By Rashme Sehgal
Is India a more dangerous place for women to live in compared to Yemen, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo? All three countries are ravaged by war and the people there face conflict, poverty and disease. And yet, the Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of 548 experts on women’s issues found India to be the most dangerous country in the world for women.
The parameters used for this perceptual survey were access to health, sexual violence, non-sexual violence including domestic, physical and mental abuse, lack of access to economic resources, human trafficking and the continuation of cultural practices including child marriage, genital mutilation and acid attacks.
The survey has met with a mixed reaction. While some women have express scepticism about these findings there are others who feel these findings have only served to reinforce the rising graph of crime against women.
Hutokshi Doctor, editor of Infochangeindia and co-founder of Centre for Communication and Development questions the parameters of the survey. “It seems a little over the top. What is the construction of their different matrix? And is this based on a percentage of the population since ours is a much larger population? They need to spell out these details,” she said.
While Akhila Sivadas, director of Centre for Advocacy and Research, is also cautious about these findings, she does feel that in most surveys, India is showing a downward slide. “If you look at the recent food and gender surveys, India is severely lagging behind even compared to other South Asian countries,” Sivadas said.
“The quality of life (here) is very poor and the situation is getting worse. Of course, if we take the cumulative index, people are getting empowered and are speaking out. But when you co-relate this with individual cases, the situation is very ugly. The government needs to tackle this situation on a war footing,” she added.
Sivadas is not the only one speaking about against this poor record of women’s safety in India. Professor Syeda Hameed, a former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, believes ours is the most ‘ungender friendly country’ in the world.
“The situation is getting worse every day especially for women of the minority and Christian communities. Gender-based violence is on the rise and little is being done to curb it,” maintains Hameed.
Former IAS bureaucrat Neeru Nanda, who retired as an adviser to the Punjab Governor, believes that one of the reasons for this perception of India emerging as the most dangerous country for women is because the government has done little to counter it.
“When foreign students go to study in the US, they are given an orientation on how they must manage themselves especially given that campus rape is rampant in the US. Similarly, cases of rape and domestic violence in the US Army are very high. In India, giving an orientation to foreign tourists is a must. There are unwritten rules in every society. In such a large and free country, they are provided with no guidelines on what they should wear and not wear and places they should not visit alone after dark,” said Nanda.
Woman activist Sujata Madhok also finds the results of the survey a little far-fetched, though she does believe that patriarchal cultural norms continue to dominate society, especially in north India. “We continue to carefully segregate work according to gender and women’s work is not paid for. Young women are challenging these cultural norms by going to college and going out for work and this can leave them very vulnerable,” said Madhok.
Ali goes on to state, “The second problem is that no one is working at the community level. Increasing joblessness is seeing huge amounts of migration taking place. We need to have an inter-state migrant act so as to ensure some levels of safety for those who migrate from their homes.”
“The problem is that when they come to cities in search of work, they are forced to live in slum areas. I believe that 99 percent of crimes occur when men are under the influence of alcohol. The rape culture is directly linked to drinking and free access to pornography. But in villages, you find old women wearing only a sari and taking a bath at the well. They are respected there. This survey is a typical white man’s perception of what they believe is a third world country,” Jaitley adds.
Mridula Mukherjee, who teaches history at the JNU, believes the parameters used by the Thompson Reuters Foundation need to be made public especially since rape and other sex crimes are ‘pretty bad in the advanced countries also’.
“The last two to three decades have seen growing crimes against women. This is not to say there was no sexual harassment earlier when women were not encouraged to go out alone after dark. Now things have changed with more women in the workforce,” said Mukherjee.
“Surveys like this (one) are good for shock therapy. Feminists have been writing about the worsening plight of women in the last three to four decades. Unfortunately, the government in power is not sensitive to women. They may be coming up with more stringent laws but the situation on the ground has not improved. Sexual violence of the most brutal and overt manner is taking place,” said Mukherjee.
Rami Chhabra, a feminist writer, is not surprised at these findings. She believes that we need to go to the root of the problem as to why the social fabric of the country has been torn apart, especially since women participated in the freedom struggle in large numbers during which period they felt safe and secure.
Chhabra blames the donor push and the HIV-AIDS program for pushing programs without understanding our social setting. Chhabra said, “It was the powerful foreign donors backed pro-prostitution and condom centric HIV-AIDS program that resulted in sexualising the media and that allowed high-risk sexual networks to form privileged communities in the name of HIV-AIDS prevention.”
Chhabra believes the only way out is for better implementation of laws, better policing, support systems for women’s safety and sexual abuse prevention. “If respect for bodily integrity is interpreted to include the right to barter it in commercial transactions, this tears all intimacy out of socially legitimate relationships,” maintained Chhabra.
National Commission for Women, Rekha Sharma, rejected the findings outright. “Women are very aware in India of issues and there is no way that we could be ranked number one in such a survey. The countries that have been ranked after India have women who are not even allowed to speak in public,” Sharma stated but refused to elaborate on which country she was referring to.
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