This article has been excerpted from the author’s graduate thesis titled, “Human Security and the Developing World: the Case of India’s Women.” If you wish to know more, please contact the author via firstname.lastname@example.org.
The status of women in India has undergone significant changes in the six decades since India gained independence. Factors such as sexual violence, traditional gender roles, the class divide and the caste system, economic development, rapid modernization and globalization have had immeasurable effects on women’s security in India.
According to the book Empower Women: An Awakening, “the following crimes were committed against women in 2007: one woman was sexually harassed every 48 minutes; one woman or minor girl was abducted every 26 minutes; one woman was raped every 25 minutes; and one woman was molested every 14 minutes.” The author goes on to indicate that “these numbers are based on reported crimes” and “the vast majority of crimes against women in our country go unreported.” Most cities in India are fairly cosmopolitan, where many foreigners live and work. However, women frequently encounter the problems referenced in the above stats, and are also leered at, catcalled and even propositioned by men of all ages.
Many women have chosen to stop venturing outside alone until the situation improves. In addition, the Indian print and television media encourages women not to leave their homes after dusk unaccompanied, as the danger is too great.
I traveled to India in the Winter of 2014 to study these issues and develop a thesis for my Master’s program. I found, firsthand, that the threat of sexual violence hangs over women’s daily lives in India and tempers all of the decisions they make, both professionally and personally. Traditional gender roles, enforced by familial and tribal ties, make it difficult for Indian women to assert themselves in all aspects of their lives.
The class divide and the caste system are most cogent for the women in India, as they experience its effects more often than their male counterparts. Economic development, while positive for the country as a whole, has made it both easier and more difficult for women to assert themselves professionally and has deepened the divide between upper-class, well-educated women and their disadvantaged counterparts. Modernization has empowered women in a way that clashes with their traditional gender roles.
Globalization has allowed Indian women to see how women in other countries (especially Western countries, like the United States and United Kingdom) live, and through this glimpse, has caused them to question why they do not experience the same freedoms they see on television and in movies. The increased exposure to Western television has led young Indian men and women to act in ways that are contradictory to the traditional roles to which they are accustomed.
This divide between Eastern ideas and Westernization has led to a crisis of identity in the young Indian population. The women wish to exercise the freedom they see on Western television and the men do not know how to reconcile the docile, feminine girl (or wife) they had imagined with the independent woman they are faced with on a daily basis.
According to a Reuters global poll, India is ranked the “fourth most dangerous country” in the world for women. A TrustWorld poll reveals that India is the worst country for women among the G20 countries. In addition, the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report ranked India 101st out of 134 countries in terms of gender parity.
If there is not major institutional and social change pertaining to women’s rights and security in India in the next five years, India’s rise to power will be marred by human rights violations and the stigma of appearing to be an intolerant country.
The articles referenced here detail the crisis that Indian women face. I have included some of my recommendations on how to move past these issues and into the future.
In order to alleviate the crisis of human security faced by women in India, the government of India must renew its focus on women’s education, health and empowerment. In addition, it must focus some of its lawmaking efforts in prevention, rather than punishment, of the crimes by integrating the role of men in the attacks into the consciousness and social dialogue of the country.
In general, well-educated, healthy and empowered women tend to face fewer threats to their daily security than their illiterate, impoverished and disadvantaged counterparts. Women in these upper echelons of society are granted political positions and freedoms that were historically held only by men, while impoverished women’s lives are regularly under attack by (frequently) uneducated men with traditional mindsets.
This statement is not to say that women in all sectors of society do not suffer from harassment and sexual violence. Rape (Especially marital rape, which is not illegal in India – Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code considers the forced sex in marriages as a crime only when the wife is below 15.), spousal abuse and other indicators of violence occur in all classes and castes, but women in lower classes are subjected to harassment, attacks and sexual violence outside of the home and on a more regular basis than their advantaged counterparts.
In addition, police corruption in India makes it more difficult for lower class and uneducated women to receive retribution after they have been attacked. Upper-class victims tend to see justice for the crimes committed against them, with the perpetrators arrested and convicted, while lower-class (and frequently uneducated) victims are subjected to police brutality and social stigma after they have been attacked and frequently do not see their attackers punished.
