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Abortion – The Difficult Debate

During the run up to last November’s elections, I was astonished that many conservative women would openly support Donald Trump despite his reputation as a serial adulterer and his openly hostile attitude towards the female sex. Then I saw an interview with one of these supporters who said, very clearly, “He’s an ass but I vote for whoever the Republican Party nominates because of ‘Abortion’.”

I’m sure there were many such women who may not have been as overt about their political affiliations but nevertheless held their noses and voted for Trump because of this single issue. And I get it. If you think abortion is equivalent to killing a child, you cannot, in good conscience, vote against it.

This is the uphill task many Democrats face as they try to win hearts and minds of conservative women within their community. Women vote, and women care, but this single issue has been a wall that we have not been able to breach. The irony is that many Democrats have similar feelings towards abortion. So why are we not able to bridge this divide?

Here I propose a script that we can use to talk to our conservative women friends about abortion. Essentially, they are my feelings towards the subject and if you share some of my thinking, feel free to modify it to suit your own experiences. Let’s reach out across party lines in an effective way so we can get widespread support for causes and organizations that support women’s health and well-being.

(I’ve tried very hard to be respectful to the beliefs of people who oppose abortion but if you feel the language is condescending or patronizing in any way, please point it out and I will fix it.)

My 2 cents:

Abortion is horrible. Anyone who has had one, or even a miscarriage, knows what I am talking about. We women are biologically primed to celebrate and anticipate motherhood, so when a woman decides to have an abortion, it is a gut-wrenching choice. It is also, probably, a last resort.

When there were a couple of times in my life when I was scared by the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy, I had to consider my options. And I recall that my gorge rose at the thought that I might have to have to terminate my pregnancy. I remember thinking, “I can’t do this. I know I have a choice, but I just can’t.” When it became clear that I was not pregnant, I almost collapsed in relief. I’ve talked to some close friends about this and they have shared that they felt the same way when this happened to them.

Now my daughter is in high school. She is the smartest and most responsible person I know, but I have to be realistic about the fact that a teen pregnancy is, biologically speaking, possible. I’ve gone through the scenarios in my head. And I know, choice or not, if she happens to get pregnant, I’m going to encourage her to keep the baby.

So, feeling the way I do, why do I still support a woman’s right to choose?

It’s precisely because I know that abortion is horrible and a last resort that I believe that decisions about pregnancies should be left to women. We don’t take this decision lightly. If we are looking for an abortion, there is a good reason for it. Even if the reason appears casual on the surface, like a teen getting knocked up and then shrugging her shoulders about it, it is probably because she was never educated about taking precautions, never given the “talk”, or doesn’t have a frank and open relationship with her parents that she can talk about these matters openly.

And the data available to us on this subject is pretty clear that when teen girls are given sex education, counseling, and access to contraceptives, unwanted pregnancies go way down. Here is a chart about abortion rates over time. You can see clearly that having the right to choose as granted by Roe v. Wade has not made abortions more popular.

abortion-rates

There has been a move among conservative states to shut down clinics that provide such services. And there has been an all-out effort to close Planned Parenthood branches and gut federal funding for the organization.

At first glance, it appears that such efforts bring down abortions in states that enact strict anti-abortion laws. But data also shows that the abortions just migrate to the nearest state that offers the services. For instance,

An influx of women from out of state also was cited as a reason for Louisiana’s increase. Ben Clapper, executive director of Louisiana Right to Life, said abortions for nonresidents jumped by more than 1,200 between 2010 and 2012, and suggested new restrictions in Mississippi and Texas were a factor.

From the same article,

The biggest decrease in abortion, percentage-wise, was in Hawaii, where abortions fell from 3,064 in 2010 to 2,147 in 2014. Laurie Temple Field, government relations director for Planned Parenthood in Hawaii, said more women were getting access to health insurance and affordable contraception. She also credited the state’s policies on sex education in public schools, which includes information to help teens avoid unplanned pregnancies.

Five of the six states with the biggest declines — Hawaii at 30 percent, New Mexico at 24 percent, Nevada and Rhode Island at 22 percent, Connecticut at 21 percent — have passed no recent laws to restrict access.

So the data suggests that abortion is a matter of desperation, and that women looking to terminate will travel miles to find a provider and, if that is not possible, will resort to back-room procedures incredibly dangerous to their health.

