1. The marriage age misconception
Addressing poverty is the key to improving the health and nutritional status of mothers and their infants
From the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day, the Prime Minister declared that the government is considering raising the legal age of marriage for girls, which is currently 18 years. He said, “We have formed a committee to ensure that daughters are no longer suffering from malnutrition and they are married off at the right age. As soon as the report is submitted, appropriate decisions will be taken about the age of marriage of daughters.” The Committee in question is the task force set up on June 4, announced earlier by the Finance Minister in her Budget Speech. It is widely understood (but not officially stated) that the task force is meant to produce a rationale for raising the minimum age of marriage for women to 21, thus bringing it on a par with that for men.
- Since there is no obvious constituency that has been demanding such a change, the government seems to be motivated by the belief that simply raising the age of marriage is the best way to improve the health and nutritional status of mothers and their infants. Because it flies in the face of the available evidence, we need to ask where this belief is coming from.
- One plausible source could be those who advocate for population control and who are influential and whose research is well-funded. Consider, for example, an article published in the prestigious journal The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, by Nyugen, Scott, Neupane, Tran and Menon, on May 15, 2019. It was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This article analyses data on stunting in children and thinness in mothers (as measures of under-nourishment) in the latest round of the National Family Health Survey 4 (2015-16). The paper uses rigorous methods to chase a flawed hypothesis. The authors examine the strength of the association between many different causal factors (the mother’s age at childbearing, her educational level, living conditions, health conditions, decision-making power, and so on) and the health status of mother and child. As it turns out, the poverty of the mother plays the greatest role of all by far — both in relation to her undernourishment and that of her child, but this is not acknowledged. The authors only concede that their cross-sectional design (using data from a single time period) “reduces causal inference. For example, becoming pregnant early might lead to reduced education or wealth; however, a woman from a poor background and lower education might be more likely to become pregnant early.” In other words, instead of early pregnancy causing malnourishment, they may both be the consequences of poverty.
- The stated concern of the study was to find ways to break the “intergenerational cycle of undernutrition”. Surely the best way to go about breaking such a cycle would be to pick the factors that are playing the strongest role in perpetuating it. In this case, it would be to address the poverty of the mother, which could be done in a myriad ways, beginning with the most direct method of nutritional programmes for girls and women through a range of institutional mechanisms from Anganwadis to schools. However, the authors choose to concentrate on delaying the age of pregnancy, even though this is the weakest link of all. In fact, age only begins to have some real significance when pregnancies are delayed to ages of 25 and above, which is true of only a minuscule proportion of women in India. The article is unusually generous in its use of the usual scholarly caveats, but leaves itself open to being co-opted by larger agendas driven by the doctrine that “over-population” is the root of all evil in poor countries.
Declining fertility rates
It is unfortunate that such thinking is finding a home in the highest office of the Indian government. Just a year ago, from the ramparts of the same fort, the Prime Minister bluntly declared that “population explosion” was one of India’s major problems. As he put it, “with an ever increasing population, we have to think, can we do justice to the aspirations of our children? Before a child is born in our home, we must ask if we have prepared ourselves to fulfil the child’s needs, or are we going to leave the child to its fate?” Perhaps he (or his advisers) were influenced by the many international reports making alarming predictions about future dystopias that would result if child marriage were not swiftly eliminated in countries like India, which is home to the largest number of underage marriages in the world. It is a pity that those who have the Prime Minister’s ear did not bother to seek the advice of our own demographers who have been studying the apparent link between early marriage and escalating fertility rates for decades. As it turns out, India’s fertility rates have been declining to well below replacement levels in many States, including those with higher levels of child marriage. This could be the reason why those advocating population control have chosen to shift from fuelling fears about booming populations to expressing concern for the undernourishment of children.
Costless and effortless
- Perhaps there is a more cynical reason at work. Raising the age at marriage by amending the law is costless and can be effortlessly achieved by legal fiat. Why not claim that doing so will enhance the welfare of women and children, since addressing the true causes of the poor health and nutrition of mothers and children is too difficult a task? The government will not incur any financial costs for raising the age of marriage of girls from 18 to 21 years. But the change will leave the vast majority of Indian women who marry before they are 21 without the legal protections that the institution of marriage otherwise provides, and make their families criminalisable. Those who fervently believe that the minimum age of men and women should be the same in the name of gender equality can suggest that India follow global norms of 18 years for both.
