It's probably the best time to be Indian in the last few hundred years. But, says Mari Marcel Thekaekara on International Women's Day, the many forms of gender violence make it seem as if things are worse for women today than they used to be
But the shame of it all is that in spite of the highest numbers of women doctors, surgeons and gynaecologists in the world, states like Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have the worst rates of maternal and infant mortality, comparable to poorest Africa. And the largest population of malnourished girl children. So celebrations would be a trifle inappropriate here.
Still, it's probably about the best time in the last few hundred years to be Indian. For some people, that is. For some women too. It's an appropriate time to pause and take stock of the scenario in India for our women. But in spite of being a professional, middle class woman, my gut instinct is that in many ways, things are worse now than they were 35 years ago when I was a young girl in college. To be sure there were fewer opportunities for women as far as jobs and careers went. But my friends and I took ordinary third class train journeys with fewer incidents of molestation than girls my daughter's age face today. The remarks passed in incidents of "eve teasing" (a term I detest), were more innocent-silly-flirtatious than the aggressive-lewd, explicitly sexual ones heard on the streets today.
Two recent incidents highlight this pronounced change, the Mumbai New Year's eve sexual molestation of two NRI women and the gang rape of a young girl student by six of her professors in Patan, Gujarat. The first caused outrage all over the country. The reason? Mumbai is cosmopolitan, fun, a happening Bollywood locale. The protagonists - NRIs. That such a thing could happen to NRIs is unimaginable. We are shocked to the very core of our being. But consider this. M V Kamath informs us that "Every 26 minutes, a woman is molested, every 34 minutes a rape takes place, every 42 minutes a sexual harassment incident occurs, every 43 minutes a woman is kidnapped and almost every hour a woman is burnt to death over dowry, 25% of the rapes involving girls of the age of 16. This is India. The spiral of violence against women is apparently rising 'at an alarming rate'."
The second, the Patan rape incident, rocked Gujarat. That an 18-year-old could be raped by her teacher would be shocking news anywhere. That she was serially gang-raped by six men, all of them teachers at the women's college, denotes a level of venality that is practically incomprehensible. It has raised questions about the entire system, the fact that for almost a decade apparently, sexual abuse reports have been shoved under the carpet by the authorities, with the whistle blowers penalised rather than the perpetrators of rape and sexual abuse. Girls were told by the wardens to get used to it, it was a fact of life. When the parents and protestors went to Gandhinagar, they were met with the same response. They could not meet Narendra Modi and a government PA told them "these things happen". This speaks volumes for the general attitude, the ambience, the ethos of the country as far as sexual violence is concerned. Girls whose parents complained were told their girls were "loose" hence the trouble. In Mumbai, the police commissioner caused outrage when he remarked "these things keep happening and the media should not make a mountain out of a molehill". The commissioner's remark is more representative of the general attitude of Indian society than the protestors. It is always the women who are at fault, for being out on the streets on New Year's Eve instead of in their beds like nicely brought up girls. Or by dressing in a way that is asking for it.
Most of us are familiar with the fact that gender violence comes in many forms. The whole country has heard it all. They include foeticide, food deprivation, emotional abuse, forced marriage, sati, rape, sexual assault, harassment of all sorts, trafficking, forced sterilisation, torture and finally dowry deaths, the cruellest of all.
All of these remain mere statistics, unreal newspaper reports, till you come face to face with the human tragedy. When you live with horror, the repetition, the fact that it's-been-a-part-of-life for decades now, breeds if not indifference, a certain reluctant acceptance of the unacceptable. It sometimes takes an outsider's view to shake us out of our lethargy. Fifteen years ago, I addressed a classroom of American high school kids. There were the usual questions about dots on foreheads, do you ride elephants. Then a teenager asked me "Is it true that in your country you burn your brides?" It was one of the most difficult moments of my life.
