Sunday, 6 January 2013

Lamentations of the weaker sex

In the past two weeks since the rape and death of a 23 year old medical student Jyoti Pandey in the capital, New Delhi has seen Indians display their anger, intolerance towards injustice and the inefficient role of the Government, Law enforcement agencies and the Judiciary. Young protesters voiced their distaste and spoke in solidarity against this shameful act. The Government is now slated to introduce a new amended law against the heinous crime.

A lot been said and done on Rape, it is now time to shift focus to the larger picture. The young girl’s death may have stirred the feelings of the masses but it is now time to highlight the daily victimisation of women at home, work and public places.

Call it hypocrisy or over simplification of the situation, the country has begun to believe that the introduction of the legislation will protect women better than before. Have 'We the People' forgotten that we have a long standing history of crimes against women. To begin with the women are not afflicted only by rape. The sin of being a woman in many parts of both rural and urban India begins from her conception. Female foeticide is at the top of these vicious crimes against women.  To curb prenatal sex discernment the Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994 was passed in India. The act aims to prevent sex-selective abortion. The fear of the law however has ceased to exist. As per Merco Press, a South Atlantic Asian News Agency, female foeticide in India still remained at a high in 2012. According to the 2011 census there are still 914 girls for every 1000 of their male counterpart which has fallen from 2001 where the statistics stayed at 927 girls per 1000 men. The dismal statistics are a result of the unlawful killing of the young girl child. Those determined to get rid of the girl child have adopted a new mode of disposing off the baby, an act that is today termed as Neonaticide, the killing of the infant within 24 hours of her birth. In some cases the infants are not immunized, failure of which leads to poor health and sickness. There is suggestion that this can be a deliberate attempt to limit their life.

According to Neil Samson Katz and Maria Sherry, in India: The Missing girls, a society out of balance,

“In some ways this is a very old tale. Long before medical abortion became available, unwanted girls were killed after birth or not given enough food and medicine to survive.”

But this is only the beginning. What happens if this “unwanted” female child lives to see another day? If they are unable to kill the child at birth she is dumped at garbage bins, disposed off at hospitals and then begins a torturous life that includes forcible begging and later on attaining adolescence a life that could range from being sold in brothels to human trafficking. The country has been a silent spectator to all these acts of shame for the past six decades and more.

A new phrase that is doing the round these days is the “commodification of women.”  A simplistic explanation of commodification would be “to make commercial.”  News channels ensured that the limelight stayed on only one source of this commodification: Bollywood. Prominent Bollywood celebrities stated that ‘item numbers’ were a part of ensuring the movies were a hit. Some like Shabana Azmi quite vociferously stated that the lyrics of songs needed to be toned down. The question is why did everyone wait for the Delhi incident to wake up to this reality?

The commodification of women unfortunately is not to be attributed to Bollywood. What about Dowry? The dowry system has commodified women since time immemorial. Dowry is believed to be an ancient custom, and its existence may well predate records of it. Again a bill was passed entitled, The Dowry prohibition Act, 1961 whose sole idea was to stop this commodification. Sections 304b and 498 A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 were included to penalise those who indulged in the practice of “giving and taking dowry” IPC 304B assumes that if the wife dies within seven years of marriage, it is to be assumed to be murder unless the husband can prove his innocence. Though this section has been welcomed by certain parts of society, the ambit of this section is questionable. In the year 2010, the Supreme Court Justices Dalveer Bhandari and K S Radhakrishnan expressed concern at the rise in number of complaints under Section 498A. The Bench said, "We come across a large number of such complaints which are not even bona fide and are filed with oblique motives." The amended law was to be exercised with care and caution. Even law enforcement agencies were cautioned. According to the data collected in May 2012, the Indian  Express brought to light the fact that 18% dowry death cases end in conviction in Delhi, a matter of serious concern.

Marriage brought in the issue of IPV or intimate partner violence, commonly consisting of marital rape and domestic violence. Inter Partner violence is defined as,

“Intimate partner violence includes acts of physical aggression, psychological abuse, forced intercourse and other forms of sexual coercion, and various controlling behaviours such as isolating a person from family and friends or restricting access to information and assistance.”

The reasons for IPV are said to include: young age, low income, low academic achievement , involvement in aggressive or delinquent behaviour as an adolescent.

