Reviewing The Year in Indian Women’s Rights

Deepali Gaur Singh

Looking back on the year in Indian women's rights, it's clear that women continue to occupy the role of nurturers and care-providers in every Indian sub-culture, religion or group, robbing them of the ability to nurture and care for themselves. It is time for that to change.

The year 2007 hardly started on a happy note with the Nithari killings, in Noida, near the national capital, rocking the nation. Even as the body count kept rising with skeletal remains of children and young adults being discovered with every strike of the spade the truth about the safety of our children was all out there to see. Most of children had been sexually abused and mutilated. Even as people drew comfort in the belief that it was the work of a serial killer and hence and aberration a report soon after showed the extent of abuse faced by Indian children both within the secure environs of the home as well as outside.

And even as the country debated over the social divide that ensures justice too remains divided one state government after the other refused to deal with the embarrassing issue of sex education in classrooms. UNICEF's Progress for Children report, released in December 2007, estimated that just one year witnessed the death of 2.1 million children in India before their fifth birthday. Of these, one million deaths were of infants under a month old, from preventable causes. What this means is that of the global neo-natal deaths a quarter occurred in India.

I remember public service advertisements in the 1980s running on the national channel for years about the need for nutrition for the mother because only a healthy mother can deliver a healthy child. But the need of a healthy child in India has for long been subsumed by the need for a male child. And the imbalance in sex ratios reflected in the recent census tells that very tale. Knee-jerk schemes have found their way out of the Women and Child Welfare in an effort to deal with this contentious issue and to tackle the disastrous situation of India's disappearing daughters, a phenomenon not alien to other Asian societies either.

While the government is toying with the idea of using capital punishment as a deterrent for the sex selective abortion of female fetuses what really needs to be dealt with is the manner in which women are being increasingly viewed in society.

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The mob molestation of two women in Mumbai on New Year's Eve might have rocked the collective consciousness of urban India but if one does not suffer from selective amnesia then many would remember that exactly the same incident happened on the same day in the same city a year earlier. That men can choose mob molestation as a way of entertainment for a New Year's bash so brazenly and get away with it is a blot on any cosmopolitan, global city anywhere in the world.

But these are not stray incidents by any standards. A very similar incident happened in Gujarat in western India during the course of Navratri – a very popular festival in many parts of the country – celebrations a couple of years back. What about the incident when youths from one state attacked women of another state aboard a train following the controversy over a state railway recruitment examination? What about the tribal woman who was stripped recently while part of a demonstration in Assam in eastern India? Are all these stray incidents? Or the reflection of a psyche that just needs a little shove and another equally inclined individual to tip over and cross that line. There can be no better time than now if the judicial system needs to show its mettle. Why must a woman file a case for her own molestation knowing fully well what it involves? Even as the woman would be recounting their horrifying victimization for the hundredth time the perpetrators would be out on bail smugly recounting their own version to men who share the same hobbies. The pictures are there for all to see. The perpetrators can be easily identified and there are eyewitnesses for the incident.

Thousands of Public Interest Litigations (PIL) are filed in the country with people objecting to just about everything ranging from what they perceive as obscene advertisements, obscene programs, obscene comments and behavior that go against the traditions and culture of our society. But strangely this act by itself does not appear obscene enough to warrant a criminal case? Or is this acceptable behavior in our culture and society? Because "men will be men…" and it's the women who ultimately have to take responsibility not just for their own actions but for the actions of their husbands, their sons, their brothers, their community, their society…for everything.

And the truth is that women are. They are taking responsibility – not for the universe but – for their own lives as reflected in the gulabi gang where a group of illiterate women have taken up cudgels against their immediate communities over issues of dowry and domestic violence.

Every public outcry – as in the Mumbai Molestation case – ensures scapegoats, to punish someone for the sake of civil society. But the answer really lies in allowing people to make informed choices; in educating communities about the effects of the decisions they make, of working with them from their understanding and standpoint. The country has a multi-ethnic fabric and schisms and divides cannot be wished away. Yet women continue to occupy similar positions in every sub-culture, religion or group and in giving them this primary and sole role of nurturers and care- providers robs them of that very need for nurture and care themselves. It is time for that to change.

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