Violence against women is not a new phenomenon. Women have to bear the burns of domestic, public, physical as well as emotional and mental violence against them, which affects her status in the society at the larger extent. The statistics of increasing crimes against women is shocking, where women are subjected to violence attacks i. e. foeticide, infanticide, medical neglect, child marriages, bride burning, sexual abuse of girl child, forced marriages, rapes, prostitution, sexual harassment at home as well as work places etc. In all the above cases women is considered as aggrieved person.
If women cannot step out of their homes and offices without the fear of being assaulted for no other reason than their gender, then clearly there is something very wrong As the Violence Against Women fortnight kicks off internationally on November 25, Delhi case analyses why women’s physical survival and safety must be viewed as a security issue and why violence against women is as much a social concern as war, famine or terrorism As a prelude to analysing this discourse that excludes women’s physical survival and safety, let us take a quick look at some of the things we include under the ‘violence against women’ (henceforth, VAW) rubric.
Women experience physical insecurity both by virtue of their position within a given socio-economic structure and by virtue of where they find themselves physically. Patriarchal societies value women first and foremost as mothers. Maternal health is therefore a useful point of departure for this review. A Unicef report states that one woman dies every five minutes of a pregnancy-related complication.
(1) One in every 70 women is at risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes and the risk is even greater for women below 24. 2) The Maternal Mortality Ratio for Indian women is estimated at anywhere between 300 and 500 per 100,000 live births, depending on the source you consult. Debates over the woman’s right to choose versus the foetus’s right to be born are entering Indian discourse, obscuring the continuum between a prenatal death sentence by virtue of sex and the woman’s lack of reproductive autonomy. In India, statistics about sex selective abortions begin with the dramatic figure of about 10 million such abortions being performed over the last quarter-century and end with the horrific count of 3 million female foetuses being aborted annually.
Both the right of the girl-child to be born and the long-term consequences for women and society are the issue here. Discrimination in matters of nutrition, healthcare and schooling apart, girls in situations of poverty are at risk of trafficking and early marriage. A majority of girls become victims of trafficking at a very early age, and about 35% of them blamed their families for their fate. Families are also responsible for forcing girls into early marriages.
More than half of India’s girls marry before 18, and experience much greater risk of pregnancy-related complications as well as domestic violence. Add to this the threat of child sexual abuse, mostly at the hands of family members, and Indian girls do not seem to lead very secure lives. A serious impediment to simple improvements in a girl’s life is the threat of street sexual harassment. Being followed on the way to school, cat-calls at the bus-stop, being groped or pinched on a bus or being stalked foreshadow sexual violence.
The threat of being harassed intimidates girls and, in a society that places a premium on virginity, persuades parents to stop their schooling at puberty. Lacking education, confidence or self-esteem, the girl has no inner defences against exploitation and society provides no external protections either. Marriage is seen as a solution to the problem of protecting a girl from the dangers of the public arena. Dowry, however, is one of the core causes of male-child preference.
The practice of demanding and giving dowries has been spreading to communities where it was hitherto unknown. Dissatisfaction and avarice have combined to create social conditions where over 6,000 girls lose their lives annually in dowry-related deaths, according to the NCRB. (3) Strict laws do not seem to deter families from demanding nor from feeling like their prestige is attached to giving. A shamefully large percentage of Indian women experience domestic violence.
Nearly 37% of married women have experienced violence at some point and, perhaps more alarming, 54% of Indian women believe husbands have the right to beat their wives, according to the National Family Health Survey. (4) Social and economic compulsions keep women in abusive marriages and, given the magnitude of the problem, there are still too few helplines and shelters. This blindsides us. Where we will not let the State step in, whether from a minimalist State perspective or otherwise, we still challenge its inaction (and its inability to act).
Can the State enter kitchens in an anticipatory exercise to prevent kerosene from being poured over new brides? Can the State be a presence in the bedroom when a wife is repeatedly raped by her husband? Should the State uphold the mother’s right to choose to have a child or should it allow her to decide not to have a girl-child? Some of these questions have been resolved in practice. The Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994 is an example, as is the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2006.
But their failure to completely stop the practices they condemn suggests that even a State with tremendous reach, awesome enforcement capability and reasonable political will cannot stop individuals from perpetrating violent acts sanguinely. Neighbours, extended family and alert local civil society organisations can go much further than a battery of laws and a police force. Social pressure and ostracism are greater deterrents than the likelihood that the victim or her supporters will term their experience as ‘abuse’ and report it to the police.
Those who mistreat women must take comfort in the lack of social support options available to them, so that they must return to the site of abuse sooner or later. The next frontier in this exercise of re-imagining security then is to explore the role of civil society in creating security (and insecurity). Citizen-driven initiatives are the order of the day with regard to most other issues, be it mohalla committees to preserve communal harmony or neighbourhood environmental groups like EXNORA.
What is the scope for citizen action to create security for women within and outside the home? What ethical and political issues are involved with initiating such action? Realistic assessments of what can be achieved are also needed, for which documentation of existing civil society efforts is important. There is another factor: cultural relativism and the reluctance of contemporary State and society in an age of political correctness. Patriarchal politics makes of women’s bodies easy shorthand for the politics of group identity.
