Twisting Gender Justice in the Cause of Backlash: The Case of Turkey

Anti-gender discourses, a growing opposition to gender analysis, and a specific interpretation of ‘gender justice’ replacing ‘gender equality’ have gained visibility in Turkey following the rise of the Islamist de-democratisation approach of the ruling party Justice and Development Party (AKP). The party initiated a re-patriarchalisation process, pressuring women’s and LGBTQI+ activism.

AKP’s approach to gender presents an intriguing case. In its initial years, during Turkey’s European Union (EU) candidacy, the Islamist government, attempted to make legislative changes that would actually improve women’s position in society. However, with their consolidation of power and the end of Turkey’s candidacy, AKP gradually and more pointedly moved toward women’s traditional roles in the family as mothers and wives.

Signing the Istanbul Convention

When Turkey signed the Istanbul Convention in 2011 there was an emphasis on the empowerment of women. Professor Feride Acar, the first president of the monitoring body of the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe, Group of Experts on Action Against Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO), was in a pivotal position in finalising the treaty, also playing a part in naming the agreement after Istanbul.

Turkey was the first country to sign the convention. However, double-dealing was visible in the government’s policy making even then, as in the same year, AKP transformed the Ministry of State for Women and Family to the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. This was a red flag for the women’s movements, particularly about conservative attempts of the government to consolidate women’s domesticised status and rights within the framework of family.

Later in 2019, the government nominated another candidate to replace Prof Acar in contradiction with GREVIO’s candidacy criteria. After taking control of the convention’s monitoring mechanism, the AKP regime started to promote Islamic notions of ‘fıtrat’ (‘natural’ attributes of sexes) as the basis of their controversial definition of ‘gender justice’ more explicitly in public affairs.

With fıtrat, gender justice is celebrated as an Islamist alternative to the perspectives of equality advocated by ‘the Western imposed gender ideology’ in an increasingly authoritarian atmosphere. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emphasised women’s ‘delicate nature’ in his speeches several times, insisting that ‘women and men could not be treated equally because it goes against the laws of nature’, and he blamed feminists for not understanding ‘the special status attributed to mothers by Islam’.

Turkey’s Withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention

Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention ten years after signing it, announced by a presidential decree at midnight on March 19, 2021. Ironically, the first country that signed the convention also became the first to withdraw. Under the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic, massive protests by women’s and LGBTQI+ organisations took place in the streets and on social media challenging the government’s decision.

Women’s rights organisations and bar associations filed lawsuits against the decision to withdraw with a solid argument that Turkey ratified the Istanbul Convention via its National Assembly and thus withdrawal by a presidential decree is highly disputable. Despite this,the decision was declared final.

While the protests and challenges to the decision were continuing, President Erdoğan answered questions about the withdrawal in a live broadcast with university students. He argued that the convention does not bring an added value to the protection of women’s rights in Turkey, as national law No. 6284 already offers the required protection. He further presented Islam’s condemnation of violence against women as a formal reassurance.

Attempts to rationalise the withdrawal from the convention contributed to increased awareness of the backlash. The convention was declared a threat against Turkish family values in several speeches by government officials and was targeted as an untrustworthy tool of European cultural expansionism. This backlash gradually reached Law No. 6284, which was passed in 2012 for regulating the prevention of gender-based violence, as some members of the parliament asked for its annulment, with similar arguments of it being Western-centric. Özlem Zengin, a female attorney and vice president of AKP even found herself as the target of backlash actors, including her fellow party members, and received threats for stating that Law No. 6284 should continue to be the red line in Turkey against the violence targeting women.

Women’s movements have a long history of pressuring policymakers and amending laws in Turkey. Revisions in the Turkish Civil Code such as on article 159, which required women to have the permission of their husbands to be able to work (abolished in July 1992) and article 153, which entailed the sole use of the surname of the husband (changed in May 1997) were products of women’s movements.  These amendments came as Turkish laws harmonised with European codes as part of the country’s accession to the EU. When the accession negotiations came to a standstill in 2018, gender backlash gained more currency, significantly weakening the rights and freedoms of women and increasing violence against women and gender minorities.

The ‘New Turkey’

With his latest election victory in June 2023, President Erdoğan has now initiated the discussion for a new constitution, which is expected to bring further regressive revisions to gender equality. Immediately following the election victory, President Erdoğan addressed his electorate in Istanbul from the top of his campaign bus, referring to every member of the opposition as ‘LGBT supporters [LGBT+]’ and he joined his supporters as they booed the opposition, continuing the tradition he started in his rallies before the election. LGBTQI+ has now become a shorthand that labels diverse strands of political opposition in the ‘New Turkey’ as a threat to the ‘sacredness of family’, and the ‘future of the nation’.

AKP refrains from using the term ‘gender’ in official documents, which is adopted by the new Turkish state in its authoritarian turn toward anti-gender directions. With Islamist nuances added to reverse its international use, ‘gender justice’ is turned in the state-sponsored lexicon and into a tool of backlash. In this lexicon, women are defined as ‘extensions’ of men; as mothers, wives and daughters.

Islamist women’s government organised and non-governmental organisation (NGOs and GONGOs) such as KADEM, normalise the neopatriarchal culture that limits women’s social presence with their participation in the labour market, as they collude by putting an added emphasis on women’s association with motherhood.  Such pro-family discourses work to justify conservative neoliberal versions of masculinities in Turkey. It also shows that anti-gender approaches in AKP policies are rooted in their Islamist challenge to the universal notions produced by a long tradition of struggle for gender equality.

In the current period of backlash in Turkey, anti-gender politics plays a critical role in the strengthening of an authoritarian regime . The executive presidency regime bypassed the National Assembly in the process of withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. The neopatriarchal state under the Islamist AKP, creates new hegemonic perspectives via pro-family and anti-gender nationalism, and the Islamist biopolitics in civil society in the ‘New Turkey’ demands the emergence of a new patriarchal bargain with the complex power relations around gender.

5 ways funding is crucial for organising and defeating gender backlash

Backlash from conservative, patriarchal, religious and political forces is often seen as ‘the cost of doing business’ by feminist or LGBTQ+ activists. Yet how do philanthropic institutions who support gender justice respond to the scaled-up, well-financed and globally coordinated anti-gender ideology backlash today? How do they support and collaborate with activists and civil society organisations to expose and win against the ‘opposition’?

Lisa VeneKlasen explores this in Countering Backlash’s latest working paper ‘Anti-Gender Backlash: Where Is Philanthropy?’. It is written primarily for gender justice and women’s rights activists and researchers in the global South who struggle to make sense of the philanthropy ecosystem, and to gain a partial view of the map of actors most closely aligned with their agenda.

With the focus of UN Women’s 68th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) 2024 around ‘financing with a gender perspective’, here are five takeaways from the paper.

1.    Gender is the ‘canary in the coalmine’

Coordinated attacks on gender rights and activists are part of a larger authoritarian agenda that includes the targeting of ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, environmentalists and more. The backlash against gender justice is a central pillar of the orchestrated rollback of democratic and progressive rights, politics and movements. Important collaborations between LGBTQ+ and feminist donors through the Global Philanthropy Project (GPP) and between women’s funds, such as the On the Right Track initiative, are funding research that tracks who’s behind the anti-gender movement and makes the connection between anti-gender, anti-democracy and authoritarian discourse and strategies, in addition to resourcing increased power and protection of activists.

2.    Anti-gender funding is a juggernaut

Global anti-gender backlash is a juggernaut, stifling and reversing advances in racial, gender, and reproductive rights and justice, and attacking defenders in dozens of countries, and globally. As shown in the paper, research by the Global Philanthropy Project (GPP) finds that the anti-gender movement spent over USD$1 billion between 2008 and 2017, from organisations based in the United States alone while new anti-gender networks are emerging in Europe. These are the networks behind the passing of ‘anti-gay’ laws in Uganda and Ghana, for example. In 2023, research by the Institute for Journalism and Social Change (IJSC) found that the UK Government had been directly funding anti-LGBTQ+ churches in Uganda.

“Actors in the UK are now a ‘key producer and exporter of anti-gender narratives”

In contrast, justice philanthropy has been slow to respond, and many steps behind the anti-gender opposition with regard to coordination, amounts and ways of funding.

3.    Donors are not making the connection between gender backlash and threats to democracy

Too few donors recognise how patriarchy and gender are ‘critical to the forces characterised by rising authoritarianism’, according to interviews for this research.

Trump’s election in 2016 and subsequent assaults on reproductive and gender-related rights have been a ‘wake-up call’ focusing philanthropic attention on the urgency of anti-gender backlash. But feminists in philanthropy suggest that it remains an uphill battle, and that women’s rights funding is generally decreasing.

They point to the different ways that characterising anti-gender backlash prevents donors from sharing a common understanding of the problem.  The distinct frames donors use include: fundamentalist backlash, democratic backsliding, rising authoritarianism, anti-gender, anti-feminist, anti-‘gender ideology’, anti-rights, anti-abortion, anti-democracy, the far right, religious nationalism, and the opposition.

A report published in September 2023 from the Astraea Lesbian Fund for Justice, ‘Global Resistance to Anti-Gender Opposition’ explores this issue. It recommends that donors’ responses ‘keep it simple’ (e.g. use words like ‘conservative’ or ‘fundamentalist’) to help forge a shared narrative and communicate to the general public.

Backlash is nothing new, and many feminists and gender justice activists are frustrated by a perceived lack of donor urgency. One donor advisor shared that some activists in the Middle East, feel like the recent framing of ‘anti-gender-Backlash’ is a Western export by Northern donors who are only now realising the extent of the problem because of Trump.

Several philanthropic foundations, such as Ford Foundation, Oak Foundation, and Wellspring, are prioritising global South-led research and other strategies to fill knowledge gaps. GPP plays a central role in gathering analysis and coordinating the growing interest across the philanthropic sector.

4.    Donors must also fund collaboration among feminist activists and organisers directly

The fact that philanthropic organisations are investing time and funding to coordinate and scale up their responses is promising. For example, GPP’s ‘Shimmering Solidarity Summit’ in 2021 led to the establishment of the ‘Responding to Anti-Gender Initiatives’ (RAGI) to ‘energise and coordinate donor responses.’ According to GPP staff, there has been a significant increase in funding to LGBTQI+ groups and improved coordination since the summit, but new challenges are always emerging.

At the same time, funders recognize that prevalent funding siloes can create competition and prevent urgently needed collaboration. Improved donor collaboration is welcome, but it doesn’t substitute for more unconditional funding to enable activists and organisers to create their own spaces that are essential to power-building and aligning creative multi-sectoral strategies and unusual alliances to tackle and expose who’s behind backlash on multiple fronts. With more opportunities to strategise together, they would also have meaningful advice for their donor partners. Both a donor and activist approach to collaboration is essential.

5. Funders in search of ‘innovation’ while managing a heightened sense of risk

The philanthropic sector tends to seek out innovation and ‘big bets’. At times, the search for the new and better is at the expense of tried and tested strategies that are not as visible or exciting.

Not infrequently, new large-scale funding is directed toward the creation of new funding structures like collaborative and pooled funds to move money more quickly to groups and mitigate risk to the donors involved. Two new promising collaborative funds that have emerged in response to GPP’s analysis are Numun and Nebula. Both of these funds direct resources toward energised movement-driven collaboration to address important gaps.

Risk is not new to donors, though, in such a volatile political moment, donors are naturally concerned, especially as philanthropic foundations have faced attacks from governments. How to balance the risk of not funding movements at the scale needed to win against the risk of donor-directed political and legal attacks is a significant dilemma.

The seemingly contradictory push and pull of heightened risk vs a ‘moonshot’ mindset impacts how quickly and flexibly funding flows. This is particularly true for the less flashy organising and infrastructure-building necessary to resist and win against an ever-morphing foe in the long run.

De-democratisation in South Asia weakens gender equality

This year, millions of people in South Asia head to the polls. Potential outcomes of elections in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, however, do not bode well for women’s rights or gender equality, says Countering Backlash researcher, Sohela Nazneen. The road ahead is difficult for women’s and LGBTQ+ struggles, as autocratic leaders consolidate power, and right-wing populists, digital repression, and violence against women and sexual minorities are all on the rise

Repression of civic space

CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations that aims to strengthen citizen action. After the Bangladesh government’s repression of opposition politicians and independent critics in the run-up to the country’s January elections, CIVICUS downgraded Bangladesh’s civic space, rating it as ‘closed’. India and Pakistan it ranked as ‘repressed’.

All three countries recently passed cybersecurity laws and foreign funding regulations that obstruct women’s rights, and feminist and LGBTQ+ organising. In Bangladesh, the ruling Awami League – in power since 2008 – boycotted by the main opposition party during the most recent elections. In India, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), in power since 2014, has systematically undermined democratic institutions and built a Hindu-nationalist base. Pakistan has experienced multiple military forays into elections and politics that effectively limited competition between parties.

When it comes to gender equality concerns, however, these three South Asian countries feature contradictory trends. All have, or had, powerful women heads of government. Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and current PM Sheikh Hasina have led Bangladesh; in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto governed from 1993–1996. Indira Gandhi governed India from 1966 to 1977, and there have been many other regional party heads. During this period, things have improved for ordinary women. Women live longer, more women receive greater education, and they are increasingly active and visible in the economy.

India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have all been governed by women leaders. But these countries still experience strong pushback against women’s rights from conservative forces

But persistent gender inequalities remain. Violence against women in public places and within the home is high. Women’s sexuality is subject to heavy policing, and there is strong pushback against women’s rights and gender equality from conservative right-wing-populist forces.

At the Institute of Development Studies, we have been tracking backlash and rollback on rights in the region through two programmes: Sustaining Power and Countering Backlash. Our exploration of the links between a rollback in women’s rights and autocratisation shows specific manifestations of gender backlash.

Bodies as battlegrounds: direct assaults and hollowing-out policies

Women’s bodies have always been policed, and the rights of sexual minorities are highly contested in South Asia. Recent years have seen an increase in direct assaults against feminist and LGBTQ+ activists in online and physical spaces. In all three countries, right-wing political parties and religious groups have mobilised a strong anti-rights rhetoric to oppose critical women’ rights, feminists, and LGBTQ+ activists.

