Discrimination despite Development: Women’s Position in India

Although the causes remain unclear, India, considered by most a progressive and tolerant nation, is witnessing a sudden spate of violent crimes against women. Earlier in June, a survey of 370 gender specialists found India to be the worst place to be a woman among all the G-20 countries (a list that also includes Saudi Arabia). Just last week, an 18-year-old in Assam, a state in northeastern India, was molested by a mob of 20 men. While people standing around clearly had enough time to record a video, no one bothered to call the police. Public apathy notwithstanding, official inaction has also contributed to a steadily deteriorating situation. A few months back, police in Gurgaon advised women against venturing out after 8 pm. In February, the government of West Bengal reacted to the gang-rape of a young woman by accusing the victim of having ‘loose morals’ and being part of a conspiracy that would discredit the Chief Minister of the state.

It is not only violent crimes that are commonplace, other kinds of (non-violent) crimes—commonly referred to as “eve-teasing”—are a part of many women’s daily existence while out at work or on public transport, and include being subjected to sexually suggestive remarks and unwanted physical contact. The expression of discomfort by many women led the Delhi Metro to designate separate, women-only carriages on the train. However, as many have rightly claimed, separation of the sexes is not something that increases tolerance. An anonymous blog post by a woman highlights how her ride in the Delhi metro turned nasty when she did not board the ladies’ carriage of the train and instead traveled in the general compartment.

Indeed, it does seem that crimes against women are on the increase: according to the National Crime Records Bureau in India, there was a 7.1% hike in recorded crimes against women between 2010 and 2011. The biggest leaps occurred in cases under “the dowry prohibition act,” which classifies the act of giving or take dowry, as well as violent acts towards a woman after marriage in order to demand material goods from her family as a criminal act (up 27.7%), of kidnapping and abduction (up 19.4% year on year), and of rape (up 9.2%).

India Crime Rates. Source: Iyer, Mani, Mishra and Topalova (2011).

These disturbing trends raise the question of why crime against women has being rising in India. This is all the more puzzling given the overall decrease in other kinds of crime (see figure).

With regard to the increasing crime against women, several hypotheses have been offered. Iyer, Mani, Mishra and Topalova find that increase against crimes against women in India can be explained neither by the increased crime hypothesis, the idea that greater exposure to situations or locations where crime occurs amongst women may be driving the observed increases in crimes, nor the retaliation hypothesis, according to which crimes against women are a form of retaliation against their increasing role in the public sphere and in positions of leadership.

Instead, they find that the introduction of mandated political representation for women at local levels leads to a large increase in the documented number of crimes against women. In 1993, the 73rd amendment to the constitution made it mandatory for Indian states to set aside one-third of all positions in local government councils for women. Using this unique opportunity for a countrywide experiment, they find that besides inducing a greater number of women to report crimes, the presence of a greater number of women representatives in local offices also, “induces greater responsiveness of law enforcement officials to crimes against women, as measured by the number of arrests as well as the quality of women’s interactions with police.”

However, reservation for women at the local level was implemented in most states in the 1990s, with a few states implementing it in the early 2000s. So while it can be argued that formal representation of women gave an impetus to reporting crimes against women, it does not explain why the numbers are steadily increasing even 15 years after the instatement of women leaders at local levels in some of these states. This could have one of two implications. First, that crimes against women were so under-reported before the 73rd amendment that the tidal wave of the amendment’s impact is still being felt. Second, and more plausibly, it can mean that crime against women have actually been increasing even more over the past decade. The latter scenario is obviously more disturbing and leaves us still with the question of why.

The first reason that comes to my mind is the lack of legal recourse. There is currently no special law in India against sexual assault or harassment, with Article 376 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) only dealing with rape. For instance, those who molested the woman in Guwahati would be booked under Article 354 of the IPC which deals with the use of assault or criminal force to outrage the modesty of a woman. However, in the absence of a clear definition of “modesty” or “intention of outraging,” the accused are often let off with minor punishments, if at all, especially since this is a bailable offence. Thus, one could argue that the lack of an effective deterrent prevents offenders from not committing a crime. If this is a valid argument, moreover, the lack of an effective deterrent would explain why more and more people commit crimes against women each year.

Others have argued that social progress in India has not kept pace with economic progress. Ejaz Ghani writes,

Although gender parity in primary education has improved, dropout rates for girls are higher than for boys. The dowry tradition puts pressure on girls’ families to marry them early, leading to a preference for sons – and thus to sex-specific abortions targeting female fetuses. Legislation, courts, and law-enforcement mechanisms have failed to address the high incidence of violence against women. Death rates for young girls are much higher than for boys. These indicators are symptomatic of a general pattern of discrimination.

Even if political representation of women at local levels might be a good first step in terms of at least reporting crime (instead of keeping it a private affair) as Iyer et al. find, the more disturbing question of how to quell this rising crime still remains unanswered. Establishing effective legal deterrents and more progressive social reform might be the answer. However, legal and social reforms can only take place under willing political circumstances. With many right-wing Hindu groups openly opposing a perceived degradation of “Indian culture” under Western influences (an attack by a right-wing group in Mangalore on Saturday being the most recent example), gender issues easily become politicized, which may eventually slow down much-needed reforms.


4 thoughts on “Discrimination despite Development: Women’s Position in India

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