India: Can we turn the tide on the epidemic of violence against women and girls?

Candid Orange India GBV

By Maheen Behrana

Gender-based violence is a universal problem – it exists in every country in the world for a number of reasons, many stemming from the patriarchal attitudes that remain rooted in the fabric of most societies. Though Candid Orange and TVINAT are profiling two specific countries for the series‘ next two articles, the aim of this is to highlight how these patriarchal attitudes can manifest themselves, and not to pinpoint these countries as worse or in need of more attention, without reflecting on how similar systems and injustices are felt worldwide.

In 2018, a Thomson Reuters poll ranked India the most dangerous country in the world to be a woman. The main reason behind this ranking was the sexual violence women and girls in the country face.

Although India is not besieged by conflict and is seeing its economy develop and grow rapidly, this has by no means translated into safety from violence for its more than 650,000,000 women.

A background to gender-based violence in India

The violence women in India face begins before birth. For every 110 boys born, there are just 100 girls. Sex-selective abortions are common around the country, despite the fact that revealing the sex of a foetus is illegal. Yet with girls commonly perceived as a burden on families, some parents choose to pay extortionate amounts in bribes to find out whether they’re having a boy and a girl, leading to abortions of female foetuses.

When girls are born, they face discrimination in many aspects of their lives. Infant neglect of girls leads to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year. Routinely, fewer girls are educated than boys, and girls receive less medical attention and have poorer nutrition. This discrimination ultimately amounts to a kind of violence against girls and their bodies.

And, of course, we know that shocking acts of physical and sexual violence are enacted against women and girls every day in India. Government surveys suggest that 42% of India’s girls are sexually abused before the age of 19. And there were over 72,000 recorded kidnappings and 32,000 rapes last year alone – and the real figures are likely to be higher.

There are several, shocking instances of violence against women and girls that have made headlines in recent years. The rape and murder of eight year old Asifa Bano, a girl from a nomadic Muslim group, by Hindu nationalists seeking to drive her community from the area perhaps stands out. This awful, harrowing crime symbolises how women’s and girls’ bodies in India are not their own. Political grievances are played out through them, and women and girls are treated as commodified collateral in a society which does not value them.

These attitudes are not unique to India – but the way that violence against women operates in the country is symbolic of how violent systems become embedded in a society and underscore all harm to women and girls.

The attitudes underlying this violence

In India, girls are frequently seen as a financial burden on families, whereas boys are seen as the breadwinners. Sons carry forward the family name and with patrilineality has come patriarchy.

All aspects of societal discrimination against women and girls ultimately feed in to the violence that they face. The idea of girls as a literal burden is furthered by dowry practices. Though illegal, many families expect that a bride’s parents will hand over goods (in the form of money, jewellery and other assets) to her husband and husband’s family when she gets married. This puts immense financial pressure on girls’ families (the social expectation for them to stump up the cash is high) and additionally commodifies the girls’ existence. When a woman in a marriage is seen as a cash cow, she quickly loses her agency – before the wedding has even concluded.

Dowry practices underscore a lot of violence that is very clearly linked to families attempting to extort more and more money for a marriage. But they also indirectly explain a lot of the other violence that Indian women and girls face. They make explicit the idea of women as chattel, and turn the relationships that men have with women into transactions.

This type of commodification lies behind much of the violence women face worldwide. Where women are sexually objectified or seen as belonging to the men in their lives, this prompts a dehumanisation of women which allows others to perpetrate violence against our bodies more easily.

Many thought that falling sex ratios in India might lead to greater bargaining power for women. With many men unable to find wives simply because there aren’t enough women, some social theorists thought that this could have benefits for women. But instead, this has subjected women to further hardships. Dowry is still an expected part of the marriage process, and now, bride-sharing is becoming increasingly common. Without respect for her agency or rights, a woman may be forced to be a wife to a man and his brothers in the case that not all of them can find wives. Bride-trafficking is also common, with women sometimes kidnapped and trafficked to villages with skewed sex ratios, where they are then trapped in a life of drudgery.

Just because women are an ever rarer commodity in India, this hasn’t made them safer. Instead, we must remember that women are still commodities, robbed of their humanity and thus still treated as less than human.

Could change be on the horizon?

When it comes to gender-based violence, the situation in India is bleak. But we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of conversations – and dialogue on the subject is rapidly becoming more prevalent.

After the 2012 Delhi gang rape of Jyoti Singh sent shockwaves around the world, violence against women in India has been at the forefront of the national (and even international) consciousness. In the immediate aftermath of her death, huge numbers of protestors took to the streets to express fury over violence against women and the systemic reluctance to tackle it. Protestors did not just wish to decry what had happened in the Delhi gang rape, but sought to show their disappointment at the violence against women which is ingrained in the fabric of Indian society. With custodial rape and assault of women (often women making rape accusations) common, the parts of Indian society that ought to protect women often put them at risk of further harm. The fact that people revolted against this was so significant – it was a full-scale rebellion against the system in which they lived.

Of course, progress is rarely as rapid as we would like. And it has this habit of not being linear. India is still very much at the talking stage – but it is only through talking that attitudes can change. Attitudes are what allow violence to flourish unchecked. They are what convince people that rape victims perhaps deserve their fate and encourage the turning of a blind eye to the plight of women.

If we can change attitudes then we can change action. There are also some amazing organisations who do great work to help empower Indian women and provide care to survivors of gender based violence. These groups work in tandem alongside campaigns to change attitudes, providing emergency relief and respite to accompany the big fight. This big fight will take more than frontline services, and will require reform not just at a systemic level, but within hearts and minds.

It is a big fight – but we have to start somewhere.