But the battle over women’s bodies is also visible in policymaking. In Bangladesh, for example, sexual and reproductive health, previously framed in terms of rights, have become more technical. In 2011, the government introduced a National Women’s Development Policy, which gave women equal control over acquired property. But mass protests by Islamist groups claiming this clause violated Shariah laws forced the government to backtrack.

Islamist protests against a proposed new policy giving women equal control over acquired property forced the government to backtrack

Women’s rights groups lost their relevance to the ruling elites as the country shifted towards a dominant party state and their support was not needed keep the elites in power. These elites now seek to contain opposition from religious and conservative political groups, whose support is crucial to remain in power. To consolidate its power, the authoritarian Awami League – one of the biggest parties in Bangladesh – needs to appease conservative forces. This limits the avenues for feminist activists to engage in policy spaces, as they have done since Bangladesh’s democratic transition in 1991.

State patronage, gender, and de-democratisation

The pushback against gender equality is not limited to sexuality or the policing of women’s bodies. Populist right-wing political parties have framed women’s economic empowerment in ways that promote the traditional role of women as carers and nurturers, in line with conservative cultural traditions.

Populist right-wingers frame women’s economic empowerment in ways that promote their traditional role as carers and nurturers

In India, the Modi government rolled out various development schemes targeting women. These included free stoves and natural gas cylinders for women, and maternity benefit schemes. Of course, these succeeded in attracting the female vote – but they also helped tie women to their traditional social roles. India heads to the polls in April and May. Election fever is intensifying. At the same time, the BJP’s paternalistic empowerment rhetoric is focusing increasingly on the role of women as nation builders.

In Bangladesh, women workers dominate the country’s main foreign exchange earning industry: ready-made garments. Before the elections, garment workers were engaged in negotiations demanding higher wages. When negotiations failed, police made violent clampdowns on the resulting protests. To consolidate its power in a hotly contested election, the ruling Awami League chose to back the garment factory owners, who hold a majority in parliament.

Protests, politics and repression

The introduction of cybersecurity laws and tightened regulations over NGO funding leave limited space for dissent. Activists and rights-based organisations risk fines, arrests, imprisonment, judicial and online harassment.

Nevertheless, we are still seeing a surge in women-led protests and feminist and LGBTQ+ activism. Protesters are using innovative strategies that disrupt everyday order. These include roadblocks, sit-ins, and theatre performance, graffiti, poetry, and songs to reclaim notions of citizenship and national belonging. The Aurat March is a feminist collective that organises annual International Women’s Day rallies to protest misogyny in Pakistan. Last year, it captured the imagination of a new generation to dream of a more equitable society.

In 2019–2020, Indians rose up against proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act that would offer an accelerated path to citizenship for non-Muslims. The Shaheen Bagh protests, led by Muslim women, saw diverse groups coming together to reclaim the notion of a secular India. Anti-rape protests in Bangladesh led by young feminist groups drew attention to archaic laws, and demanded safety for all types of bodies and genders. These are only a few examples. Yet despite their effort to reclaim public spaces, activists had no sustainable effect on countering state power.

These protests are vital spaces in which citizens can begin to imagine different kinds of polity, and to cherish ideals of democracy. They also help to re-examine intersectional fault lines within protest movements, and find new forms of solidarity.


This article was first published on ECPR’s political science blog site, The Loop.

Understanding gender backlash through Southern perspectives

Global progress on gender justice is under threat. We are living in an age where major political and social shifts are resulting in new forces that are visibly pushing back to reverse the many gains made for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights and to shrink civic space.

The focus of this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) calls for ‘accelerating the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls…’. This ‘acceleration’ would be welcome indeed. We are not so much worried about slow progress but rather by the regress in a tidal wave of patriarchal – or gender – backlash, with major rollbacks of earlier advances for women’s equality and rights, as well as by a plethora of attacks on feminist, social justice and LGBTQ+ activists, civic space and vulnerable groups of many stripes.

The Countering Backlash programme explores this backlash against rights in a timely and important IDS Bulletin titled ‘Understanding Gender Backlash: Southern Perspectives’. In it, we ask ‘how can we better understand the contemporary swell of anti-feminist (or patriarchal) backlash across diverse settings?’. We present a range of perspectives and emerging evidence from our programme partners from Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Kenya, Lebanon, Uganda, and the United Kingdom.

Here’s what you can find in our special issue of the IDS Bulletin.

Why we need to understand gender backlash

‘Anti-gender backlash’, at its simplest, it refers to strong negative reactions against gender justice and those seeking it. Two widely known contemporary examples, from different contexts, are Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill (passed in 2023), and the United States Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs Wade (which gave women the constitutional right to abortion) in 2022.

The term ‘backlash’ was first used in Susan Faludi’s (1991) analysis of the pushback against feminist ideas in 1980s in the United States, and historically, understandings of anti-gender backlash have been predominantly based on experiences and theorising about developments in the global north. More recent scholarship has afforded insights on and from Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Much explanatory work to date, if it does not implicitly generalise from global north experience, often fails to adequately engage with the ways these locally specific phenomena operate transnationally, including across the global south, and with its complex imbrication in a broader dismantling of democracy.

New ways of analysing gender backlash

The Issue presents new ways of analysing backlash relevant to diverse development contexts, grounded examples, and evidence of anti-gender dynamics. It aims to push this topic out of the ‘gender corner’ to connect it to contemporary shifts in relationships between faith, identity and state, governance, and the broader politics of democracy and economics, as seen from across the global south.

The articles in this special issue are grouped into three themes: one, on ‘voice and tactics’, including whose voices are being heard, and what tactics are being used?; two, on ‘framings and direction’, including how are ideologies spread, and how can we understand attitudes to change? and; three, on ‘temporality and structure’, including what is ‘back’ about backlash? What and who drives it, and how is it imbricated in broader trends and crises? Additionally, most articles proffer some thoughts and recommendations on the implications for directions to counter backlash, whether specifically for feminist movements, for other gender and social justice defenders, or for researchers and students.

Southern Perspectives

This Issue fundamentally challenges simple and reductive understandings of gender backlash. Diverse examples of politicised backlash are ‘mapped’ across geographies and viewpoints. This can help to build a more granular and multi-perspectival understanding of backlash, of its more subtle processes of co-optation and division, its connected across borders, regions, and continents, and the contextual and different strategies of resistance.

Online violence against women is real violence

The campaign for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence this year encourages citizens to share the actions they are taking to create a world free from violence towards women. But what is being done about the online misogyny and violence encountered by gender justice activists, individuals, and organisations fighting for women’s rights and creating awareness online? Do our laws, the state, and its citizens consider an action to be gender-based violence only when it results in physical harm, rape, sexual assault, murder, or something severe?

Every day, women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds become victims of online harassment and abuse in the form of trolling, bullying, hacking, cyber pornography, etc. Although there is no nationally representative data on victims of online gender-based violence, according to Police Cyber Support for Women, 8,715 women reported being subjected to hacking, impersonation, and online sexual harassment from January to November 2022.

Read the full op-ed by Countering Backlash partner BRAC BIGD on ‘The Daily Star’ website.

Marriage equality in India: still miles to go

The queer community in India has been continuously fighting for social equality over the last few decades, given the colonial era laws like Section 377 that criminalised same sex relationships and the Criminal Tribes law that outlawed entire transgender community. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and asexual (LGBTQ+) groups have struggled in police stations, courtrooms and on the streets to access their rights as equal citizens of the country, given the widespread stigma and discrimination faced daily, not only within homes and neighbourhoods, but within private and state institutions.

The long-standing fight for equal rights

After many challenges and setbacks, the LGBTQ+ community was able to gain a few significant victories. These include landmark cases such as National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) v. Union of India (2014) where the Court held that the state must recognize persons who fall outside the male-female binary as ‘third gender persons’ and that they are entitled to all constitutionally guaranteed rights. This was followed by Justice KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017) in which the court held that the Constitution protects the right of a person to exercise their sexual orientation. The most recent judgement was Navtej Singh Johar and Ors v. Union of India (2018) in which the court held that Section 377 is unconstitutional to the extent that it criminalizes consensual sexual activities by the LGBTQ+ community. In 2019, the government of India enacted the Transgender Persons (protection of Rights) Act that recognized the right of transgender persons to have a self-perceived gender identity, prohibited discrimination and upheld their rights to residence, healthcare, education and employment.

However, there were still a lot of areas of struggle for the LGBTQ+ community in India, for example, in recognising relationship status for same sex couples. This was met with stiff opposition that led to coercive therapies, forced separation or forced marriages and state custody. In the absence of any legal recognition of long-term LGBTQ+ relationships, surviving partners were disregarded when it came to claiming insurance or employment-related benefits, nominee rights for healthcare or even share of property.

In 2022, several Writ Petitions seeking marriage equality for LGBTQ+ couples were submitted in the High Courts and the Supreme Court of India. The key asks were that LGBTQ+  persons should have a “Right to Marry” the person of their choosing, regardless of religion, gender and sexual orientation; and that the Special Marriage Act (1954), which enabled two people of different religions or castes to marry, should also include LGBTQ+ couples by using gender-neutral terminology; likewise, the petitions called for changing the Foreign Marriages Act (1969).  In addition, the petitions also called for changes in the Child Adoption laws and regulations to enable LGBTQ+ couples to adopt children together; one petition asked for the right to ‘chosen families’. The final ask was for preventive and protective measures by district and police authorities to ensure the safety of adult consenting LGBTQ+ couples from the violence they faced from their birth families.

The Supreme Court ruling and its impact

The petitions were all clubbed together and came up before a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court that gave its verdict on the 17th of October 2023 (Supriyo@Supriya Chakrabarty and Ors vs Union of India), denying the claim for marriage equality. Although all five judges accepted that any two people have the right to live and build a life together and that such relationships should be protected from violence and discrimination by the State, they failed to reach a consensus on giving queer couples the status of a legally recognised “civil union”. Three of the judges argued that any legal status to such unions can only be granted through enacted legislation. Disappointingly, all five judges unanimously found that there is no “fundamental right to marry” within the Constitutional framework, a position that is in contradiction with Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) that recognizes the right to marry and start a family. The court refused to propose any change to the Special Marriage Act (1954) or Foreign Marriage Act (1969) to make the terms gender-neutral, on the grounds that this would be intruding into the legislative domain.

On the issue of transgender persons, all five judges agreed with the proposition that a transgender man has the right to marry a cisgender woman under current laws; similarly, a transgender woman has the right to marry a cisgender man. A transgender man and a transgender woman can also marry. Intersex persons who identify as a man or a woman and seek to enter into a heterosexual marriage would also have a right to marry.

The minority opinion said the LGBTQ+ community has a fundamental right to form relationships and that the state was obligated to recognise and grant legal status to such unions, so that same-sex couples could avail the material benefits provided under the law. The right to choose a partner was the most important life decision. This right goes to the root of the right to life and liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The minority judgement went ahead to declare that not granting the same rights as those that accrue within marriage to those in civil unions would be violative of the Constitutional promise of no discrimination on the basis of sex. Regarding the Child Adoption issue, the minority opinion was that adoption Regulations discriminate against unmarried couples.

In terms of protection from harassment by families and the police, the Chief Justice of India made very compelling directions to the State to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ couples against discrimination and harassment, especially by the police. Even in the absence of formal marriage rights, this specific instruction for law enforcement agencies could go a long way in easing the problems faced by couples exercising their choice of intimate partner, especially lesbian, bisexual, intersex and trans women.  This is something that needs to be widely spoken about.

What will the future look like for the LGBTQ+ community in India?

Despite not granting new rights to the LGBTQ+ community, the judicial discourse has certainly moved ahead in terms of recognizing the various forms of discrimination acknowledged earlier in NALSA and Navtej Johar.  The Constitution Bench firmly countered the government’s claims that queerness was an alien, urban or elite phenomenon, asserting “pluralistic social fabric” and an “integral part of Indian culture”. All judges acknowledged the inequity and intolerance faced by the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the denial of access to certain benefits and privileges that are available to heterosexual married couples.

In other gains, the State had volunteered to set up a committee chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for the purpose of defining the scope of entitlement of queer couples who are in unions. They may pass an Act creating civil unions, or a domestic partnership legislation, or perhaps, rather than the Union Government, the State legislatures could take action and enact laws or frameworks. The possibilities are not encouraging, however, given the government has already expressed that same-sex marriages are not “comparable with the Indian family unit concept of a husband, a wife and children”.

The split verdict is a clear setback to the long struggle for equal rights of the LGBTQ+ communities, who remain unsure about how far the conservative forces will take up the directions of the Court to bring about the much-needed changes. It is imperative to continue to discuss and engage with familiar and unfamiliar groups and social institutions. This fight shall continue until no one can deny the rights that are due to the LGBTQ+ community as equal citizens of the country.

Reversing domestic workers’ rights: Stories of backlash and resilience in Delhi

A period of crisis and upheaval is causing serious consequences for the rights of domestic workers. Conditions of economic precarity, work, and income insecurity have long characterised their lives. We are witnessing a clear backlash against domestic workers’ rights. Like other informal women workers who live and work in precarious conditions, they have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic and its lockdowns and continue to face its devastating impacts.

Countering Backlash partner Gender at Work Consulting – India is sharing their stories in a forthcoming storybook titled ‘Reversing domestic workers’ rights: Stories of backlash and resilience in Delhi’ and launching in August 2023.

A graphic illustration with blue, white and yellow colours. There is a women and you child standing in a room full of clothes, luggage and a CCTV camera. The woman is sweeping the floor.

Illustration by by Mrinalini Godara

Contextualising backlash against domestic workers in India

One reason for the intensity of this backlash is the systemic inequalities in paid domestic work in India. Although it is one of the largest sectors of work for women in urban areas, paid domestic work has been systematically undervalued and inadequately recognised as work by the state, society, and employers.

There are deep-seated reasons for this, including the highly gendered perception of domestic work as an extension of women’s natural roles, and its performance in familial spaces. Domestic work is also mainly made up of women from marginalised groups, particularly those from migrant communities, Dalit, and Adivasi groups, and +women who have not completed a primary education.

Domestic work is therefore characterised by informality and precarity, with poor working conditions, as well as discrimination based on gender, caste, religion, and migrant status. The vagaries and stresses of urban lives lived on the margins, of the inaccessibility of public services and resources, also encompass a key feature of the living conditions for domestic workers.