Here’s my question to you. Isn’t it far better to not have unwanted pregnancies at all instead of having to make the difficult choice of keeping the baby or not? I am pro-choice, but in a perfect world, I would also like to see no abortions at all. I just happen to believe that the way to do this is to have more counselling services, more education, and easier access for contraception for women. And if after all these services have been provided there is still the rare pregnancy that is unwanted, yes, I believe in a woman’s right to make choices about her body, because bringing an unwanted and unloved child into this world is pretty cruel to the child and the mother. And in cases of rape or incest, I’m sure you can understand why the pregnancy may be emotionally devastating.

So let’s work together to reduce the need for abortions. Organizations like Planned Parenthood whose principal work is in counseling and health services with a very small part of their funding going towards abortions need your support too. What you are supporting is free or cheap health care, contraception, and services that help teens and young women make better choices. When it comes down to it, all of us women, no matter our party affiliation, want the same thing for our society and our children. We have much more in common than you think.

Why This Is Creepy

A (male) friend asked me on Facebook why I found the following video creepy.

I didn’t want to brush off his sincere question with a glib or facile answer, so I decided to write this post to clarify my thoughts not just for him but for me too.

Let me start by acknowledging that I am nearing the half-century mark of life. I have grey hair, cellulite, an extra 10 pounds and, if I could, I would live my life in sweatpants and tees. (Basically, I’ve given up!). If you were to meet me on the street, you may not even notice me; I look so harmless, sexless, and inconsequential, the antithesis of a sexual predator’s target.

But, even now, if I am walking alone in the daytime or night, and I encounter a man either walking towards me or behind me, my fingers curl into fists. I become hyper-aware, listening for footsteps that may be speeding up, or looking for signs that the hands approaching me could be raised in a way that is threatening to me. I scan the environment for safe spaces I can run to, or an ally across the street. I don’t even realize that I am holding my breath for the entire duration of the encounter, and I will usually let it out with a whoosh when the moment has passed. And the funny thing is that the guy doesn’t even have to be bigger than me or obviously menacing in any way.

I’ve been doing this forever.

The first time I was groped (as far as I can remember) was when I was fifteen. I was returning home from school via a shortcut through some fields (I lived in a suburb of Mumbai in India). The guy ran up from behind me, grabbed my breasts, and ran ahead. It happened in the space of 5 seconds or less. I was shell-shocked, though I kept plodding toward home. I never told my parents, not even when it happened again a few months later. Why? Maybe I was ashamed. Most victims of sexual assault feel that way, however unfair and stupid it may seem. Perhaps it is ingrained in the culture somehow that the woman must have brought it on herself.

It took a couple of more incidents before the shame gave way to rage, and I started preparing for the next one with the hyper-awareness that I mentioned before. The next time it happened, it was a guy on a bicycle. I was with a friend, who remembers the incident better than I do. When the guy on the bike put his hand on me I hit his back with all the force I could muster, cursing him loudly. I vowed I would never, ever again, be a victim.

I sincerely hope not every woman has had an experience like mine, but I know for a fact that many have had worse, and nearly every woman has experienced some kind of physical dominance from a man at some point in her life. The easiest, most primitive way to exhibit dominance is to get really, really close. Maybe it is my heightened sensitivity to such experiences, but I get very nervous, even though I know that in most cases I can defend myself just fine. It’s just that I don’t want to be in that position. I would rather avoid conflict, because even though I may physically win that particular encounter, there is really no win for me in the long run. An extreme example of what I mean is in the new Hindi movie Pink, where defending herself gets a girl into all sorts of trouble, both physical and legal.

More importantly, when a man gets very close, looms, invades your space, as Trump does in that video, he is sending the subliminal message “I am the boss of you. I have power over you. I can do you harm.” And women, even the most emancipated, fearless, and empowered of our ilk, know that in a very basic, biological sense, that message is true.

When I experienced that gut reaction to Trump’s behavior last night, I went on social media to see if my feelings were unusual or if other women were creeped out too. Turns out it was not just women who noticed. Nigel Farage, the architect of the misguided Brexit campaign in Britain, now an advisor on Trump’s campaign, said this:

“He looked like a big gorilla prowling the set. He is that big alpha male — that’s who he is, that’s who he is,” Farage said. “We all have comparisons to animals or whatever it may be, but that’s how he seems to me. The leader of the pack, that’s what he’s like.”

Even an idiot like Farage could read the body language on display last night.

Jane Goodall, the primate expert, told The Atlantic magazine, “In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals…”

That’s what happened last night. Trump may have also openly called Clinton a liar, threatened to imprison her and, in general, projected a ton of bile and hatred on to her verbally, but the volume really didn’t need to be on to understand what he was saying. You just had to look at him over the course of the 90-minute debate. His message was loud and clear. 

