We Still Have a Long Way to Go for Women’s Rights in India

Walking through the streets of Kengeri in Bangalore, India, there is not one corner in my village where I am not a witness of the harassment of a women. Whether she is young, old, maybe even a little girl, women have always been treated as inferior beings in my hometown, and beyond. From a young age, my family has made it a priority to visit India, and over the years my experiences have changed — for the worse. From being cooed at for being the whitest Indian anyone has ever seen, I as a young women can never recall a moment where I am not stared at, despite being covered from head to toe. The whistling and cat-calling never seems to cease — from when I climb a bus to go shopping around the bazaars for clothes to my short trips to small candy stalls around the village — even while being accompanied by many, many cousins. But my experiences are not unique, and they seem to be pale in comparison to the daily rapes and beatings women undergo silently in their homes on a day to day basis. We may be aware of the eight year old girl allegedly brutally raped and murdered in Bengaluru last month, or the recent footage released of two women being gang raped in Bihar just this month, but most of this violence happens behind closed doors. In India, a woman is raped every 22 minutes.

We may be awed at the advancement our world has made as a whole, but the fact that these fundamental issues have not been solved really questions where exactly our morals lie.

Yes, I do agree that the position of women in India has transformed over the decades as the country has made great strides in the spheres of democracy, economy and social justice. There have been more reportings of gender violence in 2013 compared to 2003 — not due to a failing of our efforts, but as a result of increased awareness and more reporting of such cases. Women are now more educated and more vocal in reporting their experiences and finding help around them, but it is still not enough.

Domestic violence may not be unique to this country, but what sets India apart from the many others is the culture of silence that still surrounds it. Contradictions and gaps in protecting certain basic rights of women continue to exist despite the recent authority of a female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, for well over 10 years. Key findings from the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare show that women from ages 15 through 29 are about half as likely as men in the same age group to be employed. And most of these women work in agriculture; only 7% work in professional, technical, or managerial occupations. In addition, about two in five currently married women age 15-49 have experienced spousal violence in their current marriage, and among women who have ever experienced such violence, more than two in three have experienced violence in the past year. These statistics acknowledge the fact that boys continue to be preferred over girls, permeating gender bias and attitudes throughout the country.

There seems to be a particular sense of normalization of gender specific violence, which stems from people’s attitudes. A woman is perceived as a burden to her family because of her vulnerability and lack of contribution to the family’s financial situation. A woman often uses this rationale to justify violence against herself. The country’s extreme caste system, cultural customs and gender inequality have aided in the creation a male dominated society. Due to the abuse seen through dowry practices practiced amongst the Hindus, Muslims, and Christians of India, women often feel shame for standing up for the violence against themselves themselves due to their conditioning as useless individuals who only know how to spend the money of their parents. But this violence often stems from issues including but not limited to the woman not fulfilling her role as a “good wife,” not bringing enough dowry to the marriage, or not producing a male heir.

Violence for a women usually begins from the moment she is born, or even before – heinous acts like female infanticide and feticide, prompted by the existence of a dowry system which requires the family to pay out a great deal of money when a female is married, has prompted many families to kill their girls at birth. According to the UN Population Fund report for the year 2000, there is a 40 percent higher rate of infant mortality for girls than boys. For a poor family, the birth of a girl child can signal the beginning of financial ruin and extreme hardship. However, this anti-female bias is by no means limited to poor families — much of the discrimination has more to do with cultural beliefs and social norms.

If these women ever do survive, the difficulties they face do not stop. There is also a “very high suicide rate of 1,148 per 100,000 young women aged 10-19 years of age compared with 555 per 100,000 for young men from the same age group.” The birth of a girl and a failure to conceive a male child are significant risk factors for postpartum depression in the region. Nonetheless, researchers estimate that the majority of deaths, “from 25,000 to 100,000 women a year are killed over dowry disputes.” The harassment, beating and in some cases murder of women due to this very reason is both common and usually ignored or even tacitly condoned in official circles – by the police, the courts, and media. These crimes are not isolated to particular groups, social strata, geographical regions or even religions. Moreover, “they appear to be on the rise.”