Domestic workers telling their stories of backlash

The forthcoming storybook shares glimpses into the lives of domestic workers based in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) in India. Launching in August 2023, it includes live-in and live-out domestic workers, who are both young and old, long-term and new migrants, from Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim communities. The storybook  surfaces and makes visible the everyday forms of caste, religious, and gendered discrimination, violence, and backlash experienced by domestic workers, which took on monstrous proportions during the pandemic.

The storybook illustrates the backlash experienced by domestic workers, highlighting the worrying pushback against their struggles and their rights. This sense of ‘going backwards’ has been expressed by one of the domestic workers in the storybook as ‘10-20 saal peechche chale gaye’ – translated from Hindi to English as ‘we have gone back 10-20 years’.

This is in a sector that has barely seen any gains on their rights as workers. There has been a systematic non-recognition of the rights of domestic workers as workers across the country despite persistent claims made by domestic worker groups. The few exceptions where their rights have been recognised (such as the inclusion of domestic workers in minimum wage notifications, their inclusion as workers for welfare, or the inclusion of households as a workplace under the sexual harassment law, all in just a few Indian states) serve as a reminder for just how limited the gains have been.

This sense of going backwards has taken a range of forms which are highlighted by each of the stories collated in the storybook in the context of the pandemic and prolonged lockdowns. Stories explore the:

  • increased levels of discrimination, as well as high levels of economic vulnerability including increased indebtedness,
  • devastating and widespread loss of livelihoods,
  • decreased wages,
  • food and housing insecurities,
  • increased levels of work for those who remained or have since returned to work,
  • and worsening physical and mental health.

In the wake of these troubling losses, domestic workers have suffered humiliations, indignities, and vilification at the hands of their employers and the state. They have been silenced and rendered powerless. They and domestic worker organisations, such as Shahri Mahila Kaamgar Union (SMKU – Urban Women Worker’s Union), have experienced further reversals in their collective negotiating power, which has set back their struggles several years. The pandemic served as the ‘moment of revelation’ of the backlash experienced by domestic workers.

We see this in Roopali’s and Sundari’s stories, where their lives have been overwhelmed by insecurities, family illnesses, and severe discrimination.

The storybook painstakingly demonstrates that the backlash experienced by domestic workers is built on a bedrock of systemic discrimination, marginalisation, and myriad ‘microscapes of harm’. Almost all of the stories highlight that the early lives of domestic workers were constrained by disadvantage, insecurity, and hardship. These are stories of early marriages, poor educational opportunities, and very young starts to working life in a context often circumscribed by economic distress.

The spectacle of backlash

Systemic injustices and violence that are rooted in caste and religious notions of ‘purity and pollution’ and experienced in forms such as ‘untouchability’, were heightened during the pandemic. Everyday events of marriage, divorce, illness, the birth of children, death of loved ones, migration, and more, have been experienced as ‘shocks’ by domestic workers. This has been alongside more systemic shocks of forced displacement, climate change, and the pandemic have been experienced in terms of the ‘spectacle of backlash’.

There are now immense challenges faced by domestic worker organisations such as SMKU in contending with this backlash in the context of the reduced negotiating power of domestic workers, as well as shifts in the sector with employers seeking more live-in, ‘full-time’ workers. Even so, as the storybook highlights, the crucial support offered by organisations such as SMKU through immediate relief efforts (such as providing rations or enabling domestic workers to access online benefits) proved invaluable in the critical months when domestic workers were facing perilous food insecurities. Their organising efforts have provided a critical lifeline of solidarity and support for domestic workers, even as they seek to collectively re-strategise their claims making efforts to contend with the backlash.

This story is also available in Hindi.

घरेलू कामगारों के प्रत्यावर्ती अधिकार : दिल्ली में प्रतिघात और प्रतिरोध की कहानियाँ

भारत का वेतनभोगी घरेलू कामगार कार्यक्षेत्र मौजूदा समय में उतार-चड़ाव के दौर से गुजर रहा है, जिससे घरेलू कामगारों के अधिकारों पर दुष्प्रभाव पड़ रहा है। आर्थिक अनिश्चितता, काम और आमदनी का संकट हमेशा से घरेलू कामगारों के जीवन की कड़वी सच्चाई रही है। लेकिन कोविड-19 महामारी और लॉकडाउन की शुरुआत के तीन साल बाद, इसके विनाशकारी प्रभाव घरेलू कामगारों के अधिकारों के विरुद्ध स्पष्ट प्रतिक्रिया के रूप में दिखाई दे रहे है। अनिश्चित परिस्थितियों में रहने को मजबूर महिला घरेलू कामगार महामारी व लॉकडाउन के दुष्प्रभावों का ख़ामियाज़ा आज भी भुगत रही है। 

A graphic illustration with blue, white and yellow colours. There is a women and you child standing in a room full of clothes, luggage and a CCTV camera. The woman is sweeping the floor.

Illustration by Mrinalini Godara.

भारत में घरेलू कामगारों के विरुद्ध प्रतिक्रिया की प्रासंगिकता

इस प्रतिक्रिया की तीव्रता और तीक्ष्णता का एक कारण भारत में घरेलू कामगारों के भुगतान में की गयी व्यवस्थागत असमानताएँ हैं। हालाँकि यह शहरी महिला कामगारों के लिए सबसे बड़े क्षेत्रों में से एक है, लेकिन भुगतान के संदर्भ में घरेलू काम को व्यवस्थित रूप से राज्य, समाज और मालिकों द्वारा नज़रअंदाज़ कर इसे कम महत्व दिया गया है। इसके पीछे की जड़ें काफ़ी गहरी हैं, जिसमें घरेलू काम को लेकर पितृसत्तात्मक जेंडर आधारित दृष्टिकोण है, जो महिलाओं के लिए बतायी गयी उनकी प्राकृतिक भूमिका (घरेलू काम) का महज़ विस्तार और इसका पारिवारिक जगहों पर प्रदर्शन है। साथ ही, घरेलू काम मुख्य रूप से हाशिएबद्ध समुदाय की महिलाओं द्वारा किया जाता है। दलित, आदिवासी और प्राथमिक शिक्षा से पूरी तरह दूर महिलाएँ वृहत स्तर पर इस प्रवासी कार्यबल को बनाती है।

यही वजह है कि अनौपचारिकता और अनिश्चितता घरेलू काम की विशेषता होती है, जिसमें घरेलू कामगारों को जेंडर, जाति, धर्म व प्रवास के आधार पर भेदभाव और बुरे हालातों में काम करने को मजबूर होना पड़ता है। शहरों में सार्वजनिक सेवाओं व संसाधनों तक की पहुँच से दूर अनिश्चितताओं के साथ हाशिए पर बसने को घरेलू कामगार मजबूर है।

अपनी प्रतिक्रियाओं की कहानी बताते घरेलू कामगार

दिल्ली और नेशनल कैपिटल रीजन (एनसीआर) के घरेलू कामगारों की जिंदगियों की झलक पर केंद्रित आगामी स्टोरीबुक ‘जेंडर एट वर्क कंसल्टिंग – इंडिया’ द्वारा तैयार की गयी है। इसका लोकार्पण अगस्त 2023 में किया जाएगा। इस किताब में दलित, आदिवासी, मुस्लिम समुदाय और अन्य समुदाय से घरेलू काम के साथ और इसके बाहर जीने वाले युवा-वृद्ध, लंबे समय से इस काम में लगे हुए और नए प्रवासी के अनुभव शामिल है। ये स्टोरीबुक उन जाति, धर्म और जेंडर आधारित हिंसा और इससे जुड़ी प्रतिक्रियाओं को सामने लाती है, जिसने महामारी के दौरान विकराल रूप ले लिया है।

ये स्टोरीबुक घरेलू कामगारों की प्रतिक्रियाओं के अनुभवों को दर्शाती है और अपने अधिकारों के चिंताजनक दमन और जारी संघर्ष को बयाँ करती है। इस पिछड़ेपन से जारी संघर्ष का अंदाज़ा एक घरेलू कामगार के वक्तव्य से लगाया जा सकता है जब वो कहती है कि, हम दसबीस साल पीछे चले गए

यह एक ऐसा क्षेत्र है, जिसमें काम करने वाले लोगों को उनके अधिकारों के संदर्भ में कोई फ़ायदा नहीं हुआ है। घरेलू कामगारों के लगातार जारी संघर्ष व आवाज़ उठाने के बावजूद देशभर में श्रमिक के रूप में घरेलू कामगारों के अधिकारों को व्यवस्थित रूप से मान्यता नहीं है। कुछ अपवाद हैं, जहां उनके अधिकारों को मान्यता दी गयी है (जैसे कि कुछ भारतीय राज्यों में न्यूनतम वेतन अधिसूचना में घरेलू कामगारों को शामिल करना, कुछ राज्यों में कल्याण के लिए श्रमिकों के रूप में उन्हें शामिल करना या कार्यस्थल पर यौन-उत्पीड़न के रूप में घरों को शामिल करना) जो काग़ज़ी तो है लेकिन उनके लाभ का असर बेहद सीमित है।

सालों पीछे जाने की इस भावना के रूप ने कई रूप ले लिए हैं, जिन्हें महामारी और लंबे समय तक लॉकडाउन के संदर्भ में स्टोरीबुक में संकलित कहानियों में उजागर किया गया है। ये कहानियाँ उजागर करती है –

  • आजीविका का व्यापक स्तर पर विनाशकारी नुक़सान
  • उनलोगों के काम में दबाव जो काम पर बने रहे या फिर वापस लौट आए
  • वेतन की कमी
  • भेदभाव का बढ़ता स्तर व आर्थिक असुरक्षा से क़र्ज़ का उच्च स्तर
  • भोजन और आवास की असुरक्षा
  • शारीरिक और मानसिक स्वास्थ्य बिगड़ना

इन चिंताजनक नुक़सान के मद्देनज़र, घरेलू कामगारों को अपने मालिक व राज्य से अपमान और तिरस्कार का सामना करना पड़ता है। उन्हें शक्तिहीन बनाकर चुप करवा दिया गया है। उन्हें और घरेलू कामगार संगठन जैसे ‘शहरी महिला कामगार यूनियन’ को सामूहिक तौर पर वेतन को लेकर मोलभाव करने और सत्ता को चुनौती देने के आधारों को उलट दिया गया है, जिससे वे सालों पीछे चले गए है। महामारी ने घरेलू कामगारों के विरुद्ध की प्रतिक्रियाओं को ‘प्रकटीकरण का क्षण’ बना दिया है।

हम इसे रूपाली और सुंदरी की कहानी के रूप में देख सकते हैं, जहां उनका जीवन असुरक्षाओं, पारिवारिक बीमारियों और भेदभाव के कड़वे अनुभवों  से घिरा हुआ है।

घरेलू कामगारों के विरुद्ध व्यवस्थागत भेदभाव, हाशिएबद्ध पर बसने को मजबूर और उनकी जिंदगियों में हुए ‘ढ़ेरों नुक़सान के अनुभव‘ को ये स्टोरीबुक सामने लाती है। घरेलू कामगारों की क़रीब सभी कहानियाँ उनकी जिंदगियों की असुरक्षा, संघर्ष और कठिनाइयों को उजागर करती है। ये कहानियाँ बाल विवाह, अशिक्षा और पारिवारिक आर्थिक संकट की वजह से उनके काम करने के संघर्ष को उजागर करती है।

प्रतिक्रियाओं का चश्मा

महामारी के दौरान व्यवस्थागत अन्याय और हिंसा का अनुभव बढ़ा, जिसकी जड़ें जाति और धर्म पर आधारित ‘पवित्रता’ के विचार, प्रदूषण और छुआछूत थी। शादी, तलाक, बीमारी, बच्चे का जन्म, किसी प्रियज़न की मृत्यु या प्रवास जैसी रोज़मर्रा की आम घटनाएँ भी घरेलू कामगारों के लिए एक सदमे के रूप में सामने आयी, जैसे कि अधिक व्यवस्थागत सदमे के तौर पर ज़बरन विस्थापन, जलवायु परिवर्तन और महामारी को उन्होंने लगातार अपने जीवन पर होने वाली ‘प्रतिक्रियाओं के वीभत्स अनुभवों के रूप‘ में जिया है।

अब एसएमकेयू जैसे घरेलू कामगार संगठनों को भारी चुनौतियों का सामना करना पड़ रहा है, जिसमें वे घरेलू कामगारों के मोलभाव की क्षमता के साथ-साथ इस क्षेत्र में बदलाव के संदर्भ में घरेलू कामगारों द्वारा सामना किए जाने वाले विरोध का सामना कर रहे हैं, जिसमें मालिक अब ‘पूर्णकालिक’ कामगारों की माँग कर रहे हैं। इसके बीच ये स्टोरीबुक एसएमकेयू जैसे संगठनों द्वारा महामारी के दौर में राशन की मदद, घरेलू श्रमिकों को ऑनलाइन योजनों के लाभ तक पहुँचाने में सक्षम बनाने जैसे ज़रूरी राहत प्रयासों को भी उज़गार करती है जो घरेलू कामगारों के लिए अमूल्य और इस मुश्किल दौर में उन्हें कुछ राहत दिलाने में मददगार साबित हुई। साथ ही, संगठन ने एक ऐसी जगह तैयार की जहां वे संगठित होकर अपने अधिकारों व संघर्षों के मुद्दे पर एकजुट हो सकें। संगठन के प्रयासों से घरेलू कामगारों के लिए एकजुटता और समर्थन की एक ज़रूरी जीवनरेखा तैयार हुई है, जिससे अब वे सामूहिक रूप से प्रतिक्रियाओं को चुनौती देने व अपनी माँगों को उठाने की रणनीति तैयार कर रहे हैं।

Women domestic workers in India are demanding respect. Here’s Sundari’s story

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are on the floor, holding their head as their husband is on a hospital bed. On the right hand side is a young version of them, sweeping the floor.

Women domestic workers have been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. In India, Countering Backlash partner Gender at Work Consulting – India have been collaborating with domestic workers in Delhi and compiling their stories into a storybook, launching on 24 July 2023.

India’s women domestic workers are demanding justice. Anita Kapoor, co-founder of the Shahri Mahila Kaamgar Union (SMKU – Urban Women Worker’s Union), argues that ‘it is important for domestic workers to speak together about what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic and about the issues that we continue to face to this day.’ Here is Sundari’s* story, prepared by Chaitali Haldar, an independent researcher and trainer, with the support of SMKU.

