Is India the most dangerous country for women? This question has prompted a debate in India after a Thomson-Reuters Foundation report claimed it to be. The report was based on a survey of global experts on the matter. The debate included the fair criticism that it was a perception- rather than a fact-based survey, and that once you delve into facts, the story about women’s safety becomes far more complex.
The main argument made by commentators centres around two related facts—firstly, sexual offences go largely unreported in India and, secondly, most such offenders are someone the victim knows intimately, often within the family. Police are notorious for refusing to write down first information reports (FIRs) when it comes to women making a charge of sexual violence against someone, especially if that someone is her husband, partner or another member of the family. An unstated but rampant society-wide patriarchal consensus means the police officer will often try to persuade the woman to back down.
As a previous article in Mint pointed out, 99% of sexual assaults in India go unreported. Even if one excludes marital rape, 85% of sexual assaults go unreported. This, of course, may seem counter-intuitive because if reporting goes up, surely the figures will only zoom. One reply to that from commentators is that the figures for every country may go up. The data on India reveals one more curious fact: while the rate of reporting of sexual crimes has risen between 2001 and 2016, the proportion of women reporting they had faced sexual violence had come down from 2005 to 2016. But at 6%, the number of women who reported having faced sexual violence in the lifetime in 2016 will still be a jaw-dropping figure.
This is exactly why perceptions matter. The data may well tell a nuanced story, but the view from the outside is India is a dangerous place for women. As Deepa Narayan, author of Chup: Breaking the Silence About Being India’s Women, argues forcefully in The Guardian, “Perceptions of how women should be treated create a rape culture."
One aspect that emerges from this debate is the role of men, specifically how boys are brought up in Indian families, which, given the unchallenged force of patriarchy, tends to give men a sense of entitlement over women, specifically over women’s bodies.
I asked some Delhi-based mothers for their views, as well as one of their sons, a 22-year-old man who is about to leave for the US to study physics at MIT. Needless to say, they are all urban, professional, highly educated and liberal in their social attitudes. I was interested in what kinds of conversations the women had with their sons, as they grew up, about matters of gender equality, sex and sexuality, as well as consent in sexual relationships. As expected, every one of the mothers had had these conversations, although in one case, it was her husband who had done the talking. Some of them are women I know personally, and they belong to India’s urban elite. Their sons (and daughters) are all highly qualified and about to step into the world of either higher studies or work. Yet, sexual assault in India (or anywhere else) takes place with little regard to class or social background.
This is something all of them were aware of. They are also keen observers of their surroundings. “We’ve definitely had those conversations with our mum," said the son cited above. “We know what is acceptable and what the limits are, what is appropriate behaviour and what is not. We were talking today about gender-neutral kindergartens. We know what is explicit consent, and what is implied consent. But then, many of my friends come from very patriarchal families, where they don’t have open conversations with their parents. Some of them think ‘implied’ is too much of a grey area."
Gender sensitization programmes are organized by their schools as well. But when the older brother went to study at one of India’s premier engineering institutes, he came across “students who would crack misogynistic jokes".
Such jokes are commonplace, even among educated urban-based social media groups, such as those of school or university batches, and are only sometimes challenged by others in these groups, reflecting the biases found in the wider society.
Arti Jaiman of Gurgaon ki Awaaz, which describes itself as the only civil society community radio in the national capital region, pointed to wider gender bias issues that crop up during her radio shows.
The Hindi-language radio, whose 500,000 listeners include villagers and migrant workers, airs programmes on subjects that include sexual health and adolescents, and these will often focus on notions of masculinity.
These conversations, according to Jaiman, reveal “received ideas about sexuality, gleaned from the media, which reinforce ideas of subjugation: i.e. ‘she is mine, she is my right’… Many children witness domestic violence and end up replicating what they grew up with."
Jaiman, in other words, is having the conversations which families ought to be having at home. And from her conversations with her own son and daughter, she knows that the masculine sense of entitlements—“it is about control"—cuts across class and geography. They are present in the air-conditioned classroom of the private school, as much as the dusty sprawl of a construction site.
“India is yet to get the conversation going on masculinity," she says.
The Indian government has rejected the Thomson-Reuters Foundation report, citing “flawed methodology" and “an effort to malign the nation". But every woman I have spoken to over the past several years in India has expressed fears about safety. “Any woman who travels around and takes public transport knows how unsafe this city is," said a National Capital Region-based woman.
In spite of statements by Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging parents not to differentiate between their sons and daughters, there is little doubt that India has become a very dangerous place for women. It matters little whether it tops the list of misogynistic nations or comes in the top 10 or places somewhere in the top 50. When it comes to the safety of half your population, comparisons can be odious—except to introspect and bring about changes in the way men look at women.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1