Sex, caste, patriarchy and the diminishment of women.
Since the rape and killing of a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern who was beaten and gang raped in a private bus in South Delhi in December 2012, cases of violence against women and girls in India have continued to make headlines. But while laws were quickly enacted in an attempt to address failings in the criminal justice system, cases continue to mount. For example, in January a group of tribal elders ordered a group of 12 men to gang rape a woman in public as punishment for an “unauthorised relationship.” And in May, 14 and 15 year-old cousins were found hanged from a tree in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh, allegedly raped. The police are not charging 5 accused men currently in custody (which include two police constables) and in a bizarre turn of events, the girls' rapes are now being contested by a medical board who say that the local doctor’s post mortem had “discrepancies.”
India’s challenges are huge. Not only is the scale of its massive population a formidable obstacle – each of India’s 29 states is the size of a country: Rajasthan, is bigger than Thailand; Uttar Pradesh, the size of Brazil – but most of the population is rural, adheres to the Hindu caste system (a form of social stratification) and a strong culture of patriarchy persists.
Ruchira Gupta, Executive Director of Delhi-based NGO Apne Aap (an organisation that helps women and girls in prostitution), sums up the impact social hierarchy has on women and specifically girls: “The weakest person in society today is the person I call the last girl. This person is poor, low caste, and female, mostly a teenager between 13 and 19 years of age. The combination of these four inequalities – class, caste, sex and age – disenfranchises her so much that she becomes the most oppressed person in society.”
This oppression, in what has become a repeated social model, most often takes the form of sexual violence: “In my opinion, the biggest challenge we face is the normalisation of the rape of poor women in our culture,” says Gupta.
In a research field-trip to Delhi, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka earlier this year, Sisters For Change met with another group of women who might also be described as the most disadvantaged people in their communities - poor widows, older single women and divorcees. It is estimated that between 10-12% of women in India are widowed, single, divorced or abandoned. On current population numbers, that is somewhere around 60 million women (although some estimates are more conservative and put the figure at 40 million). These women, largely due to their changed marital status, are accorded few rights and often cast out by their communities and families.
In a meeting of a group of members from the "Association of Strong Women Alone" (an association comprised of approximately 42,500 widows and single women from all over Rajasthan) that Sisters For Change attended in Tonk, the discrimination and violence that these women described as daily reality was horrifying. Some had been thrown out of their homes by relatives when their husband died, left living on the streets and at risk of rape especially at night. Others were threatened by men and sexually abused because of the view they were ‘used’ women with no male protector. Others simply could not feed themselves having no income, no access to state funds or pensions, and no community support as leaders did not believe ‘old women’ deserved ration cards or resources.
“The negligence, atrocities, the failure to address those atrocities, and the impunity of those who commit them – all of these things need to be curbed,” states Gupta, referring to sexual violence against especially Dalit (lower caste) women and girls. “We have addressed what happens to the woman, but not addressed the perpetrator nor the police. And at the other end of the spectrum, we need to end the impunity of those who exploit these women.”
In India, a freedom movement for women has ignited to end the suppression of hundreds of millions of women and girls, a movement that builds on the strong tradition of women’s movements and women's rights organisations in the country. In the run up to national elections this year, the movement seized the opportunity to put women’s rights and the issue of violence against women firmly on the political agenda. They published "The India Womanifesto", a six-point plan to ensure the freedom, safety and equality for women and girls.
The second point in the Womanifesto is “Make laws count,” the fourth is “Police for the people,” and the fifth is “Swift, certain justice.” These are the areas of work that Sisters For Change works on every day. We are working with local partners and communities to create systemic and social change to hold governments and perpetrators legally accountable. And we are prioritising our work to help those women and girls who are the most marginalised in Indian society – widows, single women, and teenage girls.
To extend our work and achieve the impact required, we need your help. Be part of the global movement for change and support us today to reach and help more women in India and beyond.