Recent Resources for Feminists
China: Kong Ning, brave woman jailer-turned-lawyer-turned-artist, urges speedy end to death penalty Print E-mail

 Wednesday December 31, 2014

Will China abolish death penalty?

By Lijia Zhang, INYT

Only two decades ago, capital punishment was simply not discussed. Now, it has become a public issue.

There was an ear-splitting whistle and Kong Ning, a young supervising officer from Beijing, saw blood spurt from the bodies of the 34 prisoners, all men in their 20s and 30s, kneeling in a row in front of her. One man's head was blown off completely. She collapsed on the muddy ground.

Kong was traumatised by the executions, which she watched over on a bitterly cold day in November 1983, when China's first wave of "strike-hard" campaigns against rising crime was in full swing.

After the event, she quit her job and became a lawyer in the hope of defending people unjustly accused of crime. But over the years, she suffered several mental breakdowns, at one point being admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a few months. Now, she always dresses in black - and she always wears a bulletproof vest.

In 2006, she started to paint, primarily as a way to cope with the trauma that had changed her life.

Kong Ning holds a Smog Baby oil painting on the street. Photo: Courtesy of Kong Ning

She has also staged performances, reliving that terrifying incident. Beyond the forays into art, Kong tells her story every chance she gets, hoping to expose the cruelty of the death penalty, calling for its abolition in China and the rest of the world. Her story and interviews have been published in art magazines and have been circulated on the Internet.

This jailer-turned-lawyer-turned-artist may be one of a kind. But Kong is not alone. In addition to a band of committed and courageous human rights lawyers, there are others publicly advocating the abolition of capital punishment.

The subject has also caught on with the general public. In the past decade, there has been increased debate among Chinese people, often triggered by high-profile cases such as those involving a cop-killer, Yang Jia, or an illegal fund-raiser, Wu Ying. Only two decades ago, a topic like the death penalty - involving the state's administration of justice - was just not part of the public dialogue.

But people now have greater freedom to express themselves, especially on the Internet. Also, since everything regarding the death penalty is shrouded in secrecy (the number of executions is still a state secret), the public is interested in any small bits of information that slowly emerge. At the end of 2011, images of prisoners on death row at a Wuhan prison were leaked on the Internet and sparked a fresh round of discussion.

A majority of Chinese people support capital punishment, often citing the traditional saying "to repay a tooth with a tooth and to pay back blood with blood." Such an attitude isn't too surprising for a culture that places less importance on individual life than does the Western humanist tradition.

But as China's engagement with the rest of the world deepens, views are changing. Many Chinese have learned that most European countries and many states in America have banned capital punishment. And more and more people, particularly those who are better educated, have accepted the concept of respecting human life, human dignity and human rights, even the rights of a criminal.

This change of attitude is reflected in a steady decline in public support for capital punishment. In 1995, a survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Science indicated that 95 per cent of ordinary Chinese supported the death penalty; in 2003, an online survey showed that some 83 per cent of those polled opposed abolition, but by 2008, the percentage of opposition was reduced to 67 per cent, according to an online survey by Sina, a popular website.

In this survey, some 22 per cent indicated that they believed China ought to reduce the use of the death penalty, especially for nonviolent crimes. In addition, the death penalty happens to be one of the topics for open discussion that is now tolerated by the authorities.

Capital punishment has always been used by the Chinese Communists to maintain social stability, political order and to curb crime. In 1983, as a result of the strike-hard campaign, the power to approve capital punishment was given to the high court of each province - and it is believed that 24,000 death sentences were issued that year. Some criminals met their deaths for nonviolent offences, such as selling fake train tickets.

Prisoners on death row were also treated badly. Kong recalls how the 34 prisoners killed on her watch were awoken at 4 am on the day of their execution, told bluntly that their appeals had been rejected and that they would be shot that very day.

On way to death
Prison officials then tied the hands of the condemned men behind their backs, and the cuffs of their uniform pants were tightly fastened with hemp string - this way if a prisoner lost control of his bowels he would not soil the floor too much. To calm them down, prisoners were injected with a tranquiliser through their padded cotton pants. Then officials force-fed them steamed bread rolls for a last meal.

There has been progress since then. Prisoners on death row are now allowed to wash and even order their favourite dishes before heading to the execution ground. And more importantly, China has carried out fewer and fewer executions over the years. This trend has become more pronounced since 2007, when the Supreme People's Court took back the power to review death sentences from the provincial courts.

Perhaps the authorities are making an effort to minimise the fact that China executes more people than the rest of the world combined. Perhaps our leaders are reducing the use of the death penalty to showcase their determination to shift toward the rule of law.

