INDIA: A COUNTRY ON THE LONG ROAD TO COMBATING DISCRIMINATION
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
By- Prabhat Kumar, Advocate (Patna High Court) & Guest Faculty (Vidhi Mahavidyalaya, Samastipur)
THE PLACE OF WOMEN IN INDIA
The situation of women in India is open to criticism in many respects. The weight of religion and traditions, as well as a considerable imbalance of the sex ratio endanger their fundamental rights. Due to the practice of dowry, infanticide, rape, prostitution, Indian women suffer from discrimination and see their freedoms violated on a daily basis. This is evidenced by the Thompson Reuters Foundation survey published in 2011, which found India to be the fourth most dangerous place in the world for women, indeed gives the Asian giant the first place in this area, just ahead of Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Saudi Arabia. To establish the ranking, 548 experts spoke on six indices: medical care, discrimination, non-sexual and sexual violence, cultural oppression and human exploitation. India tops the last three categories, including infanticide, acid attacks and forced marriages.
Since then, the reactions of the Indians have been strong. How does a democracy with solid institutions end up in front of Afghanistan or Syria? "Countries better ranked than India yet have women who do not even have the right to speak in public," challenged Rekha Sharma, of the National Commission for Women. "Would it be more acceptable to go after Syria?" Quipped feminist Sharanya Gopinathan.
In this extremely difficult context, however, feminist movements have emerged who work day after day to defend the place of women and to develop a society still rooted in dangerous patriarchal traditions.
Historically, Indian women have not always suffered so much from this male domination. Many authors report that women enjoyed an important status, especially during the Vedic period. India today is however dominated by the traditions resulting from Hinduism, which, despite certain texts promoting femininity and motherhood, advocates an almost total subordination of women to men. Actress Shabana Azmi (journalist and former popular actress) declared in 1988 that “the glorification of Indian women can constitute an eminently dangerous trap which closes on her. (...) By idolizing him, we rob him of any possibility of defending himself, of fighting or of having his rights respected”. Girls are thus brought up with the idea that they have a duty to serve and satisfy men. This is evidenced by the Laws of Manu, a founding legal text of the Hindu dharma tradition, according to which “in childhood, a woman must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband and when her master dies, to her sons; a woman must never be independent (...) a woman is not made to be free ”. This is a major pillar of Hindu traditions currently persisting in Indian society, which partly explains the place that women occupy today.
Child marriage: Marriage is a sacred institution. In a society marked by the submission of women to men, it is the main objective of families for their daughters, who are still subject to forced marriage, often very young. Until 1892, the legal age of marriage for girls was raised to 10 years, but it was pushed back to 12 years by the implementation of the Age of Consent Bill, before finally being raised to 18 in 1929. However, child marriage remains common. In 2015, India was the second country in the world to perform child marriages, and, according to official records, 51.8% of girls in Jharkhand state are married before their 18th birthday. Since 1950, the average age at marriage has dropped from 15 to 19 for women and from 21 to 25 for men. These arranged marriages are widely practiced in the country,
Dowry practice and violence: This eagerness of families to marry their daughters should not obscure the economic misery that this sacred institution projects on them. The practice of dowry, although prohibited by the “Dowry Prohibition Act” of 1961, remains extremely common. It represents a considerable financial burden for families, sometimes amounting to more than half of their capital. This phenomenon is at the origin of many acts of violence against women, often perpetrated by their own families or by their future in-laws. Between 1975 and 1978, for example, 5,200 young women were "accidentally" burned by their husbands or their in-laws, on the grounds that their dowry was not sufficiently large, or because of non-honored dowries. This violence is often deadly. A woman dies every hour in India because of the dowry. According to the National Criminal Registry Office, 8,233 women died in 2012 as a result of dowry disputes. In addition, the conviction rate for these crimes was only 32% in 2013. This is a real trivialization of violence against women, implicitly endorsed by these legal loopholes.
Infanticides: Wives and future wives are not the only victims of this violence. As the dowry represents too great a financial constraint, families sometimes prefer to see little girls disappear. Many are killed at birth or neglected and abused until they die. This phenomenon largely explains the sex-ratio imbalance in India.
The right to abortion, legalized in 1971, has, however, considerably improved this situation. A 1994 law amended in 2001 also prohibited any abortion based on the sex of the foetus. However, many abortions of female fetuses are performed illegally, sometimes in deplorable sanitary conditions. The desire of families not to give birth to a girl gives rise to a veritable "abortion market", which benefits unscrupulous doctors. Also it seems that the will of the legislator alone is insufficient to remedy this murderous phenomenon. Only an in-depth change of mentalities is possible to fight against these traditional sexist practices.
Rapes: A particularly striking current illustration of the recurrent violations of women's rights and the violence they face on a daily basis is the scale of the number of rapes in India. The official rate of rape is not higher than in France; however most victims do not file a complaint for fear of reprisals that could result, while their attackers are not always convicted. Here, the number of crimes does not matter but the fact that they are an expression of the collective representation of women.
Informal judicial bodies (village justice, council of elders...), without any real legal existence, thus exercise their moral power by condemning, sometimes girls and young girls to gang rape. These illegal sentences are often carried out in the public square and accompanied by torture, which can lead to the death of the victims.
The media coverage of the New Delhi gang rape case on December 16, 2012, however, helped lift the veil on a real social problem that was the subject of a significant taboo in India. This crime sparked exceptional protests across the country and around the world. The government has strengthened its policy to protect women, by implementing significant awareness-raising and prevention measures, notably through the broadcasting of video clips in cinemas and radio spots. But India, which was in fourth place in the same poll in 2011, has it done enough? According to the National Crime Records Bureau Report between 2007 and 2016, crimes against women were increased by 83% which is highly questionable. Moreover this spectacular jump which is explained in particular by the fact that more and more victims now dare to file a complaint against their attackers.
Instead of rejecting the poll, human rights activists are calling on the authorities to introspect. "Our situation is very bad and we should instead be thinking about how to improve it," commented famous women's rights activist Kavita Krishnan.
"We have to admit that we are a patriarchal society with inherent structures of discrimination against girls and women ," said Zakia Soman, another important figure in the struggle for women's rights.
(Disclaimer- The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of Child Rights Centre.)