India is now the most dangerous place for women. Or, at least, that is the finding from the recent experts’ survey by Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF), London. But, is it?
When the same poll was conducted seven years ago, India ranked fourth among five nations. In 2018, India has climbed three places to become the ‘most dangerous country’. Shameful though this ranking is, accepting it at face value and assuming that India has become more dangerous for women today than it was in 2011, would be simplistic.
Of the six risks that were considered in 2011, India ranked fourth on the basis of its track record in trafficking, female foeticide and child marriage. Violence against women (sexual or otherwise) was not a major factor then. In 2018, the parameters have broadly remained the same, but sexual violence, customary practices and human trafficking have taken India right to the top of the chart.
In 2011, when the first TRF survey was conducted, a report titled ‘International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES)’ had found that a quarter of the Indian men surveyed had used sexual violence (against a partner or against any woman). There was high acceptability of men using violence against women. As many as 65% of those surveyed agreed to a statement that there were times when a woman deserved to be beaten. Almost half of the 27% of men who had paid for sex suspected that the sex worker was below 18 years of age. These figures prove that high prevalence of violence against women was an issue even during the initial TRF survey.
The Nirbhaya rape case in 2012 put the spotlight on India as the ‘land of rapes’. Its horrific nature and the spontaneous outpouring of anger on the streets, took rape and sexual violence out of a taboo space to becoming a hot topic: reports of rape sold papers, debates raised TRPs on televisions and the inability to secure women’s safety became an issue to exploit during elections. But more than these, it forced policymakers to acknowledge violence against women as a matter of serious public concern that could no longer be ignored. Justice Verma Committee’s comprehensive report on violence against women along with its recommendations led to a slew of changes in the law through the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. This was closely followed by the passing of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Earlier, the enactment of the The Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act in 2012, had already provided a gender-neutral law to protect children from different forms of sexual abuse.
The new laws have afforded victims easier avenues to redressal. The wide publicity and furious debates around the subject have created huge public awareness about the frequency of violence against women, its pervasive nature, and has curbed victim blaming. This new atmospheric has encouraged reporting of offences. The banality of the violence they had hitherto tolerated, is no longer a persuasive enough argument for women to condone such actions.
In 2011, official records placed crimes against women at 9.4% of the total crimes under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). In 2012 it went up to 10.2% and has since remained above 10.5%. There has also been a steady increase in absolute numbers, from 2,19,142 in 2011 to 3,25,652 in 2016. This excludes 36,022 offences against children registered under the POCSO Act. These figures could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Given the significant changes in law, information outreach and public awareness that grew between the Thomson Reuters reports, a review of figures alone, without weightage to other factors, cannot be seen as representative of increased insecurity. Rather, contextualised, they are also evidence of emancipation from chains of silence and exploitation. Increased reporting also indicates a change in policing practices which earlier would have had no hesitation in turning away women when they complained of violence. Today the policeman who refuses to register a cognisable offence against a woman can face up to two years imprisonment.
The Centre on its part, instituted a Nirbhaya Fund in 2013 for projects relating to women’s safety and security. The Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) has initiated various schemes under this fund. Police emergency helplines have cropped up alongside increased efforts at recruiting more women into the force.
However, none of these initiatives is without problems. An RTI response by the MWCD stated that only about a third of the Rs 2,711 crores of the Nirbhaya Fund accumulated in 2017-18 had been utilised. Police helplines are yet to be evaluated and treatment at the police station continues to cause anger and disappointment. Whether merely adding more women can turn the police into an effective and sympathetic service is widely questioned.
Nirbhaya was a turning point in the fight to stop violence against women, just as the global #MeToo movement has found resonance among the ‘hashtag-savvy’ populace in India. Cumulatively all of this has forced official response, emboldened women to come forth, and prompted public soul searching. Yet, all too often, statements and actions by political leaders and influential film stars evidence the deeply engrained misogyny of Indian society. We still have MLAs rallying for the accused in rape cases, police refusing to register FIRs against MLAs, veteran choreographers defending the infamous ‘casting couch’ and movie associations reinstating those accused in sexual assault cases. Such retrogression signals the need for citizens to do much more and on a sustained basis, to ensure that government initiatives do not just remain on paper.
India has light years to traverse before it can claim to be a safe country for women. While reports like the one by TRF remind us of this, its simplistic analysis digresses the debate from the real issues.
Anju Anna John is a Project Officer at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative working on police reforms.