The Tide of Violence against Women – Sudha Sundararaman



EVEN as Mary Kom boxed her way into the medal list at the London Olympics, the media here carried the images of a young air hostess who committed suicide in despair because a Haryana minister of state for home and youth affairs, Gopal Kanda was harassing her and her family, and forcing her to become his employee again. Her suicide note accused him and his assistant of breaking her trust, and  misusing her for their own benefits.  This was soon followed by reports of the deaths of Fiza in Mohali and of Neelima inHyderabad - both shrouded in mystery, with suicide being suspected, and linked to personal affairs gone wrong.

Such occurrences have become so routine that they no longer even raise any anger, or indignation.  If at all they get reported, it is only because there is a media angle that makes them newsworthy. Unforunately, the 65th anniversary of Indian Independence dawns on a nation where  women everyday wake up to a harrowing reality –  they are increasingly unsafe,  whether within or outside their homes. The spate of sensational atrocities on women that have hit the headlines in recent weeks indicate only the tip of the iceberg. The scale of violent crimes against women, the frightening regularity with which they occur, the huge increase in sexual crimes being reported from every corner of the nation are pointers to an alarming trend – violence against women is becoming an endemic part of our society, and is getting dangerously institutionalised.

 

GRIM

REALITY

Is society sufficiently aware of how serious the situation is?  The NCRB data for 2011 released recently paints a very grim picture. Crimes against women in India are showing a significant increase in almost all categories. Under the IPC, which includes violent crimes like rape, molestation, kidnapping and abduction, dowry harassment and dowry deaths, mental and physical torture, sexual harassment, eve teasing, and importation of girls, there has been a steady increase every year since 2007.

The most heinous crime of rape showed a rise of 9.2 per cent between 2010 and 2011. Girls under 14 constituted 10.6 per cent of the victims, 19 per cent were teenaged girls between 14 and 18 years of age. 4.7 per cent were young women in the age group of 18-30 years.  These are the registered cases – as we know, many cases do not get reported at all. In 94 per cent of the cases the rapists were known to the victim!

Kidnapping and abduction rose by 19.4 per cent in that one year. Cruelty and torture by husband and relatives that is Sec 498-A complaints went up by 5 per cent and molestation by 5.8 per cent. The overall incidence of crimes against children went up by 24 per cent over 2010, however, the conviction rate remained at 30 per cent.

 

MULTIPLE DIMENSIONS

OF GENDER VIOLENCE

A  look at some of the horrendous incidents that have occurred over the past few weeks are evidence of multiple factors that are working in tandem, leading to violence at many levels. Like the six blind men and the elephant, an understanding can be arrived at only by looking at the whole, not the parts. It is this comprehensive perspective of the problem in its entirety, analysing the social, cultural, economic, and political linkages which is essential if the existing malaise has to be addressed. Otherwise, knee jerk reactions to individual cases of violence cannot effect the necessary changes which can impact on the trend as a whole.

In the Guwahati incident, a 17 year old girl was assaulted by a mob while coming out of a pub, her clothes were publicly torn, the assault continued for almost half an hour while bystanders watched in large numbers, and the media captured the images on camera, beaming them across the country within minutes of the occurrence. Subsequent developments were also disturbing. The police did not intervene to arrest the culprits immediately, the police chief went on record to say that the media was hyping the incident. One of the members of the NCW delegation which visited the girl let out her name in the media, for which she was later removed. The Assam CM’s office was equally insensitive in releasing pictures of the girl, which were later withdrawn.  But the damage was done. The issue fuelled unprecedented national and state level protests, due to which the criminals were arrested, the girl was given protection, and other measures are being undertaken to ensure justice.

But the incident is reflective of a pattern of violence, and raises many questions about how violence is getting social sanction, and how tardy the law enforcers are in implementing the law. It showed how the institutions set up to provide safeguards for women, like the NCW, are not fulfilling their mandate adequately. The role of the media has also been called into question. Thus, while the incident shook the conscience of the nation, the struggle for justice to ensure that more girls are not subjected to such atrocities has to be undertaken. The institutions set up for justice delivery have to be made more accountable.

One aspect, that of blaming the victim for the crime has to be investigated more closely. Invariably, when such assaults occur, questions  asked include – what was she doing, what was she wearing, why was she there… etc, which deflect attention from the actual wrongdoer, and justify the crime. This is an outcome of a patriarchal and conservative mindset, often manifesting as a self appointed moral brigade, which sets down codes of conduct for women. But these are violative of the constitutional rights of women in our country.  All democratic voices must join up to counter this dangerous trend, which is leading to many serious forms of violence against women

 

PATRIARCHAL POWER

STRUCTURES

One of the most vicious attacks on girls and boys that was unleashed by the Hindu Jagran Vedike in Mangalore for partying together  graphically exposes how this moral brigade works. The youth who were celebrating with a few drinks were perfectly within their constitutional rights to do so. They were not guilty of any crime.  But they violated the norms prescribed by the self appointed gatekeepers of tradition and culture, who then felt justified in resorting to violence.   The mob attack was a second warning – the first had already been issued by an earlier assault on girls in pubs, in 2009. The right wing institutions are on the warpath, they have been guilty of passing strictures, and often use force to enforce them, even though this is illegal, and unconstitutional. The brazen challenge to law and order is not responded to by the law enforcers.

