India Together: Shifting the norms

India Together: Shifting the norms

GS paper 4

NFHS data on nutrition and gender parity show worsening trends in recent years, making it increasingly evident that unless the norms that underpin discrimination are addressed, the risk of regressing can never be overcome. Biraj Swain reports. 

29 December 2020

The recently released partial data from the fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS 5) has revealed two counts on which the country has regressed. Child nutrition has become worse in the last five years, wiping off our gains of the previous 20 years, and in five states, over 30 per cent of women aged 18-49 years have experienced spousal violence. 

The percentage of stunted, wasted and underweight children has grown in the majority of states. Rates of stunting have risen in rich states such as Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa and Himachal Pradesh, all of which had lowered their rates of stunting in the previous two decades. In case of spousal violence, Karnataka is the most concerning case; spousal violence in the state has doubled to 44.4 per cent, up from 20.9 per cent in NFHS 4 (2015-16). The other states where spousal violence continues to hover above 30 per cent are Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, Bihar and Mizoram. 

The spousal violence rates are doubly concerning since the survey predates the pandemic-induced lock-down. Even before COVID-19, violence against women was one of the most widespread violations of human rights, with almost 18 per cent of women and girls experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner over a 12-month period. As the pandemic raged on, an alarming upsurge of the ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women became evident, with increased rates of reporting on domestic violence, as well as in the streets, online and in a variety of settings. 

Projections show that for every three months as the lock-down continues, an additional 15 million women are expected to be affected by violence. In India, women’s rights activists and organisations acknowledge this concurrent shadow pandemic and some estimates put it at 10-year high. In some states, e.g. Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, state police and state bodies like Women’s Commissions are launching helplines and awareness campaigns to encourage reportage, timely intervention and safe houses.

The lock-down could have induced the spike, but entrenched patriarchy is the major cause of domestic violence in India, and that predates the pandemic and will outlive the Covid vaccine. This requires gender norm-shifting. An important paper on this by Caroline Harper, Rachel Marcus, Rachel George, Sophia M. D’Angelo, Emma Samman, published by ODI (Overseas Development Institute) and ALIGN (Advancing Learning and Innovation on Gender Norms) states that shifts in gender norms often take a long time to develop and progress often stalls and plateaus before moving on. It explains that changes in gender norms often take place at unequal speeds, with the most disadvantaged often left far behind, hence attention to issues of intersectionality – of privileges as well as discriminations – are vital to progress, and persistence is essential. 

One organisation working with that world-view is Breakthrough Trust. It is a women’s rights organisation working to shift gender norms via education and communication. It consciously desigs programs that acknowledge and foreground the intersectionality of identities and intersectionality of marginalisation so that the most vulnerable women and girls are not left behind. And it believes in enlisting men as both allies and targets. 

One of its interventions, Taaron Ki Toli (TKT) targets norms around gender discrimination and inequality. It targets adolescent school students and tries to trigger their critical thinking by discussing gender-based discrimination with them in a structured manner. This is done through a life skill education module over a period of two years from Class 6 and 7 till Class 8 and 9 and harnesses them in college too. It aims to increase self-awareness and confidence by making these children aware of their rights and entitlements. This allows them to think and communicate clearly and develop coping and self -management mechanisms, so that they challenge unfavourable attitudes, and influence decisions related to their health, safety, education, careers and age of marriage. But most importantly, it equips children to recognise and call out gender injustice and practice in a just manner.

TKT began in the heartland of patriarchy, in the Haryana districts of Rohtak, Jhajjar, Sonipat and Panipat in 150 government schools, and it has since run in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. The focus of shifting gender norms stands on four legs i.e. an empowering curriculum that speaks to the living realities of the children; challenging out-dated and discriminatory norms; building allies and access to community and frontline government staff; and a curriculum that is scalable and fun. This four-pronged approach is important because techno-managerial quick-fixes cannot solve socio-economic problems, explains Sohini Bhattacharya, CEO, Breakthrough. 

As a result of this broad approach, the focus is at multiple levels – on working with children, parents, communities, local influencers and state representatives. There is equal focus on rigorous evaluations. In Haryana, the program has been evaluated by JPAL, founded by Economists and Nobel Laureates Abhijeet Banerjee and Esther Duflo, during the two and half years of the program intervention as well as four years after Breakthrough’s exit from the schools. The Bihar and Jharkhand interventions have been evaluated by Centre for Media Studies, and the Uttar Pradesh program by NR Management Consultants. 

In the Haryana intervention sites it was observed that 94.2 per cent of children retain their lessons and practice them in their everyday lives, be it sharing household chores, supporting female siblings in accessing opportunities or challenging their own families against regressive practices like eve-teasing. In Uttar Pradesh’s intervention sites, 92 per cent of boys felt no reason was good enough for hitting a girl, and the Bihar-Jharkhand intervention sites saw a 28 per cent decline in child marriages.

The NFHS 5 numbers for Haryana, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh are awaited. Meanwhile, the pandemic has reversed many socio-economic gains, especially girls’ global gains. It is important for the instruments of the state to harness scalable, interventions of proven impact and scale them well. 

Rosa Lizarde, Executive Director, Feminist Task Force – a global coalition of women working against poverty and inequality – puts this in perspective, “Nirbhaya outrage was an inflection point for not just India but the global feminist movement. The recognition of the shadow pandemic of domestic violence during this pandemic is also a key moment. These are reminders that gender norm shifting demands grunt work and persistence. Just episodic campaigns or high voltage events won’t cut it. Domestic violence is intersectional in nature, so is the path to eliminate it. It is neither quick and easy, nor glamorous, but it is necessary if the gender norms have to shift to achieve a more equal and safe world.”

Biraj Swain works on the intersection of international development, human rights and media watch. She has been a fellow of International Centre for Journalists Washington DC and Senior Fellow of Kalam Institute of Health Technology.

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