Friday, May 11, 2012

Can a TV show save unborn daughters?

When society depends on a television show to probe into their lives to find the dirt, speak out loud what was spoken in hushed tones, find a remedy and bring a revolution, isn't it really expecting too much?! Or is it?

Sunday, 7 May 2012: 11 am

A young mother was forced to abort her baby 6 times in succession within 8 years when it was discovered that she bore a girl. A husband bit his wife’s face (yes, vigorously with his sharp teeth till the flesh tore off and until it completely disfigured) for giving birth to a girl. Finally top it off with a rich, highly educated mother-in-law kicking the baby’s cot down the stairs hoping that it would kill her infant granddaughter.

After every story, I felt my heart bleed. I am a Mum of a gorgeous two year angel. The day we (my husband and I) were told it was a girl, our hearts leaped with joy and so did everyone’s in our family. She has been the apple of everyone’s eye. She is among the lucky ones. 

Female foeticide and infanticide is not a new issue in India or for that matter in many parts of the world that give preference to sons over daughters. But suddenly almost a billion people are discussing it with vigour and passion.

All this thanks to a Bollywood actor Aamir Khan whose new show Satyamev Jayate’s (Truth alone prevails) debut episode Daughters are Precious on Sunday on both national and satellite television in India and abroad featured horrific tales of atrocities against both pregnant mothers and their baby girls.

The show generated great shock and awe and got everyone talking, tweeting, writing, signing petitions etc. Like an epidemic it spread through the length and breadth of the country and beyond and got everyone talking.

The official figures released in 2011 show that the child sex ratio in India has dropped to 914 females for every 1000 males – the lowest ever since 1947 when India gained independence. Sex determination of the baby in a mother’s womb is officially banned in India. However ultrasound machines are widely procured by doctors of private clinics and portable one are often taken to villages where they have been used clandestinely to find the sex of the baby.

Interestingly, it wasn’t just the villages and those less educated that indulged in these practises. The affluent and the professionally qualified too resorted to crime against girls.My first realisation of this was a few years ago when my husband, a journalist reporting for a Mumbai daily exposed how the child sex ratio favours the males in the more affluent parts of Mumbai. The story was talked about only for a day or two.  Not surprising, a television sting operation that exposed over a hundred doctors indulging in the illegal sex selective abortions have seen little consequences of their action as they have neither been suspended nor booked for any crime since its telecast seven years ago. 

Dr Prabha Sivaraman from the Pall Mall medical centre in Manchester was caught on tape in a Telegraph UK sting operation offering a sex selective abortion
In February 2012, an Indian doctor from Manchester was caught offering sex selective abortions.Scientific advances have also given parents an easy access to determining the sex of their unborn child from seven weeks, due to an easy buy online kit that can test foetal DNA in the mother’s blood with 98% accurate results. Also some doctors and medical practitioners in the western world are promoting 'designer & customised' babies. Perhaps it’s time they look at India and refrained from opening this Pandora’s box.
But what is not being probed by either country is how hundreds of Asian families from UK are flying to India and other ‘home’ countries to quietly abort their foetus after determining it sex.  The pressures of producing a male heir are felt even by the seemingly wealthy and ‘progressive’ of Asians. UK based journalist-writer, Kiswar Desai’s book ‘Witness the night’, that won the prestigious Costa Books award, gives you some glaring examples of this trend and plenty of food for thought.
Time and again this gruesome atrocity has been exposed in many forms – though newspaper articles, television stings, books and policies. But nothing generated as much uproar as this celebrity hosted talk show. Within a week of the telecast, Indian government promised Khan, who approached them with a petition, that they would set up a fast track court and probe allegations against the doctors indulging in this illegal act and bring them to book. 

I just hope that in the end truth does prevail. Because if this cannot bring about change, then I shudder to think what will. But I just hope its not a publicity stunt and the show follows up on the government's promises. Aamir's show has garnered a mass following, so perhaps its time for it to lead this new wave of social change.

P.S. Message for SJ: 
Hated the promos, loved the show!  (I used to switch channels everytime the SJ promo came on air)
The concept and cases definitely overpower the seemingly well rehersed tears and scripted shock of the host. Being less of an actor will make Aamir a better connected host.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Kony 2012: a success even if it fails

Seven out of ten people I spoke to today told me they did not know who Kony was until two weeks ago. The one who knew is an African and two still don’t have a clue. So who is Kony and why has he suddenly gained so much popularity?