A life of struggles in the city

Sundari was 20 when devastating floods forced her and her family to seek a fresh start in Delhi. Their financial situation was proving difficult with only her husband’s earnings, so Sundari took a few cleaning jobs. None of the work arrangements were long-term, so she was stuck in a cycle of losing jobs and searching for new ones. For women, especially those who are migrants and from a ‘lower’ caste, finding well-paid, long-term employment is difficult.

The slum in which Sundari and her family lived was demolished due to the Delhi’s so-called ‘beautification’ plans, and their lives were disrupted again. Sundari’s children were forced to leave their school as it was now too far away, and she was struggling to find new schools for them as they did not have the necessary documents. She also had to search for a new job again, now with the added challenge of being in an unfamiliar part of the city. Sundari’s sense of stability was shattered.

Sundari continued her daily struggle to provide for her family and managed, after much searching, to secure a job as a cook in a household. However, the employment did not last long as Sundari injured her leg as was let go of. Although India’s Employment State Insurance (ESI) scheme was extended in 2016 to include domestic workers, their eligibility for medical benefits is limited. Accessing these benefits under the scheme remains challenging for domestic workers.

Challenges faced due to Covid-19

At the age of 56, Sundari, as with most women in India, faced an unprecedented challenge in the form of Covid-19. Reports show that only  19% of women remained employed during the first lockdowns in 2020. During this time, it was near impossible for domestic workers to find employment. Any attempt Sundari made to secure employment was rejected, either due to her age or because she did not yet have the Covid-19 vaccine. On top of this, Sundari’s struggles were worsened by her husband’s declining health. Just before the start of the pandemic, Sundari’s son was helping her, and her husband, complete the government’s pension scheme forms. This would have enabled them to access monthly financial support from the state. However, he became addicted to alcohol and was not able to submit the forms before the first lockdown was imposed and it became impossible to submit them. This continuous cycle of financial crisis left Sundari and her family in a state of perpetual uncertainty.

It was after the lockdowns were imposed that Sundari began associating with the SMKU. They provided Sundari and her family with ration supplies and cooked meals, which was vital for them at this time.

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are on the floor, holding their head as their husband is on a hospital bed. On the right hand side is a young version of them, sweeping the floor.
Illustration by by Mrinalini Godara

Sundari’s struggles continue

In 2022, Sundari was able to find and secure employment at a private school in Badarpur, southeastern Delhi, but she was not happy there. The school’s principal bickered continuously with Sundari and imposed numerous constraints on her, limiting her work. At the start, she often contemplated resigning but felt that she could not, due to her financial situation. Sundari was constantly reminded that if she were to abandon her employment, they would struggle to afford her husband’s much-needed medication, so she persevered.

However, over time, Sundari lost her job at the private school. At the same time, her husband’s health deteriorated significantly, requiring him to undergo treatment at hospital. Sundari spent many hours by her husband’s side, while the medical bills piled up. It was becoming difficult to manage the hospital fees and food expenses for Sundari and her husband.

From the devastating floods in her village, to the wave of displacement in the city, the challenges in Sundari’s life felt relentless. She felt stuck in a web of challenges, each one more daunting than the last.

While for many individuals a sense of normalcy has returned post the pandemic, the circumstances for women domestic workers remain exceptionally precarious. Many of them are having to rebuild their lives, intensifying their vulnerability and marginalisation.

*Name changed to protect the person’s identity

This story was originally written in Hindi (translation provided by Sudarsana Kundu and Shraddha Chigateri from Countering Backlash partner organisation Gender at Work Consulting – India).

सुंदरी की कहानी : गाँव में बाढ़ से लेकर शहर के विस्थापन तक संघर्षों से भरी एक शहरी महिला कामगार की ज़िंदगी

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are on the floor, holding their head as their husband is on a hospital bed. On the right hand side is a young version of them, sweeping the floor.

भारतीय घरेलू कामगार न्याय की मांग कर रहे हैं। शहरी महिला कामगार यूनियन (एसएमकेयू) की सह-संस्थापक, अनीता कपूर बताती हैं कि ‘घरेलू कामगारों के लिए यह महत्वपूर्ण है कि वे एक साथ मिलकर उन मुद्दों के बारे में बारे में बात करें जो कोविड-19 महामारी के दौरान हुआ जिसका सामना वे आज भी कर रहे हैं। यह सुंदरी की कहानी है, जो एसएमकेयू के समर्थन से चैताली हलदर द्वारा लिखित और स्वाती सिंह द्वारा संपादित की गई है।

बिहार के मधुबनी ज़िले की रहने वाली सुंदरी केवट जाति के एक निम्नवर्गीय परिवार से है। परिवार में माता-पिता, दो बहन और एक भाई है। शुरुआती दौर में उसके माता-पिता बेलदारी का काम करके परिवार का पेट पालते थे। आर्थिक तंगी की वजह से सुंदरी सिर्फ़ पाँचवी कक्षा तक ही पढ़ाई कर पायी। इसके बाद अचानक हुए पिता के देहांत ने सुंदरी और उसके परिवार के जीवन का समीकरण ही बदल दिया। सुंदरी तब पंद्रह साल की थी जब पिता के देहांत के बाद उसकी शादी करवा दी गयी। पढ़ाई करने व स्कूल जाने की उम्र में ससुराल की ज़िम्मेदारी उसके नाज़ुक कंधों पर डाल दी गयी।

गाँव में बाढ़ से लेकर शहर के विस्थापन तक संघर्षों भरी ज़िंदगी

सुंदरी बीस साल की थी जब गाँव में आयी भयानक बाढ़ से उसके परिवार से रहने के लिए छत और पेट पालने के लिए रोज़गार का साधन भी छिन गया। उनके पास रोज़गार की तलाश में अब शहर जाने के अलावा और कोई उपाय नहीं था, इसलिए सुंदरी और उसके पति अपने एक बेटे और दो बेटी के साथ दिल्ली आ गए। इस दौरान सुंदरी ये समझ चुकी थी कि इस बड़े शहर में अकेले पति की कमाई से परिवार का पेट पालना मुश्किल होगा। इसलिए उसने आसपास की कोठियों में झाड़ू-पोछा और बर्तन का काम करना शुरू किया। कुछ समय बाद  सुंदरी को अपने परिवार के साथ गौतमनगर में आकर बसना पड़ा। यहाँ भी सुंदरी कोठियों में काम करती रही लेकिन उसे यहाँ काम मिलता भी रहा और छूटता भी रहा।

इसी बीच साल 1999 से साल 2000 के बीच में सुंदरीकरण के नामपर गौतमनगर की भी झुग्गी तोड़ दी गयी और यहाँ रहने वाले लोगों को गौतमपुरी में विस्थापित कर दिया गया। ये विस्थापन अपने आप में एक बुरा अनुभव था। सुंदरी का परिवार मानो अस्त-व्यस्त हो गया। बच्चों की पढ़ाई और जान-पहचान वालों व रिश्तेदारों से नाते टूट गए। बच्चों के स्कूल से उनके काग़ज़ात भी नहीं मिल पाए, जिसके चलते उन्हें आगे पढ़ाई से जुड़ने में ढ़ेरों कठिनाइयों का सामना करना पड़ा। सुंदरी का सभी काम भी छूट गया। इस विस्थापन ने एक़बार फिर उसके परिवार को असुरक्षित ज़िंदगी जीने को मजबूर कर दिया। अब उसे एकबार फिर से काम की तलाश करनी पड़ी, जो अपने आप में किसी चुनौती से कम नहीं था। इसके बाद धीरे-धीरे हर दिन के संघर्षों के साथ उसकी ज़िंदगी बीतने लगी। सुंदरी लॉकडाउन से पहले एक कोठी में खाना बनाने का काम करती थी। कोठी में काम करते हुए एकदिन सुंदरी के पैर में चोट लग गयी और उसकी मालकिन ने उसकी मदद भी की। लेकिन इसके बाद दुबारा उसे काम पर नहीं रखा।

कोरोना महामारी से बढ़ी चुनौतियों जूझती सुंदरी

क़रीब 56 साल की उम्र में सुंदरी की ज़िंदगी में कोरोना महामारी का दौर एक बड़ी चुनौती के रूप में सामने आया, जब उसके परिवार की स्थिति बहुत ज़्यादा ख़राब हो गयी। सुंदरी के सारे काम छूट गए और घर में आर्थिक तंगी बढ़ने लगी। ऐसे में जब सुंदरी काम की तलाश में कोठी में जाती तो मालकिन उसे ये बोलकर भगा देती कि ‘पहले वैक्सीन लेकर आओ।‘ ज़्यादा उम्रदराज होने की वजह से भी लोग उसे काम नहीं देते थे। इस दौरान उसके पति की तबियत ख़राब होने की वजह से उसका काम भी छूट गया। सुंदरी के बेटे के पास एक अच्छी नौकरी थी, लेकिन उसने नौकरी छोड़कर रिक्शा चलाने का काम शुरू कर दिया था। साथ ही, बेटे को नशे की लत भी लग चुकी थी, जिसके चलते सुंदरी को अपने बेटे से किसी भी तरह की आर्थिक मदद की कोई उम्मीद नहीं थी। बेटे का अपना परिवार था, जिसकी ज़िम्मेदारी उसपर थी। लेकिन इसके बावजूद वो दो दिन रिक्शा चलाने के बाद घर काम बंद करके बैठ जाता, जिससे परिवार में लगातार आर्थिक तंगी बनी रहती थी।

कोरोना से पहले सुंदरी के पति ने अपने बेटे को अपना और सुंदरी का वृद्धा पेंशन का फार्म भरकर जमा करने के लिए दिया। पर लापरवाह बेटा उस फार्म को घर में रखकर दारू पीने में लग गया और फिर इसके बाद लॉकडाउन शुरू हो गया, जिसकी वजह से उन्हें इस दौरान वृद्धा पेंशन भी नहीं मिल पायी। कोविड के इस कठिन समय में सुंदरी का जुड़ाव शहरी घरेलू कामगार यूनियन से हुआ, जिनकी मदद से उसे और उसके परिवार को कच्चा राशन और पके हुए खाने की भी मदद मिली थी।

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are on the floor, holding their head as their husband is on a hospital bed. On the right hand side is a young version of them, sweeping the floor.
Illustration by Mrinalini Godara

विस्थापन और आर्थिक तंगी से ज़ारी सुंदरी का संघर्ष 

साल 2022 में सुंदरी ने बदरपुर के एक प्राइवेट स्कूल में काम करना शुरू किया पर वो इस काम से खुश नहीं थी। स्कूल की प्रिंसिपल उसके साथ बहुत किच-किच करती थी। उसे हर बात पर रोक-टोक लगाती थी। ऐसे में सुंदरी के मन में बहुत बार ये ख़्याल आया कि वो ये काम छोड़ दे। लेकिन इसी ख़्याल के साथ उसके ज़हन में अपने बीमार पति और घर की आर्थिक तंगी की तस्वीर सामने आ जाती, जिसे याद करके सुंदरी के मन में ख़्याल आया कि अगर वो ये काम भी छोड़ देती है तो पति की दवाइयों का खर्च कैसे लाएगी। इसलिए उसने बेबस होकर अपने इस काम को जारी रखा।

किन्हीं कारणवश कुछ समय बाद सुंदरी का वो काम भी छूट गया। इससे उसकी आर्थिक स्थिति और भी ज़्यादा बुरी हो गयी। उसका पति बहुत बीमार है और हॉस्पिटल में उसका डायलिसिस चल रहा है। सुंदरी को भी अपने पति के साथ हॉस्पिटल में ही रहना पड़ता है। खाने और हॉस्पिटल के खर्च का जुगाड़ करने में उसके ऊपर क़र्ज़ का भार लगातार बढ़ता जा रहा है। ऐसा लगता है मानो सुंदरी की ज़िंदगी से कठिनाइयाँ कम होने का नाम ही नहीं ले रही है, ढलती उम्र के साथ उसपर चुनौतियों का भार लगातार बढ़ता जा रहा है। गाँव में बाढ़ से लेकर शहर में विस्थापन के साथ ज़ारी संघर्ष में खुद को सँभालना, पति की बीमारी और ग़ैर-ज़िम्मेदार लापरवाह बेटे के साथ सुंदरी की ज़िंदगी उलझ-सी गयी है।

Women domestic workers in India are demanding respect. Here’s Roopali’s story

Women domestic workers have been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. In India, Countering Backlash partner Gender at Work Consulting – India have been collaborating with domestic workers in Delhi and compiling their stories into a storybook, launching July 2023.

India’s women domestic workers are demanding justice. Anita Kapoor, co-founder of the Shahri Mahila Kaamgar Union (SMKU – Urban Women Worker’s Union), shares how ‘it is important for domestic workers to speak together about what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic and about the issues that we continue to face to this day.’ Here is Roopali’s* story, prepared by Chaitali Haldar, an independent researcher and trainer, with the support of SMKU.

Life uprooted

Roopali’s life was disrupted when she was just 12 years old and studying at school. Her home, in the slum of Gautamnagar in Delhi, India, was identified in 1999 as one of the informal settlements to be demolished in the name of redevelopment and so-called ‘beautification’ of the city.

The experience was terrible for Roopali and her family. After their home was demolished, they ended up living next to a railway track with just a tarpaulin sheet as a roof. They were also miles away from the parents’ place of employment and Roopali’s and her siblings’ school.

‘The warp and weft of relationships, friendships, solidarities with our neighbours and families that wove the fabric of our lives together for so many years had been torn asunder by the relocation.’

After months of trying, Roopali’s family were eventually able to buy a small plot of land after fighting through the bureaucratic red tape of government departments. Even though they had lived in a slum before, they had access to basic services such as water and electricity. In the new location they were deprived of the most essential services. Their daily commute to work was 20 kilometres and Roopali’s and her siblings’ education was severely disrupted.

Roopali and her sisters were blocked by their older brother from going to school as he argued that it was ‘too far away’. At the age of 15, Roopali ended up going to work with her mother as a domestic worker, a job that Roopali would do into her adult life.

