November 18, 2011

Times of India

The unsafe sex

A shocking bit of statistic hit us last week. There has been an 800% increase in rape cases in the last 40 years. Each passing decade should have been safer for women in a country that aspires to be a world leader. But India is today a more dangerous place for the fairer sex than it was ever before.

For Kiran (not her real name), it was almost a daily habit to stroll outside her home in south Delhi and chat with friends on her cellphone. She probably thought she had nothing to fear though the area where she lived had many single men, mostly students like her. Late last year, the girl from the northeast was raped and killed when she refused a neighbour's advances.

The accused later reportedly told a psychiatrist , "She used to talk on her phone about private matters in front of me. I felt if she's doing that, then she's become mine (Woh meri apni ho gayi)."

His response reflects one truth about modern India - the more it tries to change, the more it remains the same for its women. That seems to be the dark message from statistics released recently by the National Crime Records Bureau, which show that rape is India's fastest growing misdemeanour and has increased by 792% since 1971.
There are no class barriers here, though figures say rapes are more rampant in rural areas. The patriarchal mindset has always been the prime accused and nothing has changed in that respect, whether the criminals are well-shod , PhD students or poor rickshawallas. Today, though, "there are complex multiple forces at play which are causing increasing violence against women" , as Abha Bhaiya, founding member of Jagori, an NGO for women's empowerment in Delhi, says. "True, there's more awareness now and more reporting of sexual violence. More mothers are reporting about child abuse. But the fact is that the number of child rapes has increased. There are regressive forces at play. Women have become more assertive and men are not able to accept that and use heinous ways to punish them. Most of the rapes are done by people known to the victims , which says something about our society."

Activists say the laws have made little difference. "The generation of my parents said women have to suffer in silence. Today women feel they cannot take it anymore, but they are angry that the larger society does not take a stance," says Bhaiya.

With more women entering the workforce, emerging as professional competitors and exhibiting financial and emotional independence, the ill-feeling towards them has increased, say experts . "Modernity is impinging on closed systems ," says Dr Rajat Mitra, director of Swanchetan , an NGO that provides emotional support to survivors of violence and abuse. He feels the growing migrant workforce in the country is part of the problem. "These people carry forward their values and mindset, leading to a clash of cultures. Besides,women from small towns don't take the necessary precautions in big cities, adding to their vulnerability. Men have increased access to porn and other forms of stimulation, and have the feeling that they can get away with it, given the image the police have as those who can be paid off."

Mitra believes that lax law enforcement - and the low importance given to both rape as a crime and to counselling of victims - is contributing to the rise in sexual violence. "Counselling helps in reporting the case, pursuing it in court and getting the accused convicted." But, he says, there has been a decline in psychological services, which have been palmed off to local NGOs that don't have the expertise to deal with complex cases. The abysmal rate of rape convictions in India, about 27% in 2010, adds to the poor image of law enforcers and encourages those inclined towards sexual violence. A former member of the National Commission for Women recalls a case last year in which a rapist was allowed to go free on the basis of a compromise. "It reveals a lack of consistency in court judgments, subjectivity in the interpretation of the law and also adds to the pressure on the victim," she says. There have been shocking instances where victims have been asked to marry their violators. "If that's going to be the trend in courts, it's going to be bad," says the former NCW member. "Rape victims abroad never worry about who would marry them. But here, for victims from semi-urban families, the worry is 'Who will marry me' , and that her family would be ostracized," says Mitra.

The rape laws

In India, rape is defined as intentional, unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman, without her permission. In Brazil, it’s unconsensual vaginal sex and in China, it’s forcible coitus with women or by other means against their will. But in Sweden, where Julian Assange is facing trial for rape, it even applies to situations when someone wouldn’t be capable of saying “no”. The definition was broadened in 2005 to include having sex with someone who is asleep, or someone who could be considered to be in a “helpless state”

Some lessons from Rwanda

Would you rather be born a woman in India or in Pakistan ?

The answer may not behalf as obvious as you would imagine. While countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as African nations such as Rwanda and Zimbabwe have never been role models for India, they fare better than us on the latest Gender Inequality Index released by the United Nations Development Programme. This, despite the fact that all four countries fare worse than India on the Human Development Index.

So does India's development elude its women? And how come parts of Africa, which conjure images of starvation and voodoo among the Indian middle class, look after their women better?

Experts in the field of women's studies point to the structured inequality in Indian society. "Many poorer nations are not as unequal as we are,'' says Vibhuti Patel, professor at Mumbai's SNDT Women's University and a prominent women's activist. Many countries, which may be economically more depressed than India, may also be less aggressive towards their women. Within India itself, more developed regions such as Punjab are also more violent towards women. Activists believe practices such as child marriage and female foeticide that greatly reduce a woman's decision-making powers are far more prevalent in India than much of Africa. Data on women and girls, released by the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau earlier this year, shows that 47% of Indian women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married by the time they reached 18, a figure far higher than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. Patel says that women enjoy a better status in several African countries than they do in India as they have more control over the family income. "In Africa, starvation levels are the same for men and women, while in India there tends to be a hierarchy of food distribution within families, with men and boys being fed more nutritious food, and women being fed both last and the least.''

