Notes from the Field

The Rising Tide of Violence Against Women in India

December 12, 2012

This week, 4,000 organizations across the globe mark the end of the annual 16-day campaign to end gender-based violence. Women in India, like many of the women represented by these organizations, are worse off than their male counterparts on most counts. Here, women face greater restrictions on mobility, usually have less to eat than their male counterparts, are denied proper education and healthcare, and are often forced into early marriages. They have fewer opportunities for employment, and are underrepresented in government.

Based on a recent survey conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, India is the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women. A recent study conducted by India’s Central Statistical Organisation, found that nearly three million girls, one million more than boys, are “missing” in 2011 compared to 2001 and there are now 48 fewer girls per 1,000 boys than there were in 1981. According to police records, a woman is raped in India every 20 minutes. But even the most violent crimes committed against women are rarely reported and perpetrators are often unpunished. At the same time, broad community awareness of violence against women is low. As a result, many such crimes continue with impunity.

An important audience for change is India’s growing youth population. Unfortunately, such topics are not generally discussed in Indian society, so raising these issues comes with its own set of challenges. Teachers and families tend to shy away from such taboo topics at home and in the classroom.

In response to mounting pressure, India’s government has taken steps to curb violence against women over the past few decades. Commissions have been set up for women at both the national and state level. Police departments in some states have created women’s cells at the police stations, or separate police stations dedicated to women complainants only. While there is debate in the legal and NGO community about the effectiveness of separate stations, there is no doubt that when a woman has experienced violence the police would be her first point of contact to initiate the legal process. As a result, many organizations and activists are working at the ground level to help sensitize police officers on how to work with women who seek help and protection.

The most prominent step to combat the problem has been passage of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) in 2006. Prior to having access to this seminal piece of legislation, women who had suffered domestic violence were forced to rely on the various criminal law provisions in the Indian Penal Code, an archaic piece of law dating back to colonial times which provided limited recourse. Because it presents a civil law remedy, the PWDVA does not initiate criminal proceedings, but rather incorporates penal provisions in the event of a violation of protection orders as issued by a court of law. In a country like India where violence against women is culturally and socially sanctioned, legislation such as this extends much-needed protection to women that suffer violence even from their closest kin, whether a husband, mother in law, or other family member.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence is therefore extremely relevant to India. Launched in 1991, this international campaign rallies stakeholders to raise awareness and influence policy and behavior to end violence against women. This year, The Hunger Project, with support from The Asia Foundation, took this campaign to two villages in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. In Mungwari village, teenage boys and girls at the local school marched with slogans and loudspeakers along with the community to advocate against gender violence. In the neighboring village of Devran, a Gram Sabha (village council) was held, where they signed a pledge to increase efforts to end female feticide, a growing problem in their community. At the same meeting, elected women representatives put forth the need to shut down liquor shops in the area because of rising instances of alcohol-fueled domestic violence against women.

Next steps include strengthened implementation of these laws, increased awareness, and strong advocacy techniques. When I visited Mungwari and Devran villages, the majority of the women I met were unaware that a law exists to protect them against violence experienced in their homes. Even once told, many of the women expressed that this was “part of married life.”  While a shift in women’s own mindsets around family violence is needed in India, it’s equally important that a safe environment is in place and strong legislation implemented to enable them to stand up for themselves.

Diya Nag is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s India office. She can be reached at dnag@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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