It is reported that “significantly associated with low education and marriage before the age of 18 in women, those in joint families, and those with alcohol abuse by their spouses […] with women often blamed themselves for the violence.” Abusive behavior towards women must be viewed as unacceptable. A 2007 government survey found that “54% of the people, including police forces, seem to consider violence against women within the household as an accepted social norm.” To erase this mentality, programs for boys and young men that aim to change attitudes towards women and tradition gender roles are a crucial part of achieving social change. Family life education, gender awareness, men’s shared responsibility in parenthood and sexual behavior, shared contribution to family income, health and nutrition, prevention of violence against women and counseling services for sexual and reproductive health will also prove useful at community level as well as in schools and colleges. The establishment of a women police force, particularly night patrols staffed by women, will deter violent crime against women on the street. In addition, easier access to women attorneys and judges will help prosecute gender crimes in a fast and efficient manner. However such a position can only be built for women if we provide them with educational opportunities and break the norms that continue to haunt their lives.

From the recent Vasant Kunj Rape case of a 25-30 year old Indian girl woman strangled to death, wrapped in a sac, and tossed into the DDA park in west Delhi’s Mayapuri just last month on Jan. 13, to the Uber Rape case concerning a taxi driver raping a sleeping woman in his car in Delhi as well, we are seeing such cases occur on a daily, of not weekly basis. Many efforts have been made to reduce their vulnerability to violence, but we must acknowledge that the first step in achieving such a feat is not to spread awareness of the fact — that has been done for decades — but to provide women with equal access to educational and employment to better their situation at home, at work, and on the streets.

Eliminating gender disparity in education and employment is a key element in attaining gender equality and empowerment of women. Indian women are “significantly less likely to be able to read and write than men: 47 percent of rural women and 70 percent of urban women are literate, compared with 66 percent and 82 percent of men respectively,” according to the Millennium Development Goals report of 2012.  And if women do enter work, “they are paid much less – typically around half to three quarters of the amounts earned by men.” In order to ensure that women are valued in society, they must be able to attain a higher form of education than just primary school. They must be granted the opportunity to advance into secondary school, college, and achieve qualifications for professions dominated by males. But to combat such an issue, it is not enough to acknowledge it and leave the issue as we have since the beginning of time. Just as the government has reserved one third of the seats in the village council of each community for women as passed in a constitutional amendment in 1996, the government should step up and take an active role once again by reserving a certain percentage of seats for women in medical, engineering, business, and management colleges so that families will be encouraged to send their daughters to universities, attaining the same level of qualification as their brothers. This in time will reduce the gender gap in secondary and higher education, tantamount to the special policies developed after the Indian independence to withhold seats in colleges and universities for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled tribes. Those policies are showing superior results today in many countries and are foreseen to do the same if implemented for women in education.

Another instrumental measure that can be taken to raise the status of women in India is through the establishment of  NGOs  to work on problems of inequality concerning education that the government simply refuses to handle. They will take exceptional measures to eliminate discrimination, eradicate illiteracy, institute a gender-sensitive educational system, raise enrollment and retention rates of girls and uplift the quality of education as well as development of vocational and technical skills by women. They will also play a considerable part in increasing employment opportunities for women that do not have a strong educational background by means of microcredit. First, by supplying autonomous sources of income outside home, micro-credit tends to reduce economic dependency of the women on husbands and thus help enhance autonomy. Moreover, the same independent sources of income together with their exposure to new sets of ideas, values and social support should make these women more assertive of their rights. And finally, micro credit programs allow women to have control over material resources, which can promote prestige and status in the eyes of husbands, thereby promoting intersperse consultation.

Reducing a woman’s vulnerability to violence through education both at home and on the street will also go a long way in ensuring the security and empowerment of women throughout Indian society. Opponents of the solution at hand may argue that the effective measures listed to prevent the long going inequality against women may contradict with the religious ideas and laws in India. However, creating NGOs to tackle the problem and having women themselves rise up and fight for their own rights does not in any manner do so. Many may also claim that gender inequality is a fading problem in our society and that women have come a long way in probably almost every aspect. Girls are doing great in school – better than boys, in fact – but unfortunately, that does not mean that women have broken the glass ceiling. Men still dominate the math and science fields, earn more money, wield more power, have better access to health related services, and are not treated like pieces of meat as they simply walk down the street. Now is not the time to be complacent, while other countries are soaring higher than ever before. After all, no country or family can move forward while leaving its mothers, daughters, and sisters behind.