Adultery, Crime and Morality


This article was published in The Dialogue on 30/09/2018 Original Article can be accessed at-

The Supreme Court of India seems to be very busy of late dealing with social matters. The resounding negation of Section 377 brought about a long pending change by decriminalizing homosexuality. This relic of our colonial past was held on to quite tenaciously by some sections of our society. It is unfortunate that our Indian law-makers often find it difficult to rescind laws which reflect a British morality of the late nineteenth century. And therefore many years after the British Parliament had sent the original English law into the dustbin, the Supreme Court of India had to do the same. And not many days later the Supreme Court had to deal with a similar law, Section 497, or the law around adultery. The Supreme Court has ‘decriminalised’ adultery, which means a man caught or proven to be in an adulterous relationship or sleeping with someone else’s wife, can no longer be imprisoned. On the face of it this appears like letting the man who has patently done something ‘wrong’, scot free or not having to face the consequences. Adultery appears to be patently a crime and now the criminal seems to be free from any punishment.

Unfortunately the existing law was more complex than dealing with simply adultery or the phenomenon of having sexual relationship with someone else’s wife ( since the law did not deal with the situation of a woman having sex with someone else’s husband). The law as it stood stipulated that this crime would only be recognized if the man in question had sex with another person’s wife without that person’s explicit or implied permission. Which, in other terms meant, that a married person was well within his right to offer his wife to other men’s for their sexual services. This alternate formulation of the law somehow doesn’t seem right. It implies that two men can offer and accept the sexual services of a woman who is actually the wife of one of them. This somewhat business kind of deal appears to be very wrong with the woman being treated as an object whose sexual services can be traded by her husband who had the legal right to ‘pimp’ his wife. And this is what the judgment struck down with the assertion that “Any provision of law affecting individual dignity and equality of women invites the wrath of the Constitution. It’s time to say that a husband is not the master of wife. Legal sovereignty of one sex over other sex is wrong.”

But was this the only way to deal with this law which was demeaning for women? The Government of India had appealed in its affidavit that “(A)dultery should remain an offence. Diluting adultery law will impact the sanctity of marriages. Making adultery legal will hurt marriage bonds.”  Doesn’t the new law now allow freedom to adultery, and won’t it hurt the sanctity of marriage as the Government claims? Within a framework where exclusive monogamy is the social standard, adultery appears to be morally ‘wrong’, however the idea of monogamy especially in the Indian context is a reasonably recent phenomenon. Hindu culture includes numerous examples of polygamy mostly polygyny (where one man has many wives) in almost all stories, epics and myths. While many of us today believe that it is Muslims in India who are polygamous it is not the true picture. The monogamous standard among Hindus is also the result of relatively recent changes in the law. Before 1955 when the Hindu Marriage Act was drafted both Hindus and Muslims could practice polygamy, with monogamy being a condition only for Christians. Even after polygamy became illegal in 1956 many Hindu men continue to have ‘common law’ wives who are women the live with without marriage or when they have a married wife living somewhere else. This phenomenon is common enough to be a acknowledged in court both in many judgments.

Even though polygyny is the more prevalent from of polygamy, from Haryana and Rajasthan there are stories emerging  of a new kind of polygamy, in this case it is polyandry where brothers share a common wife from far away regions like Assam, Bengal, Jharkhand or Orissa because of the acute shortage of brides as a result of the continued practice of sex selection over years. In the villages bordering Garhwal and Himachal Pradesh is the region of Jaunsar Bhabar where ‘Pandav pratha’ or the practice of one wife for a family of brothers (like in Mahabharata where Draupadi was the common wife for the Pandava brothers) was the tradition not many years ago.

The HIV AIDS epidemic has also blown the lid of sexual relationships in India. We now know that many men, especially those in specific conditions, also called key populations, have multi-partner relationships. Many more monogamous women were infected with HIV because of their partners having multiple partners than the other way around. So many men would appear to have sexual relationship with other women even when they are married, and women appear to carry the burden of monogamy.

The Supreme Court judgment has dealt with both the issue of women’s equality as well as the moral issue of adultery. Through striking down the law it has removed a barrier to potentially consensual sex between two adults and stopped the treatment of women as property of their husbands. We have to consider adultery as a consensual act between the two parties concerned, otherwise it would be tantamount to rape which continues to be a criminal act.  While recognizing the value of consensus, the law also equalizes the liability of both women and men because adultery continues to remain an issue of concern in the civil domain. Both parties have the option of divorce or dissolution of marriage if the situation is unacceptable. It is true that marriage is a sexual contract, and if sex with a third person is deemed unacceptable by within the terms of their agreement, the recourse of civil remedies remain in place for either parties.

Both sections 377 and 497 were involved in criminalization of consensual sexual activities and it is good that consensual sex either with someone of the same sex or with someone else’s spouse are no longer criminal acts. A new and more progressive sexual morality would appear to be looming over our country which seems like a good sign in troubled times.


