Saturday, March 30, 2013 6 comments


( This post is part of Blog Adda's campaign on men who are "Soldiers for women:)
I have worked for nearly two decades with the non profit or the NGO sector.  I like to call this the “change” business!  Like any business, this sector also markets commodities in the form of issues in which change is required.  There are socially conscious people like you , me, governments, corporates, who are all  investors in this business of change.

The NGO sector, for the uninformed, is not exactly something that runs on the strength of volunteers or service oriented persons.  There are highly professional people with specialized qualifications who are part of it.  And the process of bringing about change is not simple- it is about as complicated as manufacturing cars from sheets of steel, assembling silicon chips to make an electronic  product or  mixing chemicals to make drugs. The larger the NGO, more the funding that comes in and therefore more complicated it is to run it.    Whatever be the size, the vision for all NGOs is  the same - to bring about change in a certain condition – it could be a situation of water shortage in a village ,income levels of people,  ability to cope with a disability etc.

There are people who think that working in a NGO is a very noble profession!  I will not dispute that but I would like to clarify that for many people in the sector, it is a job like any other. For every five out of ten persons who are part of the sector, it involves delivering on targets,( yes people here also have targets), following instructions, abiding by rules  and hoping that they get their increments, promotions and  move up  in the hierarchy or moving out into another non  profit for a better salary! Nothing wrong with that.. these are people who are making an honest living in a sector that most people do not opt for ! Everyone has a family to support and personal aspirations to fulfill.

What role does leadership play in this sector? I would say that leadership here carries more responsibility than in any other sector because  not only does it call for trusteeship in terms of holding and spending other people’s money for a cause ,it also involves bringing together heads and hearts  among your team mates so that everyone believes and works for that positive change! But sometimes, these changes can be very challenging because they question age old belief systems – beliefs that are so deeply ingrained in the society we want to change and in ourselves who are also part of this society.  

It is in this context that the story of my soldier is set. His war was against a society that made women – particularly poor women, powerless . An extremely quiet and reflective individual, he is the antithesis of the image of a firebrand feminist  who is generally associated with such things. Rather silly perceptions, really.. and anyway whoever said that a feminist was only female?  
I met him for the first time in 2006 and my first impression was “I am not impressed”   So I stood back and watched how he would deal with the mess that we were in at that time!
But deal with the situation he did … and how!!!!

There was a belief  that prevailed at that time among our project team, that we  were helping women if we were able to provide them with physical items – as in “things” . For example, if a fisherwoman was given a fish basket we felt good about it thinking that we have changed her life! As a person, who was involved in measuring change within the project, most people thought I was a very complicated person when I said that giving baskets to women would not really change their lives. Their idea was that more the number of such baskets given more one could say that women had been helped. I learnt to keep my frustration with the situation to myself and go about counting the number of women and reporting on that.

Frustrations however, have a way of expressing themselves-sometimes as vocal outbursts and sometimes in other ways. A perceptive person, this soldier quickly understood that something was bothering me. I spent about an hour one day, trying to explain the situation. I was not sure that he would understand it because, I was new to the organization at that time and I thought probably I was the one with the problem . But he did understand as was evident from the questions he started posing during the team meetings and reviews. And I must say he started creating opportunities to help me use research effectively to see if such change was really happening! I was given a lot of freedom in terms of how I wanted to go about it but the bottom line was that I was accountable  in terms of clearly bringing to the notice of the operations team what was going right in terms of change and what was not. And every finding had to be supported with data!

When we work in the change business there is usually just a thin line that separates the personal from the professional. This is particularly so if we are trying to change the lives of women. When we do this, we question social hierarchies and also address abuse of power. Sometimes it is not enough to just go there and make that change ourselves. We have to enable the woman, who perceives herself as powerless to make that change – it gives her a huge feeling of confidence, a confidence that stays on with her for the rest of her life multiplying itself over the years.

I can state a personal example about how I was made to experience this. An extremely senior man in the organization suddenly took a dislike to me tearing apart a strategy paper  I had worked very hard on. I was very shocked by his response and I suspected that his criticism was not objective.   To say I was humiliated would be an understatement! I was in tears and was ready to quit.

I explained the matter to the soldier- my boss.  I wanted him to "take it up"  with this person .  But he reacted very differently. He  made me write a long mail to this person, challenging the points on which the paper was rubbished! I was sure that this mail was probably the last one that I was sending from that id. But strangely, it wasn’t .. I received an acknowledgement to the mail and also an acceptance that may be there was a point in what I was saying.  There was a strange feeling within me then- a mixture of confidence , faith in myself and elation that I had managed to do this! It was much later that I realized why my solider had not taken up arms. He had wanted me to experience this – it helped tremendously in building faith in myself. Such people are called “enablers” . They lead from behind, giving their troops the confidence to win the battle.

This was a strategy that we began to follow in all our work with women. Under his leadership, we began to look at ourselves as enablers. He demonstrated to us through his words and actions that for a change to sustain, the women whose lives we are setting out to change must develop the confidence and trigger it. It might take time but it was well worth the wait!

