Lately, most Indians, regardless of their ideological beliefs and political leanings, have been asking themselves some version of the same question: How did we get here? The reason behind the question is different for different kinds of people, but the essence remains the same: What went wrong? These questions have attained greater significance and are being posed more frequently in the past week with the release of a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey that names India as the world’s most dangerous country for a woman.
The survey was a “perception test,” wherein 548 experts on women’s issues ranked the 193 United Nations member states on the basis of safety, healthcare, economic resources, traditional practices, sexual and non-sexual abuses and human trafficking. Conducted between March 26 and June 4, the survey found that India leads the pack in three core issues: the risks women face from sexual violence and harassment, from cultural and traditional practices, and from human trafficking including forced labor, sex slavery and domestic servitude. The other countries to feature on the list were Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Nigeria and the U.S. (in this order).
“Dangerous” is a word frequently used with the state of security of the women in India. Yet, this usage has never been more poignant than it is now, as India has left behind 192 other countries. What can I say that has already not been said before? As a woman, despondency is eating my insides. For once it feels our pleas have been falling on deaf ears. For once, it feels there is something rotten in India.
The survey puts India at a spot far worse than Nigeria, where the terror outfit Boko Haram kidnaps and tortures girls, and Syria, where women bear the brunt of atrocities inflicted by the state and terrorist groups, and Yemen, where Yazidi women are auctioned or forcibly taken as sex slaves. In Saudi Arabia, women weren’t allowed to drive until recently. In June 2016, Pakistani model-actress Qandeel Baloch was murdered by her family for being vocal about women’s rights. In October 2012, a Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head for campaigning for education for girls and daring to go to school. Yousafzai went on to win the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.
The history of every country is bloody with accounts of tortured women. What is it about the state of women’s security in India that’s bringing in so much negative press? The answer lies in the nature of the survey itself. It is a perception-based survey. That is to say, over and above facts, the focus of the survey has been on the opinions of people — in this case, an elite group of gender specialists.
As a democracy, India is freer than some of the cloistered countries on the list and therefore affords women a chance to voice their issues, which in turn are reported more and more across various media. But have the issues grown to such a large number that they are drowning out the more horrid stories from other countries is a question that needs to be asked. But, one thing that’s certain is, no matter how much we deny the survey, it is assuredly a thorn in our country’s side.
Therefore, the first step toward correction is admitting there is a problem; the second is wanting to change. Until people — both lawmakers and citizens — take responsibility for their choices, it’s a war we are destined to lose.
Unfortunately, we have fallen into a now predictable cycle of thoughts, protests, candlelight vigils, primetime news hour discussions and debates, all of which die down in a few days. Until the next attack strikes. And thus continues the cycle.
There is a lesson for all of us in the #MeToo movement that originated in the U.S. On Oct. 15, 2017, actor Alyssa Milano sent out a tweet that read: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted,” she wrote, “write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Overnight, Milano received more than 67,000 (!) replies from distraught women, many of whom were voicing out for the first time the harassment they have faced over the years. The “Me too” movement was started a decade ago by activist Tarana Burke for victims of sexual violence – particularly women of colour. With a single tweet, the movement underwent a massive transformation and became popular as the ubiquitous and universal #MeToo. It was no longer an individual-centric project but a watershed moment that brought all women together as a single entity. #MeToo became a symbol for not just sexual violence but also inequality and biases.
When was the last time women in India came together or joined their voices for a common cause? The protests following the Nirbhaya case, in which a woman was gang-raped by six men in a moving bus, her friend badly beaten up and both thrown out naked on Dec. 16, 2012, was significant for the women in the country. Livid protesters were able to shake up lawmakers from their stupor and within a few months a new law was in place for the safety of women. But do women still consider it safe to venture out late at night? As a woman, I can confirm the answer is no. Dowry deaths are still common, there has been no abatement in the number of rape, torture and murder, female infanticide and foeticide is still a worry. The National Crime Records Bureau’s 2016 report on crimes in India shows that the numbers have only risen.
For India, the moment of reckoning has come and gone many times. What the Thomson Reuters survey presents is an opportunity for us to redeem ourselves in the eyes of our global counterparts. That 548 gender specialists think our country is not fit for a woman to live in is, more than anything else, a matter of shame. To dismiss the claims of the survey as a bogus compilation of mere opinions is foolhardy and a rookie mistake. We must remind ourselves this is how we are perceived by the best in the field of gender.
We, as a society and as a country, desperately need a shift in our collective perspective. Bills may be passed and laws brought into effect, but the most effective way to tackle our national problem is to stop thinking of women’s safety as a secondary issue and instead see it as a public issue that cuts across all strata, income groups and age. There are no magic solutions, but at least the public model will intervene in as many places as possible to educate and reform popular perception about women. I believe that India can be put on the right course. But, yes, first we need to lay the groundwork for the feeling of disgust to be channelled into restoration. Instead of saying nothing good can happen in this country, let us make the reformation a personal project. Instead of rejecting the survey because of the unreliability of perceptions, let us spark an unprecedented reckoning in our country and change the way we talk about the safety of women.
(Published on 09th July 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 28)