India is one of the fastest-developing economies in the world, with the likes of Barack Obama describing the country as “not just a rising power” but one that has “already risen.” Yet this optimism is greatly overshadowed by the fact that it still remains weak socially because of its social disparities, distinctly gender inequality.
Sexual violence against women in India is widespread throughout the country. Against the multitude of cases reported, the Delhi gang rape case stands out the most. The sheer gruesome nature of the event highlighted the severe attitude towards women. This was India’s urgent wake-up call for change. India’s population went into a frenzy. Tens of thousands of protesters who marched in several cities and signed online petitions, were acting not just in response to this incident but also to express their anger at the way women in India are treated more generally. They criticised the apathy of the state in the face of rape and the severe deficiencies in the implementation of law and order. It soon became evident to people: India has a “woman problem.” Eventually, On September 13, 2013, a Delhi court sentenced to death four of the six men accused of the gang rape and murder of the victim. Although it provided some closure for the family, objectively it seemed that it was designed to please the public, without actually dealing with the complex socio-political factors behind the crime in the first place.
Not only is there the aspect of sexual violence, but also a strong “son preference” throughout a society that notoriously has high rates of female infanticide. According to the activist Rita Banerjee, within a span of three generations, India has systematically targeted and annihilated more than 50 million women from its population. One illustration of this is the distorted sex ratio: the 2011 census found that there are 940 women for every 1000 men in some states of India. This is due to popular belief that having sons is more economically beneficial towards the family as dowry won’t be needed.
The underlying problem
The underlying root of this problem is India’s brand of religiosity and the doctrine of the “honour of women” making it increasingly difficult to change the perspective of both genders in today’s society to address violence against women. This traditional mind-set originates from old Hindu beliefs that girls should be brought up to be good daughters and later obedient wives. The docility is a prized characteristic for Indian women. If in any circumstances a female deviates from social norms, they are considered to bring shame not only upon themselves but also upon their family and community who reciprocate by stigmatising and punishing the deviant, often by violence. This is further reinforced by the survey carried out by India’s National Commission for Women stating that 88.9% of the honour killings are perpetrated by family members. It is this concept of the social role of women that prevents India from achieving equality.
What can be done in order to tackle the problem? How can we achieve change?
There is currently a social revolution to reform the traditional mind-set held deep within the Indian culture. For now, it appears that the government has taken notice. In the days following the New Delhi gang rape, a fast-track court was created to try the accused and a panel was set up to analyse India’s rape laws; it has already submitted its recommendations, some of which made their way into an ordinance signed by the president. Also, when the central government’s budget was announced last month, much emphasis was given to women’s security and empowerment. This has resulted in many women being in professional careers such as IT or Medicine, thus becoming more self-efficient and empowered. However, such progress can’t be achieved simply through courtrooms and protest rallies. It will only be achieved by instilling particular values in boys and girls in every aspect of life from home to school and therefore ultimately enabling both to live in a society where a female and male can be seen as equals.
I am a proud British Indian, who will carry on seeking justice, continuing a journey towards changing the inherited prejudices of a collective society.