The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A slow, mixed change, not always for the better

No one would have remarked if they saw a seven-year-old girl working as a servant in the house next door. Only when her employer's dog bit her to pieces, while she was locked into a dark house with two dogs and an ill old woman, did she become 'visible'. Without the obliging canine, she, like hundreds of her sisters, would have vanished into an untraceable life through the multiple blindnesses that sustain our everyday existence and contribute to the lack of coordination among the numerous laws, policies, programmes, strategies and organizations that could have prevented this horror from happening, or from even being possible.

At which door should it be laid' The law against child labour, the principle of universal elementary education, the efforts to improve the lot of the female child, all programmes directed towards removing a poverty that compels relieved parents to surrender responsibility of their child in exchange for money ' or all of these and much more'

Yet through all this, what perhaps should not be ignored is that the little girl did become visible, to her neighbours, to the police and to the media. She has been rescued from invisibility, as one more tiny indication of the vastness of the invisible, and a reminder ' for those who are open to reminders ' of how much needs to be done. This is precisely what the subtitle of the women's commission's report on the changing status of women in West Bengal underlines. The study is published with the hope, says the editor, Jasodhara Bagchi, 'that it will help the people of West Bengal as well as its policy makers to bring into sharper focus the nature of the challenge that lies ahead...'

What comes through The Changing Status of Women in West Bengal, 1970-2000: The Challenge Ahead (Sage, Rs 850) is a collective effort to tease into visibility the invisible markers that point both to advance and to the persistent lack of it among the women of West Bengal. The essays in the first part, complemented by extensive tables and graphs, reflect the invisibility on many levels, out of which grow the pointed policy recommendations at the end of the report. The gaps in the implementation of policies and programmes, in spite of their comparative success in some spheres, such as education, indicate not only slips in organization and planning, but also the combined force of social resistance, entrenched beliefs and expectations, unawareness, lack of resources as well as an overwhelming need to keep women in their place.

Yet the status of women's education and literacy is more visible than the issues raised by others ' the essay on demography, for example. Commenting on the unchanged social status of widows, the writers quote from Towards Equality, the Indian government's 1975 report on the status of women: 'the standard household-level analysis tells very little about widows and their well-being. Female-headed households are not reported by marital status, so widow-headed households cannot be compared with other households.' This is a typical illustration of the way in which social attitudes, in this case towards widows, affect visibility through data. The impact of society's devaluation of women is brought out paradoxically through what is indubitably an improvement. The life expectancy of women in the state has risen, as if to balance the adverse sex ratio among young children. The result is a larger group of often widowed, less able, older women, perhaps without income or kinship support. The same attitude that destroys female embryos and neglects the baby girl, turns an improvement into a disadvantage.

It is significant that paucity of data most haunts the writing of the chapter on health and nutrition. The obsession of women-targeted health policies with birth control and the badly misapplied phrase, 'family welfare', reflects the dominant perception in society of women as reproductive machines. As long as reproduction is seen as the central, if not the only, 'real' function for women, under-age marriages continue, prompted by other factors such as lower dowry for younger women. The illogic and destructiveness of social attitudes are best demonstrated by the fact that the slow rise in age in marriage for women 'is considered a factor in poor reproductive health'. Still-births and spontaneous abortions, a higher risk of maternal deaths, low- birth-weight babies, premature birth and perinatal deaths are recorded in comparative studies with under-age mothers.

The cycle has to be broken on multiple fronts. Young motherhood puts an end, in most cases, to education. But better educated, or even literate mothers, ensure a better quality of life for her children, show far greater awareness about their health and can contribute to regulating the rise in population. But without a shred of autonomy, women are made to bear the burden of contraception, often through irreversible methods or methods untested or forbidden in other countries. The rise in the use of the condom is very slow, and health policies seem to privilege notions of male pleasure way over the safety and health of women.

The conditions of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (1971) ' trained doctors and government-recognized facilities ' can be met only rarely. Many, therefore, are forced to go to unauthorized places and people for induced abortion. There can be no direct data about this, and it renders completely invisible the unwed pregnant woman. This is one more factor in the fragility of women's lives. From 1990 to 1994, between 11 and 14 per cent of all maternal deaths in rural India were reported to have been caused by 'abortion related complications'. The women died, 'simply because they became pregnant when they did not plan to'.

The fight for equality, for a dignified and fulfilled life, is most difficult because of women's internalization of oppressive and often lethal social values. In an incalculably large number of cases, they will suffer episodic or routine sexual and domestic violence rather than report it. It is remarkable that in spite of this apparently insurmountable hurdle of invisibility, the sphere of law and protest against violence has shown the most progress over the last thirty years. Even if it cannot stem the violence, legal discourse can bring to the forefront destructive social practices by 'naming' them. This is one way of curing traditional cultural blindnesses. Its enormous usefulness is attested to by the fact that no other sphere projects the drama of a changing awareness and status quite so vividly.

The oscillation between reassurance and despair this chapter provokes is almost symbolic of the authors' mixed sense of changes achieved and of the long way ahead. As sex-workers speak up for their rights, women begin to rebel against domestic oppression, trafficking in women and children continues, rapes, child abuse and sexual murders proliferate, and little girls are left at the mercy of their employers' dogs.

What is visible, though, is a slow, mixed change, not always for the better, as the percolation of the dowry system into tribal and minority populations indicates. The changes are evident to an ordinary observer. In a prosperous, agricultural, non-upper-caste, clean little village in Birbhum (the district on which one of the micro-studies in the third part of the volume is based), all the children go to school. Even the high school is accessible. The girls are lively and bright, but most finish schooling at fourteen. A small contingent of aware young men, some illiterate, are trying to persuade parents to let their daughters complete school, but they have not seen much success yet. The essay on education shows that the demand for elementary education for girls has not been adequately created within communities. The women in the village are contented and visibly active. They reinforce the findings of the essay on economic empowerment by being completely unaware of the distinctions among household, home-based and expenditure-saving forms of work, all of which they do. Their economic contribution is invisible.

In this context, it is interesting that the same group of aware young men reacted with hostility when a raped girl refused to marry her attacker whom they had caught and brought before her. It is the beginnings of change that make the challenges starker and more inescapable.

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