Female Safety Index per state according to the Tata Strategic Management Group. Light green indicates greatest safety; yellow, medium safety and light red, least safety.
Women in India now participate fully in areas such as education, sports, politics, media, art and culture, service sectors, science and technology, etc. Indira Gandhi, who served as Prime Minister of India for an aggregate period of fifteen years, is the world’s longest serving woman Prime Minister.
The Constitution of India guarantees to all Indian women equality (Article 14), no discrimination by the State (Article 15(1)), equality of opportunity (Article 16), and equal pay for equal work (Article 39(d)). In addition, it allows special provisions to be made by the State in favour of women and children (Article 15(3)), renounces practices derogatory to the dignity of women (Article 51(A) (e)), and also allows for provisions to be made by the State for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief. (Article 42)
Feminist activism in India gained momentum in the late 1970s. One of the first national-level issues that brought women’s groups together was the Mathura rape case. The acquittal of policemen accused of raping a young girl Mathura in a police station led to country-wide protests in 1979-1980. The protests, widely covered by the national media, forced the Government to amend the Evidence Act, the Criminal Procedure Code, and the Indian Penal Code; and created a new offence, custodial rape. Female activists also united over issues such as female infanticide, gender bias, women’s health, women’s safety, and women’s literacy.
Since alcoholism is often associated with violence against women in India, many women groups launched anti-liquor campaigns in Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and other states. Many Indian Muslim women have questioned the fundamental leaders’ interpretation of women’s rights under the Shariat law and have criticized the triple Talaq system.
In 1990s, grants from foreign donor agencies enabled the formation of new women-oriented NGOs. Self-help groups and NGOs such as Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) have played a major role in the advancement of women’s rights in India. Many women have emerged as leaders of local movements; for example, Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
The Government of India declared 2001 as the Year of Women’s Empowerment (Swashakti). The National Policy For The Empowerment Of Women came was passed in 2001.
In 2006, the case of Imrana, a Muslim rape victim, was highlighted by the media. Imrana was raped by her father-in-law. The pronouncement of some Muslim clerics that Imrana should marry her father-in-law led to widespread protests, and finally Imrana’s father-in-law was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The verdict was welcomed by many women’s groups and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
According to a report by Thomson Reuters, India is the “fourth most dangerous country” in the world for women, India was also noted as the worst country for women among the G20 countries, and however, this report has faced criticism for its inaccuracy. In 9 March 2010, one day after International Women’s day, Rajya Sabha passed the Women’s Reservation Bill requiring that 33% of seats in India’s Parliament and state legislative bodies be reserved for women
Police records in India show a high incidence of crimes against women. The National Crime Records Bureau reported in 1998 that by 2010 growth in the rate of crimes against women would exceed the population growth rate. Earlier, many crimes against women were not reported to police due to the social stigma attached to rape and molestation. Official statistics show a dramatic increase in the number of reported crimes against women.
A Thomas Reuters Foundation survey says that India is the fourth most dangerous place in the world for women to live in. Women belonging to any class, caste, creed or religion can be victims of this cruel form of violence and disfigurement, a premeditated crime intended to kill or maim permanently and act as a lesson to put a woman in her place. In India, acid attacks on women who dared to refuse a man’s proposal of marriage or asked for a divorce are a form of revenge. Acid is cheap, easily available, and the quickest way to destroy a woman’s life. The number of acid attacks has been rising.
Child marriage has been traditionally prevalent in India and continues to this day. Historically, child brides would live with their parents until they reached puberty. In the past, child widows were condemned to a life of great agony, shaved heads, living in isolation, and being shunned by society. Although child marriage was outlawed in 1860, it is still a common practice.
According to UNICEF’s “State of the World’s Children-2009” report, 47% of India’s women aged 20–24 were married before the legal age of 18, rising to 56% in rural areas. The report also showed that 40% of the world’s child marriages occur in India.
The number of incidents of domestic violence is higher among the lower Socio-Economic Classes (SECs). The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 came into force on 26 October 2006.