Joseph Kony is the leader of a guerrilla outfit called Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda who is accused of ordering abduction of children to be sex slaves and child soldiers.  In over two decades tens of thousands of children have been victimised. Although Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court in Hague for war crimes, he evades capture. 

International media attention was drawn to Kony several times, from the LRS’s formation in the 80s, to his bizarre interview in 2006 to the Christmas massacre in 2008 in DR Congo and South Sudan or occasionally when an escapee gave account of his torture. But ‘outsiders’ perhaps don’t pay much attention to such news. Not surprising since most of African news is treated as a step child on International television unless there is a political motive to play it up.

So Kony, a monster for many decades, suddenly sprung to limelight now. The reason: a video called Kony 2012 by an NGO Invisible Children. Now most people who didn’t know anything about Kony or even Africa have some idea of the issue. Many have participated in its propagation by liking it on facebook, tweeting about it or watching it on you tube/vimeo. Small deeds like this have got governments in Africa and the West promising to renew a vigorous search for Kony. Amnesty too has started a petition to bring to justice Kony along with Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashar and Libya’s Saif al- Islam Gaddafi.   

I’m not convinced that the Kony 2012 campaign will achieve anything apart from creating awareness about the issue momentarily. Kudos to them for doing what every advocacy groups only dreams of doing. They have no doubt accomplished what no journalist or NGO ever has – 83 million+ views for a 30 minute documentary on Africa!

But the video has also misrepresented some facts in order to gain support. Surely Kony is a war criminal and should be prosecuted, but my journalist colleagues in the region also confirm that Kony is a spent man on a run (outside Uganda) with the LRA diminishing in number. 100 American adviser are working in the region to find Kony & his forces and have attained some success. But Uganda has more inherent problems and any military intervention by US, would throw the region into more chaos.

Solving the problems in Africa is not as easy as Invisible Children's call to action: Do three things: 1) sign its pledge, 2) get the Kony 2012 bracelet and action kit (only $30!), and 3) sign up to donate. It’s a complex region with even more complex issues. Simplifying the problem does not mean the solution will be simple too.
I don’t believe Kony 2012 will solve Africa’s problems and I’m afraid it will fail to achieve what the film director Jason Russell says, “I am going to help end the longest running war in Africa, get Joseph Kony arrested & redefine international justice…’ Unfortunately, I don’t believe Kony 2012 even intended to achieve this. And with Russell’s mental state in question, the campaign is already losing its credibility.

Its success however lies in generating a huge debate on several issues ranging from African politics to 'white' activism in a black region. The fact that it has as many supporters as those sceptical about its claims has catapulted it to one of the most talked about stories. But the most interesting aspect of this video is that it fits in with is what an LSE researcher describes as 'post humanitarian communication'  (where the campaign stresses more on the role of the supporter than the cause).

Social media played a huge part in the Arab Spring no doubt, but let’s not forget the vast resources that media organisations deployed to cover the conflict and the space it got in the media and political debates. And most importantly the native people wanted change and fought hard to get it. This is what made it a huge success. Kony 2012 unfortunately has only garnered support on social media and will sadly fail to bring much change in the region.

But if Kony 2012 has taught us anything it’s the power of the social media to create awareness about deeply buried issues. No country is isolated anymore and no issues are considered too distant to the online community. It showed us people do care and are raring to do something- anything to make this world a better place. It’s this energy and enthusiasm that will be a goldmine for anyone able to mobilise it correctly and channelize it to support a credible cause.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Stephen Lawrence, Anuj Bidve and Britain's racial hues

Stephen Lawrence trial was a monumental case of justice denied to a young Black British boy who was brutally attacked and murdered by racist thugs in April 1993. But yesterday it turned to a case of justice delayed with the convictions of two of the five accused. It came eighteen years late. But it finally did. 

This case has tremendous significance on primarily three factors: race relations, policing and campaigning journalism.

Brian Cartcart, author of the ‘Case of Stephen Lawrence’ says: 
 ‘The case is a landmark in British life because of what it taught us about race. In small ways and in big ways, it exposed reflexes of denial and defensiveness in our society that most white people didn't even know we had.’
British society is notorious for turning a blind eye towards race discrimination and hesitant to label incidents like these as racists. Yet Stephen Lawrence case became one of the most important cases to expose that violent racism exists in the public sphere in Britain. And victims are often subject to insults and assaults because of the colour of their skin. 