Other institutions have also resorted to undemocratic actions in recent weeks.  The recent diktat curbing adult women’s rights to use a mobile phone, go to the bazaar, marry of their own choice, etc issued by the Baghpat panchayat of elders, is but another manifestation of the same phenomenon.  They have not only been tolerated, some leading personalities have gone on record to say that they have done nothing wrong! The fact that women themselves are forced to come forward to burn jeans, or give up their mobile phones, only proves that women too fall prey to the patriarchal ideology which is imposed on them.

Among the most powerful structures that have unleashed violence on women in the name of safeguarding   honour, are the “khap” panchayats. These institutions do not have any legal authority, but as part of a feudal power structure, still exercise control, and enforce norms. Many of the norms with regard to dress, behaviour, mobility, etc, are prescribed only for women, and contravention of these norms is seen as a provocation to violence. How do these institutions get away with their illegal activities?

 

LAW MAKERS

AS LAW BREAKERS

Unfortunately, one of the main reasons why these illegal power structures get away with their crimes is because those who have sworn to uphold the law, also become complicit in the crime by choosing to remain silent.  The AIDWA demand for a separate, stand alone law to deal with killings and crimes in the name of honour has been stalled by the chief minister of Haryana, who needs the support of khaps for their vote banks.  The Uttar Pradesh administration did not take action against the Baghpat panchayat, with a Samajwadi Party minister saying that  no crime had been committed yet!

Comments of this nature, leading to justification of crime by political leaders have been proliferating of late.  The statement by a Trinamool Congress legislator, Chiranjeet Chakravarthy, linking the molestation of a girl in Barasat district of North 24 Parganas to the shorter skirts worn by women, once again raises the question of how action would be taken against the culprits if the law makers take such a stance publicly. The comment by the BJP minister for industries in Madhya Pradesh, Kailash Vijayvargiya, that women should not dress provocatively  is another case in point. The lack of commitment to safeguarding democratic rights by sections of the political leaders across the bourgeois parties is a reflection of the desire to maintain the patriarchal status quo, overlooking the fact that women are being subjected to violation of their rights. Elected representatives must be made accountable for such lapses, which are a clear failure of their responsibility in upholding law and order.

 

LEGAL

GAPS

The problem is compounded by the deficiencies on the legal front as well. Many legislations pertaining to women have been pending for inordinately long periods. The Criminal Law Amendments Bill is yet to be passed. Protection of Women from Sexual Harassment at workplace has been hanging fire for 14 years. The UPA government has not taken this up on a priority basis, despite the chilling increase in the violence statistics.  The implementation of existing laws is also deficient. The need for judicial reform and for police accountability is very high.

Women’s organisations have noted that institutions like the NCW have a much more          pro-active role to play in addressing crimes against women. The existing system is weak. The selection procedure for the appointment of the chairperson and the members has to be non partisan and transparent. The status of the NCW has to be enhanced, and its functioning should be made more effective.  These are some of the urgently needed institutional reforms.

 

WOMEN IN THE

PUBLIC SPHERE

One major dimension linked to current socio economic changes is that women are entering into the public sphere in much larger numbers. Partly, the neo liberal paradigm is pushing them into the work sphere, where employment in private institutions often means travelling at all times, and everywhere. More girls are entering into education, including higher education, their hopes and aspirations have increased, their abilities have increased. As the 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayats gets implemented, more and more women can be expected to assert their political rights  at the local level.  The self help groups continue to increase in number, with women coming together to challenge the MFIs in many states. The youth of today, both men and women – are facing a different world, and have more choices before them, including the right to choose their partners.

But, even while the women’s entry into the public sphere has increased, the conservative sections in society have not yet accepted the change. This is the reason for frequent attacks on young women trying to assert themselves – it signals a backlash, that seeks to keep women under control.  Women who come forward to challenge the status quo are getting increasingly targeted.  Social conservatism has been accompanied by an economic devaluation of women’s work, due to which she becomes doubly vulnerable. When we add to this the play of market forces, and the commodification of women that is rampant, we may get an idea of how complex the terrain of violence has become, and how intertwined are the factors behind the disturbing spurt in violence.

It is important, therefore, to ensure that women’s political, economic, and social status is strengthened, and that the growth paradigm does not add to existing inequalities.  This should be accompanied by stringent action against the culprits in cases of violence, judicial and police reform; and display of political will to defend women’s constitutional rights. Only then can this tide of violence be stemmed, and women be assured a safe environment within and outside their homes.

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