I discovered subsequently that the burns ward of a Bangalore hospital is a devastating experience. It is filled with grotesquely charred, physically and mentally scarred young women, all deliberately doused with kerosene or petrol and set aflame. Nearly every burns ward in every hospital in the country has dowry victims, women's groups declare. The statistics tell us the numbers have increased, not decreased, in spite of economic growth. There were 4,836 dowry death cases in 1990, which rose to 5,157 in 1991 and to an all-time high of 6,699 in 1999 (Kamath, Empowering Women). . Unofficial estimates cited in a 1999 article by Himendra Thakur 'Are our sisters and daughters for sale?' put the number of deaths at 25,000 women a year.
The reports are casual, matter of fact, reported as one would death by accident or cancer. These are calculated, cold bloodedly planned murder cases. Yet for the police, the courts and the press, it's business as usual. Of the 1,133 cases of "unnatural deaths" of women in Bangalore in 1997, only 157 were treated as murder while 546 were categorised as "suicides" and 430 as "accidents". But as Vimochana activist V Gowramma explained: "We found that of 550 cases reported between January and September 1997, 71% were closed as 'kitchen/cooking accidents' and 'stove-bursts' after investigations under Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedures." The fact that a large proportion of the victims were daughters-in-law was either ignored or treated as a coincidence by the police.
Frontline figures indicate what can be expected in court, even in cases where murder charges are laid. In August 1998, there were 1,600 cases pending in the only special court in Bangalore dealing with allegations of violence against women. In the same year three new courts were set up to deal with the large backlog but cases were still expected to take six to seven years to complete. Prosecution rates are low. Frontline reported the results of one court: "Of the 730 cases pending in this court at the end of 1998, 58 resulted in acquittals and only 11 in convictions. At the end of June 1999, out of 381 cases pending, 51 resulted in acquittals and only eight in convictions." Is it any wonder that though the anti-dowry laws were enacted in 1961, little has changed?
Death by burning is a horrendous way to go. The women suffer slow, agonising, excruciating pain. Death is almost a welcome relief. If they recover they have to live with terrible disfiguring scars, both physical as well as emotional and mental. Yet they die in vain. Justice eludes the families. They are reduced to mere statistics. Nothing happens.
We don't just burn our brides, we kill our girls even before they are born using sex-selective abortion. In almost all states except for Kerala, Pondicherry, the North East, and adivasi areas, female foeticide is practiced. The 2001 census informed us that we had 60 lakh missing girls.
According to the latest government data on births, the number of females to males at birth in Punjab has plunged to a new low of 775 to 1,000. Female children also have a higher infant mortality rate. Punjab and Haryana are already facing the consequences of their 'sons only' policy. An acute shortage of brides has forced Punjabi and Haryanvi men to go as far east as Bengal and impoverished Bihar to procure wives. Reports of one bride for several brothers has sent shock waves throughout the country. Religious leaders have issued edicts prohibiting female foeticide and infanticide, extolling the virtues of daughters, but change is not in the air. Old habits die hard.
A special brand of violence is reserved for our poorest and most powerless women. India's dalits and adivasis. Dalit women, India's "untouchables", continue to be raped, beaten, paraded, stripped naked and killed by dominant caste men, often to teach their men or their community a lesson. To kick them back into the servitude they were born to. There has been a rise in the violence, proportionate to dalit assertion of their rights. The rape statistics for dalit women (who are otherwise untouchable) are shocking. Every day three dalit women are raped. Families are burned to death. A dalit is murdered every day. Yet the culprits escape unpunished.
Adivasi women all over the country are subject to a different, less palpable form of violence. They have in recent times been displaced from the lands of their ancestors. Lands they have occupied since time immemorial. Nandigram has become part of history after its struggles hit the international press. Adivasis have been struggling to retain their homelands for decades now with far less visibility and media coverage. They are raped and beaten into submission. Chhattisgarh is the most glaring example of what happens to adivasis in MP, Orissa and in less violent forms all over India. The creation of the Salwa Judum to terrorise simple, peace-loving adivasis is a nightmare. Women are being raped and killed with little news reaching the outside world. As I write this, adivasis in Kerala are threatening mass suicide unless the long-promised land is given to them. The list is endless. The struggle continues.
Hope comes from the women who struggle, who refuse to give up, who dare to fight in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They are the heroes we salute this Women's Day.
InfoChange News & Features, March 2008