Connecting with a domestic workers’ union

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Roopali was working in three households. She lost these jobs at the start of the pandemic lockdowns and wasn’t even paid the salary that she was owed. During this time, it was near impossible for domestic workers to find employment.

How can one secure employment if there are no jobs available?

It was during this time that Roopali began associating with the SMKU in Delhi. They were providing an open and safe space for domestic workers to access relief and support during the lockdowns. At the time, the government’s Covid-19 welfare services were only accessible online. SMKU ran an information centre which provided people the latest information on support and relief measures. Through SMKU’s support, Roopali was able to obtain both ration and an e-ration card.

Currently, Roopali is working as a cleaner in a family home, earning around INR 4,000 per month. She was supporting her entire family whilst her husband was looking for work during the pandemic. But this is just a temporary job and she is at risk of losing it once the family find a ‘permanent’ replacement. Since Covid-19, there are fewer jobs available and more employers are now wanting domestic workers to be ‘live-in’ and available 24 hours a day.  Roopali is facing this all in the midst of health issues, which have become acute after she experienced a serious workplace related injury, that have led her into significant amounts of debt that she and her husband are struggling to pay off. Her current employer is also threatening to fire her if she takes any more time off due to her health conditions. Roopali feels stuck in a spiral of insecurity and old beyond her years.

I feel distressed. Sometimes I feel defeated by life’s circumstances.

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are sitting at a dressing table looking at themselves in the mirror, with a sad expression on their face. There is a plaster on their head and the table is covered in bills.
Illustration by Mrinalini Godara.

Credit: Mrinalini Godara

Roopali works closely with the SMKU, taking part in activities organised by them, encouraging others to join the union, and sharing her joys and sorrows with her fellow women domestic workers.

*Name changed to protect the person’s identity.

This story was originally written in Hindi (translation provided by Sudarsana Kundu and Shraddha Chigateri from Countering Backlash partner organisation Gender at Work Consulting – India).

रूपाली की कहानी: सम्मान और अधिकार की माँग करती शहरी महिला कामगार

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are sitting at a dressing table looking at themselves in the mirror, with a sad expression on their face. There is a plaster on their head and the table is covered in bills.

महिला घरेलू कामगार कोविड-19 महामारी से बुरी तरह प्रभावित हुई हैं। भारत में, काउंटरिंग बैकलैश पार्टनर जेंडर एट वर्क दिल्ली में घरेलू कामगारों के साथ सहयोग कर रहा है और उनकी कहानियों को आगामी स्टोरीबुक में संकलित कर रहा है, जो 17 जुलाई को लॉन्च होगी।

बिखरी-सी ज़िंदगी

भारतीय घरेलू कामगार न्याय की मांग कर रहे हैं। शहरी महिला कामगार यूनियन (एसएमकेयू) की सह-संस्थापक, अनीता कपूर बताती हैं कि ‘घरेलू कामगारों के लिए यह महत्वपूर्ण है कि वे एक साथ मिलकर उन मुद्दों के बारे में बारे में बात करें जो कोविड-19 महामारी के दौरान हुआ जिसका सामना वे आज भी कर रहे हैं। यह रूपाली की कहानी है, जो एसएमकेयू के समर्थन से चैताली हलदर द्वारा लिखित और स्वाति सिंह द्वारा संपादित की गई है।

बिखरी-सी ज़िंदगी

उत्तर प्रदेश के बदायूँ ज़िले की रहने वाली रूपाली वाल्मीकि समुदाय से है। तीन बेटे और एक बेटी के साथ उसके माता-पिता सालों पहले काम की तलाश में दिल्ली आ गए थे। दिल्ली में परिवार का पेट पालने के लिए पिता नाली-सफ़ाई का काम करते थे और माँ कोठियों में घरेलू काम करती थी। रूपाली का परिवार अस्सी के दशक में गौतमनगर आकर बस गया। साउथ एक्स की एक कोठी में धीरे-धीर उसकी मम्मी काम करने लगी। पापा को एक ऑफ़िस में काम मिला। उनकी ज़िंदगी चल रही थी। लेकिन इसी बीच रूपाली के पापा का देहांत हो गया। इससे उनके घर की स्थिति बहुत ज़्यादा ख़राब हो गयी।

साल 1999 में जब रूपाली बारह साल की थी और पाँचवी कक्षा में पढ़ती थी, तब ‘सुंदरीकरण’ के नामपर गौतमनगर की झुग्गियों को तोड़ने का सिलसिला शुरू हुआ। इस दौरान उन्हें झुग्गियों से विस्थापित कर गौतमपुरी की बस्तियों में बसाया गया। ये पुनर्वास अपने में बहुत भयावह और तकलीफ़देह था। सालों पहले बसाए बसेरे तोड़ दिए गये। लोगों के रोज़गार चले गए और बच्चों की पढ़ाई बंद हो गयी। दिसंबर की सर्दी में रेलवे लाइन के पास त्रिपाल-पन्नी डालकर रूपाली के परिवार को कई महीनों रहना पड़ा। रूपाली की मम्मी उसे पढ़ाना चाहती थी, लेकिन बड़े भाई ने ये कहकर मना कर दिया कि ‘स्कूल के लिए कौन इतनी दूर जाएगा।‘ इसके बाद उसके परिवार को एक प्लाट को लेकर डीडीए, इंजीनियर और अन्य विभाग के चक्कर काटने पड़े, तब जाकर एक प्लाट का टुकड़ा सात हज़ार रुपए देने के बाद उन्हें मिला। उनकी ज़िंदगी मानो बीस साल पीछे चली गयी थी, क्योंकि सिर्फ़ मकान आने से ज़िंदगी थोड़े ही बदल जाती है। उनकी ज़िंदगी का ताना-बाना बिखर गया था। रिश्ते-नाते सब एक-दूसरे से अलग हो गए थे। भले ही वो झुग्गी-बस्ती थी पर उसकी मम्मी का काम, घर के पास था। स्कूल पास था। पानी-बिजली थी। यहाँ आकर उन्हें इन बुनियादी सुविधाओं के लिए वंचित होना पड़ा और बहुत परेशनियाँ झेलनी पड़ी। रूपाली पंद्रह साल की उम्र से अपनी मम्मी के साथ कोठियों में काम करने के लिए साउथ एक्स ज़ाया करती थी। उसके बाद पंद्रह साल की उम्र में ही उसने अपनी मर्ज़ी से शादी कर ली। ये शादी सिर्फ़ दो साल तक चली। क्योंकि रिश्ते में बहुत तनाव और हिंसा बढ़ गयी थी। वो अपनी मम्मी के घर नौ महीने तक अपने बेटे को लेकर रही। फिर उसने अपनी पसंद से दूसरी शादी कर ली और इस शादी से एक बेटी है। आज रूपाली का बेटा 18 साल और बेटी 9 साल की है।

चुनौतियाँ: शहरों में महिला कामगार होने की

रूपाली आज भी साउथ एक्स में काम करने जाती है। साउथ एक्स में वो पहले चार कोठियों में काम करती थी, जिसमें अब काम कम हो गए है और उसकी महीने की पगार भी मात्र दो-तीन हज़ार ही रह गयी है। इन्हीं पैसों से वो अपने परिवार का गुजर बसर करती है। एकदिन कोठी में काम करते हुए रूपाली को सिर में किसी नुकीली चीज़ से चोट लग गयी और ज़्यादा खून निकलने की वजह से वो बेहोश गयी। इलाज में क़रीब तीस-चालीस हज़ार रुपए खर्च हुए, जिसका भुगतान मालकिन ने किया। लेकिन इसके बाद उन्होंने रूपाली को दुबारा काम पर नहीं रखा। सही तरीक़े से इलाज न होने की वजह से इस चोट के बाद से उसे दिमाग़ से जुड़ी समस्याएँ होने लगी। अक्सर काम के दौरान उसकी स्वास्थ्य से जुड़ी समस्याएँ सामने लगी, जिसका असर उसके काम पर भी होने लगा। काम कम होने लगे और आमदनी भी घटने लगी।

अभी के समय में रूपाली साउथ एक्स में एक कोठी में काम करती है, जहां उसे सिर्फ़ कुछ ही समय के लिए रखा गया है जब तक उसकी मालकिन को दूसरा कुक नहीं मिल जाता। कोविड के बाद से घरेलू काम में आए बदलाव के बारे में रूपाली बताती है कि ‘कोविड से पहले हम घरों-कोठियों में झाड़ू-पोछा और बर्तन का काम करके वापस अपने घर लौट जाते थे। लेकिन कोविड के बाद से सभी लोग चौबीस घंटे के लिए काम पर रखने लगे है, इसलिए खुला काम (रोज़ काम पर आने और वापस जाने का काम) करवाने के लिए अब कोई तैयार नहीं होता है।‘’

मालिक को चौबीस घंटे घरों में रहकर काम करने वाला कामगार चाहिए होता है, जो अब रूपाली के लिए अपने स्वास्थ्य से जुड़ी समस्याओं और परिवार की ज़िम्मेदारियों की वजह से कर पाना मुश्किल है। यही वजह है कि अब घरेलू काम के क्षेत्र में पुरुष कामगारों की संख्या बढ़ने लगी है, क्योंकि वे आसानी से कोठियों में चौबीस घंटे काम करने के लिए उपलब्ध होते है और ये चलन कोविड के बाद से ज़्यादा बढ़ा है, जिसकी वजह से महिला घरेलू कामगारों के रोज़गार के अवसर कम होने लगे है।

रूपाली ये भी बताती है कि, ‘कोविड से पहले कोठियों में घरेलू कामगार होने की वजह से भेदभाव होता था, लेकिन काम करने वालों की जाति नहीं पूछी जाती थी। लेकिन अब अगर काम खोजने जाओ तो पहले जाति पूछी जाती है।

कहाँ रहती हो? किस जाति की हो? जैसे सवाल अब अक्सर घरेलू कामगारों के सामने खड़े होते है। आगे शर्त होती है कि – ‘अगर बाथरूम साफ़ करेगी तो बर्तन नहीं धोएगी। ज़्यादा छुट्टी नहीं मिलेगी। वग़ैरह-वग़ैरह।‘ इस नाप-तौल के चक्कर में अब उन्हें काम नहीं मिलता है। कोविड के दौरान बढ़ी बेरोज़गारी की वजह से अब घरेलू कामगार महिलाएँ अपनी कोई भी बात नहीं रख सकती है, उन्हें हर शर्त और कीमत को मानकर काम करना पड़ता है। क्योंकि कोविड के बाद काम के मौक़े कम हो गए।

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are sitting at a dressing table looking at themselves in the mirror, with a sad expression on their face. There is a plaster on their head and the table is covered in bills.

Illustration by Mrinalini Godara.

यूनियन से जुड़ाव और एक उम्मीद

कोविड दौरान रूपाली का जुड़ाव शहरी महिला कामगार यूनियन से हुआ। उस समय शहरों में कोविड के चलते साइबर कैफ़े जैसी सारी दुकाने बंद हो गयी थी और दूसरी तरफ़ सरकार की कल्याणकारी योजनाएँ ऑनलाइन हो गयी थी, जो मज़दूरों की पहुँच से बाहर थी। तब शहरी महिला कामगार यूनियन ने ज़न सूचना केंद्र के माध्यम से सरकारी योजनाओं से जोड़ने के लिए मज़दूरों के ऑनलाइन फार्म भरने व नाम चढ़वाने का काम शुरू किया। इसी दौरान रूपाली यूनियन की सदस्य गुड़िया से अपने राशन कार्ड में नाम चढ़वाने के लिए मिली। तभी से रूपाली का संगठन से जुड़ाव बना। उस समय रूपाली को यूनियन से दो से अधिक बार राशन मिला, जिस मदद से रूपाली  बहुत खुश हुई। इसके बाद रूपाली  संगठन से जुड़कर अपना योगदान राशन की लिस्ट बनवाने और महिलाओं को यूनियन से जोड़ने जैसे काम के ज़रिए देने लगी।

रूपाली के पति की कमाई क़र्ज़ उतारने और इलाज के खर्चे में चली जाती है। वहीं बीमारी की वजह से रूपाली को नए काम नहीं मिल पा रहे है, जिसके चलते उसे और उसके परिवार को बुरी तरह आर्थिक तंगी का शिकार होना पड़ रहा है। अपने मौलिक अधिकारों से वंचित सम्मानजनक ज़िंदगी से दूर रूपाली ने बचपन से जिस भेदभाव और संघर्ष को जिया है वो का भी लगातार क़ायम है। ऐसा लगता है मानो रूपाली एक जाल में फँस चुकी है, जहां चारों ओर समस्याएँ है। उसकी आवाज़ और मनोभावों से ऐसा लग रहा था जैसे पैंतीस साल की उम्र में वो बेबस और लाचार बुढ़ापा जीने को मजबूर है। लेकिन सबके बीच जब वो यूनियन में आती है तो उसके चेहरे पर एक अलग-सी चमक होती है। यहाँ वो अपना सुख-दुःख दूसरी महिलाओं से बाँटती है और दूसरी महिला कामगारों की मदद करती है, जो उसके चेहरे पर मुस्कान की वजह भी बन जाती है।

Domestic workers in India demand justice

Domestic workers in India are demanding justice and respect. Anita Kapoor, a founding member of the Shahri Mahila Kaamgar Union (SMKU – an unregistered union working with domestic workers in the Delhi-NCR region), shares the experiences and demands of domestic workers through their own words for International Domestic Workers’ Day. 

We, the domestic workers, are on the margins of society due to the utter neglect of society and the Government. Our situation was further worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic and consequent lockdowns. We were swamped by death, illness, hunger and helplessness. We left our livelihoods in the cities. We walked thousands of kilometres to return to our villages on hungry stomachs. Where was the government then?

Domestic workers were accused of being carriers of the virus. Our employers began to look at us with eyes of hatred. Where was the government then?

In the name of the pandemic, we, women domestic workers, became unemployed and injustice was inflicted upon us. Where was the government then?

Who gave the police an open license to harass us on the streets when we were struggling with these worries?

Illustration by Chaitali Haldar

The Covid-19 lockdowns ruined our lives

We worked hard to earn a livelihood and a life of dignity, but the pandemic pushed us to a situation of utter helplessness. Many domestic workers lost their livelihoods and income and had no idea when they would be reinstated. Not only did they not have monthly incomes, but they also lacked rations and health services due both to the lockdowns and to poorly designed support measures. This was the time that domestic workers and their households needed support the most, and yet we found that our appointed representatives did not extend their hands in support.

