Archive for November, 2011

1. The Demographic Dividend Tipping Point – Not There Yet

Rekha and Vinita are two Regar dalit women of Prithvipura in rural eastern Rajasthan who are in their mid-20s. Both are illiterate, two sisters married to two brothers also in their mid-20s who are barely literate themselves. Their lives illustrate something of rural dalit women’s disabilities. In larger terms, they typify how already-skewed gender relations in this region are becoming further distorted in the wake of the new prosperity that has come to eastern Rajasthan.

This story is about Rekha and Vinita’s discovery of the amazing power conferred on them by the Domestic Violence Act of 2005. And about how they voluntarily ceded this opportunity to start making a change in their lives.

It is also a story of how patriarchy not only operates at the level of the family, but is also backed by the Panchayati Raj system. You don’t need rabid Khap Panchayats when democratically elected village panchayats can themselves be coopted by patriarchy.

Finally, it is a story that raises many issues regarding the complex dynamics of economic growth and social change. Particularly the issue of: what is required for a set of positive circumstances for change to reach a tipping point? In this case, the demographic dividend.

The story of Rekha and Vinita has been recounted in an earlier post (June 26 2011). Here, I talk about their brief dalliance with the Domestic Violence Act of 2005 and the possibilities and obstacles to its implementation, and some of the implications that gender relations have for a discussion on political economy.

When Rekha and Vinita came to work for us as farm labourers and, in time, graduated to doing housekeeping work, they came with the baggage of daily domestic violence. Purple cheekbones, torn eyes, scratched faces, painful arms, red welts on their arms, back and abdomen starting to turn black…. Either coming to work every day sobbing heartrendingly, or asking for permission to sleep through part of the afternoon because the husbands had either singly or jointly not allowed them to sleep in the night.

Gradually, we found their stories becoming too painful for us to listen and not do anything about. We asked them if they wished us to intervene on their behalf. They said yes, tearfully. They seemed grateful that there was someone to listen to their story, but it was clear that they had no idea of how the intervention might come to be, nor its consequences. And, to be honest neither were we in a position to predict what kind of turn events might take.

The intervention evolved slowly. In our own wisdom, and keeping in mind the local cultural context, we took two steps.

First, we adopted the two sisters as our “daughters”. In other words, we would henceforth be their “parents” (what anthropologists call fictive kin). They would enjoy special status in our home, and it behoved their husbands and in-laws to recognize that the women were no longer alone in their marital home, but had protectors who lived within calling distance. Mystified by what this might do for them, the women sought their parents’ permission for this new relationship. Equally mystified, the latter gave their consent.

The day we visited them was a winter afternoon. The evening sun shone weakly on us as we stopped outside their homestead on the main road running through the village. As we walked into their space, I was feeling a little nervous; this was a first time “adoption” experience for me. We were walking through an open courtyard into what looked like a pucca (brick and concrete) house. A large ‘porch’ sort of structure open from the front, that led sparely into two rooms. One, a floor level kitchen, with shelves on the walls that displayed a very small number of utensils. The door to the other room remained closed for the time we were there. Some broken steps led up from the porch to what looked to be the roof. The sandy courtyard had a straggly – but not dirty – look about it. A large khejri tree stood in the centre with a built platform underneath it… a socializing space, particularly for men. A motorbike was parked prominently nearby…a male symbol…males who were mobile.

The women’s husbands, parents-in-law and older brother-in-law were waiting in the porch to meet us. A few children (five noisy boys ranging from 3 to 9, and one silent girl of about 10 (she was the one who “went dumb” mysteriously)) were playing, running between the courtyard and the porch. We were carrying presents of clothes for the sisters and sweets for the family. The adults looked wary. But nothing was talked directly about what had led to our visit. The two sisters were invisible; it took them most of the time we were there to make two cups of tea for us. We drank the tea and left. It was a strange visit.

The husbands immediately tested out the strength of the new development by swaggering up to our house a few days later, announcing that they had come to spend the day there. Ostensibly, it was a return visit. But in reality it was to check on whether their wives’ work environment was a “respectable” one, respectability defined as absence of opportunity to come into contact with other men. The husbands were clearly amazed by the sense of freedom and comfort in the social environment enjoyed by our staff. They returned home that evening announcing that they had seen women staff talking with their male colleagues, therefore opening up the possibilities for liaisons.

