It is not a privilege; it is a right.
“Khub ladi mardaani wo to Jhansi vaali rani thi” (She fought like a man, she was the queen of Jhansi) - something we've heard since our gullible school days. We never questioned why “fought like a man” was the standard. We were happy to believe that it was a comparison of bravery. Men were strong - our warriors, protectors.
Little did we know that the real world awaited us with the jarring truth that more often than not, this “strength” of theirs was used to inflict crimes of violence against women time and time again.
As two young Indian women authoring this article, we wish profoundly that we could state that this was only witnessed in history, and that, in the ‘educated times’ of the 21st century, we’ve moved long past it. But alas, it is still the dismally unfortunate reality. What’s more is that they never taught us how the subject of that poem was a rare occurrence, and that in commonality, women aren’t praised for showcasing bravery, but are rather suppressed for having a voice.
A quick Google search of ‘violence against women’ produces an eye opening 58,00,00,000 results. The News section shows a link to an article dated as recent as October 16 where the highest court of our nation has been quoted as stating that there is no end to violence against women.
Women in India facing violence and discrimination in their various roles as a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a partner or a single woman is a never-ending cycle, they said. When asked who is to blame, they pointed fingers at a woman’s vulnerability, her inability to retaliate, the absence of laws and ignorance of the existing ones, societal attitude, stigma, conditioning and so on and so forth.
In this setting, the 25th of November each year is marked by the United Nations as the International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women. It is an attempt to generate awareness and mobilize the masses for this cause, and it truly is high time we pay more attention to it than an occasional Instagram status.
In its entirety, Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) encompasses a range of acts that are rooted in gender bias and gender selectivity. This includes rape, domestic violence, female infanticide, acid throwing, dowry deaths - what truly has 'no end' is this list of crimes that one in three women falls victim to at least once in her life.
At this juncture, we feel that it is imperative to understand where such issues of gender based violence originate from, especially considering the very construed and misinformed narrative that the highest national authorities, the judiciary, and the media attempt to feed us.
It is an undeniable fact that this issue stems from the systemic patriarchy that is deeply ingrained in the very fabric of our culture, and in society at large.
The ideas of male superiority, of male aggressiveness, and the gender roles that the society dictates for men and women all paint a picture of women being subordinate to men. We are taught from an early age that girls are supposed to behave well, to ‘serve’ their husbands, and to rear children for the family tree to continue.
Distancing ourselves from these teachings, we emphasize that women, while not biologically weak, are in fact incapacitated by the social structure.
A social structure that teaches girls to stay inside homes at night in fear of men who are allowed to enjoy their lives unfettered by the rules that apply to their opposite gender.
A social structure that holds only women accountable, even for acts they never committed. Why did she dress a certain way? Why was she out late at night? Why did she not simply agree? When the real question should be why are we cuffing the victim and not the culprit.
A social structure that dissuades women from speaking out and seeking justice; where a family shuts their daughter up for fear of humiliation, and the police make every possible attempt to avoid filing a case. (Like Kamla Bhasin said, “Who put my honor in my vagina?”)
A social structure that not only lets the guilty run away with their filthy hands, but more appallingly incriminates the very victims of the crime.
When the deplorable narratives of this social structure are coupled with lack of proper education, and lack of optimum female healthcare, it adds up to render women both socially and mentally vulnerable.
VAWG remains one of the biggest violations of human rights worldwide, and in its wake, it is not possible for the country to ever achieve equality, prosperity and development the way we aspire to.
No number of reserved seats in the parliament, in the name of ‘women empowerment’, can set women truly free, neither can making metro commutes free for women solve the problem.
Women will never really be ‘free’ so long as they wake up everyday in fear of men of their own family (since most acts of VAWG are performed by knowns), and sleep each night trying to forget about the guy from work who almost cornered her in the office.
Women empowerment means freeing women of the fear that accompanies having a uterus. To be able to live a fearless and dignified life is not a privilege, it is a human right. A human right, that we, as women of this democratic country, despite our relatively ‘progressive’ households, are yet to enjoy in its entirety.
According to the United Nations, to date, only two out of three countries have outlawed domestic violence, while 37 countries worldwide still exempt rape perpetrators from prosecution if they are married to or eventually marry the victim, and 49 countries currently have no laws protecting women from domestic violence.
It is estimated that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (not including sexual harassment) at some point in their lives. At least 200 million women and girls aged 15-49 have undergone female genital mutilation in the 30 countries with representative data on prevalence. In most of these countries, the majority of girls were cut before age five. Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner. In India, as of 2018, as many as 5,000 dowry deaths are recorded each year. Note these are ‘recorded’, and make a mere fraction of the actual figure. Murders of women accused of witchcraft still occur in India. Poor women, widows, and women from lower castes are most at risk of such killings. If the condition does not look pathetic as is, then recall that there are certain sects of women, like Dalit women, those belonging to the LGBTQ community, and ethnic minorities that are even more vulnerable.
When crimes occur targeting a stratum of society as large as an entire gender, it affects more than just the victims, it molds the society as a whole. But wrongfully so. Being afraid doesn’t help. We’ve seen time and again how taking precautions doesn’t help. ‘Not asking for it’ doesn’t help. While agencies such as the United Nations Women (UNW), in conjunction with national bodies, work towards raising awareness and taking action in their capacity, this problem will largely remain unresolved unless radical changes are initiated at the grassroot level.
Education is the key to disrupting the status quo, as it informs both young boys and girls of their bodies, their rights and laws; their differences, but more importantly, their commonalities.
WHO notes that advocacy, counselling interventions, home visitation programmes are all measures that have to be inculcated in a society that has strayed away from the light. This narrative of keeping women sheltered has long exceeded its expiration date. Women have to be empowered economically and socially. There must be open communication of relationship skills within communities. Men must be mobilized to take up education relating to harmful gender norms and be made to reflect critically on the dangers of an unequal power distribution in relationships. At the micro level, we can contribute within our own communities, by generating awareness among our social groups.
Creating safe spaces or support groups for victims and their families to reach out to for their seemingly daunting, and thus far pretty lonely, legal battle will also allow women to navigate the currently hostile justice system that prevents them from speaking out.
“Violence against women can end only when the culprits get punished” - Mukhtar Ma’i.
No programmes or initiatives can compensate for our broken justice system, which calls for an immediate uphauling, and a radical shift in functioning. The status quo has to be metamorphosed. There has to be a shift in culture. Gender roles must be questioned, voices must be raised.
We have continued to fail the bearers of the universe. We’ve time and time again let down someone’s mother, someone’s sister, someone’s wife, someone’s daughter. Yes, it is time we stand up for them but primarily, it’s time that we stand up for her, not just because she plays these roles, but because she too is a human being - equally capable, equally deserving and equally worthy.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Anushka Sharma – Academically pursuing an MBBS degree in Jaipur, Anushka is a restless and creative soul at heart, dabbling in a number of things. From the performing arts to debating to of course, writing, she credits the extra-curriculars for shaping her worldview. Having been an avid reader, she emphasizes how jotting down ideas in a way that has the power to resonate with the audience brings her a renewed sense of purpose. Stretching herself thin to be able to understand and then tackle a myriad of topics is her forte.
Mridula Garg – Mridula Garg is a medical student, born and residing in Delhi. As someone who constantly broods over the functioning of the world, she has found her niche in debating and writing. Having explored and experienced varied fields across different arenas of life, she strives to present a broader perspective on matters ranging from science, to politics, to philosophy. At the same time, she takes each of her endeavours as a new opportunity to learn and grow.