India’s Elected Women Leaders Push to End Violence Against Women
December 18, 2013
One year ago, on December 16, the fatal rape case of a 23-year-old woman in a Delhi suburb shocked the nation, grabbing international news headlines, and mobilized the government and civil society to recognize a growing epidemic of sexual violence in India. Since the incident, Indian and global media have increased their coverage of rape and sexual violence in India, and new laws and policies to ensure women’s security have been framed and are now in place. However, the implementation of these laws and policies, and most importantly, changing the way women are viewed in India, remains a huge challenge.
After widespread protests erupted over the case, India’s finance minister announced earlier this year a Rs 1,000-crore Nirbhaya Fund to support initiatives to better address violence against women in India. However, this week the Times of India reported that a year after the fund was established, not one rupee of the fund has been spent.
After the incident, the government also fast-tracked stricter laws on rape and harassment.
In fact, progressive gender-focused laws are not new in India. For example, a 2009 law mandates that 50 percent of those elected to the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) (a decentralized system of local elected government in India), are women, which has resulted in many more women playing a greater role in local-level decision-making today. While this and the more recent laws are positive steps, there still remains a lack of institutional response to counter violence against women in India, including effective training of the police, speedy trials and justice for cases of violence against women, building cities that are safer for women, and building women’s leadership and capacity to address some of the critical issues they face.
During this year’s “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence” campaign, which ended on December 10, The Asia Foundation supported the global nonprofit, The Hunger Project (THP), for the second year to implement a series of activities during the campaign. Our support focused on THP’s work with locally elected women representatives to build their capacity to address issues of violence in their communities.
On International Human Rights Day, December 10, THP held a state-level advocacy event in the state of Bihar that brought together 60 elected women representatives of PRIs from across the state to the capital city of Patna to give testimonials about how violence against women manifests in their communities. The testimonials were heard by Mr. Raghuvansh Kumar Sinha, advisor to the Ministry of Panchayati Raj and the former joint secretary of the State Election Commission, Bihar; Ms. Chandramukhi Devi, member of the State Women’s Commission, and Ms. Sudha Varghese, dalit and women’s rights activist. These women leaders talked about how each one of their communities faces the challenge of domestic violence, dowry related violence, women accused of witchcraft, child marriage and “eve teasing,” and the solutions they employ to address these challenges.
In addition to the testimonials, the local women leaders made one key recommendation for the Ministry of Panchayati Raj: to include the issue of violence against women in the local Gram Kachaharis, a body at the Panchayat level mandated to address a limited number of civil and criminal cases. This would ensure that the elected PRI leaders have the institutional support and capacity to address violence against women.
Due to a lack of financial independence, support from their families, and cultural barriers, women in abusive relationships in India do not have the option to leave their families in most cases. As a result, many of the women leaders have adopted strategies such as community dialogue, counseling to the families, and pressuring the perpetrator through constant monitoring and gathering at their homes as a way to hold the perpetrators responsible in the community. While these solutions are effective at some level, they lack institutional recourse. The women argued that if the Gram Kachaharis included violence against women as a main issue to address, the women would not only have a local process through which solutions could be adopted, but also that they would be legitimized to take legal action when needed.
The women leaders also touched upon the lack of presence of the State Women’s Commission, the nodal government apex body mandated to address women’s safety, at the district level. Access to legal, health, and psychosocial care for victims and survivors of violence was another key area of concern that was brought up.
The advocacy event was an impressive show of commitment by the elected women leaders to continue their struggle to make their communities free of violence against women. While the day marked the end of the 16 Days of Activism campaign, it was also the beginning of putting in place institutional and policy reform at the Panchayat level to create a legitimate process of recourse (that remains rooted within the community) for victims and survivors of violence.
Reecha Upadhyay is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s India office. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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