 

What it Means to be an American Citizen

Recently an ESL student of mine became a spanking new U.S. citizen. I’ve been teaching her English for about a year and a half, but the last six months were spent cramming for the citizenship exam, which has not only reading and writing tests but also big chunks of American history. To better help her remember the material she was memorizing, I often used Google Translate to explain complex concepts that the Founding Fathers had immortalized in the U.S. Constitution over 200 years ago. The very first paragraph is quite a mouthful –

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The entire paragraph is actually just one sentence, but it contains within that single sentence such a multitude of ideas that it took us a while to unpack them all and truly understand the purpose of the drafters. As we proceeded through the reading of American history, I felt such a sense of pride for this country I now call home.

Eight years ago, I had taken the same citizenship test, and I recall how my voice wobbled when I pledged allegiance to this country over my motherland India, where I had spent the first four decades of my life. What had kept me going through the solemn ceremony was the certainty that the values of this country I had now adopted were aligned with my personal belief system. Casting my first presidential vote for Barack Obama, who embodied those values and referred to them often, only made my pride in this country deepen.

Fast-forward to 2016 and I am looking on in horror as a minimum of 40% of the American populace seems to be in thrall to a racist, egomaniacal demagogue who has shattered all norms of civility, political correctness, and even lawful behavior, yet continues to have stable support among a plurality of Americans. Donald Trump once famously said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” His continued viability as a Presidential candidate seems to bear that out.

So what does this say about us as a country? About our claim of moral leadership? About our standing as the leader of the free world?

When I became a U.S. citizen I believed that America stood for certain values, and that core ethic justified its preeminence in its world. Yes, we made and continue to make mistakes in our self-governance and in our dealings with the world, but I’ve always hoped that we have a certain moral core that we return to to self-correct, to acknowledge our mistakes, to make reparations. What bolsters this belief is that I live in a society whose values lean increasingly towards acceptance of diversity, towards tolerance, towards punishing wrongdoers and rewarding virtue. Sometimes this belief gets shaken, as when I hear of black Americans unfairly targeted by police, or bank executives getting away scot-free after legally looting their stakeholders. But there has always been a sense that if we can mobilize, protest, and take action, these mistakes can be fixed.

But when a throwback like Donald Trump comes this close to power, I really have to question my fellow Americans and their loyalties. Have we really forgotten what we are and are meant to be as Americans? Do we need a reminder of what our values are? Well then, here’s a list, in no particular order –

  • We believe in a voice for everybody, regardless of their economic, social, or racial status.
  • We accept and welcome diversity
  • We believe in abiding by the law and none of is exempt from doing so
  • We pay our fair share of taxes and insurance to live in a stable, prosperous society
  • We care for our fellow citizens and our global brothers and sisters
  • We care for the environment and the ecology we are leaving to our children
  • We engage in respectful dialogue
  • We believe in equal opportunity
  • We are saddened by others’ suffering and seek to help where we can

And most important of all, America is a nation of “We” and not a country filled with “I’s,” each looking out for himself. This is enshrined in our constitution, whose first three words should give us a hint to the culture the framers were creating for the new country.

Donald Trump, you, your campaign, and your supporters need to take a closer look at what it trumpmeans to be a patriotic American. Take a minute for self-examination and think about whether the values I listed above are actually better held by immigrants like myself and my student, who honor them by our actions every single day or by rage-filled xenophobes like you who seem to have strayed far, far away from the ideals of this country.

Maybe each one of you should take the citizenship test too…it might teach you a few things you seem to have forgotten as you celebrate hate, denigrate the “other” and make a virtue of gaming the system. Then you might understand what it truly means to be an American.

Propositions on the California Ballot in November 2016

I’ve been an American citizen and diligent voter since 2008. Mulling over the propositions on the ballot in every election is a task I usually look forward to, but this year both the number of initiatives on the ballot and the sneaky provisions in many of them left me tired and not a little confused at the end of the process.

Here are my recommendations and if some leave you scratching your head, take a moment to check out my reasoning further down.