Making sense of India’s Population Conundrum

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This article was published in The Dialogue on 12/07/2018 Original Article can be accessed at-

Every year on the 11thof July the World Population Day is met with a mix of activities in India. On the one hand are the doomsday specialists who draw attention to the increasing population growth rate in India and how we are heading towards disaster adding more than one Australia to our population to quote a favourite comparison. On the hand politicians give long and sometimes comic speeches, my favorite being how India’s population growth can be reduced by providing TV sets to the poor. And indeed one CM had promised TV sets, but that was a state where the growth rate was not a problem. Later the TV set was replaced by the promise of laptops which probably have a greater population related relevance. No one seems to contest the fact that India’s population is growing dangerously and the sword of Damocles that hangs on our heads is that we will overtake the population of China in the next 10 to 12 years. The way this figure is repeated seems to be like a chant which could possibly the only way to avert this ‘disaster’.

India has come a long way since we became independent or launched the world’s first family planning programme. Since those days our population has increased thrice, but our life expectancy has also increased dramatically to more than twice and death rates have come down by 5 times. So many more people are now living longer than dying earlier. Population growth rates are affected by births, death and migration. And many of the developed countries especially in Europe are being propped up in-migrants because of their low birth rates, while countries like Japan are facing a dependency ratio problem as the number of older people, outnumber the younger productive population. Considering these circumstances, India has a very healthy ‘population’ scenario where the bulk of India’s population is  young and potentially productive. One of the ‘downsides’ if you call it that, of a young population, is the fact that while they can be very productive, they will also reproduce. What we see as ‘population growth’ in India today is the ‘limited’ reproduction of a large youthful population a phenomenon demographers call the ‘momentum’ effect. Considering population dynamics this is a healthy situation because we will continue to have a stable population base in the future, unlike in China where the one child norm and adverse sex ratio is soon going to create a population squeeze.  This has happened in the last fifty years in Japan and is also underway in South Korea.

The good ‘news’ is that India’s population is young and bodes well for the future, the ‘not so good’ news is that we haven’t probably invested enough to make it productive. Demographers call this advantage ‘demographic dividend’ and we have not yet been able to harvest this dividend. This shortcoming is captured in part by the Human Development Index (HDI) which is composite indicator with life expectancy, education and standard of living included. India’s rank on this index continues to be above 130, whereas even our Southeast Asian neighbours like Malaysia (59), Thailand (87), Indonesia(113) or Phillipines (116) are all ranked above us. Without any disrespect to our South Asian neighbours, if India counts itself among the global leaders in economy then it cannot be consistently ranked alongside with Bangladesh, Nepal or Pakistan. As a young country we need to invest in health, education and livelihood opportunities, and it is in these matters we seem to be moving at a glacial pace.

Many people opine that India’s population is a drain on our economic resources and if we had fewer mouths to feed, the economic status of the country would be jumped up, simply by the denominator effect. This is a false argument, because India today is a country of potentially ‘productive’ hands. In simple terms hands that can generate income are more valuable than ‘ill’ or unproductive mouths. Caught in the ‘myth’ of number our policy makers are letting the productive population status pass us by. We need investment in technical or skill education so that our rural youth become a workforce. The myth of the ‘university’ education is still being pursued through a common school system for everyone. Germany a powerhouse for engineering and technology has 5 different kinds of secondary schooling. Only one type is preparing students for universities. The others prepare students for vocational education. Germany also has a strong tradition of apprenticeship for period of three years, contributing to its technically qualified workforce. Instead of reorganising our education system bottom up, an adhoc skill training system has been adopted without adequate standardization. The livelihood potential of this approach is yet unproven as the ‘Make in India’ slogan remains mostly unfulfilled. The rapid and unplanned urbanization that is taking place in India is the most direct impact of changing demographics without any substantive change in livelihood possibilities.  A young potentially productive population is moving to cities seeking jobs, adding to the overcrowding which unfortunately gets seen as a ‘population problem’.

Another key dimension of population is the issue of ‘equity’ or fairness or how are key indicators of development or well being distributed across ‘people’. The historical ‘BIMARU’ classification by well-known demographer the Late Professor Ashis Bose gave a simple mnemonic of inequality. The number of states within this grouping, have increased as three of these states split in between, but what is more worrisome is the recent incidents of religious intolerance in different forms across the country. Religious intolerance and gender based violence show new dimensions of social, economic and political inequities are on the rise and it would be naïve to ignore these inequities and only count numbers on the occasion of the world population day.

Any discussion on population has to touch upon family planning, as these two terms have been synonymous in India. Unfortunately the Department of Family Planning in India does not seem to be keeping up with the demographic transition that is underway in the country. Couples in India, for the most part, no longer want more than two children, and most of the children born are also either first order or second order births. In this situation, spacing is the most important option that couples need. However both the data and the field experiences show that terminal methods like female sterilization are the ones which are being used the most or being provided the most. In name of male participation vasectomies are being promoted but the uptake is low. New long acting IUDs have become popular in recent years, but these too, do not aid spacing or delaying of pregnancies, which is the need of young couples. So the FP programme in effect is caught in a time-warp, providing services which were appropriate twenty or thirty years ago for a population of older couple with four or five children to a younger population with a desire for a small family size. It would appear that while the rhetoric of the ‘small family’ has succeeded the family planning department hasn’t yet adapted to this change.

Making India safer for women


This article was published in The Dialogue on 03/07/2018 Original Article can be accessed at-

The recently released report of the Thompson Reuters Foundation poll announced that India is the most dangerous country for women. There is almost a sense of disbelief in the reporting in most newspapers. How could India be more dangerous than Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen or Somalia? These places are militarized, completely torn apart by shelling, street fights and even gassing. India on the other hand is a peacefully galloping economy. We provide the world with the largest number of high-tech workers and they are the model minority in many places. We are the land of Gandhi and Buddha, the land of the ‘purushottama’ Rama. And to make things worse it seems that India has risen up the ranks from the 4thto the top-most slot in just 7 years.

