Pervasive victimising of women
Singling out India for the alarming rise of violence against women is unwarranted given the relative global state of affairs
Nowadays, news stories about violence against women often find space on the front pages, even in mainline dailies. Such stories are not just confined to the metropolis but also come from the rural hinterland. Even incidents of 'honour killing' get front page treatment. Follow-up stories also appear.
Reportage on such news stories at a regular interval in the media space is likely to evoke a genuine concern in every reader's mind about a sudden spurt in crime rates against women in our country. Such a concern is quite legitimate from all conscientious citizens in an India which is poised for a big leap in terms of various development indicators, and also in the face of the existing Constitutional promise of rights to live with dignity and equality irrespective of sex, caste, or religion.
In this age of internet and satellite communication the news spreads fast and wide, and quite naturally such news stories attract global attention. India has been marked as a country 'unsafe' for women travellers by many countries in their travel advisories. Several global status reports on women have placed India at the lower rung in terms of safety. The recent Thomson Reuters Foundation Survey, 2018, has dubbed India as the 'world's most dangerous country for women due to high risk of sexual violence'. The capital city of Delhi has also earned the dubious title of 'rape capital' in the wake of the incident of gang rape in December 2012 in Delhi. This dim portrayal of India is perhaps putting the country at the back foot in defending itself as a champion for women's rights and empowerment.
Now, is this depiction of India in such a bad light fair? What exactly is the scenario in India with regard to crimes against women? The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), a wing in the Ministry of Home Affairs, it has been collating annual data on crime in the country since 1948 for various categories of cognizable offences under the Indian Penal Code such as murder, kidnapping, dacoity, robbery, housebreaking, theft, etc. Its very first report in 1948 makes no specific reference to crimes against women.
A marked change to the approach in identifying crimes against women separately began from the 90's when it was strongly felt by the activists, academicians, policy-makers, and researchers that a distinct category shall be created for authentic data and appropriate corrective actions for such cases in which women could be the sole victims.
The NCRB, thus, from 1992 onwards began categorising 'Crimes against Women', under two broad heads, one under the Indian Penal Code and other under the existing special laws such as the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1978, and Indecent Representation of Women (Prevention) Act, 1986.
In the new millennium, in 2001, the number of reported cases under crimes against women stood at 1,43,795 showing an increase of 1.7 per cent over the previous year. Uttar Pradesh recorded the highest number of crime rates of 14.1 per cent, followed by Andhra Pradesh with 11.5 per cent. Overall, crime rates against women from 2005 to 2015, showed a steady rising trend with a conviction rate varying between 21 and 31 per cent. However, the crimes against women under cruelty by husband and other relatives showed a jump from 58,319 cases in 2005 to 1,13,403 in 2015 -- a 94 per cent rise which perhaps indicates societal bias against women and the increasing rise in the incidents of domestic violence.
NCRB started gathering data on rape as a violent crime since the year 1971. It registered 2,487 number of rape cases in 1971, out of which the majority (45 per cent) were found in the States of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. A decade later, in 1981, the number of cases almost doubled to a total of 5,409. In the next decade in 1991, the number of cases showed almost a hundred per cent rise with 10,410 reported cases. The trend of high incidence of rape cases continued in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh during the 80's and 90's. During the decade from 2005 to 2015, the number rose from 18,359 in 2005 to 34,651 in 2015 with a rise of 84 per cent, when the conviction rate ranged between 24 and 27 per cent.
But, the incidents of child rape cases under the crimes against children category, is alarmingly on the rise, from 4,026 in 2005 to 10,854 in 2015 with a percentage hike of 170 per cent, and Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra were identified as places with high prevalence rate.
The National Family Health Survey (NFHS), which evaluates several socio-economic indicators on households, in its 2015-16 report, expressed concern that a large number of sexual violence cases remain unreported to the police, and they mostly belong to the incidents of spousal violence. However, while comparing with its earlier 2005-06 report, it cannot be concluded that India has become a completely unsafe place for women, rather India seems to have become a relatively safer and more aware place for women during the past decade, with reporting of sexual violence incidents rising since 2012.
Does that give any room for complacency in today's India? Perhaps not, India still presents a contrasting picture of sending rockets to space and of bride burning and female infanticide. But, perhaps India cannot also be singled out in terms of sexual harassment and violence. UN Women says that 35 per cent of women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence, and 120 million girls have experienced forced sex or other sexual acts. The latest Thomson Reuters Foundation Survey, 2018, has placed a first world country like the USA as one among the top ten unsafe countries in the world for high risk of sexual violence. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2012, also revealed high rates of physical and sexual violence in member States with Denmark marking the highest number of affected women (52 per cent), followed by Finland (47 per cent), Sweden (46 per cent), Netherlands (45 per cent), France (44 per cent), United Kingdom (44 per cent), Latvia (39 per cent), Luxembourg (38 per cent), Belgium (36 per cent), and Germany (35 per cent).
Sexual and physical violence against women is thus a global concern. The onslaught of #MeToo and #WhyIDidnt is wreaking havoc leading to the fall from the grace of many high and mighty from the world of media, politics et al. Such a stir has generated a new courage in women in opening up with their untold stories of sufferings. They are being called "Silence Breakers". The #MeToo movement claims that so far 17, 700,000 women have reported about sex assault since 1998. In India too, there is a silver lining on the horizon. The unprecedented public upsurge that was witnessed in the wake of the Delhi gang-rape incident in 2012, created a watershed moment in civil society movement. Several follow up actions in speedy justice delivery system and other supportive measures for women's safety have been put on the ground in the aftermath of such a massive upsurge and intense media attention. A case study in BMC Women's Health in 2015 over the incident had shown how information spread across the globe through the online media within a short time period, and how it acted as a powerful tool in unleashing social movements. The #MeToo movement has also reached the shores of India.
But, to realise the constitutional obligation of ensuring right to equality in letter and spirit, we need a time-bound justice delivery system, an effective law and order machinery, an alert citizenry, a responsive and responsible media and above all, more affirmative State actions for the inclusion of women in the mainstream of development.
Last, but not the least, our education system should also be instrumental in bringing in a perceptible change in the mindset and attitude of society towards women, instead of perpetuating the stereotyping of their roles.
(The author is a former Indian Information Service Officer and media educationist. The views expressed are strictly personal)