The issue of violence against women in India was brought to the forefront once again after the recent brutal gang-rape and hanging of teenage cousins in the most populous state in India ruled by a misogynistic regional party.
Although considered a private moment, relieving oneself has become one of the most contentious issues in the aftermath of the spate of gruesome rapes. The new Prime Minister who won the largest electoral mandate in three decades last month, promised to build a toilet in every home in a nation where half of India’s 1.25 billion people currently defecate in the open. However, the possibility of conquering the moon and building the largest statue of a political leader seems to capture the popular imagination of the privileged political elite far more than providing sanitation to majority of its citizens.
Rape is one of India’s most common crimes against women – a new case is reported every 22 minutes resulting in >26,000 cases per year. Rape and violence against girls and women are among the most under-reported crimes in India because of the social stigma attached to the nature of the crime. In the past few years, there has been an increase in rape cases in India which could be due to an upsurge in reporting on the crime. The rise in reporting of crimes against women is welcome but the country still has a long way to go to improve the criminal justice system. The cooperation of the police in assisting the victims is poor and there are an alarmingly high number of cases awaiting trial.
India, a poor nation with countless challenges, managed 24.2% conviction rate in 2012 (while conviction rate in UK is only 7% and US is 18%). That’s thanks to the heroic efforts of a lot of good people — civil-society groups, women’s rights activists, victims and their families, lawyers and police — working with very limited resources in a constrained political environment.
Since independence, India has been struggling to extend political, legal, and economic rights to women. India ranks 129th in the world in the “gender-inequality index” based on reproductive health, empowerment, and the labor market. India’s performance on this measure is comparable to the country’s overall economic and “human development.” For example, annual GPD per-capita of $1500 ranks India 140th in the world; and based on the human development index – an aggregate measure of health, education, and income — India ranks 134th. While India fares poorly on gender issues, it performs no better when looking at the population at large.
The persistent violence against women and girls in India is an issue rooted in societal norms and economic reliance. Much of the violence against women is in the form of domestic violence, acid attacks, abduction, sex-trafficking, cruelty by husbands and in-laws, rape, dowry deaths and honor killings. The challenges women face in both rural and urban India include conservative society, outdated and sometimes repressive governance structures, inefficient legal justice system, lax enforcement of law, skewed sex ratio between men and women resulting from sex-selective abortion and socio-political structures that are heavily male-centric. The safety and security of women varies within India. Women from the north-eastern and southern states tend to be in a better position. One reason is that the share of the female work force, especially in the service sector seems to be quite high in these regions.
The tragedy of recurrent horrific rapes also has an economic impact. The damage such an act perpetrates on India’s reputation is real. Investors and travelers around the world would hesitate and pause while considering basic safety.
Although female participation in public life is increasing and laws have been formulated and amended, India still has a long way to go to make women equal citizens in their own country. Discriminatory practices favoring men and hardened attitudes should be challenged by the citizens in their homes, neighborhoods, and public spaces. The recruitment of more women police officers might help in dealing with the problems most women encounter in reporting cases of rape, violence or harassment. The hope is that the current regime would make the criminal justice system more effective and accountable, both at the crime investigation and trial level. Otherwise, women will continue to be let down in the land of goddesses.