Sexual / Gender-Based Violence in India: Time to Change the Status Quo

In a survey conducted by Thomson Reuters’ TrustLaw Women, a hub of legal information and legal support for women’s rights, India ranks with Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia as one of the most dangerous place for women. While women in India also face numerous disadvantages–poor health indicators, lower literacy rates, lower income levels, poor female-to-male ratio due to sex-selective abortions and female infanticide, to list a few–the last few years have witnessed some astonishing acts of violence against women in the country. Acts of violence registered against women in 2010 total to around 213,585. Swayam, a Kolkata-based NGO asserts that between 2005 and 2009, when the overall crime rate rose by 16%, the rate of crimes against women rose by 31%. This problem cannot be solved by the government alone but by a national awakening involving the entire country and civil society willing to stand up and defend the rights of its women and children.

In the aftermath of some high-profile acts of violence against women, the solutions put forth by law enforcement agencies tends towards restricting the movement of women, rather than taking action against the perpetrator or the culture that allows such acts to continue. At various times, officials have suggested that women should not work after 8PM, should not travel in the dark without a male escort, or be employed in jobs such as in bars. Somehow, the onus of not being attacked is placed on the victim, i.e., the woman, and one could suspect that sex crimes were being used as a pretext to infringe on the freedom of women.

Changing this culture of violence is a task that will take years. There are numerous steps that can be taken at the local, state and central levels, with concerted action on the part of the government, NGOs, local community leaders, healthcare professionals, religious and community elders, women’s and children’s rights groups. These are actions that can be taken immediately, and there are policies that can be put into place with just months of careful planning.

But these actions require political will that must cut across party lines and deal with this malady as a national security issue at the highest levels of government, both at the central and state levels. A recent letter signed by various prominent citizens and activists, was sent to the prime minister in May 2012. The letter drew his attention towards various actions suggested by government reports themselves that need to be enforced, including re-working how rape victims are examined, ensuring that the police are held accountable, as well as creating a dedicated 24-hour helpline for women. This letter lays out some very practical steps that can be taken immediately.

An important change that can be implemented is to start educating children in schools and in the non-formal education level. National and state governments should include mandatory children’s and women’s rights education in the school curriculum and put the spotlight on some egregious practices of violence against women and girls. Getting young boys and girls to discuss these issues among their peers would make them less likely to perpetrate the cycle of violence and not remain silent when they know such acts are being commited. Instead of staying away from such taboo topics, teachers should take them head on and deal with them in the classroom. Therefore a nationwide teachers training programme must be introduced to ensure that the subject matter is properly taught and disseminated.

Prosecution and strict legal action are likely to provide an enormous deterrent to violent acts against women. Data for 2010 from the NCRB show that the state of Mizoram has the highest level of rape (around 9.1 per 100,000 persons) that is reported to the police. Concurrently, Mizoram convicted over 96% of all reported rapists. This data does not suggest that there are a greater number of rapes per capita in Mizoram. Rather, it suggests that rape is more likely to be reported in the state, helped in no small part by the belief that rape will be taken seriously and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Action on improving legal action against violent acts against women will have to be three-tiered. First, it is important to increase reports of rape and assault. Across the world, rape is a severely under-reported crime; this is all the more true in India. It is essential that young women in the country be educated on their rights regarding the reporting of a violent act against them. To achieve this, India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development can conduct workshops and seminars in villages and cities, in conjunction with local educational institutions and NGOs to empower women with information on what they can do in the event that they are assaulted or raped. Active use of social media to get the message across could be helpful, and establishing nationwide help lines could be a step in the right direction.

Second, it is absolutely vital that law-enforcement in India be trained to react with sensitivity to women and children who have been harassed, assaulted, or raped. A first step in this direction is having female police officers present during such reports to ensure that the victim is put at ease and not further victimized. Sensitivity training and knowledge on the rights of women and children for all law enforcement agencies is another vital need and must be mandatory. It will also be important to promote female officers to the highest ranks through affirmative action in order to reduce the gender imbalance in the police forces.

Third–the final prong of action–will have to be the swift and stern prosecution when crimes are reported, making it a terrifying prospect for anyone considering violent action against women. One potential way to ensure this is through setting up fast-track courts to resolve such matters speedily. Greater prosecution and conviction rates may aid in increasing instances of reporting of violent crimes as well as in decreasing such acts themselves. Punishments need to exemplary and widely covered in the media. There has to be a “shock and awe” campaign of zero tolerance for sex offenders and those that kill and violate women, girls and unborn girls. From the Parliament to the village panchayat (local village administration), the message needs to be unambiguous and clear: crimes against women, girls, and boys will not go unpunished. The law must be surgical and unrelenting in pursuing and ensuring such offenders face the full force of justice, regardless of rank and station of the perpetrators.

Another area is the creating a responsibility among healthcare professionals of all kinds–be they doctors, nurses, or health workers–to immediately report suspected acts of violence against women and children. Even if they do not reach out to the police, they are likely to seek healthcare. Engaging senior community leaders–especially female leaders as well as religious and political leaders–to act in a similar manner may also bear fruit. Perhaps India needs to seriously consider increasing the reservation for women leaders in the Parliament and panchayats to 50%. This would certainly also have an impact and showcase India as a nation that takes gender equality seriously. 

But the most important step is to have the willingness to take drastic action in order to overhaul the entire system. India is a thriving democracy, a rising economic power where pluralism and religious harmony are actively promoted. It is a culture that traditionally reveres women as the Mother and the Goddess, and yet at the same time allows many to endure regular physical and mental violence.
India must show it is working to deal with this dismal and appalling problem that tugs at its moral compass. A nationwide campaign is needed to reignite India’s core values and traditions that respect and nurture women and children. This can only be borne out of support from the citizenry. Action from courts and police will not suffice if the community remains defiantly opposed to change.

Men need to take more responsibility and awareness among men about the scope of this issue is critical. Men who turn a blind eye to such brutal acts in their own neighbourhoods, communities, and their own families are just as culpable as those that perpetrate these acts.

In an op-ed in The New York Times written in 2005, Swami Agnivesh a prominent social activist and political leader states  that “until sons and daughters are treated equally, until life is made safe for the Indian woman, the country remains morally under siege.” India must lead the way in changing the status quo on sexual and gender-based violence.

So the biggest question is: how can the entire populace be engaged to initiate a change in mindset in India? How can a national conversation on this subject be leveraged into national action?

These are the personal views of Siddharth Chatterjee and do not reflect those of the organizations he serves or has served in the past. A version of this article was also published in The Hindu.

Photo © World Bank / Curt Carnemark.