Saturday 29th December 2012 was labelled “Black Saturday” in India. All across this vast nation, people stopped what they were doing to hold a minute’s silence in memory of the tragic death of the young female student who had been gang-raped by six men and attacked with an iron bar on a bus in Delhi after an evening trip to the cinema. The case has become infamous both within India and around the world. No one can have escaped hearing news of the mass protests on the streets of the capital in response to the horrific attack.
The public outpouring of anger about this case has been on a scale India has not seen before. The angry protests that erupted and the vigils that were held in memory of the young woman occurred not just in Delhi but all across the country from Gujarat to Kolkata and to Bangalore. This unprecedented outrage has been a long time coming for India: for too long the issue of violence against women has been a “hidden issue,” simply allowed to continue with the perpetrators fearing no consequences.
I am slightly ashamed to admit that, despite having known for some time that I would be heading to India to intern for three months with GRAVIS, whose projects place a great emphasis on empowerment of women in the Thar Desert, I really had little idea of the scale of the problem until I arrived here. I was vaguely aware of the lack of women’s empowerment in remote rural areas of India, especially rural Rajasthan, through my research into GRAVIS before coming to work here, but not of the sheer scale of the gender inequality that appears entrenched in India’s culture.
The problem is, it is very hard to shake the view that we in the west have been shown of India, in which it has been portrayed as the emerging global superpower with the second fastest growing economy in the world. In the Western view, such swift economic progress would be unlikely to succeed if 50% of the population were unable to contribute, and thus the assumption is that India must have a progressive view of women’s role in society.
However, despite the image it wants to portray to the world of its progressive modernity, India remains a deeply conservative patriarchal country and the true attitudes lurk just beneath the surface. This conflict, between the India that wants to progress and the India of entrenched traditional values, has been cited as a reason for the increase in extreme violence against women. The founder of a Delhi-based women’s rights NGO recently told the Times of India, “though there is growing awareness and reporting of sexual violence, men are not able to accept women’s increasing assertiveness and use heinous ways to punish them.”
The Shocking Truth
Following the outrage erupting across India in the wake of the Delhi incident, I decided to inform myself about the reality of women’s situation in India and what I found during my research truly shocked me. It is clear that the gang rape and murder of the Delhi student was not an isolated incident.
In a 2011 global poll conducted by Thomson Reuters, India was rated as the fourth most dangerous country to be a woman, while a 2012 study also listed India as the worst place in the G20 to be a woman. The main indicators used to rank India in this position were female trafficking and child marriage. In the Thompson Reuters poll, only Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Pakistan were rated as more dangerous than India, and India was even listed one place higher than Somalia. For the largest democracy in the world to be listed amongst these violence-torn or traditionally conservative countries, there is something seriously wrong.
There is more. The Times of India reported last year that a study had found that 57% of Indian men between the ages of 17 and 25 thought that beating one’s wife was acceptable in certain circumstances. What was even more disturbing was that 53% of women in the same age group also thought that light beatings were acceptable. The fact that so many deem violence of any kind, including domestic, to be acceptable is very disturbing and sadly revealing of how many people view women’s rights in India. The fact that women in the study were not completely opposed to violence also highlights one troubling feature of gender-based violence in India, which is that those responsible are not solely male; sometimes the perpetrators can be fellow women (often from their husband’s family).
Another recent study by the International Men and Gender Equality Survey reported that more than 65% of Indian men believed that women should tolerate violence to keep the family together and that women sometimes deserved to be beaten. This study also lifted the lid on sexual violence, finding that nearly one in four Indian men has committed a sexually violent act at some point in their lives and that one in five men admitted they had forced their wife or partner to have sex. Meanwhile a UN Population Fund report claimed that up to 70% of married women in India aged 15 to 49 have at some point been victims of beatings or coerced sex.
This has obvious implications for rape. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, over the last 40 years registered rape cases have increased by almost 900%, with 24,206 reported incidents in 2011. Official police figures for Delhi (dubbed “India’s rape capital”) suggest that on average a rape is reported in Delhi every 18 hours, but due to a (justified) lack of confidence in the justice system, many more than this number go unreported. Indeed, the records show that of the reported incidents in 2011, just over a quarter of the cases resulted in convictions. Compounding this, within many circles, both ordinary people and authorities are ambivalent about rape. Although outlawed in 1984, “eve-teasing” (public sexual harassment) also remains common place.