The methods used to deal with the pandemic perpetrated caste violence, economic, exploitation and religious atrocities. The education of children was wrecked. Bodies were flowing in rivers. There were long queues at cremation grounds and graveyards. There were oxygen shortages in hospitals. Large companies were given debt relief. The economy was in tatters. but crowds for elections were exempted. People were permitted to join the Kumbh Mela. The courts and systems of justice were closed. Instead of the parliamentarians being open to hearing people’s issues, parliamentary sessions were cut short and anti-people farmers’ laws and labour laws were passed. The regime was absent.

Our employers exploited our vulnerability during the Covid-19 pandemic to decrease wages and convert our working status to full-time live-in workers. For us, it was not the Covid-19 virus that was the problem, but the violence inflicted on us by our employers – the decrease in our wages, the non-stop 24-hour workday, the hateful looks, the cruelty – these were our real struggles.

These have been lasting effects on domestic workers, undoing all the progress we made in the past decades. Previously, we had the power to voice our demands, even if it was only for four days of holiday and a 500 INR bonus during festivals. But the pandemic robbed us of even that limited bargaining power and the capacity to organise.

The issue of unemployment is rife in our sector.  The demonetisation of the Indian currency in 2016, followed by the pandemic, has caused us to sink under the weight of indebtedness and economic burdens.  Our husbands and even our children do not have secure employment. We feel the burden of running our households. As a result, we are not always in good physical or mental health.

Illustration by Chaitali Haldar

Our demands

Given the situation and challenges faced by domestic workers, we have several demands for the Government. We demand appropriate wages, a day’s leave in a week, fixed hours of work in a day and the assurance of provident fund, pension, workers’ social security, etc. We demand a regulator for the employers so that the many atrocities and forms of violence against workers stop.

It is important for domestic workers to speak together about what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic and about the issues that we continue to face to this day. It is important for us to document and investigate these issues and demand accountability from the government. In this work, we all have a collective responsibility. Across India, various organisations are conducting public hearings calling for accountability. Allied domestic workers’ unions must also join hands with the National Platform for Domestic Workers to put pressure on the government to concede our demands. We must investigate government policies by setting up public inquiry committees in different places. This is our fundamental constitutional duty. It is our responsibility to undertake. All the people of this country have to join in these efforts.

Illustration by Chaitali Haldar

The voices of domestic workers proclaim:

“COVID is a symbol of the violence and atrocities against domestic workers”
“Respect, dignity, love and rest – this is our demand as workers”
“Pay us the right price for our work- this is our slogan as workers”
“Let us gain our rights as workers – this our demand as domestic workers”
“Domestic work is work! Recognise domestic workers as workers!”
“Fix minimum wages for domestic workers now!”
“Fix our hours of work now!”
“We are workers, not slaves!”
“On the issues of livelihoods, the government will be investigated by us/ its own citizens”
“On the issue of domestic workers, the government will be investigated by us/ its own citizens”
“We will ensure accountability for what happened with us!”

This blog was produced in collaboration with Countering Backlash partner, Gender at Work Consulting – India, and originally written in Hindi (translation provided by Sudarsana Kundu and Shraddha Chigateri).

भारत में घरेलू कामगार न्याय की मांग करते हैं

समाज और सरकार की उपेक्षा की वजह से हम घरेलू कामगार आज भी हाशिए पर रहने को मजबूर हैं। लेकिन कोरोना और लॉकडाउन हम घरेलू कामगारों के लिए बेबसी भरे एक बेहद चुनौतीपूर्ण समय के रूप में सामने आया।

इस कठिन समय में हम मौत, बीमारी, भुखमरी और लाचारी से जूझ रहे थे और शहरों में अपनी मजदूरी छोड़कर जब भूखे पेट हजारों मील पैदल चलकर अपने गांव वापस आ रहे थे तो सरकार कही नहीं थी ?

इस महामारी के दौर में जब हमारी छोटी-सी आजीविका भी चली गई और काम कराने वाले लोग हमें घृणा की नजरों से देखने लगे तो भी सरकार कही नहीं थी?

घरेलू कामगार को कोरोना के वाहक बोलकर, कई कामगारों का काम, आमदनी ख़त्म कर दी गयी और उनके ख़िलाफ़ नफ़रत फैलायी जा रही थी उस समय सरकार कहाँ थी?

Illustration by Chaitali Haldar

एक तरफ हम इन समस्याओं से जूझ रहे थे तो दूसरी तरफ सरकार ने सड़कों पर हमें परेशान करने के लिए पुलिस को खुली छूट दे रखी थी।

कोरोना महामारी के दौरान घरेलू कामगारों की मुसीबत और लाचारी सबसे ज़्यादा सामने आई। घरेलू कामगार महिलाओं को कोरोना महामारी के बहाने बेरोजगार करने, हमारी रोज़ी-रोटी का साधन छीनने जैसे अन्याय करने का काम हुआ।

महामारी के नामपर घरेलू कामगारों को काम से निकाल दिया गया। लेकिन उन्हें वापस काम में कब बुलाया जाएगा इसका किसी कामगार को इसका कोई अंदाज़ा नहीं था। उनके हाथ मासिक वेतन नहीं पहुँचा और इसके साथ ही राशन और स्वास्थ्य सुविधाओं का अभाव भी रहा। आमतौर पर यह समाज का वो तबका था, जो अपना श्रम देकर सम्मानपूर्वक जीवन गुजर बसर करता था। पर इस महामारी ने उनको भीख मांगने जैसे माहौल में लाकर खड़ा कर दिया। जब घरेलू कामगारों को ज़िम्मेदारी ज़न-प्रतिनिधियों की सबसे ज़्यादा ज़रूरत थी पर किसी ने भी इस तबके की तरफ़ मदद का हाथ आगे नहीं बढ़ाया।

बच्चों की शिक्षा ध्वस्त हो गई। नदियों में लाश बहती रही, श्मशान घाटों एवं कब्रिस्तानों पर लंबी कतारें, अस्पतालों में ऑक्सीजन की कमी, संसद सत्र में कटौती व संसद में लोगों की समस्याओं पर चर्चा के बजाय श्रमिक और जन-विरोधी कानूनों का पास होने का सिलसिला चलता रहा। एक ओर तो, देश की अर्थव्यवस्था का धराशाही होना, नदारद प्रशासन, बंद कोर्ट कचहरी एवं लोगों के प्रतिरोध पर तालाबंदी जैसी समस्याएँ हैं। वहीं दूसरी ओर, चुनाव में भीड़ के लिए छूट, कुंभ में जाने की छूट, सरकारी संस्थानों की बिक्री एवं पूंजीवादी बड़ी कंपनियों की कर्जमाफी जैसे मुद्दे हैं, जिनसे जनता जूझती रही।

इन सबके बीच वो घरेलू कामगार जो किन्हीं कारणवश शहर में बच गए थे, उनकी आजीविका की मजबूरी को समाज के संभ्रांत तबके (कोठी वाले) ने ‘आपदा में अवसर’ मानकर पूरा फायदा उठाया। उनमें से कई घरेलू कामगारों को कोठी वालों के घर में रहकर बिना रुके 24 घंटों तक काम करना पड़ा। उनकी मजदूरी बढ़ने की बजाय और कम होती गई। कोरोना महामारी के दौर में ऐसे शोषण बहुत से घरेलू कामगार लोगों के लिए असहनीय था। इनके लिए कोरोना समस्या नहीं थी, बल्कि कोठी वालों का अत्याचार, मजदूरी में कटौती, दिन-रात बिना रुके काम करवाना, घृणित निगाहें एवं क्रूरता इत्यादि समस्याएं थी।

आज भी घरेलू कामगारों की स्थिति पहले से बदतर है। बेरोज़गारी की स्थिति आज भी जस की तस बनी हुई है, जिससे हम अपनी जिंदगी के करीब 20 साल पीछे ही गए है। वे घरेलू कामगार, जिन्हें ‘चार छुट्टी या दिवाली पर 500 रुपए ही बोनस चाहिए।‘ – यह बोलकर लेने का हक मिला था, उस हक़ को इस महामारी ने छीन लिया। उनकी मोलभाव करने एवं अपने काम के अनुसार मज़दूरी की बात रखने की शक्ति एवं संगठनात्मिक शक्ति भी कम हुई है।

Illustration by Chaitali Haldar

2016 में नोटबंदी हुईं इसके बाद साल 2020 में कोरोना महामारी ने घरेलू कामगारों की ऐसी कमर तोड़ी कि वे आज भी इससे उभर नहीं पा रहे है। वे आज भी आर्थिक बोझ के नीचे दबे हुए है । आज युवा बच्चों या पतियों का नियमित काम नहीं है। घर चलाने का बोझ परिवार घरेलू कामगारों पर आ गया है, जो उनके शारीरिक एवं मानसिक स्वास्थ्य को भी प्रभावित कर रही है।

घरेलू कामगारों के सामने आने वाली स्थिति और चुनौतियों को देखते हुए हमारी कई मांगें हैं। हम उचित वेतन, सप्ताह में एक दिन की छुट्टी, एक दिन में काम के निश्चित घंटे और भविष्य निधि, पेंशन, श्रमिकों की सामाजिक सुरक्षा आदि के आश्वासन की मांग करते हैं। घरेलू कामगारों के लिए एक नियामक हो जिससे कामगारों के साथ होने वाले अनेकों तरह के शोषण और अत्याचार पर रोक लगायी जा सके।

इसलिए घरेलू कामगारों के लिए यह जरूरी हो गया है कि, कोरोना लॉक डाउन के समय आज की परिस्थितियों में जिन समस्याओं का सामना करना पड़ रहा है। उन्हें एक साथ कहना, उनकी जांच करना और समस्याओं को दस्तावेज में तब्दील करके सरकार की जवाबदेही तय करना अनिवार्य है। इस कार्य में सभी की सामूहिक भूमिका अहम है। देश के कोने-कोने से विभिन्न संगठन इस तरह की जनसुनवाई कर रहे हैं। ऐसी स्थिति में सहयोगी संगठन के साथ मिलकर घरेलू कामगारों के लिए राष्ट्रीय मंच  ( NPDW)  को  भी अपनी बात मनवाने के लिए सरकार पर दबाव डालना चाहिए। जगह-जगह सार्वजनिक जांच समितियां बनाकर सरकार की नीतियों की जांच करनी चाहिए। यह जांच संविधान के तहत हमारा मौलिक कर्तव्य है, जिसे करना हमारी जिम्मेदारी है  । देश के सभी लोगों को एक साथ मिलकर यह काम करना चाहिए।

Illustration by Chaitali Haldar

घरेलू कामगारों की आवाज़ें

“कोविड एक निशानी है, शोषण और अत्याचारों की”
“इज्जत, गरिमा, प्यार, आराम
हम कामगारों की यही है मांग”
“हम कामगारों का यही है नारा
कामों का दो दाम हमारा।”
“घरेलू कामगारों की यही पुकार
हमारे काम को मिले काम का  सही अधिकार।“
“घरेलू काम भी एक काम है
हमें भी कामगार का दर्जा दो दर्जा दो”
” घरेलू कामगारों के मुद्दों पर, सरकार को अपनी जांचेंगे”
“आजीविका के मुद्दे पर, सरकार को अपनी जांचेंगे”
“घरेलू कामगारों का न्यूनतम वेतन तय करो, तय करो।”
” घरेलू कामगारों के काम के घंटे तय करो, तय करो”
“हम कामगार है, गुलाम नहीं”
” हमारे साथ जो हुआ उसका हिसाब हम करेंगे”

5 ways Serbia can #EmbraceEquity

Continuous normalisation of gender-based violence in the media in Serbia has led to women from all over the country coming together to fight for gender equality. Additionally, EuroPride, held in Belgrade in September 2022, received severe backlash from right-wing groups and ultimately had to be reorganised with a shorter route.

These events have exposed the limits of gender equality in Serbia, the strength of anti-gender organising, and the lack of support from the current government, who is pushing right-wing radicalisation via media outlets. With this in mind, here are five ways Serbia can better #EmbraceEquity:

1. Government control of the media must stop

The current Serbian political arena is dominated by right-wing, authoritarian beliefs that limit the space for alternative political views. This has transformed over time, as the ruling party’s control over state resources and the media has resulted in a constant increase of poverty and social divides. As public dissatisfaction is directed, with support of the ruling party, at the perceived Other/s, it has created an intolerance towards any diversity, including gender, in which the media play an important role.

Constant pressure on civil society organisations; threatened financial sustainability; and further fragmentation of the civil society sector is creating an increasingly difficult and dangerous environment for the work of feminist organisations. Thus, there is an increased need for observation of media coverage of gender equality issues and the rights of minority groups, as well as applying pressure on state institutions to react more quickly to media regulation violations.

2. There must be broader support of progressive independent media

In the face of the right-wing, conservative backlash against gender equality in Serbia, Centre for Women’s Studies latest media discourse research (publication forthcoming) has shown that the term ‘gender ideology’ is less prevalent than the term ‘family (and traditional) values’. This latter term has a great capacity for mobilising the Serbian population as it covers a wide range of meanings. Present in mainstream media, advocates for the fight against so called ‘gender ideology’ use the term ‘family values’ to defend the role of the ‘natural family’. In their view, the ‘natural family’ is under threat by various social and legislative interventions concerning reproductive and LGBTQIA+ rights, as well as measures against gender discrimination, equity for same-sex communities, sexual education, and protection from gender-based violence.

Against this backdrop, independent media outlets offer an inclusive, multi-perspective, gender-sensitive way of reporting, giving a voice to marginalised communities. These outlets are important to Serbian society for diversifying the debate and fighting against fake news. As such, it is necessary that different progressive actors – national and international independent journal associations, civil society among other – give support for progressive media in their work of defending freedom of speech and adhere to the highest standards of the journalistic profession.

3. More debate about the role of gender in Serbian society

The fight for gender justice in Serbia is receiving backlash from advocates of tradition on at least two levels: sexuality outside hetero norms; and gender roles and feminism. Heteronormativity is present every day in the mainstream media, particularly in the months preceding the Pride parades or when addressing the possibility of legal regulation for same-sex unions. At the centre of this conflict is the defence of the so-called ‘traditional family’ from the attack of progressive actors from the West.

