The brutal gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in Delhi has shocked the world. But can the outrage over this incident be channelized to expand the discourse beyond violence? Violence against women can be seen as an extreme form of discrimination—the root cause of this violence is gender inequality and the belief that boys are more valuable than girls.
Acknowledging that violence begins with discrimination, the Justice Verma commission has tried to address the root causes of violence against women to an extent. One of the recommendations submitted to the government is formation of a constitutional authority for education and prevention of discrimination against women and children.
This discrimination and violence starts even before birth, with an alarming rise in female foeticide in the last decade. What is even more perplexing is that sex-selective abortions have increased among the more educated and economically better-off Indians in relatively wealthy states such as Delhi, Punjab, Maharashtra (which includes India’s financial capital, Mumbai) and Haryana, according to a Lancet study.
While sex-selective abortion is illegal in India, the 2011 Census shows an alarming decline in the child sex ratio in India which dropped in 2011 to 914 from 927 in 2001. The decline in the sex ratio in the age group 0-6 years is an extremely distressing trend. Tishani Doshi, the writer and poet, touches on the subject of female foeticide in a new anthology on motherhood by Jaishree Mishra being released this month. She writes, “This is not really myth or secret, this murmur in the mouth... This is the sound of ten million girls singing of a time in the universe, when they were born with tigers breathing between their thighs”.
Nearly three million girls, one million more than boys, were “missing” in 2011 compared with 2001 and there are now 48 fewer girls per 1,000 boys than there were in 1981 according to the Central Statistical Organization. In Asia, and particularly in South Asian countries, a girl child is seen as a burden on the family; the birth of a girl is a cause for lament, rather than a celebration. These huge numbers of missing girls highlights a culture where far too often girls and women are seen, and treated, as inferior.
However, violence against women and girls takes place across the globe. Based on country data available with the United Nations, up to 70% of women experience physical or sexual violence from men in their lifetime—the majority by husbands, intimate partners or someone they know.
Discrimination against women has been internalized by the average Indian on the street. For countless girls, this violence continues through childhood and into womanhood; almost every young woman one talks to has experienced some level of discrimination or harassment. It is also not confined to a certain class or section of society. The situation is made worse by lack of enough exposure and conviction against those perpetrating acts of violence against women. In many cases, police officials put pressure on victims and their families to keep silent or even marry their rapists to avoid prosecution. This culture of silence betrays complicity around violence against women.
Girls from disadvantaged families face both deprivation and discrimination. Because of the deeply patriarchal setting of the average Indian household, boys are often given extra care and attention, whether it is giving them more freedom and importance, education, or food and nutrition. Often girls are not sent to school and are made to do housework from an early age. Families tell us that they are “preparing” the girl for marriage. Thousands of girls are still married off when they should be in school, making them more vulnerable to violence and abuse. Child marriages occur more frequently in South Asia than in any other region of the world, with 48% of women aged 15-24 married before the age of 18. This low value given to girls’ lives creates an environment where violence is often committed with impunity.
While laws need to be strengthened, and even more importantly, strictly enforced, what is equally important is education—both formal, and also within homes. Parents need to treat boys and girls equally; boys need to be taught to treat girls equally. While the recent protests raise our hopes for change, there is a dissonance which needs to be addressed—many of us who supported the protests for justice for the girl are possibly discriminatory towards women in our own lives. And it is not just men who need to introspect; even women tend to imbibe these discriminatory attitudes. We must ensure that the issue of violence against women is not seen just as a “women’s issue”, but a societal issue.
The spate of recent tragic events highlighted in the media and by civil society organizations have changed the landscape, pushing to prominence an issue which for too long was ignored by those who could do something about it. While the recent demonstrations are unprecedented in India for such an issue, we hope that these will mark a turning point and change attitudes and improve law enforcement. This could then result in substantive changes for girls and women, and more broadly throughout society. A gender unequal polity is our collective failure.
We must not forget the pain of the Delhi girl who died fighting. We must not let her death and the death of others like her go in vain. Let us start early and start young to stop discrimination and violence against girls.