An Interview with Dr. Anita Ghai, One of India's Advocates for Rights of Disabled Women
By Laura Hershey (LauraHershey@compuserve.com)
Dr. Anita Ghai teaches and researches in the Department of Psychology at Jesus and Mary College in New Delhi, India. She is also a prominent advocate for the rights of women with disabilities. Dr. Ghai in June, 2001, presented on "Disability and Marginalization: Experiences of the Third World" at the Society for Disability Studies conference in Winnipeg, Canada, where she agreed to an interview with Disability World reporter Laura Hershey. During that interview she described some of the complex issues facing Indian women with disabilities, her efforts to support that community, and responses from feminist and disability groups.
Laura Hershey: How does poverty affect disabled women differently than disabled men in India?
Anita Ghai: It affects them in almost identical fashions, but then it is a patriarchal society. The birth of sons is always celebrated; the birth of a girl is never celebrated. And the birth of a disabled girl -- they say, a girl, and to top it off, disabled! A disabled boy is still more acceptable than a disabled girl. If a poor family has a disabled son, they will do their best to give him a decent living. Whereas when it comes to girls, they say, "Why should we do anything?
Hershey: In that case, where does that disabled girl go? Does she go to an institution, or where?
Ghai: There are no institutions as such in India. There are residential schools, mostly for visually impaired girls. [Otherwise] girls are with their families, but what happens is that they are left in a corner, not given enough food, and left to die. If the parents can afford only one education, they'd rather send the boy. Children are lineage capital for families. A boy, even if he's disabled, if we can find him a cure, or some kind of a job, one day he will be able to look after us. That rule is not there for the girls.
Hershey: What about when the girl grows up? What are the opportunities for work and for family for her?
Ghai: Opportunities are very very limited, because education is not there. Of 35 million children, half of the children in the country are not going to school, and two thirds of them are girls, [including] disabled girls [who] can only do unskilled labor -- if the family lets them go out. Also, we have arranged marriages, a cultural context whereby the parents find a boy, and a certain dowry accompanies the girl. In the case of disabled girls, it means that they would have to give extra dowry, if the girl were to marry a normal boy. The disabled men and disabled boys would rather marry a normal girl than a disabled girl. So there is oppression from both parties -- the normal boys and men, and the disabled men. So in that particular sense the opportunities are very few, and employment is very difficult to come by.
Hershey: Can you tell me about some of the initiatives among the disability community, and especially women with disabilities?
Ghai: I'm afraid that the disability movement is as patriarchal as any other cultural context, which is what I'm fighting. The problem is the disability movement is run by very elite middle class men. They're not sharing leadership with women. As a result, their concerns are more for things which affect them the most -- like recently they asked for some concessions in the hotels. It's not our problem! Our problem is that our children are not getting education. We should be fighting for education.
Achievements of the Disability Movement
But otherwise the disability rights movement has taken a lot of initiative. For example, for four years they did not find a commissioner to run the [disability-rights] legislation, so we went onto the streets: We did a rally, and a candlelight vigil. Because of that, a commissioner got appointed. This was in 1998. Recently Dr. Uma Tully, a woman, has been appointed Commissioner, and her Deputy is a well-known leader for disabled women's rights, Anuradhua Mohit.
Then last year, the census initially didn't include disability issues; so again we had to lodge a protest. It was only when we threatened a hunger strike that the government finally heard and included us.
There is a fight for employment, definitely. There are many agencies which are fighting, and some of the NGO's are doing very good work, when it comes to working with the government. It's very interesting that our ministry, which used to be called the Ministry of Social Welfare changed its name about four years back to Ministry of Empowerment and Social Justice. If only a change in the name would mean a change in the attitude! But the attitude still is that of welfare -- you know, charity to be given to the disabled. Still, I would say that there is hope, because the disability movement is making everyone aware.
Working with the Media & Feminist Movement
Right now I'm working for the integration of concerns of disabled girls and disabled women into the mainstream feminist movement, because even that has not paid any attention, which is I think very similar to the world-wide phenomenon.
I also do a lot of work in the media. We wanted mainstream fiction to have characters with disabilities, so that people will come to know that this can be a part of any ordinary family. The media has responded quite well. But it will take a lot of time.
Hershey: Can you give an example of media response that was positive?
Ghai: A television serial has an eldest daughter, whose photograph a guy sees and falls in love [with her], but he never realizes that she has a mobility impairment. When the time comes for the exchange of garlands, he sees [her wheelchair] -- and he leaves her. It's quite traumatic. But after that, that girl manages to fight her way up to become a business woman. Now that guy is wanting a date with her, and she doesn't really give him time.
Hershey: you said you've been trying to get the mainstream feminist movement to include disabled women's issues. How have you done that and what success phave you had, if any?
Ghai: First of all, I tried interviewing almost all feminists, the well-known ones. I asked them, Why do you think the issue [of disabled women] has not been included? And what do you think can be done? Many of them felt awful, and [said] we must look into this.