Clearly there has been a mistake. Many are trying to dismiss this list saying it is a ‘perceptional’ list, not the result of any ‘hard’ data and rigorous statistical analysis. It is based on a ‘poll’ of 548 global experts of whom only 43 were from India. It was based on their opinion, and we know how tremendously fickle opinion polls can be. We are reminded of these every time we have an election in India. The study has already been dismissed as shoddy. The methodology is flawed, it is not based on robust data, and the experts could very well be biased.

But before we trash this report as another conspiracy or a plant by someone who wishes to discredit the ruling regime, it would be useful to review the smaller print. The six areas of the survey were healthcare, access to economic resources and discrimination, customary practices, sexual violence, nonsexual violence, and human trafficking. The list does not specify violence caused due to handguns, shelling, rocket launchers, sniping and so it is possible to exclude military or violent conflict – internal or external. Countries which are being compared to India in terms of women’s safety are such places. The list however does include customary practices. The UN Special Rapporteur’s on Violence Against Women had prepared report on cultural practices which contribute to violence against women some years ago. The report included many practices which are common in India and did so mentioning India by name. These included early and forced marriage, son preference which includes a large number of practices including sex selection during pregnancy as well many other discriminatory practices towards the daughter, discrimination against women who don’t have children and widows, then of course practices like witch hunting, honour killings, caste based abuse and so on. Data around these issues are available from multiple sources and many red flags have already been raised.

Other areas included in the survey are sexual violence and non-sexual violence without specifying whether it includes domestic or interpersonal violence. Reports of interpersonal violence in India have been shown to be very high, both through large surveys like National Family Health Survey (NFHS 4) as well as smaller region specific surveys. India has relatively low rape rate, but we need to keep in mind that the reporting around rape even after the visibility of the issue in the last few years is still very low. The recent NFHS 4 survey (2015 – 16) reports that the perpetrator of sexual violence is predominantly the husband. The IMAGES (International Men and Gender Equity Survey) study conducted among men in six states shows that between 14.8 and 49.1 percent of the men surveyed acknowledged committing sexual violence with their intimate partner. And India does not have any law against marital rape, so these incidents would never figure in any crime records. The same report also says that between 74.7 to 43 percent of the men acknowledged committing interpersonal violence. The NFHS4 reports that a third of all married women said they faced physical violence, and the state level variations was from a low 3.5% in Sikkim to a very high 55% in Manipur. If we now add cultural practices to these figures around interpersonal violence the situation that emerges is quite grim.

Another dimension of the study focuses on access to economic resources and discrimination, and while the poll itself is perceptional, there is data available from other sources to check the validity of these perceptions. Economic surveys show that female labour force participation in India is among the lowest in India at about 27% and our rank is among the top ten from the bottom at 121 out of 131 countries globally (in 2013). And it has been dropping over the years. This also creates a situation where the gender difference between women and men, in work force participation in India is among the highest in the world. However when one reviews time-use surveys (Central Statistical Organisation data available from 1998) the difference between women’s contribution to household, caring and community activities was nearly ten times more than that of men. This difference was between 3 and 30 hours a week or between half an hour of household work by men compared to over 4 hours every day by women. At an individual level, women from most poor and working class households are to be found working most of the time, and it seems like a travesty to say they do not contribute to work. This contradiction between how much women work and how much their work is ‘worth’ is what discrimination and violence is all about.

Now that we have converted the opinion of five hundred odd experts into some kind of more robust data, the situation of the Indian woman does not seem too healthy. The violence she face may not bloody or dismember her, but it is a daily grind of soul sapping discrimination, repeated rounds of verbal abuse, recurring coercive sex and of course carrying the burden of the family chores without any acknowledgement. Added to this there is the threat of physical violence which looms over her for various errors of omission and commission. And this pertains only to the treatment meted out to women within their homes. For this she does not need to lay a foot out of her home, face any terrorist or militant or army bullet.

The government has a huge role in changing the situation. It has to create opportunities for women and to create conditions of safety, including laws, policies and provide adequate budgets. However policy action alone is not enough. In each home we are creating these adverse conditions, and none of us would like the government to intervene too much within our lives. It is therefore incumbent upon the ‘non-women’ section of the Indian people, ie. men, to take this global indictment seriously and review our own practices. We men cannot dismiss this report as fiction, poor research or a conspiracy. We need to reconsider what each one us can do differently at home and in our communities and workplaces to see that this everyday violence and discrimination comes to an end. This report should serve as a wakeup call for us to treat our loved ones, our sisters, mothers and spouses better, and India will soon be out of this list of rogue nations.

Bring in the men and boys to address domestic violence


This article was published in The Dialogue on 29/06/2018 Original Article can be accessed at

Bollywood actor Armaan Kohli was arrested on June 12th for assaulting his girlfriend. I had not heard of Armaan Kohli earlier, but the news drew my attention. It does not only mark another episode of the continuing saga of violence and abuse of women, but provides an opportunity to look at the changes that have taken place in our understanding and response to the violence that women face in our society. Violence against women in India catapulted into the public consciousness partly because of horrific incidents like the Nirbhaya case in Delhi or the Shakti Mills case in Mumbai, leading to a reform of the law of the land. Women have also launched campaigns like the ‘Pink Chaddi’, ‘Pinjra tod’, ‘Slut Walk’ and ‘Take back the night’ clearly showing they are no longer willing to take this violence silently. However most of these campaigns were against violence in public spaces, while the Armaan Kohli incident draws attention to the private space and among the ‘non-poor’ classes.