In 1961, the Government of India passed the Dowry Prohibition Act, making dowry demands in wedding arrangements illegal. However, many cases of dowry-related domestic violence, suicides and murders have been reported. In the 1980s, numerous such cases were reported.
In 1985, the Dowry Prohibition (maintenance of lists of presents to the bride and bridegroom) Rules were framed. According to these rules, a signed list should be maintained of presents given at the time of the marriage to the bride and the bridegroom. The list should contain a brief description of each present, its approximate value, the name of who has given the present, and relationship to the recipient. However, such rules are rarely enforced.
A 1997 report claimed that each year at least 5,000 women in India die dowry-related deaths, and at least a dozen die each day in ‘kitchen fires’ thought to be intentional. The term for this is “bride burning” and is criticized within India itself. Amongst the urban educated, such dowry abuse has reduced considerably.
In India, the male-female sex ratio is skewed dramatically in favour of males, the chief reason being the high number of females who die before reaching adulthood. Tribal societies in India have a less skewed sex ratio than other caste groups. This is in spite of the fact that tribal communities have far lower income levels, lower literacy rates, and less adequate health facilities. Many experts suggest the higher number of males in India can be attributed to female infanticides and sex-selective abortions.
Ultrasound scanning constitutes a major leap forward in providing for the care of mother and baby, and with scanners becoming portable; these advantages have spread to rural populations. However, ultrasound scans often reveal the sex of the baby, allowing pregnant women to decide to abort female foetuses and try again later for a male child. This practice is usually considered the main reason for the change in the ratio of male to female children being born. In 1994 the Indian government passed a law forbidding women or their families from asking about the sex of the baby after an ultrasound scan (or any other test which would yield that information) and also expressly forbade doctors or any other persons from providing that information. However, in practice this law (like the law forbidding dowries) is widely ignored, and levels of abortion on female foetuses remain high and the sex ratio at birth keeps getting more skewed.
Female infanticide (killing of girl infants) is still prevalent in some rural areas. Sometimes this is infanticide by neglect, for example families may not spend money on critical medicines or withhold care from a sick girl.
Continuing abuse of the dowry tradition has been one of the main reasons for sex-selective abortions and female infanticides in India.
Rape in India has been described by Radha Kumar as one of India’s most common crimes against women and by the UN’s human-rights chief as a “national problem”. In the 1980s, women’s rights groups lobbied for marital rape to be declared unlawful, as until 1983, the criminal law (amendment) act stated that “sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age is not rape”. Marital rape is still not a criminal offence. While per-capita reported incidents are quite low compared to other countries, even developed countries, a new case is reported every 20 minutes. New Delhi has the highest rate of rape-reports among Indian cities. Sources show that rape cases in India have doubled between 1990 and 2008. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 24,206 rape cases were registered in India in 2011, although experts agree that the cases of unreported sexual assault are higher.
Eve teasing is a euphemism used for sexual harassment or molestation of women by men. Many activists blame the rising incidents of sexual harassment against women on the influence of “Western culture”. In 1987, The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act was passed to prohibit indecent representation of women through advertisements or in publications, writings, and paintings or in any other manner.
Of the total number of crimes against women reported in 1990, half related to molestation and harassment in the workplace. In 1997, in a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court of India took a strong stand against sexual harassment of women in the workplace. The Court also laid down detailed guidelines for prevention and redressal of grievances. The National Commission for Women subsequently elaborated these guidelines into a Code of Conduct for employers. In 2013 India’s top court investigated on a law graduate’s allegation that she was sexually harassed by a recently retired Supreme Court judge. Recently, The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 came into force on Dec 2013, to prevent Harassment of women at workplace.
The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act was passed in 1956. However many cases of trafficking of young girls and women have been reported. These women are either forced into prostitution, domestic work or child labour
As I sit down to write this, newspapers are reporting the gang-rape of a Mumbai journalist. People are posting the link everywhere, and in a while, comments and announcements about protests will follow. We’ve been here before. And then there are hundreds of other times when we should have been there to speak up, but haven’t.