We have a national conference on women's issues every two years or so. It was supposed to be held in 2002, but unfortunately we had a very bad earthquake this year. It was devastating. Because of that the conference has been postponed. For the first time, this women's conference [when it does take place] will have a session about women with disabilities. I am the source person for women's studies. Now they're inviting me not to talk about psychological issues, but to talk about women with disabilities.
Research & Oral Histories
Plus I'm doing a lot of research, collecting narratives of women. There is a center in the University, run by the political science department, called the Developing Countries Research Center. It will take up all the marginalized issues, and organize colloquiums every year as part of their human rights workshop. So this year for the first time of the history of this university we had one two-day colloquium on disability. The center now has said that they will now take up disability studies as one of their research programs. For me personally it was a great moment, because that meant that at least a start has been made. The building in which we work is very inaccessible, and when people saw wheelchair users coming in with such difficulty, all the professors got together, and they are now in the process of writing to the vice chancellor and doing something about making that particular building, and many more buildings, accessible. These are very little things for developed countries; but for us it means one step ahead. And I always believe that the first step in a journey of a thousand miles is the most difficult step. After that, it becomes easy. So I never lose hope.
Hershey: Do you feel that the women's organizations in India are adding disabled women's issues to their agenda?
Ghai: I think that all of them have now at least got into the process of thinking. I was invited by all these women's groups together, to address them. So slowly, but steadily, they are. [Historically,] the universal category of woman was accepted as the norm, and now people have had to question that. It cannot be that universal because, just as you can be dominated by the patriarchal society, you can also be dominated by other things like class, and caste, and so on. Disabled women are largely invisible. Resistance is important, because resistance means that women will come out, and raise our voices. I have chastened the women's movement so that they would listen -- because that's our natural ally.
Hershey: I'm interested in what you said about collecting disabled women's narratives. How many women have you interviewed, and what are you doing with those narratives?
Ghai: I have up to now interviewed 12 women. I started only a few months back, but I'm going to go on doing this. Some I use for my research, but my ultimate aim is to be able to start a group for the women, build up a home for them, so that they have a place to come and go, and create some work opportunities for them. But that's a long way to go, because one needs all kinds of things.
But at least I can hear them out. Like issues of sexuality, for example. In the dominant north Indian culture, we are allowed to interact with our male cousins, but not share a room with them at night. When I was young, I was never stopped. Later I grew up and I realized that they had desexualized me because of my disability. So one part of this collecting of narratives is that when I talk to a group of 12 or 40 women in a group, I get them to talk about such issues as sexuality. They open up and realize that it's not such a bad thing to be sexually expressive, or at least say that you want intimacy, you want those relationships.
Hershey: Can you tell me about your background -- where you grew up how your disability impacted you and led you to the work you're doing now?
Ghai: I was two years old when I had polio. I belonged to a very ordinary middle class family. My parents knew that the only way out for me was education, so they did not compromise on my education. Things were really bad for them, but they saved enough to give me a decent education. I did well, but for a long time I wouldn't identify with the disability. It was the overcoming hypothesis: "Come on now, you can get over it. Don't let it stop you." For a long time -- until about my early 30's -- I did not quite identify with the disability movement. There wasn't any movement until that time in any case. But you know, I didn't like to meet any other disabled person -- things like that.
And then I had a life change. I met this guy who was flirting with me outrageously. I fell for it hook, line and sinker. He used to go out with me and all those things, but marriage was not [an option]. Today I might say marriage is the most oppressive unit, but at that time I didn't see that. I wanted a compliment. When he left me, I was so devastated that I took an overdose, and I was in a coma for three days. When I woke up, my father said, "Now you just think why God has saved you." From then on, my life changed. I became totally involved in the disability movement. I realized, somewhere deep down: This is your identity; you can't get away from it even if you want to. And I understood that there's no need to get away from it. You've got to acknowledge it and go ahead.
Impact of Globilization
Hershey: What is the impact of globalization on people with disabilities?
Ghai: Well, there are two ways of looking at it. One way: It gives you a larger family, in the sense that you belong to so many other people. The very fact that I am here [at the conference] is a result of a globalized effort. I'm glad to be here. It is important to learn from each other.
But in other ways, [with] more and more privatization in my own country, we are at the mercy of the corporate world. For example, we had this education project which was run by the World Bank. Many people do not really understand that this is not really a gift. It is a loan. And that loan will have to be repaid sometime. When the multinational companies take over, life for people who are marginalized, because of poverty or other reasons, is going to become more and more difficult. Or they might see improvements in the physical environment. So I guess there would be both positive and negatives.
Hershey: Do you think disabled people will be able to participate in how structural adjustments policies are implemented? Or will they be left out of those processes?
Ghai: I suppose they will have opportunities. But again, I am scared that the funding that comes from the west, if it has conditions attached to it. I hope that the NGO's that do get that funding realize that it is not without a cost.
Hershey: Thank you very much.