Violence against women: Indian society must internalise the message of Durga Puja

If rape in India is to be meaningfully addressed, the onus lies on society to review and correct deeply ingrained socio-cultural norms and practices that are inherently biased against women and the girl child, writes Cmde C Uday Bhaskar (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually joined the Durga Puja festival on Oct 22 in West Bengal, a state that goes to the polls early next year, by dwelling on the issue of safety of women in India and the manner in which they are being empowered.

The symbolism is apt and also ironic, for while Durga Puja points to the deep reverence and veneration of  'Shakti' - primordial feminine energy personified in Goddess Durga - the reality in India is deplorable and a blot on India's socio-cultural norms. Gender cruelty and sexual exploitation are widespread in India.

Gender-based violence continues to rise

To his credit, Modi has highlighted the plight of the Indian girl/woman since he first came to office in 2014 but as the Hathras and other rape incidents that followed in recent weeks indicate, women and girls, who can be termed, infants are raped/killed on a regular basis in the country. Even as the prime minister was speaking on the subject, yet another horrific crime was reported from Hoshiarpur, Punjab. A six-year-old girl was allegedly raped, killed and her body set on fire in Jalalpur village in Hoshiarpur district and the accused included a young man and his grandfather.

Earlier in October, the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court indicted the Uttar Pradesh Police and administration for the callous manner in which they had dealt with the death of a gang-rape victim in Hathras in the state and noted that prima facie there was an infringement of the human rights of the victim and her family.

The Hathras rape incident (September 14) wherein a 19-year old Dalit girl was gang-raped by upper-caste men is horrific in more ways than one. The victim was molested, mutilated, brutally killed, and then cremated by Uttar Pradesh Police late at night, without allowing the family of the victim to even see or claim the body of their dead daughter. Hathras has shocked the nation and is reminiscent of the Nirbhaya gang-rape case of 2012 in New Deohi, but it remains to be seen if this tragedy will lead to any improvement in the safety and security of women and the girl child in India.

The incidence of rape in India has been enumerated in considerable detail in the latest report of the NCRB ( National Crime Research Bureau) and the key findings for  2019  are shameful and a poor reflection on how India treats its women and girls. The total number of rape cases in 2019 was 32,023 and most experts agree that this is only a fraction of the actual number of cases of rape and molestation, for many incidents, remain unreported.

Furthermore, in more than 90 percent of the cases, the victim knew the molester and in a large number of cases, the rape took place within the confines of the family.

Dealing with exigency of rape

Most discussions on rape in India take comfort from a reiteration of familiar assertions. One that rape of women is as old as mankind and two, that in the larger global context India has a ‘better’ track record. The first statement may be historically accurate but is indefensible and the fact that women are more vulnerable in a biological and physiological sense does not justify any form of sexual exploitation. The fact that this trend is deeply ingrained in the prevailing socio-cultural DNA of most societies is at the core of the problem - namely, how to deal with the exigency of rape. 

The second assertion that the global context makes India look like a relatively safe country for women may be empirically correct but it is misleading if it leads to any kind of complacence or worse - smug satisfaction - about the incidence of rape. South Africa has the highest incidence of what is assessed as the ‘rate of rape’ (incidents per 100,000 population) and tops the global list at 132.4 and is followed by nine other nations where the rate is upwards of 30.

Among the more developed nations, Sweden is listed in the fifth position with a rate of 63.5, while the USA has registered 27.3 rapes per 100,000 with a total number of 84,767 reported rape cases. In this backdrop, India has been estimated to have a rate of 1.8, while Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are at 7.3 and 9.8 respectively. While this does place India at the lower end of the global rape table, it also merits note that in the world’s largest democracy. the number of rapes that occur daily is at 88. And this is only those cases that are reported.

Hathras is not an isolated incident and there is a pattern of Dalit women and girls being molested by upper-caste groups in India and this varies from region to region. This reprehensible practice is based on a ruthless power differential (true globally as well) and in India, there is a deeply ingrained caste-based social hierarchy that pervades state and society.

India’s gender equity metric is below the median and the incidence of female foeticide is a case in point.  As per an NGO survey of 2018, India ranks fourth in the world, after Liechtenstein, China and Armenia in terms of skewed sex ratios at birth and has estimated that there are 112 boys for every 100 girls.

In an even more damning statistic, according to the Population Research Institute (PRI), more than 15 million girls went missing in India due to prenatal sex selection between 1990 and 2018. In 2018 alone, the figure was upwards of half a million - perhaps due to better technology in foetal sex determination.

Save daughter-educate daughter

India launched the Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao (BBBP) scheme (save daughter-educate daughter) in January 2015 but it remains a work in progress and all the indicators show that there are many gaps to be filled. On a daily basis there are news reports in India of ‘alleged’ rape and they are all heart-rending.  Rape incidence in schools and colleges is increasing. The advent of the cell-phone has led to a proliferation of blackmail through social media and this is yet another distressing indicator of how the culture of rape is now spreading.

While the local police need to be more sensitive, empathetic and professional in how they deal with reports of rape - as the court in Lucknow has noted in relation to the Hathras case - it merits note that the police enter the scene post the event. If rape in India is to be meaningfully addressed, the onus lies on society to review and correct deeply ingrained socio-cultural norms and practices that are inherently biased against women and the girl child.  

The Dusshera fervor which evokes deep reverence and respect for the female deity and the worship of "Shakti' ought to permeate the larger social fabric of India which is visibly conscious of its Hindu identity and inheritance. 

(The writer is Director, SPS, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal)

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