Union ministers endorse anti-Trump feminist movement aimed at growing gang rapes in Modi’s India 

Conversations about marital rape are quite hot conversations in India. It is a very fundamental issue

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Dhairya Maheshwari

In the backdrop of rising number of gangrapes in India, international feminist movement ‘She Decides’ will be launching in the country in March. Conceived in response to the American President Donald Trump’s assault on women rights, ‘She Decides’ already enjoys the support of at least two government ministers in India, where the movement’s focus will be on spreading awareness on sex education and sexual violence.

She Decides, a global feminist movement formed in immediate response to President Donald Trump’s Global Gag Rule, which prevents foreign NGOs from receiving American government funding if they provide information about abortion, is coming to India in March. Already backed by many European governments and Canada among others, She Decides’ focus in India will be on creating awareness about increasing sexual violence in the country, says movement’s Co-Lead Robin Gorna. Edited excerpts from her interview with National Herald:

Q. Could you tell something about your movement?

A. She Decides, the two words, were uttered by Dutch Foreign Minister Lilianne Ploumen at the day after President Donald Trump reinstated the global gag order, which prevents the US money from being spent on NGOs that are not American. Many of these NGOs provide advocacy and service concerning safe abortion. Historically, Republican Presidents have always had a policy in place that damages what can happen in terms of health assistance from the US. But this time around, he expanded it dramatically. At the time of previous presidents, the financial impact used to be near $800 million. This time around, the economic impact is to the tune of $8.8 billion. So, it is having a massive impact on the ability of development organisations having got to do with anything on health. They cannot help women and girls get access to the resources they need to save their lives. So, after Trump’s decision, a number of European ministers, including those from Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, and Canada among others said that this was unacceptable. Women have a fundamental right to their sexual health.

Within six weeks, they put together a conference of 600 people and raised $200 million to try fill the gaps left by the US policy. They realised that it was more than just fighting the US policy. It was an issue of fundamental rights of girls and women. Millions have been busy fighting the same issue for years but we haven’t seen much progress and so it was decided to cre­ate a movement in response to this to keep the energy really going. Since July, we have had 40,000 people sign on our manifesto. And we really encourage these friends of She Decides to stand up and speak up on behalf of rights of girls and women to change the rules. There are lots and lots of rules around the world that keep us from getting access to what we need. At the end of last year, we had raised nearly $500 million.

It is not just about the money that comes from do­nors. It is about what the countries put behind. So, it is our view that we need to change the situation. Girls and women decide every­thing to do with our bodies is nobody else’s business. We are looking to mobilise political support behind us to make everyone know that it is okay to change the law to access services.

Q. In your assessment, why did Donald Trump cut funding to these NGOs?

A. As I understand it, conservative forces that come out of certain brand of Evangelical Christianity have a tremendous political impact on the entire sys­tem. Religion and politics have links in many other political systems, but in the US, the impact is just huge. I have been told that abortion policies play up majorly on voters’ minds when they vote in presidential elections. There are several theories trying to explain why Trump did what he did. One such theory suggests that it is because of his own gender politics, which is why he made it tougher. Others say that his deputy, Mike Pence is particularly vigorous on the point. I believe it is part of the broader Trump phenomenon, the broad political environment in the US that led to this.

Q. What are your plans for India?

A. India hasn’t been that deeply affected by Trump’s policy. In areas of women’s health, India is much less reliant on US funds. What we want to find out is that this global movement took off with great energy and zeal, would that translate to a country-level. While we have been here, talking to a range of stakeholders in the government and civil society, it has become clear that local partners of the global champions who created this see a huge potential in all of this. The conversation has mostly been around abortion and in India, we have very good laws on abortion, pretty good access to medi¬cal facilities, not perfect but pretty convincing. But you do have a very progressive situation. However, there are some other areas where women don’t get the right to choose over their bodies.