Why aren’t India’s women and girls safe? Who is responsible for their safety? How should that safety be assured? Since December 2012, these three questions have become a fixture on the national agenda, as has the issue of safety, or more precisely, freedom from violence. But women and girls have always thought about safety. How could they not, when the threat of violence is pervasive and shadows them from conception through their lifetimes? Concerns about safety limit women’s mobility and activities and teach them to strategize everything from timings to travel to how to walk to the office or college toilet.
The Indian women’s movement has always raised the issue of violence—violence against women (or more broadly, gender-based violence that is directed at anyone by virtue of their gender) and the violence that follows from structural inequalities like caste, poverty or identity.
India’s library of laws dealing with violence against women are a legacy of the women’s movement’s many campaigns to find ways to deter this violence such as the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation And Prevention Of Misuse) Act, 1994, which addressed the growing problem of sex-selective abortion) or to offer justice to victims such as the very recent Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, which offers the growing numbers of women who work outside their own home a process whereby they can complain about sexual harassment). This is historically consistent—social reformers and social movements in India have seen the law as the remedy for social problems and sought new laws or amendments to old ones. Examples range from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s successful advocacy for the Hindu Widows Remarriage Act, 1856, to the Right to Information Act, 2005.
We think first about the law—not because we are law-abiding—but because we repose primary responsibility for women’s safety in the hands of the state. We also see laws as expressing a larger consensus (which may or may not exist in reality) that certain kinds of behavior are unacceptable to this society. When laws have not worked as we imagined they would, we assume it is because they were not properly implemented. The police are corrupt, we say, and the judicial system takes too long. When violence against women occurs, it’s because someone else failed—the police, the courts, the law and order apparatus, governance, politicians.
Concerns about women’s safety are expressed in paternalistic terms—how do we keep “our women” safe—our mothers and sisters, daughters and daughters-in-law, cousins and friends? Protectiveness is one way to express we care, but in the context of violence, it takes the form of restricting mobility, choice and freedom.
Protection against violence outside the home becomes the pretext for control. A different category of violence emerges when education is interrupted, livelihood options are (de)limited and choice of friends and life-partners restricted or dictated. Women are told—wear this, do that, don’t go there, don’t talk to such people, don’t make eye contact. Discussing harassment situations at workshops, we learn that the “victim” should have said “no” clearly and firmly. Women are safe when they behave and speak in ways that ensure their safety. Women are unsafe when they make unsafe choices (dress, work, any).
This logic is extended, when the home is described as a “safe haven;” if women want to be safe, they should stay at home. But the home is not safe either. If the streets are full of marauders who are easily tempted into violence, predators lurk in the home. As much as they are the individual who beats and tortures a spouse or the relative who gropes, fondles or rapes the vulnerable, predators are also the family that thinks that a baby girl is a lesser child, that cousins are promised to each other or that the resident domestic worker also offers sexual services.
There are no safe havens for women. Nor, I believe, should there be. The idea of a safe haven to me seems to endorse the idea that it is acceptable that other places are unsafe. I say, it’s time we dumped that idea altogether.
How do we make every place safe for women, men and others? How do we make freedom from fear of violence a part of who we are? By taking responsibility.
Yes, laws matter and governments are responsible first and foremost, for public safety. Yes, we should be careful and thoughtful about potential risks. But we—each of us, all of us, together—also bear responsibility together for the world as it is and as it should be.
The first step is to recognize violence as “violence.” Groping is not acceptable because a girl got on a crowded bus. Staying on to work with the team to meet a project deadline is not seduction. A slightly shapeless roti does not warrant punishment. Enforcing male preference by abusing diagnostic techniques is not freedom of choice. Having been in a relationship does not deprive someone of the right to say ‘no.’ To see violence where we would see lack of caution, poor choices, justice of a sort, passion or punishment—that is the starting point. After December 2012, we may be closer to that starting point than ever before.