When it comes to literacy rates, India fares worse than countries such as Iran and Libya. "When poor families face a crunch in their household income, it's usually the girls that get pulled out of school,'' says Prof Malashri Lal, former director of the Women Studies and Development Centre at Delhi University. This is in sync with the latest Annual Status of Education Report by NGO Pratham, which shows that more girls are enrolled in India's government schools than boys even as there are more boys in private schools.

If there's one area where the Indian woman is becoming more visible, it's in the workforce. But these numbers have a flip side too. Prof Shyam Menon, vice-chancellor of Ambedkar University, points out that middle-class women's participation in labour outside the house is now possible because poorer women do the housework for them. "Can we actually call this women's empowerment, or is it a case of one class of women replacing the other when it comes to domestic labour?'' he asks.

Menon feels that many women take up professions such as teaching , nursing and hospitality as it gives them time to carry out their domestic chores as well. "Domestic work is seen as their primary responsibility. This is a double-edged sword as it undermines both women as well as professions such as teaching,'' he adds.
Sonya Gill of the All India Democratic Women's Association blames the current growth model for gender inequality. "The government is cutting down on public funding of welfare measures in fields such as health, education and food distribution. This particularly affects marginalized sections such as women.'' She also points to the government's refusal to implement affirmative action policies such as the reservation bill for women in Parliament. Women's representation in Parliament is lower in India than it is in Pakistan , Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

But, N Hamsa, executive director of Woman Power Connect , says India does not lack in policy or legislation for women, but in implementation. For instance, despite having an inheritance law, women are influenced not to exert their rights. "It is like having a policy of free education in the absence of schools," she says. Or take the "strict" laws against domestic violence. At the ground, little seems to have changed. In a startling revelation, the National Family Health Survey III found that over 40% of the 1.25 lakh women surveyed in 28 states and the capital said they had experienced domestic violence. More shockingly, 54% of women - and 51% of men - felt it was justified. Increasing modernity in India's metros may seem at odds with the low status of women in society. But Nandita Shah, codirector of Akshara, an organization working for the uplift of women, feels that modernity reinforces traditional beliefs. "Modernity exists in terms of fashion, clothes and brands, but not in our worldview, or the way we see relationships.'' And here India could learn a thing or two from poorer nations.

I don’t think I will get justice…’

Simi, 17, and Reena, 24 (names changed), are victims of rape. Both live in Delhi and are going through counselling. Sunday Times spoke to them and found that they have little faith in the system

Who supported you when you needed it? Your family?

Simi: No. They blame me for bringing dishonour to them.
Reena: I did not want to tell my family but they got to know and it was terrible. They became anxious and agitated. They also blamed me for it, saying I was too liberated. I got support from the counsellor and a close friend.

Do you think you will get justice?

Simi: I don't think so. He (the accused) is powerful and the system is corrupt.
Reena: Have I got justice? No. I do not have faith in the system.

How did the police treat you?

Simi: They were suspicious and insensitive. My story leaked out because of them.
Reena: They were insensitive. They didn't know how to ask me questions, nor did the doctors doing the MLC report. People stared at me. Everyone knew I had been raped; it was horrible.

What do you look forward to in life?

Simi: I don't know what I want in life right now.
Reena: I live one day at a time; I have no future. At times, I feel suicidal and call up my counsellor or a helpline.

What do you think of men who don't respect women?

Simi: It's disgusting the way they treat women.They only see us as a body, not as someone with feelings.
Reena: I do not have any feelings for men. Earlier, I felt attracted (towards them), now I don't .

Do you think you are stronger as a person now?

Simi: I feel more vulnerable now.
Reena: I don't feel strong inside. I feel hollow.

When the crime is rape, all the men gang up

Whichever way you look at it, the news is not good. A 792% increase in reported cases of rape in 40 years. Add to this the thousands of cases that don't get reported, and the numbers will be staggering . If nothing else, this should make Indians, all of us, right from the President to the person at the bottom of the social ladder, hang our heads in shame.

One might argue that there's always another side to statistical data - and if you wanted to put a positive spin on this (hard to do but nevertheless), you might say that at least women are coming out to report, that they feel empowered to talk about a crime that has so far remained hidden.

But the holes in such an argument are immediately apparent. For one thing, if this is what women are talking about, the real scale of the problem must be much, much bigger. And then, even if they are coming out to talk, you only need to look at other statistics - conviction rates have dropped by nearly a third (from 41% to 27%in the same period) as have what the police euphemistically call 'disposal' rates. And none of this takes account of those unnamable things - social stigma, mental trauma, deep insecurities, to name only a few.

It's nearly four decades now that the women's movement in India began to focus on the issue of rape. The Mathura, Rameeza Bee, and Maya Tyagi rape cases (even though the use of names is now banned, this is how these landmark cases came to be known) and the gangrape of women in Santhal Parganas - these were some of the catalysts for the activism of the late seventies and early eighties.

Led by four eminent lawyers we - for I was among those who were part of this nationwide campaign - fought against the acquittal of two policemen who had raped the minor girl, Mathura. We demanded changes in the rape law. We performed at street corners to create an awareness of women's rights.

And when, in 1983, the State finally changed the law on rape - after nearly a century-and-a-half - we thought we had 'succeeded' because, even if the new legislation did not have everything we wanted, it had some important changes.

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