I have seen very high-profile coverage of many cases of rapes, of sexual violence, also, of course, instances of forced and child marriages. India has got one of the highest rates of early marriage and we know that with early marriage, comes early teenage pregnancy. With early teenage pregnancy, we see maternal mortality. The gov­ernment has been thinking about a lot of these things, but the more fundamental idea that girls and women need to decide for them­selves is what many part­ners in India think needs to be promoted. So, we will be launching She Decides India at the beginning of March. We have selected March 2 as She Decides day because it was the anniver­sary of the conference that was held in Brussels. We would be bringing togeth­er leaders from across the country. We hope that politi­cal leaders and government will be interested in what we are doing.

Maneka Gandhi sent a video message to the con­ference in Brussels. We were really encouraged by minister’s statements and her energy for wom­en’s empowerment. Smriti Irani also spoke quite en­thusiastically on women’s empowerment on the panel and spoke to me privately after that. She also showed a great deal of interest in the direction we are taking. I also think this is really consistent with the govern¬ment’s approach. I think the third part of Prime Minister’s Modi slogan, ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ could be let the girl child decide. There is no use edu¬cating her if she can’t make choices about her own life. I think that is very much con¬sistent with the progressive agenda that India has. I think India has the potential to be a leader in the area globally, as well as in the region and change needs to happen.

Q. What would be your main areas of focus in India? How do you expect challenges in India to be different from oth¬er countries you have worked in?

A. There are a couple of themes that are emerging now. As a non-Indian, I am pretty humble to the fact that it is for our Indian colleagues to decide the precise issues we would we working on.

But we do have some very interesting perspectives coming up. Indira Jaisingh from the Supreme Court is one of our cham¬pions. She has just taken up a very important case related to child marriage, which redefines sex within a child marriage as rape. In a dialogue with her, we all felt that there is more that needs to happen at a legal level to protect the girl child and protect women in gen¬eral. That would definitely be a feature of what we work on. I was listening to some very wise and interesting colleagues speak on women’s autonomy within marriage. I respect the institution of arranged marriage, but women autonomy is a complex issue.

Conversations about marital rape are quite hot conversations in India. It is a very fundamental issue. Marriage doesn’t mean ownership of another person’s body. We must retain the ownership of our body. The other issue that is coming up is around sexuality education. Again, there is quite progressive work by Ministry of Health and very strong adolescent health. However, we still know that around the country, there just isn’t enough of quality sex education.

Another case that Indira Jaisingh was related to was the case of a rape of a 10-year old girl who was denied abortion. It received a huge amount of international coverage. However, the story of the case was that this ten-year-old was unaware that she had been raped or given birth. So, we need to reach a situation where girls and every woman understand their body. This is a fundamental tenet. There are excellent internationally-agreed guidelines. There were launched last week by UNESCO with sup¬port of many international agencies. We know what the best practices are. We know it doesn’t create an increased sexual behaviour among young adults. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

If we can get these sorts of things across in India, that would really go a long way in addressing many of the problems that the country faces today, including rapes. If India can transform itself, it will really have a huge global impact. India has one of the largest global population on the planet. For the talented woman that India has, we just need to create a safe space for them to thrive and succeed. So, sex education and sexual violence are very high on the agenda.

Q. Would you say that religion perpetuates gender stereotypes?

A. There are always strands in every religion that are unhelpful. I think all religions have extremist and conservative elements.I have a degree in the¬ology. I believe that sex is part of life and it is a very wonderful thing. So, I do re¬spect that people’s religious views will be different from mine but at the same time, we must understand that constraining society and girls is not going to achieve any positive outcomes.

Q. Are you expecting to face resistance in the Indian society while ad¬vancing your cause?

A. Quite frankly, I do not understand the finer details of Indian politics. What I do know is that there are many sides to the Indian society. There are amazingly progressive people and politicians. Yes, political systems do have sides to them which are complex. It is not about the politicians but the electorates. Obviously, every political system will have influences that are reactionary. But I am hoping that better forces within the government will prevail.

And hopefully, people will see that pandering to extremist views is extremely unhelpful. Patriarchy is everywhere, but if we can start seeing changes in countries like India, I think that is phenomenal. Sexual rights are not a niche issue, and I would like to send across this message to the more conservative forces.

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