Societal Change Empowers Women, Not Hollow Populism

It is foolish to look for external triggers for crimes against women, when the problem in fact lies within our cultural upbringing.

Every time a political party promises women safety, we wait keenly for actions to back up those promises. Unsurprisingly, these promises turn out to be hollow, nothing but populist measures with no concrete plans to prop them up.

Alcohol prohibition is a telling example. At some point or another during an election campaign, a political contender decides to woo women voters by promising to prohibit alcohol sales. Prohibition is painted as the first step away from eliminating domestic violence and towards empowerment. And predictably, these promises crop up whenever state assembly elections are around the corner. In Madhya Pradesh, this isn’t even a promise restricted to one party, both the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party have made promises to ban liquor if they win.

The actual evidence or utility of instituting such a ban seems irrelevant to all involved.

The relationship between alcohol/substance abuse and domestic violence is complicated. While there is no denying that addiction is bad for individuals and society, there is also no evidence to show that prohibition has ever had its intended impact.

Before we even look at examples of Indian dry states, let’s consider the most famous example – the prohibition era in the US, where a constitutional amendment implemented this policy in the 1920s, only to revoke it 13 years later. The Temperance Movement in the US was led by women who believed that banning alcohol would solve many social ills affecting families at the time. However, the experiment didn’t work out as planned, and it was not long until women organised again. This time, in order to protect their families from the corruption, violent crime and underground drinking that had led to the criminalisation of an entire section of the population.

The story isn’t any different here. In fact, if you track local news in Bihar and Gujarat, hardly a day passes without headlines announcing the seizure of contraband liquor, smuggling from neighbouring states, arrests for consuming or trading in liquor and cops being caught facilitating alcohol sales. More worrisome are news pieces about the surge in drug consumption and trade, and even deaths from consuming spurious liquor.

Many public health experts have rejected prohibition as a solution to crime against women; even the World Health Organisation did not recommend it in a report on alcohol and health that was released in 2014. Renowned academician and Indian psychiatrist, Vikram Patel, has published studies and articles on this subject and has often been quoted saying that there is no evidence from any country in the world, or any state of India, that prohibition directly contributes to the reduction of violence against women. Patel argues that policies that combat deep-rooted gender inequality in India must remain the most important strategy to reduce violence against women.

As one can already see in states like Bihar and Gujarat and learn from Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Mizoram (which have repealed prohibition) a ban on liquor only leads to increased criminal activity, more damage to health and lives of people especially the poor who resort to illegally brewed poisonous alcohol, more smuggled liquor being consumed secretly, people switching to alternatives such as drugs and more corruption among the law enforcers and has never worked as a solution to social-ills. In many cases, this has pushed lower strata families even deeper into debt, with the family’s income now being spent on black-market alcohol and drug-addicted youth being unfit for employment.

It is foolish to look for external triggers for crimes against women, when the problem in fact lies within our cultural upbringing. It calls for a strong, hard look at our education system and the values ingrained into the youth of our generation and the ones that will follow. Gender equality and consequently, respect for women’s rights – be it their right over their bodies, right to education, right to life, right to equal pay or right to safety – isn’t something that can be magically achieved by taking alcohol away from the equation. Women’s safety is a challenge that requires a holistic approach, spanning across the areas of education, health, financial and social empowerment and even infrastructure. It is high time that politicians understand that their empty promises are being seen for what they are and that today’s women demand action, not consolation.

The writer, Sugandha Mahajan, is a policy consultant based in New Delhi. 

Featured image credit: PTI