In October, Beijing announced a proposal to remove an additional nine nonviolent crimes from the list of offences punishable by capital punishment, including illegal fund-raising and weapons smuggling. Other intended reforms include reducing the judicial use of capital punishment and amending procedural law to control its use.

Such positive measures are clearly in response to changing public opinion. "We must learn to respect life and slowly abolish the death penalty in China," said the artist Kong Ning. The public and the authorities are coming around, but we shouldn't move too slowly.

Burma: Multi-bn dollar Dawei SEZ [deep-sea port] project destroys women's livelihoods Print E-mail
  Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Women's Livelihoods Undermined by Dawei SEZ: Report


Representatives of the Tavoyan Women's Union at the launch of "Our Lives, Not For Sale" in Rangoon on Wednesday. (Photo: Nang Seng Nom /The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON: The Tavoyan Women's Union (TWU) called for the immediate cancellation of the Dawei special Economic Zone (SEZ), in part due to its damaging impact on Tavoyan women, in a new report launched in Rangoon on Wednesday. 

The group's report, "Our Lives, Not For Sale," focuses on the impact of the multi-billion dollar Dawei SEZ on local women, drawing on interviews conducted with 60 women from six villages in Yephyu Township, close to where the deep-sea port is being built.

More than 10,000 people live in these six villages, according to government figures recorded at the start of the project. Interviews for the report were conducted between September 2013 and September 2014.

"Our main finding from this research is that women's lives are getting more difficult due to the project, " Soe Soe Nwe, research coordinator for the report, told The Irrawaddy.

"The rate of children dropping out of school is higher [and] more young women have left for Thailand to work."

According to the report, almost all the women interviewed have lost sources of income since the project began, due to land confiscation, destruction of farmlands and restricted access to the coast.

Forty-nine of the 60 women have taken their children out of school since the project started.

Traditional livelihoods, such as shellfish collection carried out by women, have been "drastically affected" by the project. "Just over a third of the women now have no income at all from their former livelihoods," the report said.

Speaking at the report's launch in Rangoon, Kay Kahing Yu, a villager from Mayingyi in Yephyu Township, said that the project's development had led to the destruction of fields and crops, as well as reduced yields.

"Usually we grow rice only in the monsoon season, which is enough for us to eat for the whole year. Since the [Dawei SEZ] project arrived, due to a mine at the mountain, our paddy fields were destroyed [as water became polluted]," Kay Kahing Yu said.

"Now, the yields from our paddy fields are not even enough to eat for six months.... When we went to talk with the company [Italian-Thai Development], they promised us compensation, but we still haven't received it."

The report also urged the Thai and Burmese governments, and project developers, to return confiscated land to landowners and to offer adequate compensation for damaged or confiscated land.

Yi Yi Htwe, the secretary of the Dawei Farmers Union, said the price of land in Dawei skyrocketed within a year of the project's launch and locals could no longer afford to buy land in the area.

"Suddenly we were forced to sell our land," Yi Yi Htwe said. "Farmers have no money now. There is no farmland to work on anymore. We can't even afford a plot of land in our area now due to higher prices."

Egypt: FGM a mockery of 2011 Revolution, and still prevalent despite 2008 ban Print E-mail
 Tuesday December 23, 2014

Fighting female genital mutilation

By Mona Eltahawy, INYT

We hack away at perfectly healthy parts of our girls' genitals because we're obsessed with female virginity.

I am a 47-year-old Egyptian woman. And I am among the fortunate few of my countrywomen whose genitals have not been cut in the name of "purity" and the control of our sexuality.

Egyptian government figures put the rate of female genital mutilation among women ages 15 to 49 at 91 per cent. Among teenagers 15 to 17, it is 74 per cent. Unicef estimates that of the 125 million women worldwide who have undergone genital cutting in the 29 countries where it is most prevalent - mostly in Africa and the Middle East - one in five lives in Egypt.

Other than the tireless Egyptian activists who for years have fought to eradicate it, very few talk about a practice that brings nothing but harm to so many girls and women. In her books, the feminist Nawal El Saadawi has long documented her own cutting at the age of 6 and her tenacious campaign against a practice that is carried out by both Muslims and Christians in Egypt.

But why aren't other prominent women speaking out by sharing their own experience of surviving genital cutting? The silence comes at a great cost.

Many international treaties designate female genital mutilation a violation of the human rights of girls and women. On October 30, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, announced a global campaign to end it within a generation.

Egypt first banned the practice in 1959, and then permitted it again in some forms. When Egypt hosted the 1994 United Nations Population Conference, it was embarrassed by a CNN report that showed a cutting procedure, despite official claims that it was no longer practiced.

