In his first Independence Day address from Red Fort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi moved away from his tough image in the Lok Sabha election campaign to talk at length — and in depth — about a range of gender issues.
He talked about the physical suffering women in rural India are forced to undergo when they have to wait for darkness before they can go out and relieve themselves in the absence of toilets at homes. UNICEF estimates that close to 600 million people — about 50 per cent of India’s population — defecate in the open with around a third of the women waiting till darkness to do so.
Modi also urged parents to try putting as many fetters on sons as they do on daughters to control rape incidents. This is a shift in the gender discourse among Indian politicians who are known to talk about decency of a woman’s dress or her late hours during discussions on rape. He talked about female foeticide with social insight, talking about how well-to-do sons leave parents in old age homes while single-child daughters shun marriage to take care of ageing parents.
Women’s rights activists, some of them signatories in the Womanifesto brought out before the Lok Sabha elections, say Modi’s speech came as a “pleasant surprise” although a mere change in rhetoric may not always translate into changed attitudes.
Modi spoke about the ignominy of recurrent incidents of rape. “I want to ask every parent when you have a daughter of 10 or 12 years age, you are always on the alert… Parents ask daughters hundreds of questions, but has any parent ever dared to ask their son where he is going… After all, a rapist is also somebody’s son,” he said.
Women’s rights activist Ranjana Kumari said, “Challenging the patriarchal rigidity of our reactions to crimes against women, from blaming women to telling parents to ask questions to the boys is something one has been looking forward to… But we now need to see how that rhetoric is translated into action.”
Modi also talked about the lack of toilets — conceding at the same time the incongruity of dwelling on such a topic from a stage as grand as the ramparts of Red Fort on Independence Day. “Has it ever pained us that our women and sisters have to defecate in the open?… Can’t we just make arrangements for toilets for the dignity of our mothers and sisters?” he asked, urging MPs and corporates to work towards a goal of toilets in all schools by August 15 next year.
He expressed concern about the dipping sex ratio — although the 940 females per 1,000 males consolidated figure that he quoted (from 2011 census) is actually an improvement from the 933 finding of 2001. “I request doctors not to kill the girl growing in the womb of a mother to line their own pockets. I advise mothers and sisters not to sacrifice daughters in the hope of a son,” he said.
Akhila Sivadas of the Centre for Advocacy and Research, who is one of the signatories of the Womanifesto, said, “On every issue that he spoke about, he took a slice of reality and dwelt on it not as much as a voice of governance but as a concerned citizen who has reflected on it.”