India: Phenomenal [read *atrocious*] rise in violence against women in the past two decades Print E-mail

 Volume 24 - Issue 25 :: December 22, 2007-January 04, 2008

COVER STORY

Woman as victim

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI
in New Delhi

There has been an escalation of all forms of violence against women in India in the past two decades.

 This newborn, a girl, was found abandoned in a gunny bag at Pallavaram near Chennai in July. Luckily for her, many people came forward to take care of her (A. MURALITHARAN)

The recently released annual Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks India 114 in a list of 128 countries. The last 14 countries include Nepal and Pakistan, which are ranked 125 and 126. Not surprisingly, tiny Cuba ranks 22, and Sri Lanka has done better than its South Asian counterparts, ranking 15. The situation was no better in 2006, when India was ranked 98 out of 115 countries.

The data capture the magnitude of the gap between men and women in four critical areas, namely, economic participation and opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and survival. The last category includes the criteria of female life expectancy and sex ratio at birth. The report clarifies that its assessment was not about women’s empowerment but more about opportunities for women. The one important variable that dragged India down to 128 is its sex ratio at birth, which is 0.89.

On December 12, a question was raised in Parliament about India’s dismal ranking in the report. Why has there been such a devastating decline in the status of women in terms of entitlements and opportunities in a country that has made great strides in economic growth and achievement? Something has gone horribly wrong, and the problem is still not on the political agenda of the mainstream political parties. There has been an escalation of all forms of violence against women and children in the past one and a half decades, with the economically vulnerable among them bearing the brunt. The trend does not seem to be slowing.

Replying to the query, the Minister of State for Women and Child Development Renuka Chowdhury said the government had not reviewed the WEF report and that women’s empowerment was a mandate of the Ministry, which had taken up gender budgeting as a tool to achieve gender equality. While gender budgeting definitely is an important issue, it does not address the problem.

Take agriculture. According to Census 2001, 42.95 per cent of the rural female population was working as agricultural labour. Women’s oppression has always constituted a major part of social oppression that is endemic to this sector, yet their demands have not been addressed. According to Quarterly Employment Review of the Ministry of Labour, of the total number of people employed in the organised sector in 2004 only 18.7 per cent were women. According to a report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS, August 2007), the social composition of agricultural labour was 46.7 per cent Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and 33.9 per cent Other Backward Classes, besides others. The Hindu “higher” castes, it said, were least likely to be agricultural labourers.

The report, “Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector”, said the work participation rates for women belonging to the S.C.s and the S.T.s was significantly higher than those for women in general. It said this was “more likely the result of economic hardships than the availability of work opportunities”.

The NCEUS report also observed that “working as agricultural labourers seemed to be the last resort, given its low social status, low earnings, irregular employment often reinforced by social oppression in the event of assertion of rights or dignity”.

According to the National Sample Survey (NSS) 61st round (2004-05) and the 55th round (1999-2000), the percentage of rural women (regular) workers in the total workforce was 3.7, while that of S.C.s/S.T.s was 3.1 per cent.

The proportion of self-employed women as a percentage of the total workforce was 61.1 per cent; rural women constituted 63.7 per cent and rural S.C./S.T. women 51.1 per cent. This meant that regular employment opportunities were next to negligible and even more remote for Dalit and S.T. women.

In the urban areas, several studies show that in the past one decade, there has been a growth in subsidiary, self-employed, non-agricultural activity, particularly among women.

Phenomenal rise 
Crimes against women have seen a phenomenal rise in the past two decades. In the publication titled Women and Men in India, 2006 brought out by the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO), under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, there has been a continuous rise in the total incidence of crimes committed against women over the years. Crimes against women, it states, increased during 2004 by 9.8 per cent over 2003 and by 13.9 per cent over 1999.

Crimes punishable under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), namely, rape, kidnapping and abduction, homicide for dowry or dowry deaths, mental and physical torture, molestation, sexual harassment, and trafficking of girls under 16 years, accounted for 93 per cent of the cases reported, while the remainder came under special and local laws.

Cruelty by the husband and his relatives accounted for the highest number of crimes against women. This category saw an increase of 14.6 per cent in 2004 over 2003. While trafficking in girls as a percentage of the total crime figure is low, it recorded an increase of 93.5 per cent in 2004 when compared with 2003.