The government then allowed "medical" genital cutting - in which the procedure is carried out in a medical environment or by a medical professional - until 2008, when a universal ban was imposed after a 12-year-old girl died the previous year during a procedure in a clinic.

The practice is sometimes erroneously referred to as circumcision. According to the World Health Organisation, it "comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for nonmedical reasons."

The procedure has no health benefits. We hack away at perfectly healthy parts of our girls' genitals because we're obsessed with female virginity and because women's sexuality is a taboo. This cutting is believed to reduce a girl's sex drive. And families believe their daughters are unmarriageable unless they are cut.

In a BBC report broadcast to coincide with the current trial in Egypt, a traditional midwife boasted that despite the ban, she had a waiting list of mothers who wanted their daughters to be cut. The Guardian reported that many in the village where Soheir al-Batea lived believed that genital cutting was prescribed by Islam.

The grand mufti of Egypt pronounced it un-Islamic in 2007, but some local imams persist in attributing the practice to a saying of the Prophet Mohammad. Across Africa, Christians and animists follow the custom as well.

The 2008 Egyptian ban, which imposes sentences of up to two years in prison or fines of up to 5,000 Egyptian pounds (about $700), has done little to curb the practice.
"Medicalised" cutting is at 77 per cent - up from 55 per cent 20 years ago.

When I interviewed a 53-year-old survivor of the practice in Cairo for a BBC radio documentary about women in the Middle East, she told me, "It must be carried out, because that's the way to maintain the purity of girls, to make sure that the girl is not out of control. We don't care if it's against the law or if they're trying to stop it. We know doctors who are willing to continue and have done so."

Laws not enough
Laws are not enough. Countries that have succeeded in lowering the rate of female genital mutilation, like Senegal, have used varied methods: alternative rites of passage into womanhood, campaigns in which brides and bridegrooms state that they both reject the custom, and the involvement of clerics and priests.

Higher education levels, family relocation to big cities and sometimes the death of the family patriarch can make a difference. Some of these factors helped my own extended family end the practice. Mothers must not bear the blame alone.

They subject their daughters to the same harm and pain that they themselves experienced because they understand what is required of their daughters in order to be married. Our society must learn to stop brutalising girls in the name of controlling their sex drive.

We need nothing short of a recognition that ending female genital mutilation is part of the "social justice and human dignity" revolution that we began in Egypt in January 2011. We can better protect our girls when we recognise that those chants of our revolution are essentially demands for autonomy and consent - for all.


India: V Rukmini Rao, feminist extraordinaire, "Woman of the Year 2014" Print E-mail

 December 21 2014
Cover Story WOMAN OF THE YEAR 2014


By Kallol Bhattacherjee Photos by Sanjay Ahlawat
For the young tribal girls of Nalgonda, she bore the gift of life.
Meet V. Rukmini Rao, THE WEEK's Woman of the

Scroll down to also read more via "Rescuing Infants to Empowering Women" in pdf and text formats
  Welcome to life: Mothers now join their kids to benefit from the bridge-schools opened by Rukmini, who appears delighted to welcome a young entrant.

The city of Hyderabad is no stranger to acts of revolt. Still, on a fine morning in December 1974, the city woke up in shock to the news that Rukmini, the 24-year-old daughter of Raja Jagpal Rao, the jagirdar of Rajapet principality, and the wife of a prominent landlord in the city, had run off with her lover to Delhi, leaving behind her four-year-old son. Rukmini was teaching literature at St Francis College when she fell in love with a statistician from Karnataka, who swore by maths and Marx. His revolutionary fervour inspired Rukmini to give up her comfortable, yet predictable life, and embark on a journey in search of the unknown.

Those were turbulent times. The Jayaprakash Narayan movement had shaken the foundations of the Indira Gandhi government. A slew of protests and insurrections like railway strikes and the Naxalite movement created a heady combination of personal and political liberation for the Indian youth. Like the rest of India, Hyderabad and its traditional landholding society, too, were not untouched by the rebellious spirit, although the elites went on with their life of leisure and luxury.

Rukmini spent six years of her marriage raising her son Rohit, serving an army of in-laws and teaching literature. But the certainty and security of the life with her landlord in-laws, their extravagant lifestyle, elaborate cooking and sumptuous dining, bored her. Yet, Delhi in that winter posed before her more questions than she had anticipated. The biggest problem was staying away from her son as her husband's family refused to send him to her.

She could not find a job initially, while her lover, who married her later, got a job at the National Labour Institute. Rukmini, too, joined the institute as a researcher, just before the Emergency was declared. By then, she had fallen in love again, this time with her gender. She felt proud of being a woman and sported a big red bindi on her forehead, just to make a statement.

