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Overcoming gender discrimination in India

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In Brief

It is a bitter irony that International Women’s Day came right on the heels of the controversy about the government ban on a BBC documentary about the fatal 2012 gang rape of a young Indian woman known by the pseudonym ‘Nirbhaya’.


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The documentary has, as could be expected, raked up public emotions that feed on self-righteousness, jingoism and middle class pretentions.

The public discussion that followed the government ban unfortunately distracts from the real issue. This was not the only, and will surely not be the last, case of maltreatment of women in India.

Every day there are thousands of Indian girls and women who are kidnapped, tortured and trafficked. Some are victims of honour killings ordered by khaps or fatwas, a punishment dealt on the basis of religious legal judgment. A large number of cases of domestic violence and marital rape routinely go unreported.

Thousands of girls are trafficked across the border from neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh and forced into prostitution. As a society, Indians choose to not only ignore but also often connive in the perpetration of these crimes.

In any case Indian society does not care to challenge the stereotype of ‘good women’ propagated by both Hindu and Muslim extremists, and fringe groups. Why then the hypocrisy when an ‘outsider’, like the BBC, shines a light on this issue?

In a democracy political leaders are expected to be agents of change and not opportunistic followers of social practices. Leaders like Smriti Irani and Maneka Gandhi, the Minister for Human Resource Development and Minister for Women and Child Development respectively, should take this opportunity to tell the nation what measures are being planned to fight this social evil.

In his maiden Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the lead by calling upon mothers to educate their sons not to abuse women. But Modi’s call has been in vain. Led by bureaucrats, and seemingly immune to the gravity of pervasive social malpractices, political leaders chose to rave and rant in reaction to this abuse but then revert to business as usual.

Rather than leaving the job of tackling violence against women and children to civil society organisations, which politicians will subsequently perceive as agent provocateurs, it is time political leaders followed Mahatma Gandhi’s example of leading movements against social ills.

There is a huge reform agenda to be taken up if India is serious about exorcising its society of abuse against women and children. The first necessary steps are legal provisions against amniocentesis (a procedure used to determine the sex of a foetus), child marriage and dowry that violate the rights of girls. These legal provisions must be supported by social mobilisation, a massive education effort and well-advertised deterrents.

The legislative approach has proven to be grossly inadequate, even when confronting social evils like untouchability. Yet the political class carries on with its current approach, rather than using its convening powers to change society’s underlying value systems.

The government must now take a radically different approach to ensure women’s social status, safety and security — which should be their birthright. It should begin by allocating sufficient resources and strictly enforcing an outcome-based performance and accountability mechanism for ministries that receive these allocations.

A country that can send a space vehicle to Mars can surely tackle these social evils. Tackling gender-based discrimination could be a priority assignment for the government’s policy think-tank NITI Aayog. It could also test its effectiveness in bringing on board various stakeholders, like state governments and civil society organisations, in ridding India of a national stigma.

The agenda for rooting out unacceptable attitudes and violence against women — as reflected in the rapists’ statements in the banned BBC documentary — must also include police and judiciary reforms. Crimes against women do not happen without the active connivance, or abject disregard of basic norms, by the police and judiciary. Unless both the judiciary and the police are reformed, and the rampant corruption that permits the trafficking of women across India’s national borders and from villages to cities is stopped, countless Nirbhayas will continue to be kidnapped, tortured, raped and killed.

Police and judicial reforms are perhaps even more important than economic reforms if India is to lay claim to being a civilised society.

In India divinity is worshipped as Shakti, a female form. She has innumerable avatars and names. Indians recite the Devi Kavach to protect ourselves. We celebrate Durga, Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati Pujas around the country. We worship Fatima and Mary. India’s saints have penned beautiful poetry like the Saundarya Lahri in praise of the Devi. And yet we do not have the social and political will to root out crimes against women!

It is time we did.

Rajiv Kumar is an economist and senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi.

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