Proposition Intent Recommendation

 

Proposition 51 Allow Public School Bonds Vote NO
Proposition 52 No Diverting of Hospital Fee Vote YES
Proposition 53 Voter Approval for Revenue Bonds Vote NO
Proposition 54 Public Display of Legislative Bills Vote YES
Proposition 55 Income Tax Increase extension Vote YES
Proposition 56 Tobacco Tax Increase Vote YES
Proposition 57 Parole for Non-Violent Criminals Vote YES
Proposition 58 Non-English Languages Allowed in Public Education Vote YES
Proposition 59 Overturn of Citizens United Act Advisory Vote YES
Proposition 60 Condoms in Pornographic Films Vote NO
Proposition 61 Drug Price Standards Initiative Vote NO
Proposition 62 Repeal of the Death Penalty Vote YES
Proposition 63 Background Checks for Ammunition Purchases and Large-Capacity Ammunition Magazine Ban Vote YES
Proposition 64 Marijuana Legalization Initiative Vote YES
Proposition 65 Revenue from Disposable Bag Sales to Wildlife Conservation Vote NO
Proposition 66 Death Penalty Procedures Initiative Vote NO
Proposition 67 Ratify Ban on Plastic Bags Vote YES

Proposition 51 – California Public School Facility Bonds Initiative: Voting Yes gives the state the authority to issue $9 billion in bonds that would mainly fund school infrastructure. The cost per annum to the state is estimated to be $500 million.
While there is no denying that California schools have infrastructure needs, a big problem with this bond is that it does not allocate funds on a need basis but on a first-come, first-served basis. This means that savvier school districts could easily divert bond money towards their own use instead of the money going to needy districts. The push for this proposition has come from realtors and while it has the support of both school boards and California PTA, it is opposed by Governor Jerry Brown, who thinks it is a give-away to developers, who had a big hand in writing this proposition.
VOTE NO.

Proposition 52 – Voter Approval to Divert Hospital Fee Revenue Dedicated to Medi-Cal: In 2009, a new program was created such that California hospitals were required to pay a fee to help the state obtain matching federal Medicaid funds. This program has resulted in California hospitals receiving roughly $2 billion a year in additional federal money to Medi-Cal. However, the state government has diverted some of the funds from the hospital fee program to the general fund. This proposition makes it much more difficult to divert Medical funds to general funds and also extends the hospital fee indefinitely so the state can continue receiving matching funds from the federal government. It has the support of every major newspaper editorial. Though I am generally not in favor of pushing more decisions to the voters, this proposition keeps funds where they belong.
VOTE YES.

Proposition 53 – Voter Approval Requirement for Revenue Bonds above $2 Billion Initiative: This proposition requires statewide voter approval before any revenue bonds can be issued by the state if the bond amount exceeds $2 billion.
This proposition is a perfect example of pushing a decision best taken by a democratically elected legislature onto the voters. As it is we have way too many propositions on the ballot every Presidential year. Do we really want to get into the nitty-gritties of each and every big spending proposal that the government wishes to make? Voting yes on this proposition will seriously hamper the ability of the government to do its job. In fact, some language in this bill requires even local projects to be approved by a state-wide vote. Ridiculous!
VOTE NO.

Proposition 54 – Public Display of Legislative Bills Prior to Vote: Requires that every bill is published in print and online at least 72 hours before each house of the legislature can vote on it. Also allows any individual to record open legislative sessions.
Even though this proposition is funded by a single billionaire Republican, it seems to bring more transparency to government, always a better direction for democracy. It also prevents a tactic known as “Gut and Amend” which allows legislators to remove complete sections of a bill that has been approved and replace it with completely different language at the last minute.
VOTE YES.

Proposition 55Extension of the Proposition 30 Income Tax Increase Initiative: Proposition 55 would continue the tax rates instituted by Proposition 30 through 2030, instead of Prop 30 expiring in 2018. The tax increase impacts the 1.5 percent of Californians with a single income filing of at least $263,000 or a joint income filing of at least $526,000.
What can I say – I am a tax and spend liberal! And the deciding factor for me is that 89% of the funds go to K-12 schools and 1% to community colleges. And if you are making half a million dollars a year on a joint income, you can afford to give an extra 1-3%!
VOTE YES.

Proposition 56 – Tobacco Tax Increase: This proposition increases taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products by the equivalent of $2 per pack. It does not address the allocation of that money, which presumably will be the same as before, going to anti-smoking initiatives etc.
I don’t smoke and I believe smoking is bad, so I would have been in favor anyway, but the kicker is that this proposition puts a tax on e-cigarettes as well, and considering how vaping is getting more and more popular among new and young smokers, I am happy to support anything that discourages that practice.
VOTE YES.