The reasons behind the feminist turn existed both at home and outside. She drew inspiration from her mother and grandmother, who were strong-willed women. Another issue that attracted Rukmini's attention was the story of Mathura, a teenaged victim of custodial rape. Mathura was a tribal girl from Chandrapur district in Maharashtra, who was allegedly raped in police custody on March 26, 1972. From her days as a young teacher in Hyderabad, Rukmini had been keeping track of the case and she was disturbed by the way it was being handled in court. The dominant line of argument was that Mathura had invited the rape upon herself as she was sexually active in her mid-teens.

The way women like Mathura were treated in India, be it in courtrooms or bedrooms, made her angry. And, that fire, which was lit in the 1970s, continues to guide Rukmini, better known today as V. Rukmini Rao, who now runs a number of organisations that are spurred by her quest for a gender-just India.

BY THE MID 1970s, a construction boom in Delhi attracted a large number of migrant workers, who chose to settle in Nizamuddin Basti, New Seemapuri and East Delhi across the Yamuna. Women from these settlements, who were suffering from domestic violence, used to approach Rukmini and her women colleagues for help. "Often, the women who would come to us were in a serious condition and we had to take them to hospital. We told them that they should be proud of their bodies and the man of the house had no right to assault them and that their hard work deserved respect. It was difficult to make the women rebellious, but we succeeded in turning them into small-time entrepreneurs," says Rukmini. "Once they had some money in hand, they started resisting drunken beatings at home. We saw these victims transform into confrontationists in six to seven months, and the experience was so magical that it changed all those who were involved with the process at that time."

Domestic violence, forced sterilisation, maternal health problems and neglect of women's economic needs were some of the issues that Rukmini sought to address as she set up Stree Sangharsh Samiti in 1976 along with a few friends. Her work was noticed by leading women activists of the time, Vina Mazumdar and Lotika Sarkar of Delhi University. After seeing Rukmini's dedication in providing health care facilities to the women of Nizamuddin Basti, Vina motivated her to create her own brand of street-smart feminist strategies. Rukmini and her friends subsequently opened a shelter for abused women in Nizamuddin Basti.

A few years later, Rukmini and her colleagues received a rude shock when the suspects in the Mathura rape case were acquitted by the Supreme Court. The verdict, which came in September 1979, nearly blamed the girl for the rape. Outrage poured out on the streets of Delhi, and Rukmini led from the front along with Lotika and Vina. They also pushed for a reform of the laws about custodial rape.

In 1980, the annual meeting of the Stree Sangharsh Samiti decided to bring together women's organisations across the country under one umbrella. Thus was born Saheli, which opened with a campaign against the displacement of women workers before the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi. Prime minister Indira Gandhi had given her son Rajiv the task of overseeing preparations for the games. The labourers who toiled at the construction sites were asked to leave the city before the games opened so as to present a picture-perfect Delhi to the world. Rukmini alongside another firebrand activist, Bharati Roychowdhury, organised rallies against the government's decision. Although the Asian Games went ahead without a hitch, Saheli's moment of glory came a year later when anti-rape laws were amended and the suspects of the Mathura rape case were found guilty by a different bench of the Supreme Court.

Following her success in Delhi, Rukmini wanted to take Saheli's message to the smaller towns and cities. But, trouble was brewing at home. Her husband got fed up with her revolutionary feminism and demanded that she should pay more attention to her own home and bear him a child. Rukmini found his demand reasonable, but she was soon caught up with the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The riots left thousands of women and children homeless and vulnerable, and Rukmini devoted much of her time to their relief and rehabilitation. Her personal life became nearly nonexistent and she told her husband that it would not be possible for her to bear him a child. Disappointed, he turned to alcohol, and Rukmini's life soon featured things that she deeply despised. She needed a refuge and the first place that came to her mind was her beloved Hyderabad. She moved back to her hometown in 1986. But she says she had been toying with the idea of relocating to Hyderabad even before that, as she wanted to spend more time with her teenaged son.

By the time Rukmini returned, Hyderabad had undergone a major political transformation with the Telugu Desam Party in power in Andhra Pradesh and a bunch of bureaucrats keen on bringing about social change. In 1989, she joined the Deccan Development Society (DDS) which was set up by her friends to create awareness, especially among the tribes of the Deccan, about the government's social welfare schemes. Following the Roop Kanwar case in September 1987, more and more people started flocking to the office of the DDS. Roop, a Rajput wife from Rajasthan, committed sati by jumping into her husband's funeral pyre. Rukmini's small office soon became a prominent spot where women with their myriad problems of domestic violence and economic issues would routinely gather.