Domestic violence was raised as an issue of concern since a series of studies conducted by International Centre for Research on Women, and subsequently National Family Health Survey showed the issue as being widespread in the mid 1990’s. Earlier in the 1980’s there had been successful campaigns against rape and dowry murder, leading to changes in the law notably the introduction of Section 498A in the Indian Penal Code 1983. Later the PWDVA (Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005) was also passed. This is a civil law and provides a series of protective measures for women. Though the overall implementation of the law is not said to be very robust, it is a civil law that provides women some measures financial, physical and residential security, which is very useful for the poor.

Over time there have some changes in the perception and treatment of violence. Firstly there has been a growing opposition to Section 498A as being too arbitrary since it allows for the imprisonment of the family members of the grooms family. In July 2017 the Supreme Court revised procedures under Section 498A IPC which is directed against violence at home.  The same month Ministry of Women and Child Development advised the National Women’s Commission to create a space in its web-portal for men to lodge complaints when they think they have been falsely implicated. On the other hand the growing visibility of sexual violence, has accentuated the existing moral dimensions of male and family honor linked to women’s sexuality, making rape the ‘vilest of crimes’, a ‘fate worse than death’ and calling for the death penalty. So the two shifts that seem to have taken place in the realm of violence against women is the raised pitch and alarm around violence in the public space, and a softening of the stand on violence at home especially those in the ‘urban middle class’.

The sexual dynamics of the urban middle class space has changed rapidly in recent years. Young women are now much more self-assured and economically independent. The strict sexual segregation that was visible even twenty five years ago, has led to a more relaxed interaction between sexes in both public and private spaces. Many couples now stay together and I am told ‘Tinder’ is a popular app. The fact that arranged marriage between caste and religious lines continues to be popular and marriage websites promoting such arrangements have huge memberships, indicates that some patriarchal ideas are equally entrenched. It is in this context of changing patterns as well entrenched trenched practices, that the Armaan Kohli incident seems important. Some of the strongest elements of Indian patriarchy are son preference and endogamous marriage practices. The strong cultural influence on marriage makes the marital institution a shared community space rather than a personal intimate space. These two elements together create a situation in which marriage disadvantages women and privileges men. But Armaan Kohli was not married, and thus this element of male privilege should not have acted. What this event highlights is that today even without the safety of the marital contract, the Indian male feels ‘entitled’ enough to physically beat his partner. However because the female does not have the social disadvantage of ‘marriage’, she is empowered enough to file a police complaint. A married woman may have been doubly disadvantaged – a more entitled and probably more violent ‘male’ partner and being discouraged by the ‘family’ not to bring the police into a ‘private’ issue. Divorce is often the result of continuing violence, and this happens without a public or criminal acknowledgement of the violence. This avoids a stigma for the man, but leaves behind a stigma for the woman, as someone who did not adjust.

Feminists have long held that marriage is a stronghold of patriarchy and many rejected it. Socialist feminists have tried to reform the institution of marriage into a more egalitarian relationship, especially since marriage is a given in many societies. However violence by men continues to be feature in many such relationships and probably a reason behind the rising rates of divorce in India. While divorce, or a way out, should be an element of any relationship, violence cannot be part of any relationship, especially an intimate spousal relationship. However male coercion and violence is an integral part of a majority of spousal relationship and expresses itself as control over mobility, friends, time, money etc. as well as violence to discipline.  It is not that they are ‘bad’ men, but men who have been bred with a sense of entitlement about their ‘superior’ position in life. The violence by men on their spouses is often a result of what they see as an unjustified claim by their spouses and is justified by this disciplinary prerogative they assume as the superior gender. In more sophisticated situations violence is replaced by coercion, subtle or overt to express preeminence and exercise control.

The idea of being the superior gender is bred, often openly and sometimes in a subtle manner among all boys. As a society we need to invest much more into bringing up our boys differently and providing opportunities for younger men to reflect upon their privileges and consequently aggressive behaviours towards their most intimate relationships. While laws are necessary and important, we cannot hope that laws alone will bring about a less violence and more caring and affection in the family and intimate spaces. It’s time to make the men more responsible and to start with our boys. The work that the Centre for Health and Social Justice and its partners do in rural societies across different states in India, shows that domestic violence can be reduced and it no longer remains socially acceptable through interventions with men alone. It’s time for men and youth in urban middle class India to take up this challenge. Armaan Kohli’s act can serve as a wake-up call for all of us.

The Global Pursuit of Eradicating Child Marriage and its Relevance in India – Part 2


Understanding Early Marriage in South Asia

This article was published in The Dialogue on 24/06/2018 Original Article can be accessed at-

Since the first time I heard international concerns around child marriage in Africa and South Asia, I detected hints of the ‘civilisational savior’ approach of the erstwhile missionary. The idea is to ‘save’ the girl child poor countries from the rigours of early pregnancy and other consequences of marriage. Often the label of ‘trafficking’ is used even though the girls are sent away knowingly by their poor families in exchange for some money. For the poor, the ‘daughter’ has a transactional value which they are encashing. It is inaccurate to call this situation ‘trafficking’ without acknowledging the economic and structural constraints faced by the communities.