At an earlier inquest, Stephen’s mother Doreen made a statement: ‘Our crime was living in a country where the justice system supports racist murderers against innocent people.’

Stephen’s case was also instrumental in changing the face of British policing.  Macpherson report pointed out the lapses in policing and brought to focus the institutional racism in the police force. It showed that the police were racially biased and did not collect evidence on the case with sincerity and integrity. 

On institutional racism, Jack Straw the then Home Secretary who initiated the Macpherson inquiry said, "Any long-established, white-dominated organisation is liable to have procedures, practices and a culture which disadvantage non-white people." He also added: 
"The very process of the inquiry has opened all our eyes to what it is to be black or Asian in Britain today... and the inquiry process has revealed some fundamental truths about the nature of our society, about our relationships, one with the other. Some truths are uncomfortable, but we have to confront them." 
One may argue that this incident took place almost two decades ago and the British society has evolved since then. Yet, last week a young Asian student was shot to death in Salford. Anuj Bidve, a university student from India, was walking with his friends when they encountered some boys- one of them shot him dead. A white 20 years old man who calls himself ‘Psycho' Stapleton, has been arrested for murder. The police are still hesitant to call it a racially motivated crime but use a milder terminology of ‘hate crime’.  
Gary Dobson and David Norris convicted of Stephen Lawrence's murder
Kieran "Psycho" Stapleton accused of Anuj Bidve's murder
Both the cases have eerie similarities. Both victims were coloured and the accused white men. The violence does not seem to be premeditated but rather sporadic. Both victims lost their lives with their families struggling to get answers.

There is fear prevalent among young coloured men of being targetted by stray racist elements on the street. A PhD student at a central London University described the fear of finding a " white skinhead" walk towards him on the street after dark. 
"The man was walking right towards me and I knew he wanted to say something. I was terrified but I could not cross over to the other side of the road. So I lowered my head and walked right past him. I heard him mutter something but it did not register in my mind then. I was too afraid and did not want to react to anything in case it provoked him. When I was far away from him, I tried to comprehend what he said. And it registered to me that he said: 'Do you have a match, mate?'"
So is fear of racist attacks is still existent. So has the British society actually evolved in matters of race? After the cold attitude of the British public to Stephen murder, over the years many white British men and women too stood in solidarity with the Lawrences.  

The police first found the Lawrence family to be a 'nagging problem', yet after the Macpherson report the cops began to dig deeper to collect scientific evidence to absolve themselves of their initial neglect and to prove they were not “institutionally racist”.  In Anuj's case, his family found out about his murder through facebook and not the police. To make amends the police went to India to meet the family.

But it was the Lawrence family’s persistence that changed the fate of the case and made it a landmark one for race relations in British history.

One very important factor that lead to the victory in Stephen Lawrence case was the unlikely ally found in the Daily Mail. At a time when the media found little interest in the murder of a black kid, the Daily Mail supported the cause rather courageously. 

On 14 February 1997, the front page of Daily Mail carried the pictures of the five accused with the headline ‘Murderers’, challenging them to sue the paper if they were wrong. This bold and daring editorial decision by the Daily Mail then, created a huge uproar and attracted the public interest in the case. 

Straw says that this helped him to convince the police to initiate an enquiry into the investigations in the case. In a 21 page story today, the Daily Mail rightly basks in the glory of the success of its campaign

But it took eighteen years and two failed prosecutions for Stephen to get justice; will it be quicker for Anuj? Or will Anuj’s case turn into one of those that are lost in the pile?

Anuj was a foreign student here at Lancaster University with his family based in India. Unlike the Lawrences, Anuj’s family does not have the means to make frequent visits to UK and mobilise resources to push for justice here. Unless the police does its job right the first time and secures conviction, Anuj's case is unlikely to get more chances for justice. Police inquiry into Stephen’s case cost over £4 million pounds. In times of austerity will the state devote any additional resources on the murder of a foreigner without any diplomatic pressure? Will any British newspapers campaign for Anuj’s cause? Will the Indian media pursue his cause till the end? Out of sight is out of mind and in all probability the case will soon lose media attention and disappear from collective memory. 

But one hopes that there are no more Anujs and Stephens waiting to bear the brunt of racist fervour and the verdict in Stephen Lawrence case serves as a warning to racist thugs that they will find no sympathisers in the police, media or public and that they will be found, convicted and harshly punished for their crime.

If this verdict works as a deterrent to racist attacks, it will be the biggest victory for race relations in Britain.