We started approaching issues very differently.  Every action that we planned had to be well thought through before we took it to him.  Though he encouraged us to be creative in our ideas, he was quick to spot wild ones. He told us the risk of putting on the ground some ideas that we thought were “revolutionary” in terms of their ability to bring about change. He cautioned us about the repercussions it could have on the lives of poor women should they fall through. Every idea therefore had to come from the women themselves and had to be  thoroughly discussed with them before we approved through our funding!

Like a good soldier, he was quick to spot the ones in his team who were fired with genuine  passion . He placed passion at a premium investing his time and efforts in molding  people who had enough of it!  Like a true general he was able to differentiate between the “mercenaries” and the “patriots”. He dealt with them differently!  

The non profit sector like any other, thrives on myths . There is a belief that only women can lead organizations or projects that deal with empowering women. Some people even believe that only women can work with women. But I think such beliefs absolve men from taking on the responsibility of addressing issues around women’s lives.  Empathy is gender neutral. Any sensitive person can understand the pain of another.  The lives of poor women in this country is an example of pain borne bravely on thin shoulders. So, why does the burden of having to lighten it be thrust only on women? And about being a soldier- it is not only a man who can be a soldier. All of us can be and are potential soldiers.

One does not necessarily need an organizational platform to be that soldier. But it is a pity if one is sitting on that platform and not helping another with conviction. A person  who believes with passion that change , however difficult is possible is a hero/ heroine . Such people take others along with them infusing positive energy. A coming together of such energy is what causes social change- it is what makes that subtle difference between doing a job well for that increment at the end of the year to bringing a smile on a poor woman's face.

My soldier did not receive any awards but I know for a fact that if he were to visit any of those villages where we worked, even after all these years women would come out in droves to greet him. Now, isn’t that what true appreciation is all about?
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Monday, March 25, 2013 8 comments


No, this is not about butchers! 

There are forms of flesh trade where the person whose body is sold is not fortunate enough to die once!

There have been two articles in THE HINDU today which have dealt with what can be termed as the “oldest profession” in the world! One of the articles that was published in today’s Sunday supplement talks about a village in Uttar Pradesh where all women of a certain age sell their bodies for sexual gratification of men. These women belonging to the “Nat” community are pushed into this profession by birth by their family. A horrible tradition similar to the “Devadasi” system that prevails south of the Vindhyas.

There was another article in the same paper that talks about difference between “consensual sex work” and “sexual exploitation”. According to the article Sex workers and women’s rights activists across India have welcomed the Government’s move to drop the word “prostitution” as exploitation from the amended Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code. The new formulation targets sexual exploitation and not adult consensual sex work.”

I have some basic discomfort with the idea of “adult consensual sex work”.  When sex becomes work and the human body becomes   a commodity that has value in “use” and “exchange” then there is something intrinsically wrong somewhere!  If we take into account the fact that majority of the people who are engaged in the sex trade are women – particularly those from deprived socio economic backgrounds then the word ‘consensual” sounds very hollow ! A person, who engages in the business of selling sex, is doing so because they lack any other resource that has economic value for them!  Though similar to manual labor as a concept in terms of the deprivation that leads one towards it, it is very different in every other way!  A sex worker is socially ostracized by all and her work until recently was seen as “illegal”!

Inherent  around the concept of sex work is exploitation!  It is not a matter of choice. The woman who is engaged in sex trade is never the decision maker with regard to the terms of the trade.  There are others like pimps who decide the price that her body would fetch  ,the number of hours it would work  or persons that it would service!  The poor woman gets only a fraction of the amount her body makes – the rest being pocketed by the other players –pimps, police etc. While decriminalization of this work may in theory remove the need to bribe the police, would it increase the percentage of her earnings?

I have spent nearly two decades with the nonprofit sector.  . Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector is not a homogenous world – there are sectors and subsectors of specialization within it, with each sector having its own theories of change.  My experience of working with sex workers is limited . But as a person who has spent years working on livelihoods, I can say that the arguments around social and economic exploitation remain the same across whatever livelihoods one may like to apply them ! Would legalizing sex work improve the conditions of the sex worker? When the government is not able to enforce minimum wages for agriculture wage laborers can they ensure rightful wages for sex workers? Would a police man who makes nasty remarks about any rape victim be ready to take down the complaint of a sex worker if she says that she has been raped by a client?

Actually, many people do not realize that sex workers can also be raped! I had the opportunity once to speak to a group of sex workers in Rajahmundry which is a hub for sex work in Southern India. The kind of violence that a sex worker is subjected to as she earns her living is nothing short of rape! I met a young girl who claimed to be twenty ( though she did not look older than sixteen) standing at a “pick up” point in the town. She was about eight months pregnant. Hearing her experiences with clients  was like listening to a horror story. She told me about men who hit her, kicked her and then sometimes left without paying her- and all this being done to her when she was pregnant! It was a wonder that she had not miscarried!  But she still continued to do this work because she had no other options and with a baby on the way, it was all the more important that she continue to earn!

