Broken Promises, New Pledges, and Possibilities on Women’s Rights in India

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Broken Promises, New Pledges, and Possibilities on Women’s Rights in India

Deepali Gaur Singh

India is a country of contrasts in not just the multiplicity of religions and faiths but also cultural contexts. So while in one part of the country a law is formulated to safeguard the rights of women in live-in relationships in another part of the country women are facing physical assaults for being dressed in "western attire."

The past year has seen an increase in attacks
against women in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, culminating in series
of assaults on women in public spaces, with the
most controversial being the
pub assault in the coastal city of Mangalore

followed by numerous assaults in the IT hub of Bangalore. By saying
that there are far more attacks in other states of the country, official Nirmala Venkatesh made a feeble
attempt at keeping the myth of women’s safety alive but what she achieved
was to reduce women of the state and the country to mere statistics.
What she also seemed to have neglected is that her job description requires her to make every single woman’s and girl’s well-being and safety paramount;
that their liberties and rights are not to be challenged on the basis
of attire or profession; that they are treated equally under the Indian
constitution. Ms. Venkatesh’s brief was, obviously, different.  

The police commissioner on the other
hand has referred to the recent
attacks on women as mere incidents of "eve teasing." While eve-teasing
is itself a term specific to the South Asian region, associated with
unsolicited verbal harassment like catcalls, whistles and/or remarks
directed towards women, the incidents that he so casually referred to
were actual assaults on women for being dressed in western attire.
More importantly, even eve teasing calls for action against the perpetrators.  

What really constitutes an act of
violence against a woman or girl? That she is not treated equally under
the social and legal order? That she does not have access to basic needs
for a dignified existence? That she faces discrimination in the allocation
of daily needs for survival both within the household as well as socially?
If social, economic and political freedoms are the indices for development,
then women in the country constitute an important chunk of the population
who continue to be deprived.

India is a country of contrasts in
not just the multiplicity of religions and faiths but also cultural
contexts and subcontexts that define customs and rituals, roles and
positions. And it is against this background of mostly patriarchal and
feudal practices that issues concerning women get defined, refined,
formulated, modified, accepted and rejected. So while in one part of
the country a law is formulated to safeguard the rights of women even
in live-in relationships in another part of the country women are facing
physical assaults for being dressed in "western attire." And instead
of punishing the perpetrators the issue is being debated on the finer
nuances of semantics. That in a sense encapsulates the discourse on
women’s rights in the country.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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The status of women both in their
maternal homes and matrimonial homes is circumscribed by the lack of
sexual autonomy and it is this sexual control of women that in turn
provides the label for male authority. Self-styled vigilantes have very
often "punished" couples for inter-religious or inter-caste relationships,
a phenomenon that was once restricted to satellite villages has been
finding expression in towns and cities as well. The status of women
within their families and communities is specifically delimited by matrimony
and fertility, ironically, the two things they also have very little
control over. And yet with fertility at the core of their pre-assigned
social role reproductive health care conditions and accessibility continue
to be abysmal in the country reflected in maternal deaths – one in every seven minutes.

While the government has been struggling
with making healthcare accessible to each and every woman in the country,
conservative customs and beliefs associated with child-bearing and rearing
further aggravated by women’s low education and poverty results in the
under use of already scarce services. Poor reproductive health transmits
from one generation to the next not just undermining the survival of
individuals but the well-being of families contributing to the endless
generational cycle of poverty. With scarce accessibility and accompanying
restrictions women in remote, rural areas tend to rely on the same person
for all their health care needs associated more with levels of trust
and confidence on these people. This is what makes it imperative that
all health care needs are made accessible to these education-deprived,
poor women from a single source – an idea that the government is toying
through the important agency of midwives and other grassroot groups
who have better access to these women.

Similarly, the public awareness campaigns
around HIV/AIDS have also shown definite shifts. Some of the earlier
administrations had avoided the condom-use strategy and actually followed
a deliberate policy of sexual abstinence and marital fidelity in the
AIDS prevention campaigns using the argument of "decency" to remove condom advertisements from state-run television
networks. The more recent community campaigns around HIV/AIDS and domestic
violence have shown a departure from the earlier trends with the focus
shifting to the need to bring as many people into the fold of an open
discourse on the issue. Interesting and catchy campaigns of community
outreach like the condom
and the bell bajao
ring the bell) campaign
The latter draws in the public to participate and bring an end to domestic
violence, helping to make issues like this a larger public
and social issue by including men to take a stand against domestic violence.  

Aside from judgments like those allowing an HIV positive mother
the right to bring up her child — which are a step forward in removing stereotypes
associated with the virus and discriminating against the victims — mostly
women who often have been the care-givers to the positive spouse only
to be abandoned by the family later. That the message of HIV is reaching
people is reflected in smaller towns and remote regions where young
people despite their limited education and conservative upbringing have
opted for pre-marital
HIV testing
with the support
of their families. 

The Criminal Procedure Code is also
in line for an amendment in light of the increase in rape cases in the
country. Seen as a landmark step for ensuring gender justice the amendment
is intended to protect rape victims from suffering further trauma during
the process of investigation. More importantly, it intends having women
judges presiding over rape cases in addition to the provision of in-camera
hearings. During the investigation stage, the rape victim can record
her statement at her residence and in the presence of a woman officer.
An insensitive machinery only aggravates the agony for the victim evidenced
in the suicide of Sarita who consumed poison in the presence of her
young daughters at the police station that refused to listen to her
complaints against one of their own. There has also been a suggestion
to set up special funds for the rape victims by the central and state
governments. This would be important keeping in mind the social ostracization
that many women face from the family and community apart from the direct
physical and mental trauma associated with the sexual assault.

And yet on the other side contentious
judgements like the Supreme
Court judgement

stating that gifts given by the wife’s side to the husband’s family
even after the marriage, did not constitute dowry only served to further
legally entrench the already controversial practice of dowry considering
that dowry harassment follows a continuous pattern into decades of marriage.
Besides, quite often falling prey to the temptation of meeting immediate
targets rather than more sustainable goals, the administration has contributed
to hardening stereotypes of manliness placing women in even more vulnerable
positions and the entire community in a volatile situation by opting
for schemes like the guns
for vasectomies

and palna
(cradle) scheme
the latter an emotive response to sex selective abortions. And yet,
female fetuses are regularly recovered from dumping yards with the
most recent case being the recovery of nine
female fetuses

from a river bank in a district of the western state of Rajasthan. As
per the 2001 Census, the sex ratio of the state is only 922 females
per 1,000 males, very close to the equally skewed national average of
933 females.

A case that hinged precariously between
emotive arguments of personal trauma and ethical issues was related
to the abortion law itself as evidenced in the denial of abortion of
a 24-week fetus with a congenital heart condition last year. The Supreme Cour only recently issued notice to the Centre on this
petition that challenged the law prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks
of pregnancy in case of fetal abnormality. Many
believe that the time has come to change the 1971 Act. 

The mixed bag of laws, bills, commitments,
broken promises, new pledges and fresh possibilities for women’s rights
comes with its share of anticipation and disappointments. Will promises
be converted into laws and will prejudices make way for a little more
tolerance and a little less chauvinism? Will social perceptions of women
and their traditionally assigned roles in society witness a change under
the collective pressure of government laws and social campaigns? And
will society eventually look at girls through the same lens that they
see boys? And yet hope survives…