However, even without the extreme acts of violence, Indian women’s lives are also very restricted. They are subject to discrimination even from before birth and this continues throughout their lives. Girls are seen as an economic liability, while boys are prized. There is thus a worrying incidence of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide in India. Even if they are born, girls’ health is often neglected, they receive less food than their brothers and parents are loath to pay for girls’ education. Forty percent of all child marriages worldwide occur in India and upon marriage women are utterly controlled by their husband and his family. Traditional culture holds that women are veiled (known as ‘purdah’) and are often forbidden from working and from venturing out of the house. Even in less conservative families, Indian culture is one of obedience and women are forbidden from arguing with their husband or dissenting from his wishes.
What is worrying is that women are often unaware that their lives could be any different. Traditional attitudes and practices have been in effect for so long in India that this lifestyle is what women have become accustomed to and expect. The high level of illiteracy and lack of political awareness means that women are often ignorant of their constitutional rights; all of which serves to keep women “in their place.”
Looking in from the Outside
In my native country, Britain, there has been a backlash in the press against certain journalists for reporting on the Delhi case in a manner that seemed condescending, emphasising the fact that issues such as rape, domestic violence and gender discrimination in the workplace are not completely absent from our society. Of course sexual violence isn’t confined to India. However, while violence against women is to be abhorred anywhere that it occurs, I would say that the there is no real comparison between women’s life experience in Britain and what ordinary Indian women have to endure on a daily basis and throughout their lives.
As a white western woman, despite occasional safety concerns when alone very late at night in London, I have never felt anywhere near the very justified fear that Indian women face every day, even in the middle of the afternoon. Since coming to India, compared to my Western male colleagues my freedoms have been much more restricted than they would be in Britain, with what I can and can’t wear being far more limited and where I can go, when, and with whom being judged. I am reminded that the Delhi gang rape took place at just 9 PM, a time when in the West, it would be completely acceptable for a woman to be out in public, but that in India was questioned by some as to why the young woman was out at “such a late hour.”
In Britain I also have confidence that when the time comes for me to want to marry, this will be a decision that I can take freely, and I can be assured that the choice of if, when and whom I marry will be my choice alone. Furthermore, if and when I marry, I can be sure that my husband and his family would have no right to control whether or not I decide to continue in employment or study, or whether or not I decide to go out of my house in public.
In Britain there is also no institutionalised culture of public shame in being a victim of an assault and there would be no pressure from families to keep quiet about the crime. Despite the system not being perfect, we can be certain that our government takes incidences of rape and sexual violence seriously and that claims of sexual harassment, domestic violence and gender discrimination will be dealt with by authorities. In India, there can currently be no confidence that this will be the case, with victims often being blamed and perpetrators being let off lightly. Police officers who fail to properly investigate rape claims or who even falsify evidence to ensure the culprits go free have rarely been held to account and rape cases can take ten years to come to trial. One of the reasons for the mass protests in December was anger at the lack of adequate political response to the Delhi gang rape case. Some high profile female politicians had appeared to blame the victim for her plight while the prime minister was criticised for his lack of outrage and sluggish response to the incident.
Hope for the Future
Despite the impression India wants to give the world of a modern, progressive state, with prominent female politicians and ever higher numbers of women gaining employment in the cities, discrimination against women remains endemic within society. Extreme violence against women is also appallingly prevalent and increasing in frequency.
However, there is hope in air in India. The many women (and men) who voiced their opinions so visibly in the mass protests across India are no longer content to stay quiet on this issue of women’s safety in India. One can only hope that this time, their government takes their concerns seriously and that they act swiftly to implement the measures they have promised. It is vital to ensure that the tragic death of the young woman in Delhi, whose only crime was catching a bus to her home after going to the cinema, is not forgotten like so many women and girls before her.
*Alice Ashby, Volunteer