London ~ Friday 27 April 2018
India's abuse of women is the biggest human rights violation on Earth
Tragic rape cases have shocked the country. But the everyday suffering of 650 million Indian women and girls goes unnoticed By Deepa Narayan
Women protest against violence against women and children in Bangalore, April 2018. (Jagadeesh Nv/EPA)
India is at war with its girls and women. The planned rape of eight-year-old Asifa in a temple by several men, including a policeman who later washed the clothes she was wearing to destroy evidence, was particularly horrific. Asifa's rape has outraged and shaken the entire country. Yet sexual abuse in India remains widespread despite tightening of rape laws in 2013. According to the National Crimes Records Bureau, in 2016 the rape of minor girls increased by 82% compared with the previous year. Chillingly, across all rape cases, 95% of rapists were not strangers but family, friends and neighbours.
The culturally sanctioned degradation of women is so complete that the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, launched a national programme called Beti Bachao (Save Our Girls). India can arguably be accused of the largest-scale human rights violation on Earth: the persistent degradation of the vast majority of its 650 million girls and women. And this includes the middle classes, as I found when interviewing 600 women and men in India's cities.
India's women are traumatised in less obvious ways than by tanks in the streets, bombs and warlords. Our oppression starts innocuously: it occurs in private life, within families, with girls being locked up in their own homes. This everyday violence is the product of a culture that bestows all power on men, and that does not even want women to exist. This is evident in the unbalanced sex ratios at birth, even in wealthy families. But India also kills its women slowly. This violence is buried in the training of women in some deadly habits that invite human rights violations, but that are considered the essence of good womanhood.
The first teaches girls to be afraid of their own bodies. When a girl is not supposed to exist, 1.3 billion people collectively pretend that girls don't have bodies and especially no sexual parts. If girls do not have bodies, sexual molestation is not possible, and if it does happen, it has to be denied, and if it cannot be denied, the girl must be blamed.
Denial of sexuality in homes is another habit that is deadly to girls. Almost every woman I interviewed had experienced some form of sexual molestation. Only two had told their mothers, only to be dismissed, "Yes, this happens in families," or "No, this did not happen." Indian government surveys show that 42% of girls in the country have been sexually abused.
Speech is another basic human right. To have a voice, to speak up, is to be recognised, to belong. But girls are trained in silence. They are told to be quiet, to speak softly, dheere bolo, to have no opinions, no arguments, no conflicts. Silent women disappear. They are easy to ignore, overrule, and violate without repercussions. Impunity flourishes.
It serves a culture of violence to create pleasers, another habit that further erodes a woman's sense of self. Pleasers compromise and sacrifice, all disguised through the ubiquitous phrase beta thora adjust kar lo - "darling, please adjust a little". It means to be punished to force you to fit in, to do what others want you to do and never say no.
Women whose sense of self has been worn down, by definition must depend on others, which only serves to breed fear and violence. Over 50% of Indian men and women still believe that sometimes women deserve a beating. One woman is killed every hour for not bringing enough dowry to a husband. But dependency is still presented as a virtuous habit and independence as a bad characteristic. Dependent women have no separate identity and are legitimate only as mothers, wives and daughters. Such women are trained to put duty over self - the suicide numbers are highest for housewives.
The right to assemble is a right taken away by dictators. In India it is the culture that subverts women's desire to organise. The cultural design of oppression is so clever, that it instils a habit of distrust and trains women to demean, dismiss and discount other women. Almost no woman I interviewed belonged to a women's group. They said, "I don't have time for gossip."
The real genius of this system lies in the fact that oppression has been recast as a virtue. So erasure of self - the most treacherous human rights violation - hides in plain sight, sanctified by loving families, perfumed by our definitions of goodness. And the private sphere, the family, remains impenetrable and untouchable.
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.
• Deepa Narayan is a social scientist and author of Chup: Breaking the Silence About India's Women
Thursday April 19 2018
Saving the girl child, against all odds
By Giridhara R. Babu
Estimates indicate that for every 100 girls in rural India, only one or two complete class XII. (DH File Photo)
Nearly 40% of girls leave school before completing the fifth standard. (DH file photo)
The misery starts for a girl child even before she is born in India. According to the 2011 Census, Haryana had the worst sex ratio with only 861 females to every 1000 males. Legislation has barely made any effect in stopping female foeticides or in arresting the declining sex ratio in India. The World Bank estimates indicate that compared to 961 women per 1000 men in 1971, it is reduced to 939 in 2011; it is projected to be 904 in 2021, and 898 in 2031.
Of those fortunate girls who do not get killed in the womb, very few get good nutrition and education. Estimates indicate that for every 100 girls in rural India, only one or two complete class XII. Nearly 40% of girls leave school before completing the fifth standard. Evidence also suggests that low maternal literacy is related to the poor nutrition status of young children. Poor nutrition, in turn, is the topmost factor for continuation of malnutrition across generations (in their children and so forth). Low birth weight also predisposes the girls to obesity during adolescence.
Not only malnutrition, young girls are increasingly affected by obesity. India has 14.4 million obese children. Several studies suggest that obesity in girls contributes to the early onset of puberty. Also, the latest study in the American Journal of Epidemiology indicates that the early onset of puberty in girls aged between 6-11 years is related to obesity and high glucose levels in mothers. Obesity in pubertal girls may be associated with higher levels male sex hormones such as testosterone and a high risk of adolescent polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Polycystic ovary syndrome affects nearly 9 to 25% of Indian women. PCOS leads to insulin resistance and therefore increases the risk of diabetes, abnormal cholesterol levels, heart disease, stroke and cancer of the inner lining of the uterus. Adult women suffer from several health risks. For example, indoor air pollution that peculiarly affects Indian women is also the second largest killer with 1.3 million deaths each year.
In 2017, cardiovascular diseases, cancers and injury (self-harm and violence) constituted the top three causes of death in the women in India. Among the 60 years and older, the women outnumber with 1,028 for every 1,000 men (2011 census). Elderly women have poorer health outcomes compared to men, and yet the hospitalisation rates are higher for elderly men. Nearly one in three elderly in India would have lost their spouses; 50% of female elderly are widows who are most vulnerable to disability, illness and are also less likely to avail any healthcare.
Women remain disadvantaged for many reasons throughout their life. This can change through affirmative actions. For instance, women with higher autonomy, are less likely to have a stunted child or poor health outcomes. Access to money and freedom to choose to go to the market or visit a healthcare facility will constitute such autonomy.
A simple measure to make it happen is equal pay for equal work. The government must ensure it if it believes in equality at all.
Besides, financial incentives and subsidies to women, reduced tax, and providing access to education are some measures that the government can take. To implement all these, the government needs major policy overhaul. And we need to involve women in making policies that will have major implications for women. Moreover, girls should be beneficiaries of modern technology, through which tele-education can be imparted. Representation and role models of successful women can help girls work towards realising their dreams. Besides, we need to empower self-help groups that help women in need.
Even as the country rightfully mourns the grievous atrocities against girls and women, we need to introspect - what are the chances for girls to be born, survive and thrive in this country? As the agony of the daughters, wives, sisters and mothers echoes in the minds of the people, attention is needed on several threats a girl faces through her life.
While it is wishful to think that there are easy solutions, the policymakers need to show clear intent and careful planning to implement specific actions with a deeper perspective. Community participation in the entire process is the key to success. It's not rhetoric, we need to take action, and soon.
(The writer is an additional professor at the Indian Institute of Public Health, PHFI, Bengaluru)