Women then carry the burden of socialisation, cultural preservation and physically standing for the community’s integrity and survival. If attacks on women are an easy way of expressing hostility towards a community, restrictions on women are a way for the community to articulate its borders—“We are X-Y-Z and therefore we require this or that of our women. ” The rationale is ‘protection’—of the women, ergo, the community. A strange liberal inhibition prevents us from completely challenging these for fear of offending others or limiting the right of each community to define itself uniquely.
Eggshell-walking and dogma are both inimical to an idea of security that is equitable as well as liberal. Why would we want to include violence against women in the security agenda? The most obvious reason is a political argument that anything that affects the survival of such a large part of society belongs in any discussion about survival and well-being. Second, using the term ‘security’ adds political leverage to any issue—visibility is greater, resources flow more easily and a sense of urgency is generated that may otherwise be lacking.
Third, where violence is involved, collective attention and consideration are a must, and whether it is the State or society, it is imperative that one kind of violence merits the same attention as another. We cannot choose to which category of violence we will pay attention on the basis of motivation or victim identity. Arguments can also be made that link violence against women to larger consequences for society and State. Unbalanced sex ratios increase the likelihood of violence in society.
Violence against women has epidemic qualities that place a large burden on the public health system. Fewer adults able to work optimally and children desensitised to violence are other consequences. However, these instrumental arguments—take care of this so you can move on and do other things—are less persuasive than the argument that the security of female citizens is intrinsically a good thing and as much a social concern as war, famine or terrorism. From intellectual and political standpoints, a discussion about violence against women as insecurity raises very interesting questions.
Are there drawbacks to ‘securitising’ violence against women? Who will act to assure their security? What can we say about the relationship between State, society and female citizens based on the level of willingness to take action on this issue? Violence against women and women’s security also provides another instance for debating the freedom versus security, private versus public, universal versus relativist and minimalist versus pro-active State binaries that are actually among the oldest questions in politics.
Thus, what we have been calling an exercise of redefinition or re-imagining ‘security’ is in fact also an exercise of remembering those fundamental political questions revisiting which is a pre-requisite to alert, vigilant citizenship. Women once venerated as the mother and the perpetuating angel of mankind has come to be looked upon as ‘the unblessed creature of God’ in India. If we turn on the dailies in the morning, we shudder to read hair-raising instances of male chauvinism travelling in ‘sexism, racism, violence and poverty’ to women representing the ‘masculine mystique belief in the inevitability of violence against women.
The votaries of the cult of violence draw their inspiration from a grossly twisted and misfounded interpretation of saint Tulsidas’s lines, ‘Dhol, Ganwar Shudra Pashu Nari, Sakal taran ke adhikari’ (Drum, lout, untouchable, beast and woman, they all deserve to be beaten). With the advance of material prosperity and easy money, sex and violence have become the order of the day. Drunk with eroticism, the Indian ‘man’ is unable to distinguish between woman and woman. Rapes and brutal murders have become common news. Assaults, harassments and chain-snatchings no longer alarm us.
It is indeed a slur on the modern Indian society that the cult of violence has grown to such proportions in free India. Dowry deaths are the culminating point of violence. All the social, political, economic and cultural progress made by us is nullified by the simultaneous increase in violence against women. One of the most hideous aspects of our society is the dowry system. It is a complex phenomenon and there are several dimensions to it. It reduces a young girl into a saleable commodity and lowers her dignity.
In case she brings an inadequate dowry, it exposes her to the risk of mal-treatment after marriage. Thousands of girls immolate themselves at the altar of this evil every year, some of them before marriage because they cannot afford dowry and some after marriage because the dowry is insufficient to quench the rapacity of the in-laws. Readers have a vivid memory of gruesome suicide of three hapless sisters in Kanpur. As to our legislation, for all the anti-dowry measures in its armory, the government has not been able to contain the menace. No less an evil is the physical outrage on women.
We persist in our wretched belief that women are weak, helpless creatures who need constant watching by their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons at different stages of their life. How often does one hear of ladies living in busy localities murdered, even in broad daylight, all because they had some yellow metal with them? The race of eve-teasers, chain-snatchers is increasing. In temples, at fairs and festivals, in crowded public places and in the buses, these lynx-eyed brutes abound and carry on their depredation even where police officers arc on duty.
Greed is not the only motive force behind the crimes against women. Sex-hunger is another. Young girls are decoyed on promises of a decent job or marriage. And once a girl has fallen, she is black-mailed into a life of vice and forced to spend her life as a call-girl or a whore in a brothel. If we want to get a feel of the rottenness of our social milieu, we have only to know the experience of working girls. From standing at the bus stop to the place of their work, they are exposed to the vulture eyes of males of all ages and all classes.
If the way lies through a deserted place, there is always the danger of facing a potential molester. The journey from home to office is nothing short of travail. Violence against women in India is becoming more frequent and is alarmingly on the increase. A heavy responsibility falls on the shoulders of our social workers. But the biggest responsibility will be that of the women themselves. They must organise themselves. They have borne the tyranny of man far too long.