Proposition 57 – Parole for Non-Violent Criminals and Juvenile Court Trial Requirements Initiative: A “yes” vote supports increasing parole and good behavior opportunities for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes and allowing judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to try certain juveniles as adults in court. About 25,000 nonviolent state felons that could seek early release and parole under Proposition 57. Also, instead of prosecutors, judges would decide whether to try juveniles as young as 14 years old in adult court.
Given our knowledge about the development of the adolescent brain, I am completely in favor of leeway in sentencing guidelines for juveniles. Also, it makes sense to try other methods of rehabilitation for non-violent offenders than throw them in our already over-crowded prisons. However, the Mercury News opposes the proposition for being poorly written. My guess is that the proposition is deliberately worded loosely to give law-enforcement some discretion in who to release.
VOTE YES.

Proposition 58 – Non-English Languages Allowed in Public Education Act: 20 years ago, Prop 227 mandated that English learners be taught in English-only immersion classes. Supposedly this was because bilingual education was not preparing immigrants, especially Hispanics, for the workforce as they were able to get by in their native language in school.
Fast forward to today and educational methods and practices have changed to using bilingual methods to impart instruction, even language. Proposition 58, therefore, wants to repeal Prop 227 to allow teachers and educators more flexibility in imparting instruction.
On the face of it, this makes sense to me and the proposition has the support of teachers state-wide.
VOTE YES.

Proposition 59 – Overturn of Citizens United Act Advisory Question: As far as I can tell, this proposition doesn’t actually do anything but ask California’s elected officials to use their authority to propose and ratify an amendment to the Constitution overturning Citizens United. Despite being a rather toothless measure, voting yes signals your support for overturning Citizens United, the law that prevents any checks on corporate money in American politics.
VOTE YES.

Proposition 60 – Condoms in Pornographic Films Initiative: A “yes” vote would be a vote in favor of requiring the use of condoms and other protective measures during the filming of pornographic films, as well as requiring pornography producers to pay for certain health requirements and checkups.
At first this seems like a no-brainer, till you discover that not only do most major newspapers oppose it, it is a rare bill that is opposed by both the California Democratic AND California Republican parties! This is because this proposition opens the door to millions of frivolous lawsuits. A statement for the opposition says “Under Prop 60, California will become the first state in the nation to allow and incentivize ANY RESIDENT to sue a worker for how they do their job, creating the potential for a lawsuit bonanza that will fill up the courts and sidestep a government agency, costing California millions.” Check this link for more on the opposition. http://www.advocate.com/commentary/2016/8/17/suing-porn-stars-will-not-lead-less-hiv
The Proposition is also opposed by the only association of adult movie workers, the people who have the most to gain from such a health initiative, if it were legit.
VOTE NO.

Proposition 61 – Drug Price Standards Initiative: A “yes” vote would mean that state agencies would pay the same amount for prescription drugs as the VA. It does not regulate the price paid by individuals.
Again, at first glance this seems to be a clear choice. We all hate Big Pharma, especially in the light of the recent Epi-Pen price hikes. And this proposition is fervently opposed by pharma companies. However, the problem seems to be in implementation. By linking Medical drug prices with VA prices, the state runs the risk of having pharma companies raise prices on VA drugs to meet the letter of the law. Or some drugs would become unavailable. Or pharma companies could raise the prices on the drugs that are not supplied to the VA. The cartel nature of the pharmaceutical industry in this country leaves a bad taste in the mouth but a law that cannot be implemented and only hampers the negotiating ability of the state cannot be a good one.
VOTE NO.

Proposition 62 – Repeal of the Death Penalty Initiative: A “yes” vote supports repealing the death penalty and making life without the possibility of parole the maximum punishment for murder.
This one is a personal choice but I don’t believe in the philosophy of “a life for a life.”
VOTE YES.

Proposition 63 – Background Checks for Ammunition Purchases and Large-Capacity Ammunition Magazine Ban Initiative: A “yes” vote supports prohibiting the possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines and requiring certain individuals to pass a background check in order to purchase ammunition.
The opposition to this common-sense bill is the usual “civil liberties violation” one, but most sane people approve of background checks and don’t feel the need to own large-capacity guns or ammo for personal safety.
VOTE YES.

Proposition 64 – California Marijuana Legalization Initiative: Legalizes recreational marijuana and hemp under state law and establishes certain sales and cultivation taxes.
Marijuana would now be legal (for adults), taxed, and licensed. Funds would be used to study marijuana, develop protocols for safe use, and disbursed to health centers and non-profits working in this space.
To decide how to vote on this proposition, it’s worth looking at the effects of legalizing marijuana in Colorado. The state’s top health official, Dr. Larry Wolk, says, “… since legalization no … troubling public health trends have cropped up yet.” Legalization has brought millions into state coffers. The police, who were worried about the increase in drug-related offences have mainly struggled with DUI issues.
Lawmakers in Colorado who held their breath after the law was passed in 2014 concede that the new law has not had any real negative impact in the state.
As for the DUI problem, Stanford students are already working on a “pot-alyzer!” The more this compound is legal and out in the open, the better we can study it, understand it and of course, use it!
VOTE YES.

