Daughters of India violated and abused
In the ancient land of India where female deities are deeply revered, Kali and Lakshmi, Sarasvati and Parvati are held high upon the alter of Hinduism. Each day thousands of Hindus ritually bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges, in the hope of being cleansed within and without by the Goddess Ganga.
But in today’s India women and girls – in forests, cities, villages, towns, buses and trains, in the street, and at the office, school and home – are being violated, abused, raped and trafficked into prostitution and domestic slavery. Such is life for far too many women in the hollow titled “largest democracy in the world”. The “new India” sits at the head table rubbing nuclear shoulders beyond treaties of control, while denigrating and abusing women throughout the land.
Even the womb offers no sanctuary to the daughter of Kali, with 12 million female foetuses aborted in the last 30 years. The list of abuse suffered is familiar and appalling: trafficking, prostitution, “arranged (meaning coerced) and child marriages – illegal under federal and international law, but widespread, with almost half of girls forced to marry by the age of 18 and 20 per cent by the age of 15. Young girls are sold as chattels, brides are burned alive in dowry disputes and teenagers are exploited as domestic workers, which equates to little more than modern-day slavery.
Completing the catalogue is widespread domestic violence, molestation in public (of Indians and visitors), verbal intimidation and rape, which the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) says is “the fastest growing crime in India” and takes place every day, in all manner of situations and affecting all sections of society, young and old. Those sitting comfortably in authority dismiss sexual assault and rape incidents, 90 per cent of which are perpetrated by someone known to the woman, and cite the victim’s dress and demeanour as provocation for the assault.
Those immersed in poverty are at greatest risk, with the Adivasi (native or indigenous people), all too often branded Maoists or terrorists, receiving less protection, no respect and the greatest abuse. Rape, according to the writer and activist Arundhati Roy, is the weapon of choice for security services and forestry personnel deployed against the Adivasi women throughout the forests of central India, Orissa and elsewhere. The victims, living with no health care or access to education but with roots deep in the foundations of the nation are, after all, “only Adivasi”.
A survey by TrustLaw earlier this year found that, of the G20 countries, India is the worst country to live in if you are female, behind even Saudi Arabia. This damning statistic is compounded by an earlier study that described India as the fourth (behind Afghanistan, DR Congo and Pakistan – all incidentally regarded as war zones) worst place on the planet to be a woman, primarily due to female foeticide, infanticide and human trafficking. In 2009, the then Indian home secretary, Madhukar Gupta, estimated that about 100 million people, mostly women and girls, were trafficked that year.
Trafficking is mostly internal and affects people living in greatest poverty, including children. Forced labour is the destination of most. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “men, women and children in debt bondage are forced to work in industries such as brick kilns, rice mills, agriculture and embroidery factories. A common characteristic of bonded labour is the use of physical and sexual violence as coercive tools.” It goes on to state that “concerns remain over the uneven enforcement of trafficking laws and alleged official complicity” – diplomatic speak for corruption. The Indian government, the UNHCR concludes, “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking”, but as it effects those with little or no voice, the pressure to act in accordance with international law, not to mention moral and constitutional duty, is ignored.
Domestic slavery, together with prostitution and trafficking, form an interrelated trinity of terror, orchestrated by criminal gangs, community members and patriarchal families that prey on the vulnerable and needy. Completing the picture of contemporary life for girls and women is the blight of arranged or forced marriages, plus extreme levels of female foeticide, which the United Nations Population Fund says amount to “up to 50 million girls … ‘missing’ over the past century” due to such immoral practices.
Into this polluted river of sexual abuse and violent intimidation comes the headline tragedy of an unnamed 23-year-old medical student who was raped by five men and a minor on a private bus in Delhi. She later died from her injuries. In the words of Human Rights Watch (HRW), the murderous attack is “a sobering reminder of the pervasive sexual violence that women and girls across India suffer”.