In the 21st Century the idea of sexual rights have been established, but rarely in conversations around early marriage are the issues of compulsory heteronormativity in marriage or the issue of choice in marriage raised in India. On the contrary sexual choice and autonomy of young people has been severely curtailed by the provisions of the POCSO Act which makes consensual sexual activity with a girl below the age of 18years an offence. This is a 180 degree turn around in a country which not many years ago sanctified marital sex at the age of 14 years.

Conversations on early marriage rarely deal with the issue of emerging sexuality of girls and the need for sexuality education. Even if there is any education it is usually in the garb of ‘life-skill’ education which is aimed at contraceptive education for use after marriage and in recent times menstrual hygiene a long neglected topic has been introduced along with sexual violence which is becoming an area of concern. But issues like relationships, sexual identity, sexual pleasure and consent are rarely discussed. As a society we are moving into a situation where sex was okay for teenagers 50 years ago is illegal now and yet everywhere we hear that the societal morals have become loose. In civilizational terms it is an interesting conundrum.

In South Asia where poverty is so widespread it could be one reason behind early marrying off of daughters, but it is far from being the only important reason for early marriage. A deeper sociological enquiry into child marriage in South Asia reveals that there is a great social anxiety about the sexuality of girls. There is a high premium on sexual ‘purity’ and the idea of family honor. This family honor which accrues to men, rests in the sexual purity of women. Early marriage is a simple way to ensure that the girl is transferred safely out of her father’s custody to that of her husband. He has now ‘handing her over’ to the husband and his family to help breed and continue their family line and honour. In many ways this is the core business of marriage in South Asia – a breeding transaction between two families of similar social standing to ensure that breeding of that social order continues. This is the reason behind the strict social lines within the business of marriage. Nowhere does our conversation around early marriage discuss this core cattle trading or eugenic element of the South Asian marriage. In fact the new ICT enabled marriage apps allow for clearer articulation of the social lineage allowing for a more sophisticated form of selective breeding in humans. . There is also a very high premium on fecundity in South Asia, thus girls and women are expected to bear children as soon as possible after marriage. Women who are barren or infertile are considered impure and polluting. The ideas of ritual purity and pollution and honor associated with marriage and virginity makes the situation around early marriage complicated in South Asia.

It is possible that as a reader you feel that I have strayed far away from my original topic of child marriage, but I feel this digression is germane. Discussions around early marriage started with the advent of ‘modernism’ into India. Modernism is a philosophical tradition of enquiry, of subjecting social phenomenon to strict examination. Early marriage did not stand the scrutiny of individual benefit for the girls, in fact it was seen as being harmful and hence the practice was opposed. Over time our analytic frameworks have evolved. Sexuality and marriage are now seen as matters of individual choice, but we continue to promote a social selection breeding methodology. Love jihad and khap panchayats are still issues which gain political mileage in India. Sexuality is still not matter of public debate and in a population control obsessed nation even condom ads have been relegated to the late night show on television.

Working with men on early marriage

Even though I consider myself as someone who is on the fringes of the ‘child marriage’/ ‘early marriage’ conversations, the issue of choice and autonomy in marriage and social and educational development of girls is central to our work with men and boys. In my understanding the different ways of understanding and addressing child marriage viz. moral health, demographic, economic, civilizational even child rights and women’s rights are all external or imposed approaches where the analysis happens among the implementers and then ways are found to convey it to the subject populations. Adolescent empowerment is a popular approach, but even when marriages are postponed the implementers are not really sure what happens to the girls within or after in the ‘marriage process’.  So even in those cases where the implementation succeeds these successes are limited through the social selection breeding bias that is widespread in India. Furthermore there is no clarity about the autonomy the now married woman enjoys in her new home.

In recent times a ‘social norms’ approach is becoming popular, where the idea is to mobilise and help communities to identify their own vision of a new social reality and then support the spread of these ideas through social networks. Social norms are often understood as common practices of a community which are sanctioned and endorsed and form a mechanism maintaining social order in a community. In communities like ours understanding social norms is crucial in promoting social change because individual autonomy is constantly being regulated by social expectations and ones understanding of these expectations. Early marriage in our understanding is a complex social norm because it is embedded within ideas related to patriarchal control of women’s sexuality and reproduction as well as masculinity and family honor. In South Asia it is important to understand the deep linkages with between the control of women’s sexuality and reproduction and family honour and this is often expressed through the crime of ‘honour killing’ a unique situation where father or brother kill their daughter or sister because she fell in love with someone who is outside the socially accepted breeding circle. As daughter’s grow older father’s are very keen not to lose their family ‘honour’ which is a very important component of the social prestige of that family. This loss is not only through acts by the girl herself but through acts of others on her. Thus if a neighbourhood boy from a village or caste group which is not within the desirable breeding circle expresses any form of interest in the daughter concerned this ‘honour’ is threatened. There are ghastly stories of how fathers encouraged their daughters to commit suicide by jumping into wells while the partition violence and mass exodus was taking place between India and Pakistan in 1947. This way the daughters wouldn’t fall into the hands of the ‘heathen’ and the honour of the family would be unscathed.

