of the UK and Sweden relied mainly on epidemiological modeling by internal advisors. Few channels were open for dissenting views. By contrast, Merkel looked to outside sources, beyond epidemiology to medical providers, and as far as South Korea’s successful testing and isolation procedures.
Two notable characteristics of leadership of women leaders during Covid-19 were inclusiveness and compassion: embracing diversity in political institutions and empowering society. In the battle against corona this meant transparency, clarity of responsibility with everything visible – not behind the scenes. It meant swiftly finding ways to allow the populace to become stakeholders in the solution. It included appealing to the citizenry with an executive demeanor that conveyed commitment and a sense that there was a consistent plan of action that demanded civic responsibility while at the same time, leaving the people with a great deal of discretion and personal influence over their own experience.
Compassion informed a compelling vision presented with warmth.
Some like Peter Huang of the University of Colorado Law School, have already noted the most important leadership lesson of COVID-19:put more women in charge. But is that enough when the system itself is informed by and imbued with male characteristics, language, energy?
Societal norms are defined and shaped by millennia of men at the helm. Thus most women remain compelled to conform to the existing framework, created by and for men, to attain and hold their positions. In most cases, that means; act like a man. Adapt to systems where leaders are expected to be aggressive, domineering and cut-throat.
The devastation wreaked by COVID-19 shows that the existing framework is no longer relevant, opening an opportunity to invent something totally new. The virus has created a moment where we can begin to see the possibilities devoid of the limitations of our old ways. The time has come to expand the definition of what is effective and reimagine measures for governance based on entirely new systems that emerge from a cooperative process of creation. For the first time in the history of humanity, society can be built on foundations rising from a fully cooperative process between men and women. With a clean slate and a balanced – male and female, yin and yang -defined approach, we have the opportunity to do it right.
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