Without Safety for Women, India's Development Dreams Cannot Be Achieved

Tied to safety of girls is their ability to empower themselves with education and self-belief. It is not difficult to imagine that if one felt threatened all the time, empowerment will always play second fiddle to survival.

Indians today have much to be proud about. We remain the world’s largest democracy with a progressive constitution that remains the guardian of every Indian’s right to equality and freedom. We are the largest emerging economy, and our GDP growth remains high despite global slowdowns. We are one of the few countries with a world-class space programme and our knowledge pool remains virtually unrivalled: the world’s leading corporations, including the tech giant, Google are today headed by Indians.

And yet, we are seeing an unrelenting regression in how we take care of our children, particularly girls.  Not a day passes without a horrific incident of sexual violence against girls, some as young as two years old, some still younger. The rape of girls is now reaching epidemic proportions, which will have far-reaching consequences on our society and our place in the world. A report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation released recently claimed that India is the most unsafe country for women. No country can progress for too long without contribution from women. Even wise people tend to limit the discourse on the safety of girls to certain clichés: they begin with falling child sex ratio due to female foeticide, and end at women’s reservation in government jobs.

However, the safety of girls goes beyond these tropes and directly affects our country’s socio-economic progress. Tied to safety of girls is their ability to empower themselves with education and self-belief. It is not difficult to imagine that if one felt threatened all the time, empowerment will always play second fiddle to survival. Today, despite universal enrolment and robust efforts by the government to close the gender gap, we find that our girls continue to feel unsafe in their homes, neighbourhoods, schools and public spaces. The feeling  of being under threat of emotional, verbal, physical and sexual violence is an everyday reality of most Indian girls.

According to Save the Children’s latest World of India’s Girls (WINGS) report on the perception of safety among girls, at least half of those surveyed feared that they would be groped, assaulted, and even raped in public spaces. Nearly half of the girls who participated in this survey also felt that if their parents came to know about such an incident of harassment, they, in all likelihood, would restrict their movement outside of home.  The survey also showed that one in five parents who were part of the survey believe that it is better to marry off their girls for their own safety. Similarly, brothers of surveyed girls felt that their sisters ought to wear certain type of clothes and should not venture out alone.

While India is changing at break-neck speed, our deep-rooted patriarchal mindsets are refusing to evolve and continue to hold girls responsible for their own safety from assault and abuse. This is nothing but a harking back to the sickening ‘she must have asked for it’, attitude.

Women protest against domestic violence in Kolkata. Credit: PTI/Ashok Bhaumik/File photo

Why should we care about safety of girls?

We cannot possibly think of a progressive and developed India if one half of our population is constantly worried, and restricted by lack of safety. We need to remember that only when girls achieve an equal footing as boys will India be able to realise its full potential. Today’s girls are tomorrow’s women. And if girls don’t feel safe enough, they will neither be able to educate themselves nor be able to realise their own potential as workers, teachers, business leaders, scientists, sportspersons or even leaders.

According to a study by McKinsey, India is paying a heavy price for exclusion of women from the economy. India’s women contribute a measly 17% to the country’s GDP, this is well below the global average of 37%. The same McKinsey study says that if by 2025, India was able to bring parity between men and women participation in the workforce, it could lead to a 60% increase($2.9 trillion) in its GDP.

Also inexplicable and distressing is the fact that while on one hand more girls than ever before  are in schools and colleges, their participation in the workforce remains quite low at only 27%. According to IndiaSpend, only Saudi Arabia has worse female participation among the G-20 countries, of which India too is a part.

What can we do to make our girls feel safer?

The first is obviously to ensure that we can protect them from all forms of violence – sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional. For that, simple things like making our public transport safer, better lighting on streets are essential and surely not hard to achieve. At the same time, we have to challenge the notion that safety of girls means protectionism. Paternalistic ideas like keeping girls inside homes, keeping them chaperoned at all times and marrying them off early are undesirable and unfair to girls.

The second achievable step is to provide effective redressal of crimes against girls and women. We must deal with complaints sensitively and ensure that perpetrators get punished quickly, and appropriately, under laws like the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, which was enacted specifically for crimes against children. Finally, we need to prevent abuse and violence in the first place.  And this can happen only if we work with our boys and girls, fathers and mothers, with schools, law enforcement and the judiciary. We have to challenge patriarchal mindsets, break gender stereotypes and question traditional power structures to create a safer world for our children, both boys and girls. Our country cannot afford to leave our girls behind, cowering and scared all the time about their own safety.

Bidisha Pillai is the CEO of Save the Children.

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