This appalling incident, perpetrated against a woman from India’s new and growing middle class, has arrested media attention and caused public outrage. It is, however, but the loudest cry of many such recent violations against women and represents a deep-seated sociological divide and injustice, reflecting distorted ideas of gender and control that allow Indian men to perpetrate all manner of abuse against women and to remain largely unpunished. Federal law is weak and painfully slow and the police are corrupt, poorly trained and uneducated. On 27 December, according to HRW, a young girl in Punjab committed suicide because police did not register her complaint of gang rape a month earlier.
Most cases of sexual assault go unreported, and those that are reported are often dismissed out of hand by police and family, or classed “as one-off or trivial” or as merely “eve-teasing”. Consequently, it is virtually impossible to collate accurate figures, particularly when Adivasi women are the victims and police or security personnel are involved. HRW relate one of a myriad such cases: “in October 2011 police in Chattisgarh were accused of sexual assault of an Adivasi teacher, Soni Sori, while she was in their custody” – she had in fact gone to the police station looking for work and been detained by the superintendent who, with other officers, repeatedly raped her.
The police are in effect beyond the law, which makes it mandatory “for a prosecutor to obtain permission from the government to initiate criminal proceedings against public servants”. The security services, the central reserve police force, the military, the paramilitary and the border security force likewise enjoy wide-ranging immunity from prosecution under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
In addition to arrogant and dismissive police attitudes to reports of sexual abuse and potential parental restrictions on freedom of movement, the painfully slow judicial system and the legal framework for assault deter women from coming forward. There is no specific law or legal provision for the range of abuse suffered – simply a narrow definition limited to “all forms of penetrative sexual assault”, the spurious and archaic definition of “outraging the modesty of a woman” and the equally elusive to “intrude on a woman’s privacy”.
On the rare occasion when charges are brought under such provision and a conviction is won, the maximum penalty, according to the Hindustan Times, “is a year’s simple imprisonment, or a fine, or both”. Rape carries a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment. The laws clearly need fundamental reform.
Gender inequality, social injustice
Even given the underreporting, registered rape is increasing year on year. In 2011 the authorities documented 24,206 reported cases, representing a fraction of the actual number. Add to this the daily sexual assaults, molestation, intimidation and domestic violence at the hands of a husband or other family member, and the violent abuse which, incidentally, over half of teenage girls believe is justified – such is the distorted nature of gender relations that pervades and conditions the Indian psyche, both male and female. As the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi said: “By sheer force of a vicious custom, even the most ignorant and worthless men have been enjoying a superiority over woman which they do not deserve and ought not to have.”
Generation upon generation have been conditioned to adopt a gender stereotype that reinforces male domination and female subservience, cloaking both in a shroud of suppression, causing untold suffering to women and maintaining a destructive, unjust and poisonous social order. Patterns of behaviour are justified under the much misappropriated banner of culture, allowing human rights violations and harmful social practices to continue.
Anuradha Gupta, of India’s National Rural Health Mission, explains: “When girls are brought up with the message that a woman’s status in a family is inferior, she starts to accept whatever behaviour is meted out by her husband or in-laws.” She adds: “When a boy grows up seeing his father assault his mother, he starts to accept such behaviour and repeats it.”
The International Research Centre for Women found that, throughout India, “social norms and practices are mostly governed by patriarchal ideologies”, attitudes that are incompatible with any recognizable definition of a just and democratic society. As Gandhi stated:
of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity to me, the female sex, not the weaker sex. It is the nobler of the two, for it is even today the embodiment of sacrifice, silent suffering, humility, faith and knowledge.
In the race for commercial success and material wealth, intrinsic democratic values of fairness and justice are being cast aside.
The widespread assault on the rights and dignity of women in India is a national plague, rooted in attitudes of gender inequality, suppression and control, injustices demanding the urgent attention of the Indian government and civil society. UN Women express the right minded view that “we need to take tougher action together to change the present reality and culture of impunity”. They stress “the urgent need to promote and protect the safety of women and girls in India. Every girl and woman should be able to live safely and free of violence”, intimidation and fear.
Such fundamental societal change will not be realized by initiating the equally barbaric death penalty for rape, or by much needed legislation alone. Destructive gender attitudes need to change. A widespread awareness and education programme to cleanse the current, narrow divisive ideas held by men throughout India is essential if women are to be treated with the respect and dignity that is their right.