Most  in the  nonprofit sector got into the business of working with sex workers with the advent of the HIV/AIDs projects. There was huge funding for these projects and these poor women were carriers of the infection. The entire focus of most of these projects was to contain the infection. Though many of these organizations did take up the rights issues of the sex workers few really thought of long term solutions to help them cope with their professions. Some moralistic NGOs thought of training these women in tailoring and detergent soap making so that they would give ups sex work! Most laughable idea! No woman ever gives it up! Once they are in it , it is a profession for life until they are too old! They may leave it temporarily but they come back to it!

Our country is working on many social security schemes for those in the unorganized sector. I am not sure how many NGOs actually got round to ensuring these ladies got access to these schemes? How many microfinance organizations were able to develop savings products for women like my pregnant friend at Rajahmundry who could have used their savings during such difficult periods.

It is not enough to talk about “consensual sex work” unless one is able to turn sex work round on its head in such a manner that there is “fair” trade. Unfortunately, in a society like ours where even married women have limited control over their bodies and sexuality, expecting that a law would bring about dignity to this work is very farfetched!
Thursday, March 21, 2013 8 comments

Living in Exile

We emerged from exile today – both of us, mother and daughter ( though I guess the daughter had some parole style excursions into the mainstream world over the last two days). Where were we, you might ask? Well, we were both away from communication interface options with the rest of world – aka as the internet!

She was having her board exams for the tenth standard. A child who is very easily distracted, we decided to keep her focused on her studies by regulating the opportunities for wandering attention. No, she was not in solitary confinement. Telephones are ok so long it was the land line ( helped keep those fingers off from texting messages), television was regulated ( extra doses of Lok Sabha/ Doordarshan to improve her Hindi) and certainly no internet. Of course, as  parents, we decided to give up our addictions to the same. The poor husband was reduced to watching movies after 10PM with the sound off with only the subtitles to let him know what the story was all about !!

Was it necessary ask some of our friends. After all, it is the child who is writing the exams not the parents. But I think it was essential in creating an atmosphere of focus and seriousness. “ When are you coming to our house?” she asked my sister. “When the minotaur(me)  relaxes her vigil” said her dear aunt. But despite being the fun person in the teen’s life, her aunt also kept up her side of the deal by practicing  restrained indulgence!

I remember about twenty nine years ago when I took the same exams. I do not remember any special efforts being taken at home along these lines. But then, the distractions those days were very limited! There was no TV at home ( it was bought after my tenth exams) and neither was there internet or a cell phone. Yes, there was a land line which we used –supposedly for discussing doubts but ofcourse, the doubts formed only about 20% of the conversations. Exam days were like ordinary days except that they had longer hours.

“ You were a nerd and you probably had no life” she tells me when I shared these snippets with her! But I don’t think I was in any way different from others in my peer group in school or our neighborhood. Infact, one sure way to wake me up in the morning for studies was to tell me that our neighbor was already up and at his  desk (we could see the light switched on in the opposite window ). This boy was not in my school but it still made me feel guilty that may be I was not making the effort that was required. But if I were to tell my daughter the same thing, she would laugh and say that she did not want to be like “ Gas lights” ( that is her nickname for this boy with the huge eyes who stays  next door ) and go back to sleep! The best way to put her off something is to compare her to someone else!

We live in a different world today. A world where it is not just the children who are different but the parents too. It is a  world where twenty one days of absence on social networking sites makes friends send  text messages and call asking when I was planning to “break the silence of the lambs”! A world where twenty one days of living life like my mother with a limited range of interactions made me claustrobhic.

But we tried to make life within this narrow radius as interesting as was possible within those three weeks. The three Sundays saw some exotic high calorie breakfasts being prepared by the husband while I racked my brains for culinary innovations on other days. The activities of our neighbors suddenly became very entertaining! When the poor old man next door tried to repair a broken tap and had the water gushing all over him with his wife giving him a tongue lashing, the daughter was most amused! While coming back home after the exams, we began to notice small things like the resourcefulness of a smart canine who was taking the foot over bridge across the busy road instead of trying to run across it!

Not that all was hunky dory! Both of us –mother and daughter were ready to eat each other’s heads off by the last weekend. The husband chose the easy way of out by burying his face in the “White Mogul” !

Today after the exams, when we went out to a mall, I stared at the crowds and the shop windows fascinated! My husband tells me that the last time he saw me behaving like that was at my birth day dinner the year our daughter was born. Our birthdays ( mine and my daughter’s ) are three weeks apart! Those three weeks taught me the first lesson on mothering- how to adapt my life around the needs of the infant. My entire life revolved around her needs restricting my movements outside home and in a way pushing me into an  exile pretty much like what I have just come out of! That birthday in 1998 was my first day out after returning from the hospital with the baby  just like the outing today was.

Parenting is a funny thing- you do these things at different stages in your child’s life which seem different but are essentially similar! We become so used to doing these things that I am afraid one day when they become adults and leave us to live their own lives we will not know how to live for ourselves.