Similarly, at the level of gender roles and feminism, the backlash from the anti-gender movement also relies on traditionalist views of the family structure, placing men and women within certain roles and hierarchies. As such, work must be done to widen the understanding of gender and its role as part of the radical right-wing political agenda through debate and knowledge exchange.

4. The local political context must be reanalysed

The Serbian media landscape is seeing increased influence from anti-gender advocates, from both Eastern and Western Europe, with some specificities that are primarily connected to the local political context.

The fight for gender justice is seen as an attack on local cultures by foreign powers. In Serbia, this is framed as destroying national sovereignty and the Serbian national identity. Furthermore, part of the local right-wing political and intellectual elite plays an active role in this framing, lending support to the narrative of an ‘attack on the national identity and family values’. The rejection of democratic values is also connected with the rise of Russia’s increased sphere of influence and the strengthening of conservative Orthodox ideas about the ‘traditional family’. A careful analysis of the local political context is required, which should be followed by a progressive media response.

5. Feminist organisations must mobilise

Relying on a biological understanding of gender and sexuality and insisting on a traditionalist family structure is part of a broader rejection of ideas and practices of social and human equality. In this sense, using the terms ‘gender ideology’, ‘family values’, and ‘traditional values’ in the media space in Serbia clearly corresponds to the wider action of the international anti-gender movement.

A response to the international organising of conservative actors should be formed at an international level and from a progressive perspective. Anti-gender ideas often find ways to cross borders, which is one reason why they prove to be influential and dangerous for the progress of human rights. The concept of ‘family values’ is the backbone of this discourse. International feminist and LGBTQIA+ solidarity organisations should find models to counter such ideas. The role of progressive independent media in the process of formulating different narratives, and in their marketing across national borders, is particularly significant.

Looking ahead

Over the past ten years, Serbia has seen a significant decline in democratic governance and free speech. The intensified attacks on gender equality and the rights of LGBTQIA+ persons, as well on NGOs and civil society, is part of this oppression. Despite this, resistance to these processes exists and will continue to exist. The fight for gender equality in Serbia remains an important part of the wider fight for a fairer society in which there will be no gender inequality, but also national, religious, political and any other oppression and exploitation.

A longer version of this blog can be found on the Centre for Women’s Studies website.

Duža verzija ovog bloga dostupna je na veb-sajtu Centra za ženske studije i možete je pročitati ovde.

Who wins when human rights are set against each other?

Activists and development practitioners have historically used human rights to advocate for changes in law and policy to protect the rights of vulnerable communities or groups. More recently, academic research on human rights, and development practitioners have noted how ‘gender-restrictive groups are succeeding at using the language and legal tools of the human rights framework to present their anti-rights efforts as right-affirming initiatives’.

Significant efforts have been made to understand how these gender backlash narratives are built, such as research on forms of resistance and backlash, co-option, discourse capture and more. One such narrative tool to build gender backlash is when anti-gender-rights actors create a false narrative showcasing one community’s rights as being detrimental to another’s. This constructed narrative of a competition between the rights of two marginalised communities limits the frame of discourse to these communities, thus protecting existing power hierarchies.

This blog is based on original research for the dissertation for my M.A Gender and Development degree at the Institute of Development Studies. My work, since then, with Young People for PoliticsRejuvenate, and CREA has also been instrumental in writing this blog. In the paragraphs below, I expand on the role of ‘competition of rights’ in serving gender backlash agendas. Here is what I’ve found:

How is the narrative of ‘competing rights’ staged?

Rehana Fathima, a feminist activist from Kerala, India, uploaded a video of her children drawing on her naked upper body as a political act against sexualising women’s bodies, calling for action to reinterpret female bodies. My research on this ‘political act’, and responses to it by the State and other institutions, illustrate the ways in which her feminist gesture was eclipsed by a discourse on child safety.

In encouraging her children to draw on her naked upper body, Fathima was seen to be forwarding her own political agenda at their expense; she was accused of ‘sexual abuse’. My study revealed ‘censure’ from sites of legitimate authority, and ‘discourse capture’  were tools used to stage this competition between Fathima’s right to gender justice and her children’s right to safety.

These trends are seen globally; a more recent example is the trans-exclusionary stance promoted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (SR VAW). In November 2022 the SR VAW urged the Members of Scottish Parliament in a public letter to reconsider the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill (GRR), which proposed simplifying the process of gender self-identification for trans persons. The SR VAW argued that the proposed reform provides an opportunity for perpetrators of violence to identify as women and access women-only safe spaces, thus risking further perpetration of violence against already vulnerable cis women.

In both cases, the accusations are not supported by any evidence, but are taken as legitimate concerns due to the authority of the inquirer. This narrative creates a false co-relation between the advancement of rights of one group with risks faced by another. It twists and repurposes the narrative shifting focus from the original cause – in Fathima’s case desexualising female bodies, and in the case of the Scottish GRR self- identification for trans persons– allowing for discourse capture. Additionally, backlash actors form intentional alliances to ensure cohesive action leading to this form of discourse capture. In instances where such overt alliances are not formed, such as in Fathima’s case, there continues to be cohesion across backlash actors because the narrative is built on gender norms coded into the socio-cultural, political, and economic institutions.

In the competition of rights, anti-gender-rights activists identify one group as ‘in need of protection’ and create a moral panic. Fathima’s children were assumed to be incapable of understanding the political act they helped create. Hence, none of the stakeholders engaged with the children to assess if they had consented to participating in Fathima’s political act, which is a valid concern with regards to upholding the children’s rights. In case of the SR VAW, the letter had the support of multiple trans exclusionary feminist and women’s rights groups. The SR VAW decided to represent their concerns, while disregarding the many representations made by feminist collectives who support self-identification for trans persons and oppose the arbitrary correlation between right to gender self-identification and increased risk of violence against cis women. Through this form of narrative building one group is identified as more vulnerable (i.e., children and women respectively in the above cases) and as having homogenous needs.  Their rights are considered to be more valuable than those of persons belonging to less normative groups. This narrative of competing rights separates groups into neat boxes, ignoring the many intersections and critical ally-ship across marginalised groups and communities.

Piercing the smokescreen of competing rights

This form of narrative backlash not only disrupts progressive gender rights agendas but is built on and promotes existing gender normative and oppressive structures. While creating counter-narratives is essential, it is also critical to proactively build popular narratives that delegitimise, or create an adverse environment for, the work of backlash actors. Here are four recommendations:

  1. Human rights are indivisible: Rights are inseparable by nature and the rights of one community cannot be upheld by denying the rights of another.
  2. Nothing for us without us: All gender-rights discourses must ensure deep representation from the communities of rights holders themselves. Diversity and dynamism in representation is essential to counter backlash.
  3. Gender is never binary: Discourse on gender rights and development initiatives for gender-based rights must consciously include agendas that challenge gender binaries and represent non-normative forms of thought and action; it must not be depoliticised
  4. Be an ally –step up and/ or make space: Rights movements cannot exist in silos; therefore cross movement ally-ship is an important aspect of countering gender backlash. Gender rights are intrinsically linked to all human rights. We must learn to step up and give up our space in support of each other across movements.

5 ways Lebanon can #EmbraceEquity

Gender backlash against women’s rights in Lebanon persists despite progress made by activists over the past few decades. Backlash in the Lebanese context continuously oppresses women’s rights, rather than being a reaction to progress.

This can take a broad range of forms such as structural discrimination and exclusion, all of which are fed, incubated and fuelled by the sectarian system. These forms not only fight and obstruct advocacy for women’s rights, but more importantly, impede the possibility of progress.

The perpetual and overlapping economic and political crises overtaking the country and the resultant blocked policy spaces since 2019 indicate that there is still a lot of progress to be made. With this in mind, here are five ways Lebanon can better #EmbraceEquity:

1. Lebanon must adopt a personal status law

Due to the absence of a civil code governing personal status matters like marriage, inheritance, and child custody, Lebanon depends on 15 distinct religious laws and courts for the country’s 18 acknowledged sects. Consequently, individuals experience different treatment based on their sex and sect, which results in discrepancies in women’s rights between sects. Under this system, women also do not have the same rights as men in the same sect.

By relegating family and personal matters to religious courts and abstaining from establishing civil courts, the state renounced its constitutional right (and obligation) to institute a civil family law. A unified personal status law needs to be adopted, specifically one based on equality between men and women.

2. Lebanon must amend its domestic violence law

In 2014, following years of feminist lobbying, the Lebanese parliament passed a domestic violence law, rigged with gaps. The law failed to criminalise marital rape and excluded former partners and relationships outside legally recognised frameworks from its protection provisions. Amendments in 2020 allowed for prosecuting not only abusive spouses but former spouses as well. The amendments also expanded the scope of ‘family’ to include current or former spouses, and extended the definition of violence to include emotional, psychological, and economic violence. Despite these improvements, gaps remain in the law and its implementation.

Domestic violence cases are usually investigated by police officers with no training in handling abuse cases, which needs a specialised and trained domestic violence unit. Additionally, while religious courts cannot interfere with civil courts’ domestic violence rulings, these can still rule in divorce and custody matters. Due to these circumstances, there is a growing need for a unified personal status law.

3. The Lebanese Labour Law must include domestic and agricultural workers

The Lebanese Labour Law fails to protect women’s rights in all respects, particularly those in domestic work. It excludes migrant domestic workers from its protections, leaving them vulnerable to the kafala (sponsorship) system that ties their residency to their sponsor, often leading to violations of their rights. Despite numerous reports of abuse in the past decade, there have been no significant official efforts to protect domestic workers. Without regulatory laws or monitoring mechanisms in place, there is little accountability for those who violate their rights.

The labour law needs to be amended to include migrant domestic workers, and the standard unified labour law should be upgraded and implemented. Migrant domestic workers should be allowed to unionise, and their rights should be protected. The law also excludes agricultural workers, primarily women, from social security benefits. Reforms are needed to protect these workers and to enhance equal opportunity and pay in employment between women and men.

4. The Lebanese Nationality Law must be amended

The Lebanese Nationality Law discriminates against women by preventing them from passing their citizenship to their children, explicitly stating that Lebanese citizenship is only granted to those ‘born of a Lebanese father.’ Although the government has taken some steps to ease the residency of children of Lebanese mothers, such as exemptions from work permits, demands for women’s right to grant citizenship to their children are still largely ignored.

While there have been some attempts to amend the law, the latest draft failed to reflect a commitment to equality, denying the children of Lebanese mothers from nationality, political rights, and some labour and property rights upon reaching legal age. The Lebanese nationality law should be amended to include every person ‘born to a Lebanese mother’.

5. Lebanese law must address violence against women in politics

The World Bank’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Index report ranks Lebanon 150th out of 156 countries in the category of Political Empowerment. Women’s underrepresentation in political decision-making limits their ability to shape the country’s direction. Successive Lebanese governments have failed to address the gender gap in politics, especially by resisting the implementation of a parliamentary quota. Further, women in politics are subjected to cyberbullying, defamation, and discrimination in the media.

Lebanon needs legislation addressing violence against women in politics, including instances of violence occurring within the political and public sphere, with the aim of outlawing all forms of violence against women in politics and promoting greater awareness among the public.

Looking ahead

Women in Lebanon face many challenges in their struggle for gender equality, as any attempts to address these structural inequalities are often faced with resistance from the people that benefit from the patriarchal and sectarian political system in Lebanon.

The ongoing struggles of women in Lebanon are a reminder of the importance of continued efforts to promote gender equality worldwide. We must #EmbraceEquity!

Digital spaces must be safer for Muslim women in India

Internet use in India has the widest gender gap in the Asia-Pacific region. Data shows that women are far less likely to use the internet than men (with less than 35 per cent of Indian women having ever used it), and that they are also less likely to own a mobile phone than men. This digital gender gap means that women and girls are actively deprived of educational and employment opportunities – and this in a country that has seen declining female labour force participation rates, made worse during and after the pandemic.

The growing gender divide in digital participation comes not only from a lack of access but also as a result of women and girls being actively pushed out of participation in digital spaces by worsening cyber violence, an issue further inflamed by Covid-19.

In this blog, we share just some of these attacks made against women and girls online in India, and suggest ways that India can change this to #EmbraceEquity.

Islamophobic hate getting worse in the country

Women from minority groups are disproportionately affected by worsening cyber violence, owing to, among other reasons, little-to-no sociolegal remedies. Islamophobic hate on online spaces erupted during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic (which led to the closure of the sites of protest against the CAA-NRC in India) in 2020, with Muslim women often being seen as easy targets online by perpetrators. Research in early 2022 reported on the Islamophobic and gender-based backlash faced by Muslim women in the wake of the CAA-NRC protests, and how this spread rapidly through social media platforms such as Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. This was done in the form of cyberstalking, bullying, harassing, spreading offensive hashtags, memes and trolling, doxing, morphing of photographs, and death and rape threats, among others.

A report by Umar Butler in 2022 analysed over 3.7 million Islamophobic posts made globally on Twitter between 2019 and 2021 and found that much of this gender-based Islamophobia was directed at prominent Muslim women in the public sphere. Indian journalists Rana Ayyub and Arfa Khanum Sherwani were the second and fourth most mentioned Twitter users, respectively. The report concluded that ‘Twitter is critically failing to protect Muslim public figures from religiously motivated harassment’.

Islamophobia and Misogyny in custom-built digital space

One of the most noteworthy cases of online gender-based violence against Muslim women in India –as well as Pakistan – took place in 2021 and 2022 in a series of three events. In May 2021, a YouTube channel live-streamed a video where the YouTuber named ‘Liberal Doge’ ‘rated’ Pakistani women. Analysts found that the same group of people, all Indians, were behind the July 2021 Sulli Deals app. The term ‘Sulli’ is an offensive term referring to Muslim women. This was a GitHub-hosted app that allowed men to ‘bid’ on the profiles of Muslim women, all of whom were active members of public life and well-known women in their respective fields.

While the platform could not actually ‘auction’ off people,  it is widely agreed that the main function was to harass and humiliate the women who were featured and whose photographs and public information was leaked. GitHub suspended the app in January 2022, but another app emerged called ‘Bulli Bai’ (Bulli is another offensive term used for Muslim women), which contained photographs of prominent women in their 60s and 70s.