- Given the present climate, it could even be that this move is partly prompted by a vague belief that child marriage is more prevalent among Muslims and helps them reproduce faster. The evidence shows that this is not true, but such prejudices are inoculated against all evidence. In this context, it is interesting that the States with high mean ages at marriage of 25 years are erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and Goa. Even Kerala (22 years) and Delhi (23 years) have significantly lower mean ages at marriage.
- The proverbial “thinking Indian” — fast becoming an endangered species — has now become accustomed to watching helplessly as acts of state folly unfold. She can also continue to hope for miracles.
2. Should women be entitled to menstrual leave?
Workers in all their diversity need workplaces to acknowledge and accept their differences
- Last week, Zomato announced a new paid menstrual leave policy for its employees, 35% of whom are women. While this is not the first time that a company is announcing such a policy, it has triggered a sharp debate among women themselves on whether this is a progressive move, mere tokenism, or a regressive move. Barkha Dutt and Kavita Krishnan discuss the issue in a conversation moderated by Radhika Santhanam. Edited excerpts:
- Barkha, you tweeted that you are opposed to this policy. Zomato is granting 10 days of leave, and whether women avail it or don’t is up to them; it is a choice. So, why do you think this is a bad idea?
- Barkha Dutt (BD): My opposition does not come from the number of days that Zomato has announced; it comes more from what I believe this policy represents. I have had to fight to go on certain assignments, to be assigned certain kinds of stories. I know how tilted newsrooms are towards the casual hierarchical supremacy of men. Women have had to fight twice as hard to get to the same place as men. Because I am inherently opposed to the gendering of the workplace, I see period leave as the gendering of the workplace, as a statement of biological determinism, as using biology against women to offer equal opportunities and assignments.
- In the nature-versus-nurture debate, I have always been on the side of nurture. I believe that social differences and constructs create our differences, not biological essentialism. And I believe period leave is biological essentialism that my feminism opposes.
- But don’t you think workplaces should be designed taking into consideration the needs of women rather than ignoring them?
- BD: Your question presupposes that it is the need of all women to have a day off. If a woman has a particularly debilitating period, if she has endometriosis or is in a situation where she can’t work, I believe that should qualify under the larger bracket of medical leave.
- I have a problem with all women being generalised as women needing menstrual leave. And if the argument against that is that it cuts into normally assigned medical leave, I do not have a problem if medical leave is extended for both women and men for extenuating circumstances a couple of times a month; leave that a man is also entitled to for different problems that we can’t identify. I have a problem with biology-specified medical leave.
- Kavita, do you think there should be separate menstrual leave or should women just avail of medical leave if they are unable to go to work?
- Kavita Krishnan (KK): I understand and empathise with what Barkha is saying. As women who work in a world which is extremely unfair in so many ways, it is a double bind for many women. Women I have spoken to have asked, do we assert our pain and emotional states around the time of our period or will doing so mean that we are conforming to the patriarchal notion that women are not the same as men or not as good as men?
- I would like to understand this as a fundamental issue of the relationship between gloriously diverse human bodies and social selves and the world of work. Should workplaces be shaped only for an abstract and one-size-fits-all capitalism or should they be shaped keeping in mind the optimum productivity and comfort of diverse human bodies and selves?
- This is a debate that we’ve been having since the 19th century. The debate has been brought up not just in the context of women, but even when it came to the human right to sleep; for an eight-hour workday; for weekends; for bathroom breaks; for food breaks — all these are seen as time stolen from the labour time that the capitalist has bought. I feel that places of work should be reshaped to acknowledge these social divisions and that will help people be more productive.
- Also, I am not at all in favour of medicalising menstruation. I don’t think this is about a medical issue, about debilitating pain. It is about our being differently productive around those times and our being able to avail of those differently productive times.
- Could you elaborate on how we should reshape workplaces for diverse bodies and selves?
- KK: Let me quote the anthropologist Emily Martin here: “Women are perceived as malfunctioning and their hormones [as] out of balance, rather than seeing the organization of society and work perceived in need of a transformation to demand less constant and disciplined productivity of a certain kind.”
- So, the idea is that women are more creative around their period, whereas meeting deadlines and doing certain kinds of work may not be what those particular women choose to do at the time. And this is about women, menstruating people, people with a variety of different abilities and disabilities. Let me give you a simple example: we say ramps should be in places so that people with wheelchairs are able to access these places. Would that be biological determinism? Would we say then that biology is coming in the way of equality?