The second step is to learn practical ways to stop violence from happening around you. Bell Bajao’s excellent videos offer many examples of simple things that neighbours and bystanders can do to break a moment of violence. In an office situation, if someone looks uncomfortable in an interaction, one might just walk up and interrupt by asking a question. On a train, if women travellers are being heckled, one might appear to join them as a way of communicating that the harassment has been noticed. Within the family, making gender violence a conversation topic can help to share awareness on what is and is not acceptable even within close relationships.
Stopping violence does not need to involve confrontation and danger. It can be as simple as noticing and as sharing what one learns (from ideas to laws to helplines). Being alert and being considerate are more than half the battle won.
The third step is to know the law. We agitate for this law and that, and dissect drafts critically but do we know how to use the law? Are we willing to complain and stay the course? Reporting of violence against women is on the rise, happily, and this is where the role and functioning of the police and courts becomes relevant.
Taking responsibility, means finally, learning about support services (safe-homes and shelters; legal counseling; psychological and medical help; livelihood training) for survivors of violence and for their families. We should understand what services exist, and how we can strengthen those services—by volunteering time, by sharing resources or by making donations, at minimum.
Blaming the government, police and women, we will never eliminate the threat of violence against women (and others). By seeking and designating safe havens here and there, we force women to trade freedom for safety, citizenship for protection. But by owning and taking responsibility for a violence-free world, we start building the world in which we would like to live and we would like our children to inherit.
Don’t be fooled by India’s economic boom – for a vast swathe of the population the situation has not improved in generations. Hundreds of millions are trapped by caste and gender discrimination, and by the cycle of: poverty–> child labour–>no education–>poverty. These people endure some of the worst conditions experienced anywhere in the world. For instance, an Indian child is more likely to be malnourished, have inadequate sanitation, not attend school, remain illiterate and marry underage, than is a child from Africa or any other global region. (See Statistics).
|Children <18 years||420 million|
|Children <5 years||118 million|
|Living on <$1/day||360 million|
|of whom, children||140 million|
|HIV/AIDS infected||5.2 million|
|Some Indicators and International Comparisons:|
|31% of infants are born with low birth-weight||14% in Sub-Saharan Africa|
|15% in Middle-East & North Africa|
|7% in East Asia|
|9% in Latin America|
|7% of infants die before their 1st birthday||10% in Sub-Saharan Africa|
|4% in Middle-East & North Africa|
|3% in East Asia|
|3% in Latin America|
|46% of children under 5 are malnourished||28% in Sub-Saharan Africa|
|14% in Middle-East & North Africa|
|16% in East Asia|
|7% in Latin America|
|31% of children have adequate sanitation facilities||36% in Sub-Saharan Africa|
|72% in Middle-East & North Africa|
|50% in East Asia|
|75% in Latin America|
|61% of children reach grade 5 at school||66% in Sub-Saharan Africa|
|91% in Middle-East & North Africa|
|93% in East Asia|
|83% in Latin America|
|58% adult literacy rate||60% in Sub-Saharan Africa|
|67% in Middle-East & North Africa|
|90% in East Asia|
|90% in Latin America|
|64% gender parity rate (literate women as % of literate men)||76% in Sub-Saharan Africa|
|74% in Middle-East & North Africa|
|91% in East Asia|
|98% in Latin America|
|46% of children enter into child marriage (1986-2004)||40% in Sub-Saharan Africa|
|n/a in Middle-East & North Africa|
|20% in East Asia|
|25% in Latin America|
|Statistics: Unicef, 2005|
Perhaps the most disadvantaged group in India is the millions of street children who live or work on the street. Street children have fallen through society’s cracks – there are few ladders for them to climb back up. They live as their parents did and as their own children are likely to do.
Children live and work on the street because their parents are poor, or they are orphans, or they have run away from home, often to escape abuse. They are invariably malnourished, receive scant education or medical treatment, and are involved in child labour from an early age. Child prostitution and sexual abuse are also major problems, as is addiction to drugs. These children live in a different world to the emerging middle class. Taken as a separate nation, they represent one of the neediest peoples on the planet.