Closing digital spaces is silencing women

While both apps were eventually taken down and arrests made, the impacts of this targeted harassment have had potentially longstanding effects on Muslim women and girls. Hasina Khan, founder of Bebaak Collective – an association for the rights of religious minority women and part of Countering Backlash – spoke about what online backlash means for Muslim women and girls across India. Based on Bebaak Collective’s internal findings, social media had become an important platform for Indian Muslim women to perform their identities and have their opinions heard, something many of them cannot do in offline spaces. Khan believes that these apps were created specifically as a misogynistic attempt to silence prominent Muslim women.

Unfortunately, she adds, they somewhat succeeded. Many of the women featured feared for their lives and either censored themselves on social media or removed themselves entirely. Many were coerced by their families to do so. For those women who were not yet targeted, the fear of being targeted in the future led to more self-surveillance. Certain extremist groups identifying as Muslim also used this opportunity to further censure Muslim women in public spaces.

What social media access means for women

The closing of digital spaces can have dire effects on the ability of minority communities to participate in civil society. Social media, often known as ‘an equaliser’ due to its ability to reach a large number of users, may have quite the opposite effect for the same reason by giving predators greater access to different communities.

Yet, social media has the potential for countering gender backlash in ways that complement offline strategies. During the CAA-NRC protests, social media became a key tool for supporting offline movement-building, perhaps why internet shutdowns were one of the first forms of retaliation against protesting groups at the time. Even after the first Covid-19 lockdown forced people to stop organising in the streets, the internet continued to provide a platform for protest activities. For instance, protest art moved from murals and posters to digital art. An example is Akshat Nauriyal, a new media artist who experiments with augmented reality, who created an Instagram filter which reads ‘I reject CAA, NRC, NPR’. Between December 2019 to February 2020, the filter had over 150,000 impressions.

A screenshot of an Instagram filter. In the bottom of the image, a persons forehead is just visible, and above their head is a square graphic that reads 'I reject CAA, NRC, NPR'.

Credit: Filter created by Akshat Nauriyal. Shared with permission from Nauriyal’s Instagram handle.

Looking ahead

India must look at closing the digital gender divide, while considering carefully how minority communities can be represented and included in digital spaces in a way that is safe and free from online abuse.

Borrowing from the strategies devised by the Associations for Progressive Communications’ (APC) ‘that contribute towards ending violence against women through building women’s leadership and ensuring women’s rights and safety online’,  we suggest five ways that India can embrace equity:

  1. We must gather evidence of tech-related violence against women. This can be via screenshots and reporting on social media, tagging cybercrime units’ handles, or filing a police report.
  2. The lack of women’s representation in Indian policy-making is leading to gender-related issues being overlooked, especially about cyber violence. We need to build women’s leadership to engage with national policymakers judiciary, and other key actors. With them, we can identify remedies that may be available in current laws and develop new policies that seek to protect women’s rights, safety and security.
  3. Current policies remain under-representative of women’s needs, and existing spaces need to be occupied by women from different backgrounds. It is necessary to build women’s ability to influence digital businesses such as social networking platforms, web hosting companies and mobile phone operators, to develop corporate user policies and practices that respect women’s rights.
  4. Awareness regarding the potential violence that women and girls may face online remains low and should be a focus but in a way that does not discourage them from accessing these spaces. There must be constant campaigning to create an online environment and culture that affirms everyone’s right to safety and security.
  5. Empowering civil society can ensure that no harmful behaviour is tolerated in any space, including the online space. It is also crucial to strengthen the institutional capacity and to change the practice of women’s rights organisations to become leaders in addressing technology-related violence against women.

In a rapidly digitising world, safe accessibility must be ensured to all sections of the population to be able to participate in digital public life. As UN Women put it, ‘the need for inclusive and transformative technology and digital education is therefore crucial for a sustainable future.’

5 ways Brazil can #EmbraceEquity

2023 has been politically significant for Brazil. We celebrated the inauguration of President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva but were left reeling from the devastating coup attempt in Brasília on 8 January by Jair Bolsonaro supporters. After four years of a neofascist government, his supporters vandalised symbols of Brazilian democracy.

Shortly after the attempted coup, a humanitarian crisis shot onto the news. 570 Yanomami children – one of the remaining indigenous groups in the Amazon – have died in the last four years. Malnutrition and preventable diseases were blamed but the Yanomami’s region had suffered almost total neglect from the local, state, and federal governments. Coupled with illegal mining, the Yanomami people’s land had been completely devastated. According to Flávio Dino, Minister of Justice, this crisis had a “strong materiality of genocide”. There is also an ongoing investigation by the Ministry of Human Rights into the alleged rape of more than 30 young Yanomami girls by miners.

This recent crisis is one of many that has afflicted Brazil over the past eight years. Gender justice defenders and organisations have been fighting to counter gender backlash. With a new government now in charge, and for International Women’s Day 2023, here are five ways Brazil can better #EmbraceEquity.

1.    Our democracy must expand based on gender equity

Women’s rights must be part of the basis of government policies in Brazil across all policies. Public policies should be written in a way that guarantees the reduction and/or elimination of gender inequalities.

Existing policies and laws in Brazil must be strengthened, used, and monitored in a way that furthers gender rights. The government must guarantee the equipment of Maria da Penha Law, which combats domestic violence in Brazil, and Feminicide Law, which qualifies the crime of homicide based on gender. The Brazilian government must guarantee reproductive justice in Brazil, especially regarding abortion provided by law.

2.    The Government needs to work with feminist movements

In 2022, Brazilian feminist movements occupied the National Congress to demand change. This was led by two groups: ‘Frente Nacional contra a Criminalização de Mulheres and Legalização do Aborto’ and ‘Frente Parlamentar Feminista Antirracista com Participação Popular’.

This feminist movement was central to pressuring Congress to guarantee rights provided for by law for women and against setbacks. The action had the support of feminist parliamentarians, showing that alliances and networks between parliament and movements can happen and do work.

Their movement wasn’t realised until Brazil’s new government withdrew from the oppressive Geneva Consensus and revoked an ordinance that created obstacles for women and girls to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape. They also joined the Commitment of Santiago and the Declaration of Panama – two gender-progressive policies. The new government must ensure that these rights are protected and deliver on its promises for women.

3.    Cash-transfer programmes must be strengthened

In recent years Brazil has seen a massive reduction in State services which were already marked with inequalities. This has led to millions of families going hungry – 33 million according to Rede PESSAN in a survey carried out in 2022.

In 2020 and 2021, more than 300 civil society organisations successfully pressured Bolsonaro’s government into increasing cash transfers to those most in need. Women who were single mothers were awarded double the amount, signifying a victory for the Brazilian women’s and feminist movements.

The fight for emergency income was so strong that, later, cash transfer programmes became a central issue in the presidential campaigns of the main candidates, especially Lula and Bolsonaro. Before Lula was inaugurated, his government managed to approve a Proposal for a Constitutional Amendment (PEC) which guaranteed a significant increase for the Bolsa Família Program. A major part of this programme – which was closed by Bolsonaro’s government – is to support women’s healthcare, particularly mothers. In March 2023, Lula’s government resumed the programme.

4.    Resolve and investigate the humanitarian crisis against the Yanomami people

The feminist commitment to democracy and human rights is also based on solidarity with Indigenous communities and the demand for actions by the State and authorities to resolve and investigate the humanitarian crisis that is spreading across indigenous-owned territory.

There is an immediate need to expel all illegal miners from the indigenous land. It is important to remember that the region is occupied by 30,000 indigenous people, but with the invasion of more than 20,000 illegal miners, the situation of the Yanomami in particular has become unsustainable. Throughout his government, Bolsonaro encouraged illegal mining.

It is necessary to investigate and punish those responsible for the humanitarian crisis, and the alleged rape of the young girls. The current federal government must ensure the safety of the Yanomami people, and guarantee their territory, culture and traditional practices, in addition to strengthening their Bem Viver (‘Good Living’ in English). Young indigenous people must have their rights guaranteed and respected, including in accordance with their values ​​and traditions.

5.    Strengthen the Ministry of Women with the necessary budget and political force

The institution of a Ministry of Women is an important victory for the feminist and women’s movements. An earlier version of this Ministry, created during Lula’s government – the National Secretariat of Policies for Women – was weakened during Dilma Rousseff’s second government, as a consequence of conservative pressures from the opposition during the impeachment crisis. It was then shut down during Michel Temer’s presidential term. During the extreme right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro, the Ministry of Women, Family and Human rights – among others – were dismantled as part of the attack on women’s rights and gender justice legislation.

It also means that we must demand greater participation from women in civil society and social movements in the production of public policies, giving space to their struggles and recognition of their expertise. Participatory state feminism must be resumed and expanded.

The Ministry must also have a robust budget that can manage women’s demands. This means that the federal government must guarantee the necessary budget for policies and equipment to protect women to be really efficient.

Looking ahead

Brazil is experiencing a moment of relief compared to recent years. The coup suffered by Dilma Rousseff and the Bolsonaro government meant a period of marked defeats for women and for Brazilian society in general. Social movements were hampered, indigenous people were massacred, black people suffered from slaughter, racist statements and practices without control or punishment; women suffered from misallocated resources to combat domestic violence.

We thought we would not survive. But we won. And now the new government, which was elected with a lot of women’s strength, deliver to us what it promised. We are dreaming of a better world, one that is radically democratic and feminist, and that is willing to #EmbraceEquity.

5 ways Uganda can #EmbraceEquity

The late 1980s was a turning point for gender justice in Uganda. The country reaffirmed gender-positive policies by embracing Affirmative Action in 1986, and incorporating Article 32 in the country’s Constitution in 1995. The article mainly addresses groups marginalised because of their gender and the historical norms that affect specific groups.

Uganda has seen many women join leadership positions both at the political and organisational levels. For instance, in the  2021 national election, 122 Members of Parliament were elected on their affirmative action positions. The affirmative action policies from the Parliament through other institutions have led to school girls from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing higher education.

Despite this progress, there has been significant pushback on the gender progress made by women’s rights organisations, women’s movement, women human rights defenders (WHRD), and feminists in Uganda. This is because the power being held by women in leadership positions is not reflected in the policies and laws passed by Parliament.

Gender backlash is happening in digital spaces and moving into offline spaces. Even though the advancement in technology comes with its advantages, it opens up women and girls using technology to online backlash, in a context where the regulation and implementation of policy to protect them from online gender-based violence is lacking.  Countering Backlash partner WOUGNET is working to counter this.

For International Women’s Day 2023, we share five ways Uganda can promote gender justice within the region to better #EmbraceEquity.

1. Embrace a rights based approach to gender-justice

Some of the religious institutions in Uganda denounce gender-diverse rights, such as same-sex marriage. The globalising world intersecting with local traditions is producing unexpected ways of thinking about rights.

Religious and cultural groups command a huge following and often oppose equal rights for LGBTQI+ people, sex workers, and feminist movements, especially those that challenge the mainstream gender norms. They form and inform tactics for opposition, and intentionally hinder opportunities for WHRDs, LGBTQI+ people, and sex-worker communities to advocate for their rights, occupy public space and become a part of democratic processes. Religious institutions must encourage new understandings of gender-diverse rights and how to secure them in Uganda.

2. Stop violence against feminist activists and human rights defenders

The existence of different methods of violence against feminist activists, human rights defenders, and sexual rights advocates continues to evolve and manifest differently in spaces (online and offline). These attacks are through words, phrases, images and representations of women in media, where feminism is framed as the main cause of women’s problems. The raiding of LGBTQI+ shelters, the killings of LGBTQI+, and protests against same-sex marriage are a combination of direct and visible attacks on activists.

The government must stop shrinking aid programmes using the Non-Governmental Organisations Act and Anti-Money Laundering Act. They should also make funding available to research the forms and types of violent attacks happening online and offline, and include methods for public awareness on how backlash can impact women’s rights and progress on gender justice that can affect Uganda’s socio-economic development.

3. End digital and online attacks

Advances in the use of technology and digital platforms have a flip-side: the same technologies are used as tools to share masculine narratives and to attack gender advocates, feminists, and sexual rights advocates. They are used to push back gender equality achievements such as women political candidates losing seats in Parliament, for instance, the former Member of Parliament Sylvia Rwabwogo case of cyber harassment worsened by biased media reporting led to Rwabwogo’s loss of a seat in the next Parliament.

The internet can enable and also promote unwanted male gaze which causes intrusion of women’s privacy online and offline hence affecting women in public spaces. There have been increased regulation of online spaces using existing laws such as the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act 2022 and the Uganda Communications Act 2013. The latter has been used by the government to disrupt and shut down the internet, restricting individual expression online. Internet shutdowns worsen the inequality and injustice women already suffer.

Gender activists are progressing in bridging gender inequalities, reproductive rights, and freedom from gender-based violence. However, access and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) can help to bridge the gaps or deepen the gaps every time the internet is shut down or blocked.

There needs to be more training on network measurement in order to quantify and qualify the impact of internet shutdowns on gender justice and women’s rights online.

4. Support civic space

Civic space in Uganda is shrinking. There has been government interference and threats to close some civil society organisations, including many prominent organisations working to promote gender justice. In February 2023, Trade Minister David Bahati cited about 30 non-governmental organisations alleged to be involved in the promotion of homosexuality in Uganda that will be investigated. He added that the list of NGOs will soon be submitted to relevant security bodies for formal investigations into their activities with a view to closing their operations in Uganda. The anti-homosexuality bill will be introduced to the Parliament of Uganda to target people wishing to engage in homosexual acts, as well as organisations working on LGBTQI+ rights in the country.

In the past, women-led civil society organisations that are working with structurally silenced women such as lesbians and sex workers expressed facing challenges in their advocacy work because they are generally considered groups that are working with people engaged in criminal and immoral activities.

We must work with and build the capacity of the key stakeholders such as policymakers, journalists, and the media on the impact of shrinking civic space and gender-restrictive attitudes and discourses.

5. Support organisations fighting for gender justice in Uganda

There are local organisations, groups or people who are doing important and exciting work in Uganda related to the issues. This type of work is significant for the fight against gender backlash in Uganda, and must be supported.

Looking ahead

Although there is significant backlash against gender rights at the moment in the country, there are also opportunities to create a gender-just Uganda. We must work together to #EmbraceEquity.