It was at this time that Rukmini first heard about girl children being discarded at hospitals and other social welfare centres. She found that most parents who killed or sold their girls were the Lambadas and the Koyas, the two main tribal groups of Andhra Pradesh.

The Lambadas are nomads, who were once known for their sturdiness and healthy food habits. But, the pressure of urbanisation and dwindling land holdings played havoc with them, and by the late 1980s, they started abandoning the girl child as a solution for their economic travails. After a large number of female infanticides were reported from Nalgonda, Rukmini intensified her work in the district.

In the summer of 1993 came the infamous rat-poison incident, when an anonymous caller informed Rukmini that a ritual female infanticide had begun in a Lambada village in Nalgonda. It involved killing a girl child with a pellet of rat poison. The caller hung up after asking Rukmini to save the child. Scared and short of options, she called the authorities, but was told that the child would be dead by the time the law enforcement authorities reached the village. One particular official, whom Rukmini would not name now, asked her to save the baby and promised her police backup. "The official was frank enough to admit that non-government workers and activists were needed to resolve such emergency issues," she says. Rukmini reached the village just in time and saved not just the child, but also her twin sister. The incident opened her eyes to a whole lot of issues among the tribals, such as child trafficking, violence against women and deprivation of their right to forest land.

Rukmini realised that there was a strong economic reason for the Lambadas to either sell their baby daughters to adoption rackets or just kill them. Out of that realisation was born Gramya, the fourth organisation that she set up to safeguard baby girls belonging to marginalised communities and to fight for women's rights. Rukmini built a rudimentary shelter-cum-bridge-school in Nalgonda district for local tribal women and abandoned babies. It was called bridge-school as it was designed to bring up Lambada kids till they could be sent to government-run hostels for free education. Young tribal couples initially mistook it for an orphanage.

Rukmini had a tough job. She had to save the young girls from certain death in the hands of their parents and then ensure them a secure future. "Initially, when the tribals heard of the bridge-school, some parents came with requests to keep their newborn daughters with me, but we had to convince them that the child would not survive without her mother's milk. We had to motivate the families continuously citing government schemes that promoted education and health of the girls and told them that their children would grow up to be a support for them," she says.

For Rukmini and her team, preventing imminent infanticides was one part of the struggle, but an equally challenging and long-drawn-out struggle was to ensure that the girls, who survived the rat poison, were not subsequently killed by malnutrition and negligence. In this endeavour, Rukmini says Gramya benefited from the sympathetic administrative class in Hyderabad, and even the Naxalites who never hurt Rukmini's staff and the tribals who sought her help. The opposition came from Hyderabad-based rackets, which had made a fortune by selling the Lambada babies abroad. Faced with the prospect of their source of babies drying up, they tried to intimidate Rukmini. She says she survived with the support of the government and the people.

To make Gramya successful, Rukmini and her colleagues Jamuna and Ratnamala had to innovate. In the Naxalite-dominated areas, they recruited primary school teachers as their local intelligence providers, who could go around, keeping a close watch on baby girls. "In many cases, we had to adopt a carrot-and-stick policy to save the children and tell the parents that the government would take stern action if their children went missing," she says.

At the bridge-school, the children are divided into three groups. The first group of pre-schoolers who were saved from certain death are looked after by an all-female staff till they turn five. Kids from ages five to nine form the second group and they join government schools at class five. The third group consists of children who are ready to move out to social welfare hostels run by the government and join class six in government schools. Rukmini says the day a particular group moves out is emotionally draining for her and her colleagues.

The current infrastructure of Gramya came up after nearly 20 years of struggle by Rukmini and her colleagues. The bridge-school, by now, has become such a success that even Lambada mothers can be seen coming once in a while to study along with their tiny girls whom they once wanted to give away.

It is difficult to explain what prompted the Lambadas and Koyas, who have always been proud of their womenfolk, to write off their baby daughters. Rukmini feels that some communities believe they can come up with solutions to deal with the challenges to their lives probably by killing the weakest among them. "Historically the Lambadas and Koyas respected their sturdy women. But what prompted the baby slaughter of the 1980s and the 1990s in their community is not yet known. But thankfully there is greater awareness that they will become extinct if female infanticide continues," says Sumalatha, one of the many Lambada volunteers who work as the eyes and ears of Gramya in the villages of Nalgonda. Rukmini says the Lambada girls are a lot like her grandmother, a feisty Telugu matriarch, who had asked her children to have at least one girl child to keep the "house under control".