What is even more revealing is that 8.9 per cent of the rape victims in 2004 were under 15 years of age, while 11 per cent were teenaged girls in the 15- to 18-year age group. A most shocking case, in Lucknow in 2005, was that of a 14-year-old rag-picker who was dragged into a car and gang-raped by six young men, one of whom was the nephew of a legislator from the then ruling party.

The Uttar Pradesh unit of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) took up the case, and after a sustained struggle two of the culprits were convicted. Similarly, the organisation took up the cause of two minor girls in January 2007, who were raped inside a madrassa by criminals in Allahabad. AIDWA’s presence ensured that no “compromise” was arrived at and the culprits were arrested.

Between January and July 2007, 11,453 cases of crimes against women were reported in Uttar Pradesh. Of the 3,782 recorded crimes committed against Dalits as a whole during this seven-month period, 158 were of rape of Dalit women. Attacks on minors and adolescent children, the increase in child rapes, the insignificant decline in child marriages and the increased trafficking in girls are trends that point to a connection between the declining child sex ratio and the increase in crimes against women and children. Young girls continue to be trafficked regularly from the poorer parts of several States to the “women deficit” States of Punjab and Haryana, where, in many cases, they live the life of sex slaves.

Culturally, linguistically and physically different, with no social or emotional support to fall back on, these girls have a difficult time adjusting and often end up enduring all kinds of indignities. While it is argued that not all such cases result in violence against such women and that there might be a silver lining as most of these marriages end up being inter-caste, the sordid truth is that these girls were “purchased” at a price. The few rights they might have enjoyed dissipated along with their “paid for” status.

Driving force

Calling attention to the increase in atrocities against women, in Hyderabad. A file photographby (P.V. SIVAKUMAR)

There is little doubt that dowry has been the driving force behind many crimes against women and the girl child. In Delhi, which has been labelled the crime capital by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), H.P.S. Virk, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Crime (Women’s) Cell, told Frontline that Indian marriages had become economic transactions between families.

Among certain communities, he said, it was an “open auction”. There were fixed “rates” for prospective grooms depending on the area to which the boy’s family belonged. The rate, he said, declined as one moved away from the main city. For instance, a boy who had his family business in a business centre like Bagh attracted much more dowry than someone living on the nondescript outskirts of the capital. “The boy naturally makes more money and, therefore, the demand for dowry will be commensurate with the income he earns,” said the police officer. Clearly, it is the affluent who are flagrantly violating the Dowry Prohibition Act.

The Delhi Crime Cell started a helpline in 2002, which is used quite often. The cell has so far received 13,061 calls; in 2006, it received approximately 15 calls a day. Of the 4,907 calls finally attended to by the cell, 71 per cent involved domestic violence, and only in about 4 per cent of the cases the police were able to broker a compromise. This suggests that increasingly women are speaking up against domestic violence. In 2007, the cell received 7,838 calls.

Complaints received at the CWC have shown a rising trend. In 2004, 2005, 2006 and until November 2007, the cell received 8,349, 8,629, 9,879 and 9,166 complaints respectively. As far as the disposal of complaints was concerned, even though the formula of “compromise” was deployed in the majority of the cases, the number of cases registered was gradually going up.

There were 114 (2005), 137 (2006) and 132 (up to November 30, 2007) dowry deaths in Delhi. There were 658 (2005), 623 (2006) and 560 (2007) rape cases, while the cases of molestation for the same years were 762, 718 and 812 respectively, showing a substantial increase in such cases over the past one year.

However, torture and cruelty accounted for the bulk of the crimes against women in the national capital. There were 1,330 (2005), 1,739 (2006) and 1,648 (up to November 30, 2007) cases registered under Section 498 A/ 406 of the IPC. There was an increase of almost 400 cases of torture between 2005 and 2006, the period prior to the enactment of the Protection of Women From Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA). An equally large number of kidnapping and abduction cases, more than thousand, were registered in the period 2005 to 2007.

Why is the Dowry Prohibition Act not working? Primarily it is because of the social acceptance of dowry. In the past one and a half decades of economic reform this situation has only got worse, permeating every section of society. H.P.S. Virk narrated the case of a maid who paid Rs.2 lakh as dowry for her daughter. The groom was an electrician. One day, the daughter came to the police station with burn marks all over her body.

