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No Country For Women

No Country For Women

It has been four long years since Nirbhaya gang rape, the tragic incident that united the country for a common cause and made women’s safety a topic of debate and discussion. When the country spilled onto the streets, people were not just aghast at the gruesome monstrosity of the gang rape, but were demanding reforms and asking for stringent measures. But four years down the line, the question is how successful were the protests and the agitations. Are women now safe? Can a woman walk on the streets without being cat-called or eve-teased?

Recently, Maneka Gandhi, our Union Cabinet Minister for Women & Child Development, said that India’s reputation as a gender intolerant country had dampened its chances to emerge as a tourist hotspot. To a roomful of female journalists, she emphatically stated that even though the media constantly harps on the cases of sexual violence, India was, in fact, among the lowest four countries in terms of rape cases. Concerned more about tourism than the safety of women, Gandhi had based her findings on the data collated by National Crime Records Bureau.

Even if the Minister tries to paint a rosy picture, the same NCRB statistics she mentioned point toward a ghastly reality. In 2012, the total number of crimes against women reported were 2,44,270. Four years on, this number has surged to a dastardly 3,27,394 in 2015, only 10,000 cases less than in 2014 (3,37,922).

The statistics made available by NCRB only takes into account the cases reported at a police station, which means the countless number of instances of sexual violence and crimes against women that are kept under wraps and pushed back to dark corners of oblivion have simply not been included.

Facts are an endangered species and what the Minister does not understand is that rape often goes unreported and women who do come forward with complaints are at the receiving end of a system that blames them for having brought the harrowing episode upon themselves by enticing and luring their perpetrators, by dressing improperly, by being out at late hours. The blame, as any discernible eye can gauge, is always on women.

In the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer courtroom drama, Pink, the female protagonists are held responsible for being molested. And what makes the men come to the conclusion that they are of loose morals? They were friendly and smiled while making conversation.

Sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence are an everyday occurrence for scores of women throughout the country.

The discrimination against a girl child begins even before her birth. Getting rid of babies just because they are girls is a common practice in the inlands of the country with sex selective abortions. The outlawing of sex selective abortion has not done much to rescue the girl child as female infanticide is still very much prevalent. The scales do not tip in the favour of girls as they are seen as a liability because of the expenses incurred in their marriage, if not education. Boys bring in dowry and are, therefore, an investment.

Growing up, young girls are advised not accept sweets or gifts from strangers or sit on the laps of male relatives. They are taught to differentiate between “good touch” and “bad touch”. They are told to hold their books close to their chests to shield themselves both from predatory hands and roving eyes. As they grow older, these diktats become fiercer. The importance of reaching home before nightfall and dressing modestly so as to not attract attention are just some of the rules laid out for women to follow. These diktats not just govern the life of women, but become the centrepoint — restricting freedom of movement and opportunity.

But are these binding rules doing anything to allay the fears of the women in the country? If statistics and numbers are anything to go by, the state of women’s safety has only gone from bad to worse in the past four years.

In the wake of the protests that erupted throughout the country following the Nirbhaya incident, a series of reforms were put in place to ensure the safety of women. To expedite the judicial proceedings six fast-track courts were set up. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013 was passed. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) was amended to provide death penalty in rape cases that led to either the death of the victim or left her in a vegetative state. The Act introduced and recognized offences like causing grievous hurt through acid attack, sexual harassment, use of criminal force on a woman with intent to disrobe, voyeurism and stalking. Before the amendment, stalking and voyeurism were not treated as criminal offence. With the clarification that the absence of physical resistance cannot be mistaken for consent, the highly debated issue of consent was also settled.

Additionally, nearly 40,000 Delhi policemen underwent gender sensitisation training. Another step was the launch of Operation Nirbheek, in which police visited girls from more than 5000 schools to speak about safety. Over 1.83 lakh girls were also trained in self-defence techniques.

The word Nirbhaya means without fear but scarcely anything done by the government or the judiciary has worked towards dispelling the fears of women. It seemed like history repeating itself, when on the fourth anniversary of Nirbhaya, another case of brutal rape came to the forefront. This time, in South Delhi, a 19-year-old was assaulted in a moving car at night by a cab driver. Ironically, the victim had taken the cab because she was harassed by some youths on the street.

It’s a shame that no lessons have been learnt from the Nirbhaya incident. The South Delhi episode adequately sums up the travails of women on the streets of Delhi, a city touted as the rape capital of the country and infamous for the rampant cases of sexual violence. The streets are still not safe and the law has hardly been a deterrent.

Since the horrifying, chilling incident of December 16, 2012, the incidents of rape in Delhi have steadily increased, rising from 706 in 2012 to 2199 in 2016. More women have started coming forward to lodge complaints after the 2012 incident. But, unfortunately, the rate of conviction for rape has dropped dramatically.

In 2012, the police had secured a 49.25% conviction in rape cases. The conviction rate fell to 35.69% in 2013 and 34.5% in 2014. Last year, the conviction rate was a mere 29.37%. There has been a drop in convictions even in absolute numbers over the last two years — from 747 out of 2166 cases in 2014 to 645 out of 2199 in 2015.

In spite of the many measures taken, neither have the number of cases of violence against women declined nor has the law been effective in averting these occurrences. However, the safety of women is a social issue as much it is a law-and-order problem.

Patriarchy mixed with intransigence and a parochial nature has been a dominant feature of the Indian society. However, in recent times, India has been at the receiving end of a painful transition. The once firmly placed edicts of caste and gender are being dismantled fast. All is in flux; nothing seems settled or certain. But change is coming.

Modern and revolutionary ideas of equality and gender parity are taking shape in the minds of many. Millions of women are rejecting traditional gender roles and joining the workforce, marrying of their own accord, and deciding for themselves. The newfound freedom for women has obviously been met with a patriarchal backlash and a lot of men have taken it upon themselves to teach women a “lesson” and show them their place in the society. The rise in cases of violence against women could also be seen as an attempt by men to set to original the dominion they have long enjoyed but is now being threatened by gender parity and equal opportunities.

While factors such as illiteracy and migration from rural area to a city are major contributors to threatening women’s safety, the role that Bollywood plays in trivialising the matter can also not be ignored. Fed on a steady diet of romance dished out so lavishly by Bollywood, young men have come to believe that stalking and voyeurism are all too common and force is one of the ways to get a woman to fall in love with them.

Civic concerns like dimly lit streets are also a cause of concern when it comes to the safety of women. Crumbling infrastructure and non-existent means of public transport also contribute to the vulnerability of women.

The victims of the Badaun gang rape case had gone to fields at night to relieve themselves when they were sexually assaulted, killed and hung from a tree. Building a toilet is not a binding solution unless and until men are gender sensitized, but it is definitely part of the panacea.

Gender inequality has always been a cause for concern in India. A 2012 Reuters Thompson Foundation survey ranked India as the world’s fourth most dangerous country for women, behind only Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan.

Even though the principles of gender equality and justice are enshrined in the Constitution, they have for long fallen victim to social disarray. It’s high time that isolated efforts were done away with in order to focus on the bigger picture. The need of the hour is to organise concerted efforts so as to make women safe in India.

(Published on 26th December 2016, Volume XXVIII, Issue 52)#