Making India safer for women


The recently released report of the Thompson Reuters Foundation poll announced that India is the most dangerous country for women. There is almost a sense of disbelief in the reporting in most newspapers. How could India be more dangerous than Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen or Somalia? These places are militarized, completely torn apart by shelling, street fights and even gassing. India on the other hand is a peacefully galloping economy. We provide the world with the largest number of high-tech workers and they are the model minority in many places. We are the land of Gandhi and Buddha, the land of the ‘purushottama’ Rama. And to make things worse it seems that India has risen up the ranks from the 4thto the top-most slot in just 7 years.

Clearly there has been a mistake. Many are trying to dismiss this list saying it is a ‘perceptional’ list, not the result of any ‘hard’ data and rigorous statistical analysis. It is based on a ‘poll’ of 548 global experts of whom only 43 were from India. It was based on their opinion, and we know how tremendously fickle opinion polls can be. We are reminded of these every time we have an election in India. The study has already been dismissed as shoddy. The methodology is flawed, it is not based on robust data, and the experts could very well be biased.

But before we trash this report as another conspiracy or a plant by someone who wishes to discredit the ruling regime, it would be useful to review the smaller print. The six areas of the survey were healthcare, access to economic resources and discrimination, customary practices, sexual violence, nonsexual violence, and human trafficking. The list does not specify violence caused due to handguns, shelling, rocket launchers, sniping and so it is possible to exclude military or violent conflict – internal or external. Countries which are being compared to India in terms of women’s safety are such places. The list however does include customary practices. The UN Special Rapporteur’s on Violence Against Women had prepared report on cultural practices which contribute to violence against women some years ago. The report included many practices which are common in India and did so mentioning India by name. These included early and forced marriage, son preference which includes a large number of practices including sex selection during pregnancy as well many other discriminatory practices towards the daughter, discrimination against women who don’t have children and widows, then of course practices like witch hunting, honour killings, caste based abuse and so on. Data around these issues are available from multiple sources and many red flags have already been raised.

Other areas included in the survey are sexual violence and non-sexual violence without specifying whether it includes domestic or interpersonal violence. Reports of interpersonal violence in India have been shown to be very high, both through large surveys like National Family Health Survey (NFHS 4) as well as smaller region specific surveys. India has relatively low rape rate, but we need to keep in mind that the reporting around rape even after the visibility of the issue in the last few years is still very low. The recent NFHS 4 survey (2015 – 16) reports that the perpetrator of sexual violence is predominantly the husband. The IMAGES (International Men and Gender Equity Survey) study conducted among men in six states shows that between 14.8 and 49.1 percent of the men surveyed acknowledged committing sexual violence with their intimate partner. And India does not have any law against marital rape, so these incidents would never figure in any crime records. The same report also says that between 74.7 to 43 percent of the men acknowledged committing interpersonal violence. The NFHS4 reports that a third of all married women said they faced physical violence, and the state level variations was from a low 3.5% in Sikkim to a very high 55% in Manipur. If we now add cultural practices to these figures around interpersonal violence the situation that emerges is quite grim.

Another dimension of the study focuses on access to economic resources and discrimination, and while the poll itself is perceptional, there is data available from other sources to check the validity of these perceptions. Economic surveys show that female labour force participation in India is among the lowest in India at about 27% and our rank is among the top ten from the bottom at 121 out of 131 countries globally (in 2013). And it has been dropping over the years. This also creates a situation where the gender difference between women and men, in work force participation in India is among the highest in the world. However when one reviews time-use surveys (Central Statistical Organisation data available from 1998) the difference between women’s contribution to household, caring and community activities was nearly ten times more than that of men. This difference was between 3 and 30 hours a week or between half an hour of household work by men compared to over 4 hours every day by women. At an individual level, women from most poor and working class households are to be found working most of the time, and it seems like a travesty to say they do not contribute to work. This contradiction between how much women work and how much their work is ‘worth’ is what discrimination and violence is all about.

Now that we have converted the opinion of five hundred odd experts into some kind of more robust data, the situation of the Indian woman does not seem too healthy. The violence she face may not bloody or dismember her, but it is a daily grind of soul sapping discrimination, repeated rounds of verbal abuse, recurring coercive sex and of course carrying the burden of the family chores without any acknowledgement. Added to this there is the threat of physical violence which looms over her for various errors of omission and commission. And this pertains only to the treatment meted out to women within their homes. For this she does not need to lay a foot out of her home, face any terrorist or militant or army bullet.

The government has a huge role in changing the situation. It has to create opportunities for women and to create conditions of safety, including laws, policies and provide adequate budgets. However policy action alone is not enough. In each home we are creating these adverse conditions, and none of us would like the government to intervene too much within our lives. It is therefore incumbent upon the ‘non-women’ section of the Indian people, ie. men, to take this global indictment seriously and review our own practices. We men cannot dismiss this report as fiction, poor research or a conspiracy. We need to reconsider what each one us can do differently at home and in our communities and workplaces to see that this everyday violence and discrimination comes to an end. This report should serve as a wakeup call for us to treat our loved ones, our sisters, mothers and spouses better, and India will soon be out of this list of rogue nations.