The status of women in India has been subject to many great changes over the past few millennia. From equal status with men in ancient times through the low points of the medieval period, to the promotion of equal rights by many reformers, the history of women in India has been eventful. In modern India, women have held high offices in India including that of the President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the Lok Sabha and Leader of the Opposition. As of 2011, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of the parliament) were women.
However, women in India continue to face atrocities such as rape, acid throwing, dowry killings while young girls are forced into prostitution; as of late rape has seen a sharp increase following several high profile cases of young girls brutally raped in public areas. According to a global poll conducted by Thomson Reuters, India is the “fourth most dangerous country” in the world for women, and the worst country for women among the G20 countries. Historical practices Traditions such as sati, jauhar, and devadasi among some communities have been banned and are largely defunct in modern India.
However, some instances of these practices are still found in remote parts of India. The purdah is still practised by Indian women in some communities, and child marriage remains prevalent despite it being illegal under current Indian law. Sati Sati is an old, almost completely defunct custom among some communities, in which the widow was immolated alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. Although the act was supposed to be voluntary on the widow’s part, it is believed to have sometimes been forced on the widow. It was abolished by the British in 1829.
There have been around forty reported cases of sati since independence. In 1987, the Roop Kanwar case in Rajasthan led to The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act. Jauhar Jauhar refers to the practice of voluntary immolation by wives and daughters of defeated warriors, in order to avoid capture and consequent molestation by the enemy. The practice was followed by the wives of defeated Rajput rulers, who are known to place a high premium on honour. Purdah Purdah is the practice among some communities of requiring women to cover their bodies so as to conceal their skin and form.
It imposes restrictions on the mobility of women, curtails their right to interact freely, and is a symbol of the subordination of women. It does not reflect the religious teachings of either Hinduism or Islam, contrary to common belief. Devadasis Devadasi is a religious practice in some parts of southern India, in which women are “married” to a deity or temple. The ritual was well-established by the 10th century A. D. In later periods, illegitimate sexual exploitation of devadasis became the norm in some parts of India.
Women in independent India 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, 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.
In 2010 March 9, 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. Crimes against 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. Acid Throwing 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 have been rising. Child marriage 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. Domestic violence 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. Dowry 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. Female infanticide and sex-selective abortion 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 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 now illegal in India but is still widespread. 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 number of unreported cases is much higher. Sexual harassment 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, 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 judgement, 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.