The world was horrified to hear of the brutal gang-rape of a 23 year old student in Delhi last December, none more so than the people of India themselves. In the weeks following, India saw widespread protests, as did the rest of the world, with campaigns such as One Billion Rising pledging their support.
Yet, six months on, the situation in India seems unchanged. Just last week, on the centenary of Emily Davison’s brave yet fatal attempt to raise awareness for the women’s suffrage campaign in the United Kingdom, an American tourist was gang-raped in Manali. More recently, on Saturday Preeti Rathi died in hospital after nearly a month of fighting for her life: a result of an unidentified man’s violent acid attack on her.
These women are not alone though; cases just like theirs are reported every day. In 2011, there were 24,206 reported rape cases according to the National Crime Records Bureau, and this number is on the rise. As a result, in 2011 the Thomson Reuters Foundation found India to be the worst G20 country to be a woman in, even Saudi Arabia, a country where women are banned from driving by social convention, was found to be better than India.
These statistics are shocking, and can lead to many questioning why women are so mistreated, despite the number of women in high-ranked positions and careers in India. Indeed, just last year, India’s first female president left office, and currently Meira Kumar is the Speaker of the lower house of the Indian Parliament. Women in India, as well as being politicians, can find jobs as CEOs and as directors of major companies, yet many cannot leave their homes for fear of being attacked.
Some are not safe even in the confines of their own houses; under India’s legislation, marital rape is not a criminal offence. In the city of Pune, statistics show that 26% of women often have sex with their husbands against their desire. India’s justification for this? They believe that criminalising marital rape would lead to ‘family values’ being undermined.
But what are these ‘family values’ the government of India want to so desperately protect? Family values that allow women to be effectively ruled by her husband. The Indian government’s National Family Health Survey found that 37% of women have suffered abuse at the hands of her husband.
From a western feminist perspective, it seems as though these values are grounded in deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes. The sexism in Indian culture cannot be doubted; both India’s two main religions, Hinduism and Islam, place women in inferior positions in society to men. Religion underpins much of the inequality in India, for example, following the 2012 Delhi gang-rape, Hindu spiritual leader, Asaram Bapu, came into controversy for claiming that the victim was partly to blame for the rape; she should have begged for mercy.
Yet religion cannot be solely to blame, the problems are more inerrant in Indian culture than that. The dowry system in India, despite being made illegal in 1961, still infiltrates society. Over 8000 dowry-related deaths were reported in 2010, and over 2500 of these are attributed to ‘bride burning’, where the bride is killed at home in a fire, sometimes claimed to be ‘accidental’ kitchen fires.
The dowry system has a shocking impact on all stages of female life though; it is the main cause of sex-selective abortion. In poorer families that cannot afford to pay dowries, female foeticide or appallingly, sometimes infanticide, is the only way to save the family money. Estimates put the number of female foetuses aborted over the past decade at somewhere around 6 million, severely skewing the human sex ratio: for every 1000 boys born, there are only 914 girls.
An Indian proverb compares having a girl to watering your neighbour’s garden; it only helps other people. Yet the dowry system is not the only reason for the prevalence of sex-selective abortions; it can also be blamed on the rising middle class in India, looking for a son to take over the family business. Daughters are traditionally seen as not suitable for this work, despite the existence of many women in high careers in India.
The skewed human sex ratio leads to yet more detrimental effects towards women. Women’s rights groups have warned that the lack of women may lead to ‘bride trafficking’ and further sexual assaults as men fail to find wives. There is a cycle of inequality in India that leads to further and further sexism.
But what can be done to overcome this cycle of sexism? Following the Delhi rape case, protests were widespread; in Bangalore, 600 women demonstrated. Worldwide, protests and acts of solidarity help. In response to the anger, the Indian government passed new legislation which defined different attacks on women with individual sentences, such as acid throwing. The definition of rape was widened to include more incidences of sexual assault. Yet sexual assault and attacks on women continues. No matter what the government does, it’s up to India’s citizens themselves to confront their patriarchal society and make women more equal.