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Women’s Rights in India: Promises and Prospects

by Deepali Gaur Singh, 7 March 2009

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Broken Promises, New Pledges, and Possibilities on Women’s Rights in India

The past year has seen an increase in attacks against women in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, culminating in series of assaults on women in public spaces, with the most controversial being the pub assault in the coastal city of Mangalore followed by numerous assaults in the IT hub of Bangalore. By saying that there are far more attacks in other states of the country, official Nirmala Venkatesh made a feeble attempt at keeping the myth of women’s safety alive but what she achieved was to reduce women of the state and the country to mere statistics. What she also seemed to have neglected is that her job description requires her to make every single woman’s and girl’s well-being and safety paramount; that their liberties and rights are not to be challenged on the basis of attire or profession; that they are treated equally under the Indian constitution. Ms. Venkatesh’s brief was, obviously, different.

The police commissioner on the other hand has referred to the recent attacks on women as mere incidents of "eve teasing." While eve-teasing is itself a term specific to the South Asian region, associated with unsolicited verbal harassment like catcalls, whistles and/or remarks directed towards women, the incidents that he so casually referred to were actual assaults on women for being dressed in western attire. More importantly, even eve teasing calls for action against the perpetrators.

What really constitutes an act of violence against a woman or girl? That she is not treated equally under the social and legal order? That she does not have access to basic needs for a dignified existence? That she faces discrimination in the allocation of daily needs for survival both within the household as well as socially? If social, economic and political freedoms are the indices for development, then women in the country constitute an important chunk of the population who continue to be deprived.

India is a country of contrasts in not just the multiplicity of religions and faiths but also cultural contexts and subcontexts that define customs and rituals, roles and positions. And it is against this background of mostly patriarchal and feudal practices that issues concerning women get defined, refined, formulated, modified, accepted and rejected. So while in one part of the country a law is formulated to safeguard the rights of women even in live-in relationships in another part of the country women are facing physical assaults for being dressed in "western attire." And instead of punishing the perpetrators the issue is being debated on the finer nuances of semantics. That in a sense encapsulates the discourse on women’s rights in the country.

The status of women both in their maternal homes and matrimonial homes is circumscribed by the lack of sexual autonomy and it is this sexual control of women that in turn provides the label for male authority. Self-styled vigilantes have very often "punished" couples for inter-religious or inter-caste relationships, a phenomenon that was once restricted to satellite villages has been finding expression in towns and cities as well. The status of women within their families and communities is specifically delimited by matrimony and fertility, ironically, the two things they also have very little control over. And yet with fertility at the core of their pre-assigned social role reproductive health care conditions and accessibility continue to be abysmal in the country reflected in maternal deaths - one in every seven minutes.

While the government has been struggling with making healthcare accessible to each and every woman in the country, conservative customs and beliefs associated with child-bearing and rearing further aggravated by women’s low education and poverty results in the under use of already scarce services. Poor reproductive health transmits from one generation to the next not just undermining the survival of individuals but the well-being of families contributing to the endless generational cycle of poverty. With scarce accessibility and accompanying restrictions women in remote, rural areas tend to rely on the same person for all their health care needs associated more with levels of trust and confidence on these people. This is what makes it imperative that all health care needs are made accessible to these education-deprived, poor women from a single source - an idea that the government is toying through the important agency of midwives and other grassroot groups who have better access to these women.

Similarly, the public awareness campaigns around HIV/AIDS have also shown definite shifts. Some of the earlier administrations had avoided the condom-use strategy and actually followed a deliberate policy of sexual abstinence and marital fidelity in the AIDS prevention campaigns using the argument of "decency" to remove condom advertisements from state-run television networks. The more recent community campaigns around HIV/AIDS and domestic violence have shown a departure from the earlier trends with the focus shifting to the need to bring as many people into the fold of an open discourse on the issue. Interesting and catchy campaigns of community outreach like the condom ringtone and the bell bajao (ring the bell) campaign. The latter draws in the public to participate and bring an end to domestic violence, helping to make issues like this a larger public and social issue by including men to take a stand against domestic violence.

Aside from judgments like those allowing an HIV positive mother the right to bring up her child — which are a step forward in removing stereotypes associated with the virus and discriminating against the victims — mostly women who often have been the care-givers to the positive spouse only to be abandoned by the family later. That the message of HIV is reaching people is reflected in smaller towns and remote regions where young people despite their limited education and conservative upbringing have opted for pre-marital HIV testing with the support of their families.

The Criminal Procedure Code is also in line for an amendment in light of the increase in rape cases in the country. Seen as a landmark step for ensuring gender justice the amendment is intended to protect rape victims from suffering further trauma during the process of investigation. More importantly, it intends having women judges presiding over rape cases in addition to the provision of in-camera hearings. During the investigation stage, the rape victim can record her statement at her residence and in the presence of a woman officer. An insensitive machinery only aggravates the agony for the victim evidenced in the suicide of Sarita who consumed poison in the presence of her young daughters at the police station that refused to listen to her complaints against one of their own. There has also been a suggestion to set up special funds for the rape victims by the central and state governments. This would be important keeping in mind the social ostracization that many women face from the family and community apart from the direct physical and mental trauma associated with the sexual assault.

And yet on the other side contentious judgements like the Supreme Court judgement stating that gifts given by the wife’s side to the husband’s family even after the marriage, did not constitute dowry only served to further legally entrench the already controversial practice of dowry considering that dowry harassment follows a continuous pattern into decades of marriage. Besides, quite often falling prey to the temptation of meeting immediate targets rather than more sustainable goals, the administration has contributed to hardening stereotypes of manliness placing women in even more vulnerable positions and the entire community in a volatile situation by opting for schemes like the guns for vasectomies and palna (cradle) scheme; the latter an emotive response to sex selective abortions. And yet, female fetuses are regularly recovered from dumping yards with the most recent case being the recovery of nine female fetuses from a river bank in a district of the western state of Rajasthan. As per the 2001 Census, the sex ratio of the state is only 922 females per 1,000 males, very close to the equally skewed national average of 933 females.

A case that hinged precariously between emotive arguments of personal trauma and ethical issues was related to the abortion law itself as evidenced in the denial of abortion of a 24-week fetus with a congenital heart condition last year. The Supreme Cour only recently issued notice to the Centre on this petition that challenged the law prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy in case of fetal abnormality. Many believe that the time has come to change the 1971 Act.

The mixed bag of laws, bills, commitments, broken promises, new pledges and fresh possibilities for women’s rights comes with its share of anticipation and disappointments. Will promises be converted into laws and will prejudices make way for a little more tolerance and a little less chauvinism? Will social perceptions of women and their traditionally assigned roles in society witness a change under the collective pressure of government laws and social campaigns? And will society eventually look at girls through the same lens that they see boys? And yet hope survives...