Proposition 65 – Dedication of Revenue from Disposable Bag Sales to Wildlife Conservation: This is the first of 2 initiatives related to the ban of plastic grocery bags. A “yes” vote is a vote in favor of redirecting money collected from the sale of carry-out bags by grocery or other retail stores to a special fund administered by the Wildlife Conservation Board. Currently these funds go to the store themselves.
This is one sneaky bill, sponsored by a few out-of-state plastic bag companies. There are two very suspicious aspects to the bill. First is Section 6(a) of the bill, which says that if this measure win more votes than Proposition 67, which seeks to uphold the plastic bag ban law SB 270, then all the provisions of Prop 67 would become void, which could be interpreted as rescinding the bag ban by the courts. Potentially, the law SB 270 banning plastic bags could be reversed if Prop 65 wins.
Secondly, this measure would make grocery stores oppose banning plastic bags, if it meant a loss of the revenue from the sale of plastic bag alternatives. It would also make a 10-cent fine into a government tax, which people instinctively dislike. Also, it would not, in any way, reduce the actual use of plastic bags.
VOTE NO.

Proposition 66 – Death Penalty Procedures Initiative: In the guise of changing procedures relating to death penalty convictions, what this proposition essentially does is nullify the repeal of the death penalty under Prop 62 if it gets more votes.
VOTE NO.

Proposition 67 – Plastic Bag Ban Veto Referendum: A “yes” vote is a vote in favor of upholding or ratifying the contested legislation banning plastic bags that was enacted by the California State Legislature under the name Senate Bill 270.
This proposition essentially ratifies SB 270 that bans the use of plastic bags statewide. But the reason this proposition, also brought by plastic bag manufacturers, is on the ballot is to confuse voters into picking Prop 65 over Prop 67, because of the end use of the carry-out bag revenues. Then the provisions of Prop 65 would be used to overturn SB 270. Don’t get fooled. Vote Yes on 67 and No on 65.
VOTE YES.

Vidyadhan – Bridging the Gap

Education at the primary and secondary levels in India is free in India when delivered through government schools. The quality of education varies wildly, and there are some glaring shortcomings in the program, which is why most NGOs and non-profits working in this sector tend to focus on early education, midday meal schemes (to keep kids in school) and supplemental tutoring. This makes eminent sense, since fixing the foundation and getting the basics right are the keys to literacy.

But kids who finish elementary school and have aspirations for college are often left out in the cold. There is tuition, however low, and hostel fees for those wanting to study out of town. In my own family, my father-in-law was an orphan who was determined to go to college and ended up begging for sponsorship from rich merchants in Bhubaneswar to pay his fees. He ended up with a phenomenally successful career and set up a small trust called Digjyoti to help kids like himself in Orissa.

The Vidyadhan program, set up by the Sarojini Damodaran Foundation, is a similar program conceived on a much larger and more professional scale. The program started in 1999 in Kerala and has given out 4,000 scholarships so far. About 750 students are helped each year at this time, but the plan is to grow this number to 100,000 in the next 5 years and cover as many other states as feasible.

I spoke with Meera Rajeevan, the program director, recently via phone and asked her how the candidates are selected. Since the program began in Kerala, where Kumari Shibulal and SD Shibulal, ex-chairman of Infosys, hail from, a network of trusted friends and family have been involved in means and merit testing. Currently, aspiring candidates for the scholarships have to pass an entrance test and an interview after which a volunteer visits the family to ensure the candidate does indeed have a financial need.

Volunteers also monitor progress on a regular basis (often more than once a year) to determine of the candidate continues to be eligible. It is a fairly rigorous process with hardly any misuse of funds by any recipient in the decade and a half since the program began. Each district has a district coordinator who keeps tabs.

Essay

One of the earliest recipients of the Vidyadhan Program is Dr. R. Gauthamen, who is currently on a Fellowship at Oxford. Dr. Gauthamen’s family ran a tailoring business in Alleppey that was constantly subject to the vagaries of demand. When he graduated high school with high grades, he was interested in studying medicine but his father could not afford the college or hostel fees. His teachers recommended him to the Foundation and after a detailed interview and home visit, his scholarship was approved. (The test was added in later years.)