As time went by, the husbands continued to feel irked by the totally unfamiliar sight of the many perks that their wives and, occasionally by association their children as well, enjoyed at our expense: winter clothes, a car and driver to make short day-pilgrimages and go to family weddings, escorted visits to doctors and monitored administration of medical treatments etc, perks which they wanted to enjoy as well, but which we strictly barred them from. They contented themselves with at least appropriating their wives’ winter clothes.  But equally, the husbands seemed to feel smug that their families were now being cared for total strangers, and that there was nothing to come in the way of their own total enjoyment of their earnings on liquor and eating out, supplemented by periodic raids made on their wives’ earnings. They even sent out demands for money gifts from us, which we ignored with the contempt that they deserved.

The next step of our intervention was to hire a lawyer with the sisters’ consent. During his visit, the lawyer explained the Domestic Violence Act to the women, its provisions, and the protections and rights that it guaranteed. He then ascertained from them the facts relating to their experience of abuse; these would form the basis of the brief. It was agreed that the next time there was an act of violence, the women would phone us and we would arrange for the lawyer to accompany them to the local police station to lodge an FIR under which the offending husband would be taken to task. The hope we all shared was that this would deter future acts of violence by these men.

The women sounded excited. Vinita, the younger of the two (barely 22 yeas old), couldn’t keep things to herself. She also felt duty bound to warn her in-laws that she was not going to tolerate any more abuse at the hands of her husband. She informed her mother-in-law and anyone else who cared to listen that she was now protected by a lawyer. Overnight, the women found that the tables had turned. An aura seemed to have enveloped them; after all, in India, to have a lawyer at one’s beck and call is associated only with a position of social privilege. The parents-in-law started talking to them in softer voices. Neither of the husbands dared come anywhere near them, nor did they ever come home drunk. And for the next month or more the women enjoyed peace and quiet, were able to sleep uninterruptedly every night, and arrived for work every day looking happy and smiling. We all celebrated what we thought was the beginning of our women staff’s empowerment. Some of the other women, too, timidly asked if similar opportunities might be made available to them, since domestic violence was familiar to them all. We told them that this was going to be a pilot. If it worked…who knew… a lot of change might be in store… for them and others like them.

But our celebratory mood was short-lived. One day, two months after the lawyer was hired, the husbands started drinking again. Days went by and they did not go out to work but continued to drink steadily using up their accumulated earnings. The tension began to build in the sisters’ homes around what might happen; it seemed a matter of time before the violence might resume.  Then, suddenly one night, the peace was breached.

With no provocation whatsoever the storm broke over the head of Vinita, the younger of the sisters. After a whole night of the worst violence she had experienced in her married life, she came to work the next morning beaten black and blue, running a fever, totally traumatized and in a state of complete shock. Obviously, she was in no condition to work – her body ached all over and she could barely speak – and merely slept through the day. But she accompanied the lawyer to the local police station and filed an FIR against her husband, describing the events of the night before. Some men from her village happened to be present at the police station at the time and tried to dissuade her without success. The news of her action flew back to her marital home.

For the next fifteen days, for reasons unknown to us, the police made no arrest (they later told us that they had been called away to do “VIP duty” elsewhere). During that period of delay and suspense, Vinita continued to be beaten every day through the evening and night. And every morning she was allowed to go ‘to work’; more accurately, she was thrown out every morning to go to her workplace, bearing the physical evidence of her husband’s complete power over her. It did not seem to matter to her parents-in-law that she was crippled by pain and trauma, and that her children went neglected. The husband of course, in keeping with the social convention of the region, was oblivious to the children’s needs.

