Sunday, October 14, 2007

Empowering Women

By M V Kamath, The Organiser, Sept 30, 2007

Irrespective of whether a woman is elected President or not, there are certain things that not just a woman President but all political parties should attend to—and it is the rights of women. Not just in India, but all over the world women have been the greatest sufferers. About three quarters of the world’s 20 million refugees are women and their dependents. Women and children account for more than 80 per cent of those living in refugee camps and that is seldom acknowledged. Things are no better, specifically in India.

According to The Indian National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB) quoted by a distinguished human rights expert, D.R. Kaarthikeyan, there were 9,518 cases of rape in India in 1990 which rose to 9,793 in 1991 and to 15,468 cases in 1999. Similarly, there were 4,836 dowry deaths cases in 1990, which rose to 5,157 in 1991 and to an all-time high of 6,699 in 1999. Cases of torture of women have to be enumerated to be believed. There were 13,450 cases in 1990, as many as 15,949 in 1991 and an unbelievable 43,823 cases in 1999.

In his book on human rights, Mr Kaarthikeyan writes: “Research has shown that for millions of women, their homes are dens of terror and that a huge chunk of violence that is perpetrated against women is committed by their own family members.” Not only that, but such violence cuts across income, class and culture and these incidents are rarely reported and even if they are reported “they are reported when it is too late to change the situation”.

It is frightening to think that every 26 minutes a women is molested, every 34 minutes a rape takes place, every 42 minutes a sexual harassment incident occurs, every 43 minutes a woman is kidnapped and almost every hour a woman is burnt to death over dowry, 25 per cent of rapes involving girls in the age of 16. This is India. The spiral of violence against women is apparently rising “at an alarming rate”—and this is where just not a woman president, not just a government in power, but all political parties irrespective of their ideology must come in, to fight for social reform, for enlightenment of people and for raising our ancient culture to higher levels. Gender violence comes in many forms with which most of us are familiar. They include foeticide, food deprivation, emotional abuse, forced marriage, sati, rape, sexual assault, harassment of all sorts, trafficking, forced sterilisation, torture and finally dowry deaths, the cruellest of all.

There are, of course, legal provisions to fight gender violence but none of these have truly been effective. Jawaharlal Nehru once said: “You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women.” On the one hand, India has the world’s largest number of professionally qualified women which may come as a surprise to many to know. India reportedly has more women doctors, surgeons, scientists and professors than even the United States of America. Similarly, India has more working women than any other country in the world and they are notable for their skills whether as surgeons, airline pilots or even bus conductors and menial workers. That should be a legitimate matter of pride.

But then think of this: India has the largest population of non-school going working girls, maternal mortality rates in rural areas are among the world’s highest and of the 15 million baby girls born in India each year, nearly 25 per cent of them do not live to see their 15th birthday.

Compared to baby boys, they get less food, less care and less attention, which is a disgrace to the country. Indians who boast of the panch kanyas, Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari, and insist that if these are smare nityam, maha pathaka nashanam (the greatest sins are destroyed if they are daily remembered), have no hesitation in resorting to foeticide if the foetus shows that it is that of a girl. What can be more shameful?

In India, female foeticide, sex selective abortion and child prostitution are only too common and few voices are raised against them. Laws are for textbooks, not for application. The Dowry Prohibition Act has been in existence for over 33 years, but how effective has it ever been? Domestic violence is recognised by existing civil law, according to Kaarthikeyan, but only in the context of dissolution of a marriage, and as being conduct amounting to cruelty, and therefore, ground for divorce. Is that all we want? With female foeticide becoming almost routine, we are coming to a stage when young men in some states, especially in the north and west, will have to search for brides elsewhere in the country. In the latest Census, the number of female child births has come down to 93.7 for every hundred male children. The anti-girl child bias has to be fought at the ground level and this is not a party issue: It is a national issue. We need a new set of Raja Ram Mohan Roys to act as social reformers who have the courage to speak out and speak persuasively. Sadly, we don’t have them. We only have cheap politicians for ever dwelling on secularism as their moola mantra which is an easy way to attain political applause.

When did any member of the present UPA government ever speak about these matters? When one realises that women form half of that world’s population—as indeed half of the population in almost any given state—it is shocking to learn that women perform two-third of the world’s work and receive only one-tenth of its income and less than one hundredth of its property. In reality, this is a man’s world. And men are notorious for the ways they treat women—not outsiders—but those in their own homes. In India, the states most notorious for the ill-treatment of women are Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. Female foeticide is most rampant in Haryana and Punjab. Does anybody care? Trafficking in women and children, according to Kaarthikeyan, is one of the worst and most brazen abuses of human rights. According to him, at least 25,000 children are engaged in prostitution in India’s metropolitan cities, which is a low figure compared to other sources which put the figure as high as 500,000 girl children below the age of 18 years.

These are issues for our political parties lacking vision to give their attention to. But what can a parliament do which reportedly has some 119 MPs with criminal charges against them? What vision can one expect from them? We are not only a wild nation, but additionally we are also a blind nation. Our only national interest is politics, not people and politics, too, of the blindest variety. We speak about the common man, but it would be nice if we occasionally hear about the travails of the ordinary woman who is the lifeline of our society.

1 comment:

Shobhan Bantwal said...

What a thought-provoking post. As a feminist and author who likes writing about women's issues in India, I'm pleased to note that someone out there is addressing the outrage of women's plight in India.

Right after my novel, THE DOWRY BRIDE was published in Sept 2007, I got a blast of messages from fellow Indians saying dowry deaths are on the decline and therefore I was wrong in writing about a dowry-burning theme. In other words, mine was an aberration and not to be talked about.

From reading this blog it appears that dowry deaths are continuing undeterred in India despite the laws banning it and in spite of all the education and economic boost. How sad...

Shobhan Bantwal