New Delhi The Female Struggle
Women in South Asia continue to suffer in varying degrees from country to country while they wait for sweeping changes so that they are accepted as equals in this male-dominated region.
It took a year for Indian state authorities to formally charge Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a politician from the ruling party, for the rape of a 16 year old girl, a crime he unabashedly denied on media and the police ignored it. However, it was only when the girl tried to set herself alight did the federal investigators make the charge. By that time, the girl’s father had already died, succumbing to wounds inflicted during custody, from a beating allegedly by Sengar’s brother.
The case asserted the results of a poll survey conducted earlier, which showed that India is the world’s most dangerous country for women due to the high risk of sexual violence and being forced into slave labour. Wartorn Afghanistan and Syria ranked second and third in the Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of about 550 experts on women’s issues, followed by Somalia and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan ranked sixth.
The survey asked respondents which five of the 193 United Nations member states they thought were most dangerous for women and which country was worst in terms of healthcare, economic resources, cultural or traditional practices, sexual violence and harassment, non-sexual violence and human trafficking. Respondents ranked India the most dangerous country for women in terms of human trafficking, including sex slavery and domestic servitude and for customary practices such as forced and early marriages, stoning and female infanticide.
In 2016, there were around 40,000 rapes reported in India - up 60 percent from 2012, according to official data, with many more cases unreported. The conviction rate of people arrested for rape was 25 percent in 2016, while the backlog of rape cases pending trial stood at more than 133,000 by the end of that year.
In another survey exploring safety perceptions among adolescent girls across six Indian states, an international non-governmental organisation revealed that young girls, aged 11 to 18, reported feeling more susceptible to molestation or abuse while using public transport. Narrow roads leading to school, local markets or private tuition were also regarded as being unsafe and 28 percent of young women from large cities, especially from low-income groups and slums, said they felt insecure in cinema halls.
An unsafe environment for women has also resulted in a less acknowledged economic effect. Increasingly afraid for their own and their children's safety, many women in India are simply leaving the workforce or taking lower-paying jobs. Bloomberg reports that from 2004, about 20 million women (the size of the combined populations of New York, London and Paris) vanished from India’s workforce, as estimated by the World Bank. Only 27 percent of Indian women are in employment, which is the lowest among the major emerging nations and G-20 countries, and better only than Saudi Arabia, the report says.
In recent months, the rape, torture and murder of an 8-year-old girl in the state of Jammu, an 11-year-old in Gujarat and the rape of a1 6-yearold in Uttar Pradesh, have pushed India for more stringent punishments to deter such crimes, which includes fast-track courts and death penalty for rape of girls below 12.
Only recently, India’s Supreme Court upheld the death penalty for three men convicted in the gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in 2012, a landmark case that brought an unprecedented level of attention to violence against women in the country. However, there are few signs that sexual violence against women in India is lessening.
Indian state data shows that crimes against women surged 83 percent from 2007 to 2016, resulting in 39 crimes every hour. According to the National Crimes Records Bureau, in 2016 the rape of minor girls increased by 82 percent compared with the previous year. Worryingly, across all rape cases, 95 percent of rapists were not strangers but family, friends and neighbours.
Rape of minor girls is a worrying issue in Pakistan as well. The country is yet to recover from the shock of rape and murder of 7 year old Zainab from the city of Kasur in early 2018. Nationwide protests and a suo moto notice by the apex court swung security agencies into action and, after a thorough investigation using scientific methods, the culprit was nabbed. Proven to be guilty, he was sentenced to death, but the awarded punishment is yet to be given, with Zainab’s parents pressing for a public hanging.
Zainab was not the first victim of child abuse in Pakistan. Before her, 129 child abuse cases had been reported in 2017 only in Kasur – Zainab’s hometown, while more than 4000 such incidents took place in the whole country the year before.
Pakistan tightened its legislation to protect children in 2016, criminalising sexual assault, child pornography
and trafficking for the first time, after a paedophile ring, circulating pornographic videos, was exposed – yet again in Kasur.
Under the current law in Pakistan, sentences for rape are death penalty or a sentence of between 10 and 25 years. And yet, cases of violence against women in Punjab – the province to which Zainab belonged -increased by 12 percent in 2017 from the previous year, while a report by the Women Development Department of Sindh shows a total of 1,643 cases of various types of violent acts filed by women from across the province since July 2017. The acts included cases of honour killing, a centuriesold tradition of imparting ‘ justice’ through murdering females to settle family feuds.
Qandeel Baloch, who shot to fame through social media, was strangled to death by her brother Wasim two years ago, as Wasim had found her sibling’s behaviour ‘intolerable’. In an effort ‘to restore the reputation and honour’ of one’s family, over 1,000 cases of honour killings were reported in Pakistan in 2015.
Other similar studies conducted by the Women Rehabilitation Centre in Nepal showed that 1,563 cases against women violence were recorded from 2012 to 2013. Apart from that, it was also pointed out that between 5,000 and 12,000 girls and women aged 10 to 20 are trafficked every year.
Violence against women has also been increasing in Bangladesh in a rapid fashion over the last decade, exemplified by the growing figures of dowry-related violence, where women are tortured and, in many cases, killed by in-laws and husbands.
What seems common in most South Asian states is a highly prejudiced attitude towards women. Whether it is India or Pakistan, Nepal or Bangladesh, girls in most families are unwanted and seen as a financial burden. They have mostly no say in family decisions. Females, even those who have yet not reached adolescence, are seen as a means for achieving sexual gratification. Many are denied privileges in employment otherwise given to men. Like other countries of the world, the #metoo movement has picked up in this region as well and so has legislation for violence against women. But what does not seem to change is the South Asian society’s attitude towards them.
The societal attitude is entrenched in gender roles defined millenniums ago, where man is the provider, the decider, the strong and respected. A woman is not entitled to these privileges. Girls are trained from an early age to care for their brothers, fathers and then husbands. Their respect lies in their dependence on men, while mostly, their morality is measured against the length of the scarf they traditionally wear with their dress.
It is only when in the familial setup are women given respect, are treated as equals and have a say in at least the decisions ruling their lives, will a sweeping change come over society. Only then, will a country in South Asia be no more a dangerous place for a woman to live in.
As Deepa Narayan, a social scientist and author of Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women says, ‘We have underestimated the power of culture in creating violence within our families. To reclaim our humanity we need a national conversation about what it means to be a good woman and a good man in India today’.
The writer is a broadcast journalist and freelance writer. She has keen interest in issues concerning women, religion and foreign affairs.
In 2016, there were around 40,000 rapes reported in India - up 60 percent from 2012.