Vinita continued to be in our pay in the safe haven that our home afforded by day, assured that she had our support for herself and her children, come what may. Every day as she lay crouched in bed through the day trying to sleep her way to recovery, we all wondered why the police had still not made an arrest. Would these women who had put a hesitant foot forward to bring change into their lives, receive the support of the State? Or would the police let them down? Would the women be able to go on to reap the provisions of the progressive Domestic Violence Act? Or would it all end in jubilant loss of respect for the rule of law on the part of the village community, which was no doubt watching the unfolding of this drama? During these nail-biting days, Vinita’s mother-in-law taunted her ceaselessly at home, launched a smear campaign against her in the village, and declared that some employers – us – were putting subversive ideas into the heads of young women and causing them to defy male authority. She also accompanied her son to the police station to show fictitious proof of how it was he who had been a victim of domestic violence perpetrated by his wife, and not the other way around. After years of accommodating to her mother-in-law, Vinita found herself treated as an enemy of the family.  They were taking every measure they could think of to irrevocably break her will.

Feeling the need to widen the support base for the women and deflect attention from ourselves as employers (since we might be seen as having a vested interest in retaining our staff), we approached a city-based women’s rights NGO to act as a source of organizational support. The NGO visited us and talked with the sisters, and promised to help them. They outlined their proposed actions: they would visit the village to talk to village elders and ordinary people, collect further evidence for the case in court, demonstrate outside the family house and thus make the issue public, shame the husbands, and assist the sisters in their onward dealings with the police and the courts. But they also made it very clear that the path would be long and rocky and uncertain, that the sisters would have to be prepared to travel more than half way, stand by their actions, and be consistent in their behaviour even in the face of emotional and other pressures from their marital and/or natal families, give evidence in court, make the necessary trips to lawyers, courts, police as the case might be. The Domestic Violence Bill gave Vinita the right to her marital home for herself and her children; so nobody in the family could throw her out. She thus had the security of accommodation and, with our commitment, the security of employment and income. Additionally, she had our emotional support and that of her brother, and the organizational support of the NGO. She would, in all probability lose social/community support, at least in the short run. But that was a price she may have to pay for ending her life of abuse.

Through all these developments, all was quiet on Rekha’s front. She seemed to gather some boldness from this. When Vinita went with the lawyer to file her FIR at the police station, Rekha had been eager to go too, and file a similar FIR against her own husband. But we had held her back, explaining that there had been no immediate provocation by way of abuse, and that we needed to first try out the efficacy of one case. In the meanwhile, her husband who had hitherto remained aloof, now became increasingly conciliatory in his behaviour towards her. He urged her to give up any thought of rebellion that would condemn her to becoming a pariah like her younger sister. He even offered to start financing her household expenditure, on the condition that she give up her job and become a stay-at-home wife, and sever her links with us. Feeling swept up into the sky and smirking at the prospect that her husband would henceforth be treating her “like a princess” as she described it, Rekha proceeded to distance herself from what was happening to her unfortunate younger sister. Abruptly, one afternoon, she grandly announced that she would no longer be working for us; she would henceforth be a full-time homemaker as her husband wished her to be. She also expressed her disinterest in having anything to do with the women’s rights NGO.

Since their marriage to the two brothers, the two sisters had always been like two peas in a pod, a source of support to each other. Suddenly, now, Vinita found herself totally alone within her family. Only her brother still stood by her, going with her to the police station to file the FIR, absenting himself from work every now and then, and travelling several hours  to visit her at our place as often as he could,  comforting her and expressing solidarity, staying in touch with the lawyer…Her resolve was still intact, but she was beginning to feel terribly vulnerable and fearful of what lay ahead in her life. We on our part continued to assure her of our support for her and her children and urged her to remain strong, stressing that she would not humanly be able to absorb such abuse much longerand therefore must act to stop it.  But we could understand her heartbreaking sense of betrayal and loneliness given that in traditional Indian society all of a woman’s life is lived within the family.

After repeated phone calls by the lawyer, the police finally arrived at Vinita’s house one morning to arrest her husband. It was perhaps insensitive on their part that they should have chosen the morning of Rakhi, a popular social festival that symbolizes the renewal of family bonds, especially that between brothers and sisters. Since it was a public holiday – even for daily labourers and agriculturists – the arrest became a public event.  The police later told our lawyer that they had intended it that way in order to arouse social disapproval against the family.  Indeed the family did face humiliation, as did Vinita.  But her husband spent only one night in the police lock-up. By the next morning the mother-in-law had got him released on bail and brought him home.