With the success of Gramya, Rukmini has become a legend among her peers and her diverse work includes international consultancy and even solving a fight or two among young colleagues in Hyderabad and Delhi. Even at 64, she has not mellowed, but physical problems have started bothering her. Her knees hurt while climbing stairs and she needs to watch her diet. But age does not bother her, nor does it make her seek the support of her son Rohit, who lives in the US with his wife and two sons.

Some years ago, Rukmini's mentor, Lotika, ran into a property dispute involving her relatives. She was in her 80s when it started and it went on till she died in 2010. Lotika's condition and the issue of safety of elderly single women prompted Rukmini to launch the Hyderabad chapter of Ekal Mahila Sangathan, an all-India network of single women in need of financial and health security. Today, there are more than 400 single women of varying ages who are members of the Hyderabad chapter of the organisation.

From the big cities of Hyderabad and Delhi to the remote villages of Nalgonda, Rukmini's stamp is visible on a range of issues, organisations and support systems. It has not been easy and has required enormous personal sacrifice. But, she says the support and love of her son, who understood her spirit, has helped her a lot. "Many women suffer in silence. I suggest that we break our silence and help others in breaking theirs. This helps because many men have come forward to support the right cause," she says.

The biggest acknowledgement of Rukmini's work comes from the Lambada fathers who walk up to her and say they have named their daughters after her. Yet, she does not get moist-eyed. Instead, she asks, "It's time for a celebratory drink, right?"

The argumentative Indian

By Kallol Bhattacherjee

  V. Rukmini Rao. Photo by Sanjay Ahlawat

There is not a moment of boredom while you are with Rukmini. She has an opinion on everything. From sex-selection tests, abortion and gay and lesbian rights to rather harmless ones like which restaurants are doing justice to the name and glory of the Hyderabadi biryani and the Andhra platter, Rukmini is ready with sharp arguments. She says she has sharpened her skills of argument from her university days and honed them to perfection during her street-fighting days in Delhi.

Her love for arguments also stems from her deep desire that society, which takes academics and armchair pundits seriously, should give importance to the opinions of the activists as well. "In the early 1970s, people used to think we were a misguided bunch, who always rushed to government offices to argue the cases of vulnerable women and children. We became branded as activists. While activists in Delhi, Mumbai and other metros like Aruna Roy, Medha Patkar and some of us at Saheli were taken seriously, most others were not, as they were not from the big cities. So my fight has also been to make the activists' voice count in policy-making," she says.

While she is a legend among the feminists, Rukmini does not mind that she is not a celebrity even at a time when Arvind Kejriwal and his ilk have turned nearly every available activist into vote-catching machines. She refuses to blame Kejriwal for diluting the agenda of the civil society movements by absorbing their leading lights into his Aam Aadmi Party. "It was impossible not to be roused by the corruption of the UPA regime," she says, but quickly adds that she is not at all happy with some of the BJP leaders hinting at a squeeze on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. "Before drying up funds for right to employment, these new leaders of our country should make an effort to live in the villages," she says. Governments must understand, says Rukmini, that they have a mandate of five years, but an activist has a commitment of a lifetime to issues close to her heart.

Submerging dreams

By Kallol Bhattacherjee

  United colours: Rukmini with a group of single Lambada women, who are facing problems after their tribe adopted urban practices like the dowry system.

The Lambada women are known for their silver anklets, heavy mirror-embossed scarves and conch bangles. The silver anklets are believed to drive away snakes. A woman has to be really sturdy to wear so many ornaments while working in the fields. But somewhere in the middle of the last century, the respect accorded to the women started fading with the Lambadas adopting urban practices like the dowry system.

As Rukmini Rao first began investigating the reasons for the irrational female infanticides among the tribes of the Deccan, she stumbled upon the fact that they were under pressure from the engine of development in modern Andhra's big cities. Agriculture, which was their main source of livelihood, became less profitable with the loss of forest land and the dwindling number of animals on their farms, making the Lambadas debt-ridden, depressed and suicidal. They were deeply patriarchal, and the threat of dislocation, the absence of stable income and the practice of dowry made matters worse, and the community began treating its girl children as evil that should be eliminated.

Years later, Rukmini sees a similar threat to the Koya community from the Polavaram dam, which is being built on the edge of Khammam and East Godavari districts. She says the dam will submerge the agricultural area used by the Koya tribes and, being politically weak, they have little chance of getting a fair rehabilitation package. It could create a second Narmada valley syndrome, forcing hundreds of thousands of vulnerable tribal people to move to nearby cities of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Odisha.

