Ammu Joseph

Moving along

The invitation from Zubaan arrived the day after the further, drastic drop in the country’s child sex ratio was revealed by the provisional results of the Census of India 2011, which also recorded the evident spread of the ‘missing girls’ phenomenon to more areas across the nation.

Although the gradual but continuous decline in the number of female children in the 0–6 age group had reportedly been noted since 1961, it was after the 2001 Census that the increasingly alarming trend was specifically flagged by the Census authorities. And now, not only has the figure plunged even lower, but the previously perceptible regional differences appear less distinct.

The apparent free fall in the child sex ratio, occurring alongside a reverse trend in the sex ratio among adults, indicates the continued, rampant and blatant misuse of medical technologies and services to prevent the birth of female babies, a practice first exposed by women’s groups and health activists in India in the early 1980s.

A quarter of a century has passed since my little daughter and I participated in the Daughters’ Rally in Mumbai on Children’s Day in 1986, when a sticker resembling a postcard was released by the Forum Against Sex Determination and Sex Pre-selection, established a year earlier.

Thanks to the pressure from activists, Maharashtra became the first state to enact a law against the practice in 1988.  It took another eight years for the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act to come into force across the country. Five years later, the Supreme Court of India castigated the Central and State governments for ineffective implementation of the legislation. And, now, ten years since then, there is no escaping the fact that the law has failed to curb the practice of eliminating girls before birth, if not conception.

It is difficult not to despair. But, while it is imperative to reflect on the harsh reality and what it reveals, not just about our society but also our strategies, I think it is equally important to recognise that not all the effort has been in vain.

For example, the very fact that the census authorities have seen fit to highlight the shocking decline in the child sex ratio can surely be attributed to the consciousness raised by the women’s movement in general and the work done by activists and analysts on this issue in particular. Legislation would not have been adopted either without concerted and consistent advocacy.

At a broader level, social and parental attitudes towards girls do seem to be changing for the better — certainly but not exclusively — among urban, middle class families. This may be seen as a gross generalisation but it is backed up by some credible evidence. Clearly, however, they have not changed enough across a large enough section of the population to make a demographic dent on the progressively skewed child sex ratio.

As one whose involvement with the women’s movement has been primarily through the media – as an editor, writer, media-watcher and occasional teacher – I cannot help but think about the media’s role in tackling such issues.

That is too complex a topic to be dealt with here, but it may be worth noting that the second, updated edition of Whose News? The Media and Women’s Issues (edited by Kalpana Sharma and myself) recorded a significant increase in the quantity and quality of press coverage of sex selection after the revelations of Census 2001, with more prominently placed stories, more investigative reporting (including some sting operations), comments and analysis by a wider range of writers, and more editorials presenting the issue as a major, urgent social and national problem. However, thanks to the continuing event-orientation of the media, even disastrous processes like this still do not receive the kind of regular, serious attention they need and deserve.

My involvement with the women’s movement in India began soon after I earned a journalism degree from a US university and returned to join the women’s magazine, Eve’s Weekly, in Mumbai in 1977. Having spent a week at the Ms. Magazine office in New York, working on a class paper on what was then a new, pioneering feminist publication attempting to be commercially viable in a competitive market, I was full of ideas and raring to go. Together with a couple of kindred spirits among the staff I began the slow but exciting process of trying to reorient the magazine.

Timing helped. The International Year of Women had given way to the women’s decade.  The report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India had highlighted the need to move ‘Towards Equality’. It was not long before the phenomenon of young, married women dying in ‘kitchen accidents’ came to light and the campaign against ‘bride-burning’ and ‘dowry deaths’ got under way in New Delhi. Soon thereafter came the campaign against rape sparked off by the infamous Supreme Court judgment in the ‘Mathura rape case’.

That was the first campaign I was able to actually participate in. Three of us, young women journalists, used our lunch break to book the hall for the first ever public meeting on rape, using our own meagre resources to pay for it! Our association with the movement continued – for example, one of the early annual meetings in Mumbai of the ‘autonomous women’s movement’ featured a session on the media and the women’s movement initiated and organised by the Women & Media Group formed in the mid-80s.

Back at the magazine we managed to transform it into what an ad agency described as a ‘schizophrenic’ publication. The pretty woman covers remained, as did many traditional ingredients of the conventional women’s magazine recipe. But we pulled off several firsts — a first-person account of domestic violence, articles on custodial rape, marital rape, childhood sexual abuse, female sexuality, growing up male, sexist wedding rituals, women and religion, regular columns featuring women in sports, feminist reviews of movies, special editions on rape (coinciding with the campaign), on women and literature, men and masculinities, sex and violence, unconventional women. Fortunately we were able to persuade activists and scholars from the women’s movement to write for us.

The marked about-turn in women’s magazines in recent years is, therefore, a matter of personal and professional regret for me (the current trend is discussed in detail in the 2006 edition of Whose News?).

I have continued to engage with issues of gender in the different areas of work I’ve been involved in, with gender and media emerging as an area of special interest (I even conceptualised and taught a course on Covering Gender at a leading J-school for some years). I still see myself as part of the women’s movement(s) – such as it is/they are today – mainly in terms of shared concerns and hope that I’ve been able to contribute to the cause in my own small way.


Ammu Joseph

May 2011