The Vidyadhan program supported him through his MBBS and MD in India after which he rajendranapplied to Oxford. Today he is doing a super-specialty in neonatology at John Radcliffe Hospital. He also works as a sponsor and liaison for the Vidyadhan program in London. “When I first met Mr. Shibulal,” he says, “I asked him why he was doing this for me. He told me that the day would come when I could pay it forward and that is what I am doing.”

Kumari Shibulal personally interviews all the potential candidates in Kerala. “Once, when I was talking to a girl who had applied, she broke down and started crying about her father’s ill health and how this was causing her family a great deal of suffering,” she recalls. “When she left after the interview I couldn’t stop thinking about her and I ran behind her to assure her that everything would be all right.” The Shibulals ended up paying for the family’s medical expenses as well. The family takes a very close and personal interest in this activity of the foundation and is keenly invested in the success of each student.

Now the program is expanding into Karnataka where the foundation takes the help of a local NGO called Vidya Poshak to administer background checks. Says Meera Rajeevan, “Unlike Kerala, we find that parents in rural Karnataka are less interested in sending girls for further education. So we are focusing more on the girl student here.” The program also gives a higher weightage to kids from rural areas.

In order to scale to 100,000 students, though, the SD Foundation realizes that it cannot be the only sponsor. The approach now is to find external individual and corporate sponsors from around the world who will directly sponsor the children. In an innovative approach, the Vidyadhan program makes sure that all sponsorship money is directly deposited into the bank account of the student. All administrative fees are borne by the foundation.

I asked Rajeevan if there was any potential for misuse. She confidently asserts that it has never happened, with even drop-out rates being only in the 10-15% range. This number, usually arising from the student not meeting the performance criteria, goes down to miniscule levels for kids who successfully make it to college and is a testament to the selection process. “And even if there were any misuse,” she points out reasonably, “it would be only for a year’s worth of funds.” Sponsors have also access to the students’ grades and fee receipts which brings even more transparency to the process.

What are the challenges for this program? “Each state has its own issues,” she says. “In Karnataka there is less awareness of the need for education.” Also, mentoring is a much needed investment for these kids who often suffer from low self-esteem as they rise above the circumstances they grew up in. Many cannot speak English well and find it hard to participate in the non-academic activities of the institution they join. This is where Rajeevan hopes the one-on-one sponsorship model will make a difference. “It is not mandatory, but if the sponsor wishes to get more involved with the student they are supporting we would very much welcome that.” The program is working on an online mentoring model as well.

As Dr. Gauthamen puts it, “Education is the best route to upward mobility.” To support the Vidyadhan program in its efforts or to become a sponsor/mentor for a college going student please visit https://www.vidyadhan.org/.

Note: My husband and I have been very impressed with the program and have decided to sponsor one student. Keep checking in here for more updates as the process begins.

India’s Daughters Don’t Just Need a Cultural Change

Facebook has been aflame with the documentary “India’s Daughters” where the filmmaker got unprecedented access to a convicted rapist who laid out exactly the way many Indian men view women. (The documentary has been banned in India, but, as is the case with most forbidden things, has immediately become the most sought-after piece of film on the internet. Follow this link if you still have not seen it.)

Celebrities like Javed Akhtar, Kirron Kher and Jaya Bachchan have taken to the air to express their outrage. I have not seen any of their speeches, nor do I have to. While I was in India recently, the lament was universal – cultural change must happen. The mindsets of people must change, whereby they learn to respect women and value their daughters.

The sad truth is that this call for attitudinal change has been going on for a long, long time. And there is no denying that much needs to be done in this regard. According to Wikipedia

In April 2013, Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat noted that the legal principle of reliance on the sole testimony of the victim had become “an easy weapon” to implicate anyone in a case of rape. Justice Kailash Ghambhir of the Delhi High Court stated that penal provisions for rape are often being misused by women as a “weapon for vengeance and vendetta” to harass and blackmail their male friends by filing false cases to extort money and to force them get married.

If our judges can believe this, boy, we have a long way to go.

And therein lies the problem. We do need the activism that has led to the expansion of definition of rape and the enactment of tougher laws, the activism that still continues to fight for marital rape to be added to the list. We do need to educate our society on the value of women. But while we are waiting for society to catch up, women will still be gang-raped and murdered.

Societal change is a generational, sometimes multi-generational, process. In the meantime what are our women and girls to do?

Let’s look at the statistics. The conviction rates for rape cases in India were 44.3 percent in 1973, 37.7 percent in 1983, 26.9 percent in 2009, 26.6 percent in 2010 and 26.4 percent in 2011.(Courtesy First Post). Not only was the conviction rate low to begin with, it has steadily worsened over the last few decades.

