A Commission of Errors

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On 15thDecember 2017 Aravind Bharati, a young lawyer committed suicide by jumping in front of a running train. In his suicide note he mentioned that this was as result of continuous harassment by his wife over many years. Even after their divorce his ex-wife and her family and friends continued to harass him, beat him, locked him up in a room for four days lodged a case or rape till he was forced to take his life according to the 13 page suicide note he had left behind.

This story of Aravind Bharati’s suicide in many way provides the backdrop to the meeting organized on September 23, at the Constitution Club, New Delhi, meeting calling for the setting up of a Men’s Commission in line with the National Women’s Commission which was set up in 1992. The meeting which was peppered with similar stories of men’s adverse experiences in the hands of their wives and in-laws brought together over 150 people, both women and men from across the country. The organisers included Save the India Family Foundation, an organization that has been pushing the issue of men’s rights within marriage and dilution of provisions of pro-women legislations like Section 498 A of the Indian Penal Code, and meeting was attended by Mr. Anshul Verma and Mr. Harinarayan Rajbhar Members of Parliament from the ruling BJP as well as one time actress and model Pooja Bedi.

The meeting included a mix of reality and rhetoric which highlighted the virtue and plight of men, the sanctity of marriage, the justified rights of men within marriage and how women abused these. Many speakers spoke about incidents where men had been harassed, abused and victimized by women and their families. Speakers were drawn from different backgrounds including writers, scientists and social workers. However reasonable statements like “pro-women must not be anti-men” were negated by the overall anti-women bias which came out through assertions like ‘women who are opposing this movement do not care about their families, husband, children, society or the country’s traditions”. Ms Bedi had the audience cheering and even whistling in appreciation with her assertion that when men whistled at women it was harassment but women whistled at men in public spaces it was not. Going a step further she said that women being forced to have sex is being seen as an issue today, but the fact that men are being denied sex is being ignored. Ms Bedi prefaced her statements with the submission that she had earlier considered herself as an advocate for women’s rights but the need of the hour had changed.

It is difficult not to be moved by stories like that of Aravind and others and there is pain and probably some injustice in all stories of suicide. Also meetings like these also highlight figures of wrongful imprisonment under laws meant to support women like Section 498 A, and the demand that such laws be reviewed and reformed seem very reasonable. Actually the Supreme Court has passed an order adding additional procedures before arrests under Section 498 A to prevent ‘misuse’ of the law. This would appear to justify the demands of meeting, till one takes the trouble to understand the whole picture, or at least other dimensions of the problem.

For many years now groups like Save the India Family Foundation have been calling on the Ministry of Women and Child to change the legal procedures around Section 498 A of the Indian Penal code which deals with dowry related deaths. Violence Against Women is endemic in India. According to the statistics available through the National Family Health Survey 4 ( 2015 -16), 30% or nearly one in three of all married women faced violence at home, mostly at the hands of their husbands. The study Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference in India (2014) conducted in six states found 15 to 49 percent of men acknowledging that they had committed sexual violence against their partners. Not many years ago the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women in her Report found there were many customary practices like early and forced marriage, practices towards the daughter, discrimination against women who don’t have children and widows, witch hunting, honour killings, caste based abuse as being common and issues of concern in India. Cleverly, meetings like these do not make any reference to data around violence against women when they make their claims.

But does such a backdrop of violence against women, justify violence against men? Certainly not! But does the occasional violence my women and the ‘misuse of law’ their family members justify the call for a ‘Men’s Commission’. Certainly not! To understand why we have a National Women’s Commission and why there have been some legal provisions to protect women from discriminatory practices and norms it is necessary to understand some history. NCW was set up in 1992 “to review the Constitutional and legal safeguards for women; recommend remedial legislative measures, facilitate redressal of grievances and advise the Government on all policy matters affecting women”. Our constitution calls for equality between women and men, and so does the United Nation’s International Bill of Human Rights. It is necessary to highlight this since society, not only in India, but across the world the social rules and norms are different for women and men. The data is all too dramatic, but also changing over time. This change has been possible through the acknowledgement of this difference and making special provisions to include women into the public spaces and provide for equal opportunities. Changes were made in the law for creating these opportunities and for stopping discrimination and violence in all countries and the process continues.

The National Commission for Women was set up as a Constitutionally mandated body in India as a part of this obligation to bring about equality. Any Commission for men has to be seen within this constitutional mandate for equality. There can be no argument that men are now ‘systematically’ discriminated by women. One needs to go into any family across the country to see how mothers treat their ‘boys’ compared to their ‘girls’ to get a quick glimpse into the patriarchal or male privileging social norms which are widespread in society. The ‘processes’ around marriage where the grooms family chooses the girl, and dowry comes from the bride’s family also highlights the same systemic disadvantage of the girl’s family. Groups like Save the Indian Family Foundation do not make any call for equality and do not challenge these patently discriminatory social norms. Instead as mentioned earlier they believe that every married man has the right to sex and a woman’s refusal under any circumstance is violation of their right. It is not surprising that this same group has petitioned against a case in the Delhi High Court asking for the recognition of marital rape. They see no problem in a man sexually forcing his wife over and over again. And this problem is quite common in India as the Masculinity Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference in India study mentioned earlier shows.

But then can we ignore the heart rending stories that were highlighted in this meeting? Can we trump these stories by a larger number of equally heart-rending stories of women and say to the families and the men that they should go home and not complain because the other side has a larger repository of incidents. Pain is not a competitive game and any such approach is going to be counter-productive. If there is injustice it must be addressed. The judicial – legal system has that specific function, and there are suitable measures within the legal system which provide remedies and do not protect women from litigation just because they are women. It is a different matter that the cases do not provide speedy remedy, but that is the case for all legal cases in India. Murder cases run for years, evidence gathering is poor in the most open and shut case and the ‘guilty’ goes ‘scot-free’. Similarly on the other hand the innocents are harassed by imprisonment and long drawn trials after which their innocence is established.  These are systemic weakness that extends to cases where men are victims of violence or injustice within the marital or family space. These problem need to be acknowledged but a men’s commission is not the solution, because these are ‘generic’ problems and not ‘gendered’ ones.

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Abhijit Das is a doctor with training in obstetrics, paediatrics and public health with thirty years’ experience in clinical work, training, research and policy advocacy. He is Director of Centre for Health and Social Justice (www.chsj.org) a health policy research and advocacy organization in India and Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Global Health, University of Washington, Seattle, USA.