A Conversation with Indian Women’s Rights Crusader Ranjana Kumari
November 6, 2013
The rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in a middle-class area of New Delhi in December ignited protests across India and the world, and three months later, led to the government’s passage of a new rape law that stiffens punishments of sexual violence. According to one of India’s leading women’s rights leaders, Dr. Ranjana Kumari, this step is a result of many years of work from advocates in the community to involve young people in gender issues. In Asia editor Alma Freeman recently spoke with Dr. Kumari, who directs the Centre for Social Research and is an Asia Foundation partner, in her Delhi office. Photos by Conor Ashleigh.
As someone who has worked for decades on gender issues in India, what are your thoughts on the current debate over gender equality?
Indian society is going through a big transition, and with transition, there is often tension. On the one side, girls are becoming more assertive and educated, not just in the big cities but in medium-sized cities as well. You have women taking public buses and driving motorbikes, and girls and boys together in public spaces. Naturally, this is creating social tension; men and boys don’t know what to do with this. The perception that women should stay hidden within their homes has been part of the Indian psyche, and now women and girls are changing that. I now see brothers coming into our crisis centers demanding rights for women in their families. Families are starting to stick up for their daughters. But, social change is a generational issue and it will take a long time for traditional values to be broken down.
The Delhi gang rape case resulted in capital punishment for the perpetrators, and spurred the government to implement a new rape law. Yet cases of violence against women are in fact on the rise in India. What are your thoughts on this, and what impact are more gender sensitive laws having?
There is no doubt that there is more heightened awareness about rape now. People are looking at the increasing violence with growing concern, especially because it is now reaching the middle and upper-middle classes. As a human rights organization, we don’t condone capital punishment, but this punishment announcement has certainly had an impact. It has shown that the law will work, and that the police system can follow through, and gives some semblance of rule of law in this country. While this case wasn’t under the new rape law, I think this law will make an impact, because a lot of women are now speaking out.
I’ve seen the biggest changes in relation to the dowry law, which was changed in 1984 to strengthen women’s rights in dowry cases, and enforced greater punishment. In 1989, I wrote a book called Brides are not for Burning, targeting the elite class, which was pushing the bounds of the dowry. This law has been effective – families are being punished for crimes related to dowry, and are getting arrested. However dowry still continues throughout India and in modern society there is so much pressure to give more than you have. Everything that you see in India, all the fanfare, is paid for by the woman’s family. This is the marketization of Indian marriages.
When it comes to women-friendly legislation in India the issue of implementation remains paramount. In the case of dowry, the Dowry Prohibition Act and the Indian Penal Code prohibit the practice of giving and accepting dowry payments and dowry related violence. But there has been little change in community attitudes toward women and marriage so dowry continues to be practiced. The implementation of the legislation is also limited. Many women and families do not lodge complaints to the police, complaints are often not taken seriously and not investigated by the police, and even in cases where the husband or family members are charged, conviction rates are extremely low. So there is little deterrence for people continuing to make and accept dowry payment and dowry related violence also continues almost unabated.
The Asia Foundation is currently working with CSR on a men and boys program to help raise awareness about gender issues. Can you talk about why this approach is so important in Indian society?
We are a very segregated society – boys and girls grow up separately. In Delhi of course you find common schools, but the moment you go out of Delhi in the village area, schools become segregated. We have worked for years to establish women’s groups to help raise awareness of gender issues, and that has evolved over the years. But we realized that while we were targeting so many women and girls we were excluding half of the population. We started to ask: where are the men and boys? It is vital that we work with women to build their awareness of their human rights and their rights under the law and to empower them to demand these rights. But it is equally important that we work with men and boys to address gender inequality within communities. It is the men and boys who have insensitive attitudes toward women and who see women as objects of sex. So there is a need to change these attitudes and to really work with men and boys to build a gender-friendly India. It is also important to remember that patriarchy does not just disadvantage women it also impacts men who do not fit the traditional ideals of a man.
So it is important to work with men to question the concept of masculinity and to look at how men and women, in their many forms, can work together to build more inclusive communities. In our program, we target younger men and boys, in the 16-35 year-old age group. We provide gender sensitization training programs that look at developing their understanding of the issues women face, and also how they can respond if something happens to a girl in their family, school, or community. The trainings are targeted; one section looks at sensitization, and the other addresses their community engagement through peer learning. For example, we’re working to raise awareness about explicit language written on school walls and also about appropriate treatment of women who visit the school. The second goal came about after one of our trainers was harassed by students when entering one of the schools. When she brought up this issue in the training program she found that the students were not aware that this behavior constituted harassment and subsequently began working with the students to address this behavior.
CSR works closely with the police force to raise their awareness and sensitivity around women’s issues, and is pushing for one women police officer to be situated in every police station across the country so that women who come to stations feel more secure in reporting their cases. In what ways is the police attitude toward gender issues and violence changing, and is this having an effect prosecution rates?
Our police are the men first past the post – these are the men you will come running to when something happens, and you can see their approach, body language. They are still intimidating. That has to change. The judicial attitude around women is still that they are held responsible, even if they are victims. That type of attitude must change within the judiciary and the police. Otherwise, laws aren’t going to be a deterrent on their own.
CSR started the first ever police sensitization training 10 years ago, and now, Delhi police is more sensitive than anywhere in the country. But if you look elsewhere, you’d be shocked at the lack of sensitivity. Our training has definitely helped, but also the police are increasingly under the attention and scrutiny of the media. After the Delhi case, the protestors really pushed for the police to find and punish the perpetrators. This has made impact, but it was ad hoc, a response to what happened, instead of being integrated into a system. Reform at the institutional level is required to ensure that police processes are sensitive, that police officer’s attitudes are changed, and that women feel confident to approach police when they experience violence and other crimes.
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