By Mukhtyar Ahmed
“Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”
― Virgina Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)
Violence affects women’s health, obstructs their ability to contribute fully to society, their enjoyment of sexual and procreative health, rights, freedom and acts as a source of physical and psychological pain for both women and their families. Women all over the world, regardless of their position, age group, class, caste, and religion, face violence in almost all domains of life, whether at home, at school, at work, on the streets, or in government as well as non-governmental institutions, or in times of conflict and war. As a daughter, as a wife, as a mother, most women face a tremendous amount of suffering and torture, both physical and mental. Women with disabilities, women displaced because of conflict or war, and bisexual, lesbian and transgender, due to their sexual orientation, are particularly vulnerable.
In India, patriarchy and masculinity contribute to violence against women. In our society, women face physical violence, emotional abuse, sexual assault, honour killings, acid attacks, dowry related abuse, and deaths. We witness gender-based violence both in the public as well as private spheres. It is frequently under-reported as a consequence of general social barriers; formal contrivances to address it remain unproductive. According to National Family Health Survey, conducted and released by Union Health Ministry, every third woman faces violence of different kinds in this country. This survey comes up with some surprising details: 27% of women have suffered physical violence since the age of 15.
Rape crimes against women and minor girls are growing rapidly. Recently, we witnessed the mass molestation of a woman in Bihar, where the molesters tried to strip the girl and the bystanders video-graphed the incident, which went viral on social media. The number of rapes almost doubled since 2001, including the recent spurt of the rape and murder of young, minor girls in various parts of the country. Not a single day passes without reports of rape somewhere in India. In December 2012, the brutal rape and murder of Nirbhaya traumatised India as well as the world. Six years on, such incidents are on the rise with an alarming rate. An eight-year-old minor tribal girl, Asifa, in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir, met the same fate as did Nirbhaya in Delhi. This disturbing incident of assault on an infant has shaken India and made national headlines. The range of her wounds has dismayed many and impelled them to wonder whether we have reached a new low. Weeks after this incident, an 11-month-old baby became a victim of sexual assault by her own relative in Madhya Pradesh. In The Indian express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes that our outrage cannot last. As it did with Nirbhaya, it will eventually fade. Although rape and sexual assault have become topic of living room conversations, it appears we pay attention to such incidents only when an inhuman act is committed. Innumerable everyday acts of gendered violence is ignored in the process.
What are the factors contributing to this and what should be done to combat the problem? For me, the primary reason is the terrible inefficiency of the administrative and judicial system. The failure of the administrative system to act on the growing brutalities against women has irked the general public, who went on to protest and demonstrate after the parliament passed the law for capital punishment against the rapist of minors. But will such selective justice combat sexual brutalities against women and ‘rape culture’? In Unnao, the ruling party MLA is booked for rape. What happens when a law maker becomes a law breaker? We need to deliberate on these questions carefully because securing justice for women in this country is easier said than done.
Some challenges in securing justice are the lack of trust in the police force, an extremely slow justice system, and a growing criminalization of politics, which dents any serious effort to reform India’s broken criminal justice system. These challenges, along with high pendency of cases and slow conviction rate, worsen the situation. India’s overworked police and judicial officers are way below the number required for an emerging economy of 1.3 billion people. We need to establish a fast-tracked justice system and reform the existing laws for women’s safety, in order to combat the growing ‘rape culture’. A strong civil society, political will, and a functional law enforcement system is required to address issues of sexual assault and rape against women effectively and efficiently. No amount of candlelight vigils or speeches can address the problem of ‘rape culture’ in the absence of significant political and judicial reforms with immediate effect. Rape should not be used as a political tool as was seen in the recent past, when national parties started a blame game, instead of unequivocally condemning incidents such as Kathua and Unnao.
Mukhtyar Ahmed is a research scholar in the Department of Geography, Bhagwant University, Rajasthan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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