Marital rape is not yet recognised under the Indian law as a crime.

The Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act, 2005 was passed to protect the married women from being victims of physical and mental torture at the hands of their husbands and family members. “Bell bajao” an international campaign that was initiated by 2008 by Breakthrough which aimed at creating a vigilant society that stood up for the women especially in their neighbourhood and raised a voice against injustice being meted out to them. According to Smita Joshi, a family counsellor about 55% cases of domestic violence cases are settled by counselling. Are there any follow ups done? Are these only temporary quick – fixes? We may never know. The stifling of women in a claustrophobic patriarchal society is not something you and I can shut our eyes to.

What about unmarried women who are working at offices for various reasons from financial insufficiency to ambition. The Vishaka judgment ( )  gave in certain guidelines for the protection of women at workplaces.
All employers or persons in charge of work place whether in public or private sector should take appropriate steps to prevent sexual harassment. Without prejudice to the generality of this obligation they should take the following steps:

A. Express prohibition of sexual harassment as defined above at the work place should be notified, published and circulated in appropriate ways.
B. The Rules/Regulations of Government and Public Sector bodies relating to conduct and discipline should include rules/regulations prohibiting sexual harassment and provide for appropriate penalties in such rules against the offender.
C. As regards private employers, steps should be taken to include the aforesaid prohibitions in the standing orders under the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946.
D. Appropriate work conditions should be provided in respect of work, leisure, health and hygiene to further ensure that there is no hostile environment towards women at work places and no employee woman should have reasonable grounds to believe that she is disadvantaged in connection with her employment.

The Times of India, in November, 2012 stated 17% of women are still sexually harassed at workplaces. It quoted Oxfam India report on the same "While 87% of the general population and 93% of working women respondents reported awareness of sexual harassment of women at workplace, a majority of the victims didn't resort to any formal action against the perpetrators. The top three industries unsafe for women are labourers (29%), domestic help (23%) and small-scale manufacturing (16%)."

Aren’t these victims of injustice living in a potentially vulnerable society? Isn’t this a contributing factor to the societal imbalance?

Honour killings are the most violent and extreme of the crimes against women. However, the only difference here is that even spouses and fiancées of these young women are sacrificed at the altar of family honour. Khap Panchayats have been slaughtering young men and women in the name of caste. Aren't these victims also 'Victims'?

Most women refrain from reporting any crime for fear of social stigma. Families refrain from registering cases against eve- teasers and there are many women out there in the open who ignore the daily whistling and hooting and verbal abuses. Film- makers may show a few women slipper young men but this is not reality, it is glorified fiction for India.

Another serious issue that we face is the fact that we are yet to figure out how society begins to perceive victims of rape and molestation with a jaundice eye.The main reason women refrain from registering a case against the perpetrators of crime is because they are branded as women of low character. A de- flowered woman in society gets the distinction of one ineligible to marry, lead a normal life or start anew. This perception must change.

The Government of India may come up with the best of Legislations on paper but once the bill is passed Parliament become functus officio as far as that statute is concerned so that it cannot itself interpret it. In Girdharilal and sons v. Balbir Nath mathur AIR (1986) SC 1099, it was clearly stated: A legislature cannot be asked to sit to resolve difficulties. Watching the media's focus on a single crime and then discuss and vent out our anger in drawing rooms without understanding the depth and intensity of the situation describes the ineffectualness of the masses.

On the part of the Legislature in future it must be mandatory that MP’s and MLA’s standing for elections with impending criminal cases must come clean before they can stand for elections.
A major reason for these crimes is attributed to a gender inequality.

Gender Mainstreaming is a workable way out. The Economic and Social Council defines Gender mainstreaming as:

Gender mainstreaming is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies and programmes, in all areas and at all levels, and as a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and social spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality.” (ECOSOC 1997/2)

It is time for women to stop buckling under the pressure of a male – dominant society. If the tenacity with which men and women protested on streets in various parts of India can be translated into an action for empowering women to stand up for themselves, India does have hope for equality in the social order.  The crimes against women must be stopped in totality.

Let's stop waiting for male - help to assert our individuality and independence.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
 As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Here's hoping maximum women welcome tomorrow with a new hope and a renewed vigour to meet the challenges that lay ahead.

Katherine. Abraham


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