December 01, 2009

Of fatigue and forgetting

Anindita Sengupta

YESTERDAY, I WAS LOOKING at this report released by the World Economic Forum last month, and I started drafting a post with some excerpts. Just to make it easier for people who don’t want to read the whole thing. It was1 am, I was tired and suddenly I felt overcome with this sense of futility, ‘what’s-the-point’ in neon capitals, fatigue. Will it really help to know the figures on maternal health (dismal), or female foeticide (frightening)? What can you or I — the non-activist, the home-maker, the writer or blogger or journalist — really do about any of this? It’s like looking up a ladder whose last rungs you can’t even see, or some hideous version of Jack’s beanstalk.

It reminded me of this time I was talking to someone about writing for UV. She’s a quiet, dark-eyed girl who rarely gets emotional. On this occasion, she did. ‘What’s the point of all this talk?’ she said suddenly. ‘We just become more and more aware of our rage. And don’t know what to do with it.’

This sense of inchoate rage twinned with helplessness — I’ve often heard feminists talk about it. I suspect it’s why more women don’t write for UV (but maybe they just hate the super, dynamic masthead). God knows there’s hardly a dearth of issues to talk about in this country.

The feeling intensifies, I think, when the problem is at a remove. Not only is there a sense of ‘what can I do?’ but there’s also the fear that one doesn’t know enough or really understand. It can make one feel like a tourist in someone else’s battlefield. A bystander who’ll tell the story, then brush its dust off and walk away unscathed. This adds guilt to the dense mix. Robert Hass has talked about this problem of feeling like a voyeur or a tourist in relation to writing political poetry but it can be applied to any writing. Especially for a site such as this which does have an express political purpose. It affects what some of us choose to write about. It certainly affects me. How to talk about problems that have never touched my life, and most likely never will?

It’s easier to stay silent, stick to a few safe issues. Easier to talk about the personal.  Easier to remain within the margins of one’s limited knowledge and even more limited control. Yet this can lead to a baffling silence about other things, a disturbing silence. A silence which at its heart may just be careful, but in its effects may end up being plain wrong. As a blogger, I’m constantly conflicted by this. I don’t think I’m likely to find any answers soon but I wanted to put it on the table, a live thing for us to look at.

At any rate, I do believe in this: even when there are problems that we can do nothing about, it’s important to know. To note. To remember. Because forgetting would be the last nail in the coffin, the final bone burned to cinders.

So here are the excerpts:

  • India holds the last position (134th) in the health and survival subindex. A huge factor contributing to this is poor maternal health, with only 42% of births in the country supervised by health professionals. Close to 300 Indian women die every day during childbirth or of pregnancy-related causes.
  • India also has among the worst sex ratios at birth in the world. The strong preference for sons and the disproportionate sex ratio at birth make India one of the few countries where males significantly outnumber females and the imbalance is getting worse.
  • Close to 245 million Indian women lack the basic capability to read and write. Almost twice as many girls as boys are pulled out of school or never sent to school.
  • Women’s labour force participation, is at 36%, less than half of the labour force participation rate of men (85%). Women’s estimated earned annual income is less than a third of men’s income. Women make up only 3% of legislator, senior official and managerial positions.
  • Over time, we’re closing the education gap but the health gap is getting worse.

You can download the full report here (pdf). There’s lots more info there including some cheerier stuff like the high level of political participation. Here’s an interesting related report at IPS. And she’s hoping Clinton will help change things.

5 comments to Of fatigue and forgetting

  • Preeti Preeti

    I have always felt that linking son-preference/female foeticide and infanticide to dowry is somehow wrong. At the bottom of it all, I feel is the the fact that Indian women’s contributions are valued so little, at home or in the larger world of social institutions and society. Indian culture devalues women and women’s work in just so many ways. Women perform the vital economic activity of bringing children into the world who grow up to be income-earners and tax-payers — that’s a valuable contribution. But most Indian women have so little power in the family unit, despite the substantial contributions that they make to it — caring for the young and sick, housework, farm labour, fetching water. Society see these activities as being inherently low-value not because they actually are, but because these are performed by women. As many feminists have pointed out, child care and elder care are provided free by the housewife to the family unit, but the same can be prohibitively expensive if the family were to buy these services from the market.

    We will continue to struggle with dowry and female foeticide, because they are not the malaise, but only its symptoms. The real disease that ails Indian society is a systematic and deep-rooted devaluation of women and their contributions to family and society. Until we put our money where our mouth is, and move beyond paying token homage to the “Bharatiya Nari”, Indian women will lead lives of quiet desperation

  • neo

    There are things we can do nothing about because there are people who will never change. The world will improve only as the older, flawed generation dies off and the newer generation takes its place.

    And that is where the battle must be fought. Each blog post or tweet (or even a dinner-table conversation) makes it that slightly more likely that an impressionable 15-year old will reject the “wisdom” of his flawed parents and will do the right thing instead.

    That is why I blog.


  • Meera

    I agree with Preeti. Indian society does not value women. I have seen many families where women are not allowed to have any opinion at all, whether it affects them, their children or not. Worst, they are not supposed to have dreams or desires. It is seen as detrimental to the family if the women have personal desires. They are merely required to slog, slog and then slog quietly and not complain. It is kind of worse than slavery. They won’t teach women to read and write, because they think women are not required to do so, and think it is better not to educate women so that they don’t get ‘ideas’

    The only way out is to make young girls understand the injustice they are subjected to, and ask them to stand up for their own rights. Men will never change as long as they are not forced to or required to (except a miniscule percentage of them). Who will give up free lunches?

  • It’s important to become aware of your (our) rage since, psychologically speaking, once you gain awareness you are more inclined to channel it and do something about it. In any case most shrinks will vouch for this: awareness is the starting point of successful treatment. There are worse stastics for mental health studies amongst women. A recent complilation of a results from a battery of tests have confirmed that about 50% more women suffer and/or are likely to suffer from certain psychosomatic disorders as compared to men whereas less than half of those ever report seeking help for their condition(s).If you are a woman shrink then you are often left tearing your hair out because even well rounded and intelligent women are unable to comprehend that post partum depression is not their fault. Its heart-breaking to see them blame themselves over and over again for being “unfit” mothers during therapy. Our helplessness is particularly upsetting because its now morphed into learned helplessness – we are on some inexplicable level convinced of the futility of making an attempt to improve upon the conditon we find ourselves in because of precedence. Its relatively easier to shrug off responsibility and espouse mindless “individualism” than to admit that we as a collective group of people – women people – need to start asking some pertinent and difficult questions and following through for the answers, which will not be entirely easy to come by. Everybody can’t do everything but we can all start somewhere. I will probably try to contribute to the field of women’s mental health and development, because thats closest to what I do, while someone else can pick something else up.

  • please ignore the spelling errors. they are horrendous.

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