On arriving home from the police station, mother and son sat down under the khejri tree in the courtyard, while Vinita cowered in the kitchen in a state of total terror. As if by design, Rekha’s husband  dragged her out of the house by her hair and into the courtyard. There, in a wild fit of anger and drunkenness and in full view of the neighbourhood, he set upon her, jerking her head almost off the neck and thrashing her with an iron rod until she fell down senseless. The two brothers then locked up the sisters in one room and made off with the keys. The watching and confused children of both were left to fend for themselves outside. Before leaving, the men announced to the watching crowd – mainly male in composition that, incidentally, had done nothing to stop the violence – that the sisters would no longer be permitted to go to work for us. Some of the spectators let out a general loud warning that any women of the village who came to work for us – and filled their minds with ideas of independence – would be similarly punished.

None of our other women from that village came to work for us that day, nor the day after. Two quit the job, feeling intimidated by the public condemnation of the brief show of resistance to abuse. But three of our women – all victims of domestic violence themselves – defied the diktat of the crowd and resumed work. They told us that the village panchayat had met and declared that if Rekha’s and Vinita’s husbands did not want their wives to go work for us, they would have to give an undertaking to the panchayat that they would henceforth financially support their wives and thus obviate any need for their wives to go out to work. It was also decided in the presence of the panchayat that the two sisters would henceforth be separated – the family owned two houses close to each other – and not be allowed to meet each other.  Their mutual support system was thus taken away, as well as our support.    These decisions were taken under the leadership of the Village Sarpanch (the Head of the Panchayat), who also used his position to approach the police station to say that the village elders were taking care of the situation and outside intervention would not be necessary: the husbands would no longer beat up the sisters; Vinita and Relha would no longer have to go to work because their husbands would henceforth support the families; and Vinita would be withdrawing her police complaint.

For one week following the episode, the two husbands bought minimal quantities of cooking oil and tea leaves and a couple of vegetables for their wives. Rekha received no medical treatment. Traumatized physically and mentally, neither woman was in a condition to care for herself or her small children. Vinita called us a few days later and gave us her version. We asked her if the sisters would be willing to take further steps along the path of resistance; if so, we and the NGO would support them. She expressed uncertainty. Given her ostracism by all in her marital family, and her own sister’s show of withdrawal of support, her fragile world held together by kinship ties had collapsed. Her parents and brother were advising her to make peace with her fate. They were willing to stand by her, but doubted their ability to sustain repeated practical deterrent actions against her marital family. Vinita admitted to us that she felt defeated. She had been cajoled by the Panchayat to go to the police station and take back her FIR. She could see her life stretching ahead of her as a saga of unrelenting abuse. She so wanted to run away from home. But she couldn’t bring herself to abandon her children. There was no recourse but to simply wait for eventual death.

Thus did the incipient case under the Domestic Violence Act challenging the right of men to subject women to domestic violence, fall through. Patriarchy in the form of family and elected panchayat had won.

Within a week of Vinita withdrawing her FIR, both the husbands resumed their drinking and philandering. They stopped giving the promised housekeeping money and told their wives to go look for employment… any kind of employment, as long as it had nothing to do with association with us.  No censure was forthcoming from the panchayat. Nor was there any wider social support for the sisters from others in the village. The two young women have, since, gone back to square one, hiring themselves out as daily labourers on farms and in local industries. They have gone back to their triple burden: being subjects of domestic violence, the sole breadwinners for their families, and bearing complete responsibility for housework and child care.


What does this story tell us?

Here is a case of primordial socio-economic disadvantage (a dalit identity) suffered by both men and women of this particular community. But there is the new possibility of this being offset by two major developments in the region. One, is the mitigation of caste-imposed social disabilities for this numerically strong and increasingly politically self conscious community due to the emergence of a new-found political relevance through the democratic electoral system. The second is the opening up of multiple farm and non-farm employment opportunities with decent wages for both men and women.

Regars – most of them at least – have already sold most of their land, taking advantage of the widening land market, and now own only their homesteads; so employment for wages is the only option. Money from the land sales and from occasional jobs have brought men good houses, cell phones and the motor cycle, and a television set and a source of film music for families – symbols of modern living. Children (both boys and girls) go to school. Pilgrimages are frequently undertaken. Weddings and social festivals (including modern ones like birthday parties) are more lavishly celebrated than ever before.