In our work with men we try to get men to acknowledge and change this anxiety around ‘honour’. We try and get men to reconfigure their relationship with their children. A son is not just ‘lineage’ and daughter is not ‘honour’. The core of the relationship between father and his children has to be affection. This is easy with young children because they reciprocate unconditionally to care and affection. I recall a young Maratha man telling me “Earlier when I came home tired from my days work in the field I would be irritable. I would hurry my wife to make me tea and shoo my children away. Now when I come home from work I play with children, and my tiredness goes away. My children no longer fear me and then after playing with them I help my wife with the cooking.” Marathas are a warrior group, and playing with children was earlier considered a sign of weakness among these men. Now hundreds of men play with their children, prepare them for school, change nappies for the infants in many villages across districts in Sholapur, Bid and Pune districts. In many villages men have started supporting their daughters decisions to marry outside the socially acceptable breeding circle. Thousands of men have opted for joint registration of their homes with their wives. The point I wish to make here is that we do not see early marriage from an external standpoint as a social problem. We work closely with men to help them understand their own relationships with women in the family, in the community and their own beliefs and actions towards others. This helps them look at the world differently and respond differently to the various issues of life.

A similar approach has been successfully tested or is ongoing with men of the Chambal ravines in Madhya Pradesh, with the youth of Bundi district in Rajasthan, across districts in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bundelkhand, in a few districts of Jharkhand and West Bengal. We are convinced that the issue of early marriage is a part of a particular cultural milieu and it is difficult to pass judgement from outside. Communities, which includes girls and boys, women and men, have to be empowered to understand their aspirations and relationships within a human rights framework. In other words we need to respect each other’s autonomy, exercise individual choice and agency as well as build solidarity with each other. Any solution to early marriage outside this framework is not sustainable, and even when the results will show an increase in age, the idea of marriage as a consensual choice of relationship will remain a distant dream at least in our country.

The Global Pursuit of Eradicating Child Marriage and its Relevance in India – Part 1


This article was published in The Dialogue on 20/06/2018 Original Article can be accessed at-

Over 14 million girls are married before the age of 18 every year, and this phenomenon has emerged as one of the most important development issues of the world. India contributes a substantial number to this global total as over one fourth of all marriages in our country are child marriages and it is over 50% in some states. In recent times there has been some good news with a UNICEF report claiming that over 25 million child marriages were prevented in the last decade, and India had taken the lead. However this was not always so, and despite a law against child marriage since 1929 in India, a large proportion of girls in the country have consistently been married before the legal age.

Some years ago I attended a meeting convened by The Elders in Addis Ababa to discuss this problematic and pernicious practice which is also common across many countries in Africa in addition to South Asia. The Elders is a group of global leaders who after finishing their official tenures as heads of state or any similar elevated leadership position, use their moral suasion to bear upon entrenched global problems. Usually the group took on political problems, but here they were taking on a social problem. This group had been initially convened by Nelson Mandela and included at that point  Gaca Machel, Mary Robinson, Gro Harlem Bruntland, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Ela Bhatt from India among others. The global campaign Girls not Brides was initiated as a result of the meeting and the issue of early and child marriage is now on every development organisation’s agenda. The Elders were successful in getting their moral weight to bear upon an issue and make it one of global concern.

Early marriage: A problem or a symptom?

I have usually stayed on the fringes of the work on child marriage which has become an important area of concern where work with adolescent girls is concerned. Sometimes I find work on child marriage closely interlinked with concerns around child trafficking. NGOs have adopted social vigilance to stop child marriage, using the police force as well as armies of young girls to stop child marriage and in some cases have also been successful in getting some people behind the bars. Recently I provided some technical advice to an organization which was involved in stopping child marriage through working with adolescent girls, supporting them to continue in school, providing some additional economic support to the families and working with religious leaders to proscribe the practice using their religious authority as well as the law of the land. While this group did not yet have any substantial claims of success, they were encouraged to look at ‘experiments’ out of countries in Africa like in Ethiopia and Tanzania where it has been proved that age at marriage for girls can be increased by investment in girls education, talking to their family members and by providing small economic incentives like goats and chicken to the family. Researchers have proven that this intervention can be costed at about 44 USD per child in Ethiopia and a little higher 117 USD in Tanzania. I wonder whether such an intervention would succeed in India?

If child marriage is an easily addressed social problem, I have wondered why it has not really been eradicated in India even though a law to this effect exists from 1929. And then what is the real problem in child marriage, or is it a symptom of a much deeper problem? Both my grandmothers were married in their twenties and married before this law was framed. But they were a rarity in their times, as they were both from Brahmo families, a social group that pioneered girls education and other social reform in Bengal. But the grandmothers of many of my contemporaries were married in their teens. Subsequently I worked with many older women in rural communities who had been married in their teens as well. Many of them were very bouncy and vivacious and did not seem particularly ‘unhappy’ or ‘oppressed’ or ‘traumatised’ because of this early marriage long ago in their lives. Early marriage had not crippled them for life either physically or socially. Yes, early marriage can be a serious impediment to development – social, educational, physical, but then marriage is not the only impediment and nor does marriage at a higher age become a guarantee for autonomy and development for the girl or young woman.

