Monday, May 16, 2011

From Punjab to Dhaka and back again

It’s not food and it’s not agriculture this time, but it is IDRC  (International Development Research Centre) and it was a research paper on gender inequality idl-bnc.idrc.ca/dspace/bitstream/10625/39996/1/128703.pdf
There has been so much in the news over the past few weeks as the Indian census revealed what most people already suspected. So much attention on India shining that the media seemed to miss out on all those silly little social problems like malnutrition, poverty, displacement and of course, gender inequality.
It seems that a healthy economy does not always result in a healthy society. This I think must have been a great disappointment to many of our great and progressive economists around the world. How is it possible that a reasonably educated and affluent urban society such as Punjab could so successfully discriminate against girls, and then how is it possible that,  Bangladesh - a 'basket case' as Henry Kissinger called it, could have some of the most gender friendly policies in Asia.
We have now decided to travel everywhere by train… not just because of environmental issues but also because our bags now weigh a silly amount.      It’s also just so much more beautiful to be able to take in the changing landscapes, time to catch up on thinking and reading and sleeping.

Bangladesh blew us away. Far from being a basket case Bangladesh has a sense of order, it’s cleaner than India (at least the parts that we saw), there seems to be an amazing sense of community cohesion and far from being poverty ridden, people told us they were content with their lives. Somehow people seem to realise that there is more to life than just money and a new TV. 
I know the statistics contradict my experiences and observations, but I found that no one I talked to on the trip was able to quote anything more than the constant stream of facts that flow from the development sector. I was expecting a country in collapse, a country on its knees, polluted rivers and malnourished children. But I found villages and communities that reminded me of the south of Sri Lanka. A community with a strong sense of cultural identity.
I first went to the Punjab to look at some of the many issues that have contributed to a gender imbalance of 846 girls to 1000 boys… up from 798 a few years ago. 

An overwhelming patriarchal society that tends to be drawn towards a male child if and when a decision needs to be made. This is one of the reasons behind the gender inequality… then there is the access to education, access to work and finally access to health care. All of which Punjab seems to be practically weak in. 
Girls access to health care and a male dominated environment.



With the demand driven ostensibly by economic considerations, back street ultrasound gender determination clinics have opened everywhere. Of course this is illegal, but with the possibility of making huge profits, for many doctors its just too much of a temptation.  These machines are imported from China and are therefore reasonably cheap, doctors are recommended by word of mouth and in most cases will include the full package with gender determination and the abortion. (I just want to make it clear that all these photographs are of normal, ethical functioning people of Punjab at a government hospital having fat and happy baby girls and boys).

Education is again an issue of a girl's economic value and her access to work.This is not strong in Punjab and once again the boys seemed to be everywhere.



Bangladesh was a very different case, we are still waiting for the figures to come out at the end of the month, but we already know that the government has far more progressive policy in place to help adjust any gender imbalances. Many of the schools we visited were mixed, in the rural as well as urban we saw not just 8-12 year old girls but 12-16 year old.

Confident, beautifully dressed, walking in groups and riding bikes...

Girls are everywhere. It was so refreshing to see girls so visible and so confident.




Then there was access to work. This was a bit of a problem as some photographer had just been over to Bangladesh and done a piece on Wal Mart. This negative press had sent the government into a damage limitation spin and they had ordered for any foreigner with a camera, shooting on anything politically or economically sensitive to be arrested. So there was no access to show the positive side of women and access to work. Everyone had heard the same line from the media "we want to do a positive story". I managed a couple of places and a school, so that will just have to do. I find it so frustrating that so much attention, focus is put on countries like Bangladesh for poor working conditions and even poorer wages when so little focus is put on the west and it's addiction to profit maximization, unfair and unjust foreign policy and a failed global economic system still driving a non sustainable system of mass consumption. Anyway, here are the last few images on women, work and health care. (with thanks to the amazing Marie Stopes and Dipshikha)







Off to Kashmir to do some photography and a film on Bees. The next post. J

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