To remedy the crisis of human security, there needs to be increased education at the elementary, middle and high school levels concerning women’s roles in society and their importance to daily life. There also must be a renewed focus on women’s (and men’s) health issues in India.
Currently, health classes are not offered in most schools across India, due to prudish values and outdated lesson plans. The educational system in India has not changed much with modernity, and sex and sexual health are not openly discussed within Indian society. As a result, aside from the obvious prevalence of unplanned pregnancies and problems during childbirth, there are many general health implications.
Because young men and women are not taught how to avoid disease through good hygiene, there is a societal stigma attached to curable diseases. An example of this phenomenon is the stigma attached to the varicella zoster virus (VZV), or chicken pox. VZV in India is widely believed to emanate from the goddess of destruction, or “Mataa,” taking residence in one’s body for 10-15 days. As a result, an illness such as chicken pox, which can be alleviated (although not cured) by modern medicine, is seen as a sign that one has done something to anger the goddess and should suffer in silence (without medication) for the duration of the illness.
Although health education in schools is the best method to ensure that these values are passed onto future generations, several innovative methods have been utilized to ensure that the presently affected population learns the importance of good health. One interesting example of this type of education was the “Indian Condom Ad” that imparted the values of condoms to a small village in India through a flash mob.
Another example of innovative health education involves polio in India. On February 11, 2014, India was certified “polio-free” by the World Health Organization (WHO) after successfully completing three years without an “endemic” case of polio. Just five years prior to the announcement, India accounted for nearly half of the global polio cases and was considered one of the most difficult places to eradicate the disease, mainly due to sanitation and accessibility issues.
When health workers primarily from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) determined that the children of migrants and those who were growing up in inaccessible areas were not getting access to the polio immunizations, they deployed vaccination efforts to reach the children. The government of India, in conjunction with UNICEF, the WHO and various philanthropic organizations, launched a “massive effort involving a surveillance network and almost 2.3 million vaccine administrators, who identified communities falling through the cracks.” They utilized “social mobilizers,” religious leaders and parents to counter rumors and misunderstandings about the immunizations (polio and others) and included Bollywood celebrities and cricket players in their campaigns to reach a wide audience.
More innovative campaigns that reach the entirety of India need to be utilized by the Government of India to ensure that all of Indian society understands the importance of good health.
There also must be an increased focus on women’s empowerment in order to combat the current crisis of human security faced by women in India. A large portion of the internal conflict Indian women face concerning traditional values and modernity is due to the fact that women were generally expected to do what the men in their lives (whether fathers, brothers or husbands) asked of them. They were rarely expected to make decisions for themselves.
This trend created a dual problem: women living in urban environments were suddenly given the opportunity to think and act as they desired and had the tendency to exercise that freedom in potentially dangerous ways-and men living in these same urban environments still held rural values and expected the women they interacted with to indulge their every whim and command accordingly.
Women staying out late, drinking and acting raucously, clashed in unfortunate and often violent ways with men who were unaccustomed to seeing women behave in this manner. By empowering women to make their own intelligent decisions from a young age, and by showing men that women do indeed have the right to make their own decisions, these violent attacks can be prevented and can ameliorate the current security crisis.
Lastly, the government of India must place some of its focus on men’s roles in the current security crisis. The government has mostly enacted laws trying to protect women and has circulated press releases advising women to avoid dangerous situations, but has not done much to prevent perpetrators from continuing their behaviors.
The actions of the men involved in such attacks on women are frequently dismissed as “boyish” and part of the process of growing up. In fact, according to Indian Express’s piece titled “Boys will be Boys, they make mistakes, will you hang them for rape?” Mulayam Singh Yadav, the chief of Uttar Pradesh’s ruling Samajwadi party, claimed that men who have committed rape should not be hung. He instead blamed the problem on women who level “false accusations” in that “First, girls develop friendships with boys. Then when differences occur, they level rape charges. Boys commit mistakes. Will they be hanged for rape?” Attitudes such as this one dismiss men’s roles in the current crisis and will stunt India’s growth by ensuring that the lack of human security in India continues unabated.
The current security situation in India is untenable and if the Indian government and social institutions do not enact a change, women in India will live in a constant state of insecurity for years to come.
Read more about gender discrimination in India from the Foundation for Sustainable Development.