So what is the problem with early marriage? Please note I am using the words early marriage rather than child marriage and I will soon explain the reason. I did some delving into the history of the social movement against child marriage in India and drew up an interesting history. A hundred and fifty years ago girls as young as ten years were routinely married off. Their fathers thought nothing wrong of it and society rejoiced at those marriages as well. Many well-known men had married very young girls Gandhi was 13 and married Kasturba who was 14. Ramkrishna Paramhansa, a noted seer and guru of Vivekananada, was married to his wife Sarada Devi when she was five years old.  The rumblings against child marriage started when a 10 year old girl Phulmani Devi died of bleeding when her much older husband tried to consummate the marriage in the early 1880s. Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar the well-known social reformer and others tried to take up the issue with the British to create a law around an age of consent. However other Indian leaders saw this as cultural interference by the British into Indian culture and in many ways lay down the foundations of identity politics that we see flourishing in India today. It took many years of struggle between 1880 and 1929 when the law against child marriage was finally passed, restricting marriages below the age of 14 for girls and 18 for boys. Even then the law was never implemented strictly even though the age at marriage was subsequently raised over the years to 18 for girls and 21 for boys. One thing that this story illustrates for me is that the ‘problem’ of early marriage has more than one dimension and without understanding these it is not going to be easy to eradicate it.

One of the first problems associated with early marriage was the negative health consequences for the girl who was married. The human body matures sexually much before it matures physically, and thus many girls died when giving birth, as their bodies are not yet mature enough to bear children, even though they are ready to have sex and conceive children. Many more suffered some form or other of childbirth associated morbidity. When I started dabbling in demography in the 1990s the demographic argument was against early marriage and early child bearing. On the one hand there was concern for maternal mortality and morbidity but on the other had there was great concern for early and repeated reproduction contributing to overpopulation. Clearly the concern for individual good was tinged with a larger social concern as well. Somehow a figure of 18 years was considered appropriate for female and keeping in mind the patriarchal construct of the husband being superior to the wife 21 was considered appropriate for the male.

I find these figures arbitrary because the age at marriage seems to vary across the world. In many countries in Europe and many states in the US who are often seen as the standards of modernism the marriage is possible at 16 years. In neighbouring Nepal the legal age at marriage for women and men is 20 even though a large number of girls are married off earlier! So what would be the ‘scientific’ approach to defining this age? There is a global consensus that childhood ceases at 18 and adulthood starts thereafter. The child rights issue is sorted out once the age of 18 is obtained, but is that sufficient reason. But then why raise the male age to 21years, if not for any other reason other than a desire to appear ‘proper’ in patriarchal terms. Why is 21 years not appropriate for women? Is it only related to the fact that the female skeletal development is complete by that time and the pelvic girdle is now fit to hold a baby and deliver it safely? But then shouldn’t the age of marriage be 17, so that the baby is born at 18? Now if this seems too mechanical and deterministic, my purpose is satisfied. In India and elsewhere everyone seems to be rush to set a minimum age bar with little concern whether the social conditions allow the girls they are so concerned about to exercise any form of choice or consent in the matter.

Scenario of Sterilisation Camps in Madhya Pradesh: Are Court directives enough to bring an end to the camp approach?


This article was published in The Dialogue on 16/09/2017 Original Article can be accessed at

Even after a year of the landmark judgment by the Supreme Court, (Devika Biswas vs Union of India and Ors.) directing the state governments to put an end to the camp approach for sterilisation, operations still continue unabated in appalling conditions in these camps. Conducting sterilisations camps especially targeting women has been a common practice in the Family Planning Programme in India since decades. Even with standards for procedure of sterilization available since 1989, the focus has remained especially on female sterilisation and on fulfilling targets to control population.

The poor state of affairs in the female sterilisation camps has been time and again brought to fore by different Public Interest Litigations (PIL’s) filed by activists and civil society members, for example a petition by activist Ramakant Rai as part of Health Watch Forum UP Bihar was filed in the Supreme Court in 2003. The judgment for this PIL in 2005 directed all states to adhere to the guidelines of the ministry for such operations. Part of the order also directed to introduce a system of having an approved panel of doctors entitled to carry on sterilization procedures, set up Quality Assurance Committees, collect and publish reports of the number of persons sterilised as well as the number of deaths or complications arising out of the sterilisation and bring into effect an insurance policy to compensate for death of the patient sterilised, in case of post–operative complications.

Following this PIL, new guidelines were formulated and older ones revised[1], and on a positive note the Government also brought in the Family Planning Insurance Scheme in November 2005. The various guidelines provide detailed guide to ensuring standards of quality regarding the place and timings of where the camp must be conducted, number of operations allowed in a day by one surgeon, women’s eligibility criteria, pre-operative counselling and tests and post-operative check-ups and overall care, taking informed consent of the women etc.

Even with multitude guidelines in place, there is continued negligence on part of the states in implementing them in the camps. A glaring example of the utter neglect in camps came to light in Araria district of Bihar where 53 women were sterilised within 2 hours by a single surgeon in unhygienic and dire conditions. After witnessing the horrific negligence in this sterilisation camp, Devika Biswas a social activist filed a PIL on the gross violations in 2012. Even during the hearing of the case, news reports of violation came from the state of Chhattisgarh, where 13 women had died in Bilaspur after undergoing sterilisation operation in a camp, due to neglect in quality of the services provided by the health system. The historic judgment which came on the petition of Biswas in September 2016 was well received as it vociferously highlighted the end to the camp approach within three years and outlined to strictly adhere to guidelines for all procedures.