In the majority of cases, the approach of the police is to “broker” a compromise and dissuade the complainant from carrying on. Often the lengthy legal process is used as a handle to “settle” the case. He said the implementation of even the PWDVA was tardy as the police themselves were unaware that they were empowered to help the victims who came to the police station. “Finally, it is the police who have to enforce the Act,” said a senior police officer.

"Staying alive"
In the very first monitoring and evaluation report on the implementation of the PWDVA, titled “Staying Alive” (October 2007) and brought out by Women’s Rights Initiative of Lawyers Collective, it was stated that 7,913 cases had been filed under the Act until July 31, 2007, and that most of the proceedings were pending in court.

All States, barring five, had appointed protection officers, the report said. The highest number of cases (3,440) was filed in Rajasthan, where no protection officer had been appointed. Kerala was next with 1,028 cases, while not a single case had been registered in Uttar Pradesh, the report said.

The wide variation in the number of cases registered in the States was attributed mainly to the degree of awareness about the law and did not reflect the lack of domestic violence in States that reported low figures. In Rajasthan, the study found that lawyers and civil society organisations took the initiative to help register cases. In Kerala, the reason could be the high degree of awareness among women.

Delhi reported only 607 cases registered under the PWDVA. Protection officers in Delhi and Andhra Pradesh, the study found, had not been appointed on a full-time basis. In fact, most protection officers in the country were found overburdened. Each district had one protection officer, who not only had to provide assistance to the complainant but also had to comply sometimes with the directions of more than one magistrate.

The primary users of the law, the report said, were married women, indicating perhaps that dowry did play a big role in domestic violence. However, only five States reported having registered service providers and only 12 had notified medical facilities and shelter homes. There was also a crucial need to train the police on informing women about the Act.

Such is the pressure of dowry today that a trend has emerged of “Sumangali jobs’ in certain parts of Tamil Nadu. In this, single women are offered jobs and assured that they will be given a sum of money for their dowry after a certain period of employment. The other condition is that they are totally bound to the employer in every manner. According to NCRB data, the numbers of dowry deaths in the country during 2004, 2005 and 2006 was 7,026, 6,787 and 7,618 respectively. Amendments relating to the definition of dowry as also to increasing the penalty for dowry deaths under Section 304 B of the IPC are pending. In the years from 2002 to 2006, a total of 2,816, 2,684, 3,592, 3,204 and 4,504 cases respectively were registered under the Dowry Prohibition Act.

Data regarding dowry-linked suicides by women for the same period reveal that a total of 2,378, 2,347, 2,585, 2,305 and 2,276 women respectively committed suicide, with the largest numbers reported from Madhya Pradesh.

The NCRB report, “Crime in India - 2005”, observed that even though the share of violent crimes in the total number of crimes under the IPC had declined continuously over 2001-2005, the share of violent crimes affecting women had increased in this period, except for a slight decline in 2003.

If 1,157 cases of rape of Dalit women were reported in 2004, in 2005 the number was 1,172, with Madhya Pradesh accounting for 29 per cent of them. Madhya Pradesh also accounted for 45.9 per cent of the cases of rape of tribal women, the highest among the States. Nationally, in 2005, as many as 640 cases of rape of tribal women were reported, compared with 566 cases in 2004, that is, nearly a 13 per cent increase over the previous year.

Police officials said that in most police stations complaints of violence against women were taken up not by senior officials but often by the lower-level staff. “Police stations are mainly concerned with maintaining law and order. Terrorism and riots get first priority. Women’s issues are always treated casually,” said a senior police official in Delhi.

He said such was the insecurity among women in the capital that an experiment to have women constables of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) on night duty on VIP routes backfired when the women who were given SLRs (self-loading rifles) reported feeling insecure patrolling in the late hours of the night. Finally, a male CRPF constable was posted for every woman constable on the patrol beat.

“One would have assumed that given the constitutional framework, things would have changed in favour of women. That has not happened,” said Sudha Sundararaman, general secretary of AIDWA. She said the economic reforms currently under way had not created the conditions for the eradication of violence against women; if anything, it had generated more violence against women.

India is a signatory to many international conventions, including the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which it ratified in 1993. The principle of gender equality is enshrined in the Indian Constitution, which not only grants equality to women but empowers the state and makes it obligatory for it to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favour of women.

It is wrong on the part of the Ministry of Women and Child Development to assume that by merely spending more through gender budgeting to achieve gender equality it get rid of the scourge of increasing crimes against women and the girl child. The issue does not concern just women anymore. It has to be a national and a political priority.