- BD: I see Kavita’s point about diverse selves and the relationship between diverse selves and workplace. And if that is the conversation, if the conversation was not so gendered, I would have been a lot more comfortable with it. I would have been comfortable with the conversation being about easy access to sanitary pads or separate bathrooms — 20% of Indian girls drop out of school after reaching puberty, according to the United Nations. And in large part this happens because of the stigma that continues to exist in large parts of the country around menstruation. So, the conversations I want to have are about destigmatising menstruation, diversity at the workplace, access to sanitary pads or menstrual cups, why religious orthodoxy looks at menstruation as impure, etc.
- If I am a woman fighting to have women as infantry soldiers in the military, and we have a gendered leave policy, can we as women ask to be soldiers on the front-lines? Can we ask to be deployed in conflict zones? The moment we gender our leave policies, we gender our assignments.
- Weren’t these the same arguments that were used even when women fought for maternity leave? That they wouldn’t be able to do certain jobs? But feminists fought for it.
- BD: Which is why my battle is for parenting leave. There are people who adopt children and that relationship is also no less. If we are truly evolved, we should encourage the same kind of leave for men.
- Yes, but parenting does involve the participation of men and women, whereas only women get their period.
- BD: So, even if I have no problem during my period, I should get leave because it is specific to my biology? Even if I have no pain, nothing? Parenting is not the same thing as our monthly period. Even our notions of maternity leave are evolving. The most involved organisations have family leave. If there is no equality at home, there is no equality at work. And if we place the responsibility of parenting entirely on women, through some romantic notion of how our biological differences make us different from men, we confirm stereotypes.
- KK: But we are different. There are biological differences, and not just between men and women. If someone requires a wheelchair, we would expect the workplace to be designed to ensure that that person is able to access the workplace and be their best there. People in wheelchairs will be told they can’t do certain jobs. But would we accept that? No, we should be able to redesign workplaces so that all of us can access those spaces. My arguments are not just about gendered differences. My arguments are that workers in all their diversity need workplaces to acknowledge how they are treated.
- And let me tell you, period leave in India isn’t some fancy thing that Zomato has just introduced. In Bihar, government employees have availed of it since the 1990s. They asked for it, got it and have been quietly availing of it since then. We went and asked them about their experiences — has it meant more discrimination, have they been treated more differently — and they argued that differential treatment happened even before they had this leave. That differential treatment requires just various excuses and this is just one excuse among men.
- Barkha, you had said on Twitter that such a policy would shut the doors for women and that you would shut them too for someone who thinks this is a good time to take off. Do you still stand by that?
- BD: I think my comment has been totally misrepresented. I do believe many doors will shut for women with a generalised period leave and I believe that someone like me would no longer be able to argue that all jobs and all roles should be kept open for women. Think once again about reporting or fighting war or going into space. It is not because I don’t report on what could be unique female experiences. During my four months on the road reporting COVID-19 for example, one of my reports was the story of a female nurse and her experience bleeding in a PPE. I also had my period twice while wearing a PPE inside a COVID-19 hospital and it was a traumatic experience but nothing that would make me step back from the chance of reporting that very story with all its difficulties. Again, to repeat, once we start accepting the specificity of gender, it weakens our argument against gender barriers. Let us talk in more general, less-gendered terms of an inclusive, equal work space.
- KK: I would also like to respond to this. Any demand for equality and dignity at work has been a pretext for shutting the door on women. For that matter, even men availing of parental leave are subjected to discrimination. The idea that women demanding or availing of period leave should/would be sacked is much like the idea that women complaining of sexual harassment at work should/would be sacked, or would not be hired.
- Isn’t it a biological stereotype to assume that menstruating bodies (or bodies needing wheelchairs) be treated exactly as bodies that do not menstruate or need wheelchairs? I think gender blindness does not bring gender equality. Rather, being blind to gender diversity (and other bodily and social diversities) leads workplaces to be wilfully blind to the various kinds of gender and social discriminations.
- Kavita, since you think that period leave should be given, what do you think is the ideal number of days? Do you see this being implemented in the near future?
- KK: I don’t think I or anyone can suggest an “ideal” number of days for period leave. We are in times when employees and workers are having to struggle to defend and implement every single labour law. Even maternity leave and benefits are mostly implemented only where there are unions to fight for implementation. Otherwise, the laws are flouted by employers. The same holds for period leave.
3. Indore wins cleanest city title again
Survey of sanitation in over 4,000 cities was carried out over 28 days earlier this year
- For the fourth year in a row, Indore has been ranked the cleanest city in the country, according to a Swachh Survekshan 2020 report released by the Union Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry on Thursday.