"I am not against development," says Rukmini. "I am trying to bring the welfare measures of the state to the target groups like the Lambadas and Koyas. But I am not going to support actions by the state that will ultimately undo the welfare measures of the state itself.


  23rd December 2014, page 1

Rescuing Infants to Empowering Women

By Rajitha S

HYDERABAD: It was almost 40 years ago, that Dr Rukmini Rao and her friend Jamuna heard of female infanticide only 100 kilometres away from the city of Hyderabad. "The first thing that hit me was, they are helpless children. What can they do to defend themselves? The next thing – the incident took place so close to our city and not in a remote area. There was anger and it pushed me to do something. It continues to keep me going, even today," shares Dr Rukmini Rao, founder of Gramya Resource Centre for Women.

She has been adjudged as the 'Woman of the Year - 2014' by a leading English magazine. Founding this resource  centre is only one of the many activities that Rukmini has been carrying out as part of her "small" movement to better the lives of women in rural spaces.

"When I go around in these villages and talk to people, I see they not even come from the poorest of the poor backgrounds, but always have something to offer to people around them. I have the capacity to give so much more and I am trying to do just that," says the activist, who believes that education is the most effective tool for an individual to move forward.

The same she stresses on when she is communicating with the many women, out in the villages of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh and the transformation she has witnessed is clear.

"When I first met these women, they didn't comb their hair. Not that combing hair defines anything, but I'm trying to tell you  that they never considered an image for themselves. They had no idea of self image. They were a nobody. But today, they walk miles, collectively to claim their rights," she explains.

Sharing one instance related to the current ongoing issue in Telangana – farmer suicides.

"Only recently we had a public hearing where widows of farmers and women farmers came together and talked about their situation," she says and elaborates, "They have not been offered compensation and their ration cards are not valid anymore. So these women went to the local revenue divisional officer, with a set of demands. And they also know how to handle them if immediate action does not take place," she beams hinting that they know how to get their work done.

Rukmini has played a major role in changing the aspirations of these women from merely being married to demanding their rights. "Their victim mentality is gone, completely," she informs.

Rukmini's work also involves teaching women alternate farming methods that is post-modern agriculture, opposed to the green revolution methods, offering support to government schools, pushing for quality education. The latter she does in association with Aide Et Action, South Asia. "We work with close to 50 government schools that have 4,000 children where we ensure that the schools have all necessary amenities. We also assess children independent of government's assessing methods because we want to identify children with special needs and work with them," she explains.

Having spent so many years in these areas, Rukmini gives us a first-hand picture of everything. For instance, ask her about the Sulabh Sauchalay scheme that aims for a toilet in every home for every woman and she responds quickly, "That idea needs some planning. There are toilets in villages, but there is no water and that defeats the purpose. There are no pipelines. Then, there is no money to maintain toilets. They could opt for organic toilets instead of all this," she suggests.

Rukmini has also been fundamental in bringing down the number of female infanticide cases. She feels strongly that our development model is what marginalises women in this country. Men have to start respecting women she says.

In the wake of rising number of rape cases, she opines, "I am completely against capital punishment. What we need is quick justice and solutions to change the mindset of boys and men. Young people should start seeing each other as people," she stresses and says it begins with putting a stop to sex selection.

On a parting note, ask her how much value is 'Woman of the Year'  award going to add to her work, she laughs and says, "I  don't know, but such recognition reconfirms our work," and shares a recent incident. "I was invited to a college for a talk after this where I had the opportunity to talk to young people. This I wouldn't have got otherwise," she smiles.

India: No support in 2014 for those affected by Union Carbide's transgenerational impacts Print E-mail
 Monday December 1 2014

30 yrs after disaster, Bhopal's toxic legacy lives on

A panel displays pictures of residents who died in the 1984 Bhopal disaster at the forensic department of a hospital in Bhopal November 14, 2014. (Reuters)

Health of Bhopal communities suffers 30 years after disaster
Activists call for faster action to remove hazardous waste
BHOPAL/NEW DELHI: Beyond the iron gates of the derelict pesticide plant where one of the world's worst industrial disasters occurred, administrative buildings lie in ruins, vegetation overgrown and warehouses bolted.

Massive vessels, interconnected by a multitude of corroded pipes that once carried chemical slurries, have rusted beyond repair. In the dusty control room, a soiled sticker on a wall panel reads "Safety is everyone's business".

  Sixty-four-year-old Zafar Ahmed receives treatment at a clinic supported by Bhopal Medical Appeal in Bhopal November 14, 2014. (Reuters)

On the night of December 2, 1984, the factory owned by the US multinational Union Carbide Corp accidentally leaked cyanide gas into the air, killing thousands of largely poor Indians in the central city of Bhopal.

