Understanding India’s War on Women

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Understanding India’s War on Women

Effective policy means reforming attitudes and addressing the demographic, economic and geographic factors.

On September 13, four men involved in the horrific Delhi gang rape case were sentenced to death by hanging for the murder and rape of their 23 year-old victim. Last December’s tragedy alerted the world to what many are now calling “India’s war on women,” a war being fought on many fronts. Feticide, infanticide, domestic violence, acid attacks, honor killings, rape, trafficking and suicide are cruel facts of life in a country where, according to Oxfam India, one of every two women will experience some form of gender-based violence. The prevalence of these horrors has led report after report to denounce India as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.

Much ink has been spent decrying India’s violence against women, and commentators across the globe have correctly diagnosed the issue as a cultural malaise. The tragic irony of India’s war on women is that it is something in which both sexes, of all ages, religions and socioeconomic groups are complicit. Deep-rooted patriarchy is to blame and, ultimately, the battle to ensure gender equality will only have been won once attitudes towards women have changed. But not all aspects of India’s culture are equally culpable. Specious analyses of the presentation of women in Hindu mythology, for example, are harmful distractions; nothing is achieved by perpetuating false perceptions of India as peculiarly misogynistic. When condemning a problem as grave as a culture of violence against women, the finger must be pointed first at those things most in need of correction.

In the fight to end India’s war on women, there continue to be many obstacles. More still needs to be done to criminalize sexual violence, extend legal protections, improve law enforcement, increase conviction rates, sensitize the police force, politicians and the judiciary to encourage victims to report crimes and to process the vast backlog of untried cases. But these policy imperatives are all well documented. Often neglected are the demographic, economic and geographic drivers of violence against women, an understanding of which is necessary if something is to be done to ensure women’s security.

From birth through to middle age, women in India suffer statistically abnormal mortality rates, a phenomenon referred to as “gendercide” – the systematic destruction of a gender group. The 2011 census reveals that India’s birth gender ratio has fallen to 914 girls born for every 1000 boys. Estimates vary, but based on conservative calculations this has resulted in as many as 25 million women being “missing,” a result of generations of gender-selective abortions, murders and suicides. The increasingly skewed gender ratio has only intensified violence against women. A shortage of women of marriageable age has led to the creation of a south Asian bride buying industry, into which females are trafficked and sexually enslaved. The sickening spate of attacks on minors, with reports on the rapes of infants, is linked in part to the absence of adult women. The particular tragedy of gendercide is that no solution will yield immediate results. Anything that can be done to prevent the elimination of girls and dowry deaths, among others, needs to be done with the utmost urgency.

Numerous studies have shown that personal, professional and sexual frustration combine to lead young, unemployed men to take up crime, particularly in the context of adverse gender ratios. India’s median age is 26, resulting in 63.5% of the population being of working age. With 300 million jobless, India’s population is not only young but youth unemployment and under-employment is chronic. The ubiquity of leering men loitering on streets – a feature of much of the reporting on India – is a result of this desperate work shortage. In the effort to find jobs, young men have flocked from India’s hinterlands to its cities. “Bare branches” is the term used by sociologists to describe this demographic: dislocated migrants shorn of all professional, family and community ties. It is these people, with little to lose, that are most susceptible to crime and it is to this swelling urban underclass that the culprits in the Delhi gang rape case belonged.

Job creation is not immediately obvious as a solution to violence against women, but studies show that violence against women decreases as family incomes increase. Providing stable and sufficient employment will at least take this vast population of potential criminals off of India’s streets, and small motivations, such as keeping a job, discourages law breaking.

Of all the crimes committed against India’s women, the obscenity of gang rape is what has heightened the national sense of anguish and outrage. The fact that there are multiple perpetrators means that complacent attempts at ensuring safety – being armed and travelling in groups – are insufficient. Alone or not, it is geography that leaves many women vulnerable to attacks. Delhi, a sprawling, poorly planned metropolis, has many under-lit and unoccupied expanses and countless such law and enforcement black spots exist across India.

Feminist geography is concerned with the power relations of spaces, and failing to appreciate the need to make spaces safer for women is a dangerous oversight. In this effort, urban planning is centrally important. Public spaces offer natural guardianship – well-lit areas with crowds and moving traffic not only attract the attention of the police but also deter criminals. The creation of public spaces requires the simplest of policy initiatives: investment in basic infrastructure, granting licenses to trade and extending opening times of communal facilities such as shops, restaurants and cinemas.

Ninety-six percent of the female respondents to a 2005 survey agreed that domestic violence was acceptable in certain circumstances. And in a 2012 UNICEF survey of 15-19 year olds, 53% of the female and 87% of the male respondents replied that wife battery was justified. Clearly then, for women to be safe in India the ultimate battle remains that of reforming the attitudes of men and women, young and old. But effecting cultural change is a no-guarantees generational endeavor. The urgency of the effort to end India’s war on women demands an understanding of each of the facets of the problem. Neglecting the demographic, economic and geographic causes will only further imperil India’s women. Addressing them must be a central feature of the policy response.

Ram Mashru is a South Asia analyst and freelance journalist published in a range of leading publications on Indian politics, social affairs, human development and international relations. Follow him on Twitter @RamMashru.