- The survey of sanitation in over 4,000 cities was carried out over 28 days earlier this year.
- The Ministry released the findings through a virtual event that was supposed to be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but he could not make it.
- Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Puri said Swachh Survekshan, in its fifth edition, had become the world’s largest sanitation survey, with 1.8 crore citizens giving their feedback.
- Among the cities with over 1 lakh population, Indore was ranked number one, followed by Surat, Navi Mumbai, Ambikapur, Mysore, Vijayawada, Ahmedabad, New Delhi, Chandrapur and Khargone. Among smaller cities, with population under 1 lakh, the top three cities — Karad, Sasvad and Lonavala — were all from Maharashtra.
- Chhattisgarh was ranked the cleanest State out of those with over 100 cities, while Jharkhand was the cleanest among those with fewer than 100 urban local bodies (ULBs) or cities. In the category of “Ganga towns”, Varanasi, Mr. Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency, was ranked the cleanest.
- Jalandhar got the top rank among cantonments and New Delhi was the cleanest capital city.
- Speaking about the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM)-Urban, Mr. Puri said it had had a deep impact on health, livelihoods, quality of life and behaviour, which had come in handy when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
- When the mission was launched in 2014, waste processing was 18%. Now it had increased to 66%. Earlier in the event, Housing and Urban Affairs Secretary Durga Shanker Mishra said Swachh Survekshan, which began with a survey of 73 cities in 2016, had grown to cover 4,242 cities, 62 cantonment boards and 97 “Ganga towns” in 2020. Survey teams visited 58,000 residential and 20,000 commercial areas in 28 days, while 1.87 crore citizens’ feedbacks were received.
- Mr. Mishra told presspersons later in the day that the Ministry was actively working on coming up with a second phase of the SBM-Urban, which was initially supposed to be till March 2020 but was extended till March 2021.
- He said “SBM 2.0” should be finalised before the end of the current phase.
- The goal of the second phase would be take targets further, than making cities open defecation-free, to also include 100% sludge management and zero dumping of waste in the open.
Swachh Survekshan is a ranking exercise taken up by the Government of India to assess rural and urban areas for their levels of cleanliness and active implementation of Swachhata mission initiatives in a timely and innovative manner.
The objective of the survey is to encourage large scale citizen participation and create awareness amongst all sections of society about the importance of working together towards making towns and cities a better place to live in. Additionally, the survey also intends to foster a spirit of healthy competition among towns and cities to improve their service delivery to citizens, towards creating cleaner cities and towns.
The Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India takes up the Swachh Survekshan in urban areas and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation in rural areas. The Quality Council of India (QCI) has been commissioned the responsibility of carrying out the assessment.
Swachh Survekshan – Urban
Since the start of SBM in 2014, urban areas of 23 states / UTs have become ODF, and more than 94% cities are already ODF. Nearly 63 lakh individual household toilets (94% progress), and more than 5 lakh community / public toilet seats (more than 100% progress) have been constructed. Parallelly, more than 42,000 public toilet blocks across 1400 cities have been mapped and visible on Google maps. The Google toilet locator also provides an option for citizens to provide their feedback after using the toilets. Waste processing has gone up to 52% (compared to a mere 18% at the start of the Mission).
Swachh Survekshan 2020
Swachh Survekshan 2020 is the fifth edition of the annual cleanliness urban survey conducted by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), Government of India. Swachh Survekshan 2020 surveyed a total of 4242 cities, 62 Cantonment Boards and 97 Ganga Towns and saw an unprecedented participation of 1.87 crore citizens.
- Indore Creates Record by Winning Title of Cleanest City Fourth Time in A Row
- Surat And Navi Mumbai Secure Second and Third Position Respectively
- Chhattisgarh Declared Cleanest State In >100 ULB Category
- Jharkhand Declared Cleanest State In <100 ULB Category State
- SS 2020 Survey Report Released Along With Reports On Innovations And Best Practices And Report On Assessment Of Ganga Towns
- 4,324 Urban Ulbs Declared Odf So Far
- 1,319 Cities Certified ODF+ and 489 Cities Certified ODF++
- More than 66 Lakhs Individual Household Toilets And Over 6 Lakhs Community/ Public Toilets Constructed
- Over 59,900 Toilets Across 2900+ Cities Made Live on Google Maps
- Cities Of Indore, Ambikapur, Navi Mumbai, Surat, Rajkot And Mysuru Rated As 5-Star Cities, 86 Cities As 3-Star And 64 Cities As 1-Star