Thirty years later, the toxic legacy of this factory lives on, say human rights groups, as thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste remains buried underground, slowly poisoning the drinking water of more than 50,000 people and affecting their health.

Activists want this waste removed and disposed of away from the area, and feel Indian authorities, who now own the site, have fumbled on taking action ­ either by clearing up the waste itself or in pursuing Union Carbide to take responsibility.

"There is a very high prevalence of anemia, delayed menarches in girls and painful skin conditions. But what is most pronounced is the number of children with birth defects," said activist Satinath Sarangi from the Bhopal Medical Appeal which runs a clinic for gas victims.

"Children are born with conditions such as twisted limbs, brain damage, musculoskeletal disorders ... this is what we see in every fourth or fifth household in these communities." Sarangi admits there has been no long-term epidemiological research which conclusively proves that birth defects are directly related to the drinking of the contaminated water.

Toxic water
Built in 1969, the Union Carbide plant in Madhya Pradesh state was seen as a symbol of a new industrialised India, generating thousands of jobs for the poor and, at the same time, manufacturing cheap pesticides for millions of farmers.

Fifteen years later, 40 tonnes of Methyl Isocyanate gas was released and carried by the wind to the surrounding densely populated disaster remains unclear and under debate.The government recorded 5,295 deaths, but activists claim 25,000 people died in the aftermath and following years.

Another 1,00,000 people who were exposed to the gas continue to suffer today with sicknesses such as cancer, blindness, respiratory problems, immune and neurological disorders. Some children born to survivors have mental or physical disabilities.

While those directly affected receive free medical health care, activists say authorities have failed to support those sick from drinking the contaminated water and a second generation of children born with birth defects.

In a rehabilitation centre run by the charity Chingari Trust, located 500 metres from the factory site, disabled children aged between 6 months and 12 years gather for treatment which ranges from speech and hearing issues to physiotherapy.

"Our life changed emotionally and physically since we got to know about his medical problem when was just 4 months old," said 26-year-old Sufia, sitting on a mat on the floor, cradling her two-year-old son Mustafa who has cerebral palsy.

"We had to stop the therapy when he was 8-months-old as it was very expensive. My husband is an electrician and doesn't earn much. With the centre it is good as it's free. It's also good to meet other mothers with their children and realise that I am not alone."

Call for clean-up

The government was forced to recognise the water was contaminated in 2012 when the Supreme Court ordered that clean drinking water be supplied to some 22 communities living around the factory site.

"I don't think there is any doubt now that the waste dumped by Union Carbide is a serious problem and that it needs to be dealt with urgently," said Sunita Narain, director of the Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Science and Environment.

Studies by Narain's organisation in 2009 found samples taken from around the factory site contained chlorinated benzene compounds and organochlorine pesticides 561 times the national standard.

The profile of the chemicals found in samples from within the site matched the chemicals in drinking water in the outside colonies, said the report, leaving no doubt that there could be no other source of these toxins than Union Carbide.

Studies since have confirmed water pollution, but the hazardous waste remains in pits in some 21 locations within the 68-acre site and buried in a wasteland outside, largely due to wrangles between authorities and activists on its disposal.

The United Nations this week welcomed a government decision to reconsider the official figure of people affected by the gas leak, and look into additional compensation, but pressed authorities to get rid of the toxic waste.

"New victims of the Bhopal disaster are born every day, and suffer life-long from adverse health impacts," said Baskut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxic waste.

"Without cleaning the contamination, the number of victims of the toxic legacy left by Union Carbide will continue to grow, and, together, India's financial liability to a rising number of victims," he added in a statement.

Activists want Union Carbide, which was taken over by Dow Chemical Company in 2001, to take the waste out of the country, saying there are no adequate facilities in India to deal with it. They have also criticised state authorities for not pursuing the corporation for the clean-up. State government officials were not immediately available for comment.

Seventeen people living around the plant have filed a petition in the U.S. courts to get the multinational to bear the cost of the clean-up.

Dow Chemical Co. has long denied responsibility, saying Union Carbide spent $2 million on remediating the site, adding that Indian authorities at the time approved, monitored and directed every step of the clean-up work.

Union Carbide was sued by the Indian government after the disaster and agreed to pay an out-of-court settlement of $470 million in damages in 1989. The company says the Indian government then took control of the site in 1998, assuming all accountability, including clean-up activities.

"While Union Carbide continues to have the utmost respect and sympathy for the victims, we find that many of the issues being discussed today have already been resolved and responsibilities assigned for those that remain," Tomm F. Sprick, Director of Union Carbide Information Center, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email. ­ Reuters

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