Efficient state intervention can help prevent gender-based violence in India | Mint

Efficient state intervention can help prevent gender-based violence in India

 Despite continual and appreciable efforts, survivors are still met with reluctance, scepticism and worse when they file complaints.  (Photo: Reuters)
Despite continual and appreciable efforts, survivors are still met with reluctance, scepticism and worse when they file complaints. (Photo: Reuters)


  • Intervention in societal norms set by old patriarchal forces is a long-haul challenge. We should focus on a resource rejig, incentive revisions and corrective measures through gender-just school education to make progress.

United Nations data over the past decade has maintained that as many as one in three women globally have experienced physical and/or sexual violence. Indian women too reel from exposure to risks of gender-based violence (GBV), exacerbated by an entrenched patriarchy and limited state capacity to intervene.

To its credit, India has enacted strong legislative frameworks to instil deterrence against GBV and provide survivors with protective support. Apart from stringent penalties under the Indian Penal Code for sexual assault and harassment, dedicated gender-responsive laws address intimate partner and familial violence, workplace sexual harassment and female foeticide. The government has proactively conceptualized policies that set up one-stop crisis centres (OSCs), fund safety upgrades in public spaces (Nirbhaya Fund) and establish women’s shelter homes (Swadhar Greh).

Multi-pronged efforts and rising public awareness have helped India dent the under-reporting problem to a certain extent, with recent trends indicating more survivors coming forth to report GBV. However, even accounting for this, GBV casts an ominous shadow on India’s aspirations to foster women-led development. The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, observed on 25 November, and the ensuing 16 Days of Activism are thus an opportunity to reflect on what India can do better to prevent GBV and protect survivors.

Improve resource allocation: First, we need to re-examine the resources allocated to combat GBV. Today, state functionaries who oversee the enforcement of anti-GBV laws often have to overcome inadequate resources, limited bandwidth and a lack of meaningful supervision and coordination. Violations of laws related to domestic violence, female foeticide and sexual violence are typically under the charge of officials who are given these functions as additional duties over and above their existing revenue or administration functions.

Rejigging the administrative machinery with an eye on allocative efficiency can optimize the use of available funding. Clubbing resources in the hands of a single-minded agency that is tasked solely with responding to GBV is likely to be more effective than thinly spreading resources across a number of uncoordinated officials. This would enable closer monitoring of GBV data and response efforts, the prioritization of more vulnerable groups (or areas), and meaningful oversight and training for protection officers, police personnel and other functionaries. As an example, the US noted increased efficiency in combating GBV after it concentrated resources under the Office on Violence Against Women.

Align incentives: Second, we must take stock of the deep trust deficit that has taken hold between the state and its citizens in enabling gender justice. Despite continual and appreciable efforts, survivors are still met with reluctance, scepticism and worse when they file complaints. Some are advised to “reconcile" with aggressors. Others find themselves in understaffed or ill-equipped crisis centres or shelter homes.

Turning the tide on these trends requires us to double down on gender sensitization training to augment the capacity of first responders, which is work that a vast civil society network is already engaged in.

There is also a need to strengthen the incentive of functionaries to act in the best interests of the survivor. Equipping survivors and watchdog organizations with the power to issue ‘show cause’ notices to officials in case they fail to discharge their duties can empower survivors to demand that officials act strictly in accordance with what the law promises. The ‘carrot’ of meaningful capacity building, coupled with the ‘stick’ of consequences for inaction, can signal a reset in the relationship between survivors and the state.

Invest in changing social norms: It is imperative to acknowledge that, at its core, GBV is driven by deep-seated patriarchal norms that have been resilient against decades of counter efforts by the state. Thus far, the state response to GBV has largely remained reactive, and has even involved heightened surveillance of women. Without targeted interventions in the social set-ups that perpetuate patriarchal outcomes, a legacy of gender inequality would be inherited by each successive generation. India needs to operationalize the equality objective of its National Education Policy 2020, by implementing comprehensive gender-norm corrective interventions at all levels of school education in the country.

There is now emerging evidence that early-age interventions can reduce GBV, thus preventing the problem well before it takes root. It is encouraging that states like Odisha—in partnership with Unicef—are using gender-responsive modules to strengthen inclusive learning outcomes among students. Such initiatives recognize that while investing in a significant social-norm transformation is a long game that demands commitment and patience, it could by far be the most effective in protecting women in India.

India correctly identified women-led development as a priority during its G20 presidency. However, preventing GBV and acting against it are absolute prerequisites for women to realize their full potential.

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