Conditions in Camps of Madhya Pradesh after the Biswas PIL Judgement

Following the judgment on the Biswas PIL, Maternal Health Rights Campaign (MHRC), a rights based network of more than 50 organisations based in the state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) took the responsibility to observe 35 camps across 11 districts to understand the compliance of guidelines in the camps. As part of this observation exercise, evidence was generated using an observation checklist, by capturing photographs of the ongoing activity and situation, and through conversations with beneficiaries about their experience with the services and facilities they received and behaviour of the healthcare providers. The observations were made during the winter months of December 2016 and January 2017, which fall under the peak season for sterilization. The observation and analysis has been done keeping in alignment with the prescribed standards in the guidelines issues by ministry of health and family welfare (MOHFW).

The observations and statistics from the exercise undertaken by MHRC reveal that even after the directives, the camp approach continues to violate the rights of the women and camps continue to be conducted in poor conditions.


Timing and Information Regarding the Procedures:

Women were brought in groups to the camps during morning hours, were made to wait for long hours before the arrival of the doctors. The arrival time of the doctors was unknown in many camps and reason quoted for the same was scarcity of human resource. Due to the late arrival of doctors and their determination to complete their workload of ‘reaching the target’, the operations took place outside of the prescribed hours which is from 9 am to 5pm as mentioned in the guidelines set by the MOHFW. In around 18 camps out of 35, the prescribed timing was not followed and some operations went on till as late as 11.30 in the night, indicating the importance given to

Number of Procedures

As per the guidelines, for maintaining quality services, each surgeon should restrict to conducting a maximum of 30 procedures a day spread across 8 hours (9am- 5pm) with the availability of 2 laproscopes. The findings however highlight contrary observations as only 9 camps followed this criteria. Even in these 9 camps, the number of procedures were conducted between 25 minutes to 2 hour 30 mins, which is otherwise recommended to be spread during the 8 hours allotted time, therefore raising questions on the quality maintained during the procedure. Doing excess procedures is strictly prohibited by the Supreme Court yet they were carried on, in some of the camps around 60-80 women underwent the procedure in a single day. It was also reported that in one of the camps, officials entered only enough names so as to not go beyond the cap, and other names were entered on other dates or not entered at all indicating a malpractice. This purposeful act can complicate the lives of the woman for future reference in case of complications or failure and also provides a false database.

Pre-Operative Procedures

Counselling, voluntary consent and undergoing tests before the procedure are a pre -requisite as per the guidelines. Every woman has a right to receiving all the required information about the procedure and also about the consequences in order to make an informed decision. The observations from the camps highlight that there were no rooms for counselling ensuring confidentiality as only in 11camps out of 35, women were given information on other contraceptive methods, only in 9 women were explained about the ill effects and complications post sterilization and in 8 camps were told about management and compensation in case of complication, failure or death. In regard to taking informed consent, in 25 camps, no woman were read to or explained about the content of the consent forms, and women were made to sign them without them knowing what was written on in. Similarly, a set of mandatory tests like blood, urine, blood pressure, weight and abdomen check-up are to be done before the surgery which will ensure the eligibility for the procedure. Considering the status of anaemia among women in MP, not conducting a blood test and also a pregnancy test before the procedure puts the woman at great risk often leading to complications and sometimes even death.

Makeshift OTs

The guidelines state no sterilisation procedure can be conducted in a non-functional OT, but this mandate was overlooked and 5 out of 35 camps had makeshift OTs in the hall of the hospitals. Also the rooms had no privacy, it was flooded with the women being operated on, women waiting for their turn along with relative and doctors. Another practice observed was the use of cycle pumps in 11 camps to inflate the abdomen, which is a gross violation of the standards of care which have previously been reiterated in court judgments.

 Post-Operative Procedure

The sterilisation procedure ends with ensuring that women are not going through complications, immediately after the procedure and months after it. While long term follow up was not part of this exercise, the immediate care and follow up by the nurses and doctors was not be seen in the camps. On the contrary, due to inadequate beds, women had to sleep on the floor, only 4 camps provided mattress and a blanket, considering that it was winter months, no effort was made to feel women feel warm and comfortable. Even at the time of discharge when adequate information needs to be given about care and follow up, it was observed that in around 20 camps women were not checked for recovery and stability by the doctor or a nurse until 4 hours nor were they given information on follow up and care before discharge.


The overall scenario of the camps through observations made by MHRC, suggests a dismal picture. Not even a single camp qualified following the standards and procedures. These are just 35 camps which have shown the gruesome reality, however the findings from these observations are enough to understand the commitment of the state to improve women’s reproductive health. As the judgement completes one year, the Government still does not have a plan to end the current approach. Though the government has introduced the Mission Parivar Vikas to ensure that services reach out to every couple, quality of care in each of the services remain a matter of concern. It is thus important to discuss the pathways of the current programme and a commitment from the state to learn from the past experiences and come up with strategies which will ensure informed decision making by women, remove social barriers to bring men to the forefront to take equal or even greater responsibility in using contraception, focus on the highest attainable quality of care in delivering all contraceptive method with special attention to spacing methods, steadfast action to bring an end to all camps and most importantly on this run ensuring women’s empowerment to decide for their own reproductive health, care and fertility. Without such deliberation and an increasing demand to limit fertility, women’s health and life will continue to be at risk.

[1] All family planning related guidelines can be found on ministry’s website –