Yet, in qualitative terms, there is little prospect for inter-generational family advancement and, particularly, for the playing out of the famed Indian demographic dividend. The main reason is that women are becoming even more disadvantaged in this changing scenario. The men of this community willfully refrain from taking advantage of the available opportunities for upward economic mobility in the form of regular and well-paying jobs, preferring instead to earn just enough to finance extended bouts of epicurean pleasure. Regional prosperity is thus leaving families effectively supported by only one earner (the wife). And, unlike in the days when men were the main earners and women carried out subsidiary occupations like working on the family farm, doing occasional wage labour, tending to the family’s domesticated cattle and benefiting from the milk production, processing food for family consumption etc., today this sole woman earner labours under many additional burdens.

One is that of pre-existing undernourishment and anaemia during childhood born out of low social status arising from their being unwanted daughters (and not sons). Married in their early adolescence and now in their 20s as mothers of an average of three children each, the women are thin and anaemic adults having borne the extra burden of childbearing  in a state of nutritional vulnerability. As young wives, daughters-in-law, and mothers, they are expected to take responsibility for the entire housework : cook and clean for the whole family, meet their children’s basic needs, fill drinking water, secure a supply of firewood, milk the occasional goat or cow in the house, look after parents-in-law, and meet family religious and social expectations.  In addition they go out every day to do a full day’s wage work. For all this, they have to draw on their own scarce energy levels, time, effort and monetary resources. In addition, there is the burden of regular domestic violence at the hands of their drunken husbands who continually seek to demonstrate their social and physical power over them, even as they take away their wives’ little bits of carefully collected savings to fund their drinking habits.

Under these circumstances, the prospects for the next generation (of both boys and girls, but even more so for girls whose social devaluation remains unchanged) seem bleak. With no presence of the father in the lives of the children except as negative role models, and with mothers in a permanent state of work, exhaustion and the compulsion to be  responsive to social demands (periodic day-long fasts for the husband’s well-being being the most notorious, followed by pilgrimages, performance of rituals, and cooking for communal celebrations), small children face manifold disadvantages.

Children grow up barely supervised – nutritionally, health-wise, and in terms of behaviourial and mental/emotional stability and development. Their educational development is even more totally unsupervised. Sure, they all ‘go to school’. But what does this mean in qualitative terms for their educational advancement, when school teaching is of poor quality and there is no culture of regular homework or exposure to books or informed communication/discussion with adults at home to offset that?  Daughters can at best hope to be barely literate before they are pulled out of school (well before they reach 10th. grade) and married off. Sons, pampered at home and often playing truant from school,  most likely drop out.  Then, like their fathers, they look for intermittent work, interspersed with long periods of drinking and fun (we have tried employing young men, but it has not worked due to the above reasons). Young adolescent boys in the region are quick to begin chewing mild narcotics laced with tobacco, joining adult men in carpeting the village streets and commons with empty shining foil sachets of the stuff. Drinking, too, begins early, financed by occasional wages taken in from doing temporary jobs. As early as 14 or 15 years of age, they start dreaming of motorcycles. And marriage. Given that girls are not allowed to finish school,adolescent  spouses are readily available.

In such a scenario, it was a brave step indeed when Vinita and Rekha undertook to file FIRs against their abusive husbands. And some of the conditions were propitious. Both sisters had stable jobs, with informed and progressive employers who financed and identified a dedicated lawyer to take up their case. Thus, they had knowledge of and access to the Domestic Violence Act, itself a crucial factor. They also had access to a willing NGO which offered to take up their case and start the work of social mobilization in their village. The police acted on the FIR and arrested the wrongdoer.  The crucial missing link was the willingness of the women to take the next step of defying social convention and risking their reputation as socially compliant women. This, at the present moment, was the most critical step towards breaking the vicious cycle of abuse.  And possibly setting off new gains in their lives.   But one can also sympathise that the women know that they are illiterate and unskilled for anything more than unskilled labour; what would be their future were they were to give up their village and family moorings?

Conditions on the ground, such as the ones described in this story, have implications for the demographic dividend at the macro level. How and when will the tipping point present itself?  At this point in time, I cannot say.


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