What’s the point of having better laws if they are not going to be enforced? Enlightenment begins at the courthouse.

Enlightenment also begins at the police station. The estimate of unreported rapes varies between 50% and 90% in India. Rapists are often people in power, at least relative to the victim. Rape is an exercise of that power, of strong over weak, of powerful over powerless. And the fastest way to do something about that is to transfer that power.

First, make separate cells in police stations, run by female officers trained in administering rape kits, supported by prosecutors trained in rape laws, that provide assistance and support to victims. These cells can even provide a level of anonymity till a case can be made against the perpetrator and should be able to provide safe houses for the victims once a case goes to trial.

Second, fast-track rape cases and cases of violence against women though the morass that is the Indian judicial system. If the initial processing has been handled well, these cases should be relatively simple to prosecute. Create a separate judicial panel that is well-versed in crimes against women in each state to adjudicate these cases.

Third, put stiff fines on eve-teasing, groping, and any other actions that are precursors to violence. Today’s eve-teaser gets emboldened when his actions go unpunished and he might well escalate to more aggressive behavior. The local thulla should have the authority to slap that fine and, if he is corrupt (a high likelihood) then he should be reported to the rape cell in the local police station.

A zero-tolerance policy and stiff and swift punishment has to be the first response to this crisis. Nothing signals our attitude towards these crimes better than how we treat the people responsible for committing them. And if it means, Justice Bhat and Justice Ghambhir, that some innocent men are going to be swept up into the system unfairly, well, at least they are going to get their day in court, instead of getting thrashed by a mob.

 

 

 

 

The Ghost of Christmas Present

Mona Inaya

Ari and MonaHolidays bring on a kaleidoscope of sentiments, unlocking bolted doors to beautiful beginnings, reunions, peaceful endings, decisions to either forgive and let go or be emotionally distant. The magic and excitement that lead up to the big REVEAL on Christmas day heighten anxieties on all levels. There’s sleeplessness, moodiness, tension, mixed with anticipation and perfectionism, all in the name making another happy. And then, when the day arrives, the moment passes beforeyou can truly “enjoy it”. The holiday is over. The clean-up is finally done. The decorations all putaway, without a trace they ever existed, to rummage through again for another do-over next year.

How many of you hide your chaotic life to put on a smile for the future memory frozen in time by the holiday picture? And how many of you feel like the inflatable Santa that just popped, (after it took you 5 hours to set it up), when the special day doesn’t go as planned after all the thought that went into it?

I so wanted to make this Christmas for Ari a really special one. Last year she was too young to Christmas Dinnerunderstand the fuss. I’d been waiting 30-odd years to share the magic of the season with a child and we were in India, where I felt I needed to put in a little more work into something that would have been rather effortless in the United States. I was also terrified of messing up and being like the Grinch who stole Christmas. She and I had gone through a lot in the previous year and I had a crazy notion that a mini Xmas Spectacular would erase all that. Above all, I just wanted to make her happy.

BUT Ari had her own plans. We thought she had the normal seasonal cold/cough but we had to rush her to the hospital for a sudden spike in her fever – a 103.9° temperature (The pictures don’t reflect how sick she was because Christmas magic made her feel excited to dress up). She caught a viral fever and then bronchitis. The doctor who had been her pediatrician from the age of 2 months finally concluded that she has chronic allergy bronchitis, which will trigger from allergy or a cold, and she’ll be susceptible to asthma and other respiratory /lung infections too.
Of course, our Christmas dinner was cut short, after I had spent at least 8 hours in the kitchen, and our spirits were dim, after we’d been on a high all month. And it suddenly was just a normal day… we were sad and scared for her. No parent can stand to see their child silently crying, using their blankie to stop the tears rolling down their cheeks, and confusion in their eyes. It’s not a terminal illness, or even unmanageable, nonetheless, it’s a lesson.

Ari with treeI learnt that it’s not the end of the world if everything doesn’t go according to plan, and while no one can plan for the worst, we have to be emotionally flexible, hope for the best, and work around the obstacles. And most importantly, I learnt what was really important to me, to us. I will never forget this Christmas Eve, because as a family, we were there for our daughter’s 1st Christmas. It was/is another reminder of why we are all together. It wasn’t a spoiled evening, or even an obstacle; it simply was proof of how much we care for each other, and how lucky and grateful I am for everyone who came to our rescue!

Mona Inaya, who previously blogged on this site as Yamuna Kona, brings up her daughter as a single mom, and has started a blog where you can follow her journey. Check out http://singlemommadramaclub.blogspot.in/