BY GRAHAM PEEBLES
The Indian constitution makes clear the “principle of non-discrimination on the basis or caste or gender,” it guarantees the “right to life and to security of life” and Article 46, specifically “protects Dalits from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.” Add to this the important Scheduled Castes/Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act passed in 1989, and a well-armed legislative army is formed. However, because of “low levels of implementation,” the UN states that “the provisions that protect women’s rights have to be considered empty of meaning.” It is a familiar Indian story: judicial indifference (as well as cost, lack of access to legal representation, endless red-tape and obstructive staff), police corruption, and government collusion, plus media indifference causing (the) major obstacles to justice and the observation and enforcement of the law.
Unlike middle class girls, Dalit rape victims (whose numbers are growing) rarely receive the attention of the caste and class-conscious urban-centric media, whose primary concern is to promote a Bollywood-shiny, open-for-business image of the country.
I was in India in January when a 20-year-old Dalit woman from the Santhal tribal group in West Bengal was gang-raped, “on the orders of village elders who objected to her relationship (which had been going on in secret for five years) with a man from a nearby village in the Birdhum district.” The violent incident occurred when “the man visited the woman’s home on Monday (20th January) with the proposal of marriage. Villagers spotted him and organised a kangaroo court. During the ‘proceedings’, the couple was made to sit with hands tied…the headman of the woman’s village fined the couple 25,000 rupees ($400; £240) for “the crime of falling in love. The man paid up, but the woman’s family was unable to pay.” (BBC) So the ‘headman’ and 12 of his cohorts repeatedly raped her.
Violence, exploitation and exclusion, are used to keep Dalit women in a position of subordination and to maintain the patriarchal grip on power throughout Indian society,
The cities are dangerous places for women, but it is in the countryside, where most people live (70 per cent) that the greatest levels of abuse occur. Many living in rural areas live in extreme poverty (800 million people in India live on less than $2.50 a day), with little or no access to health care, poor education and appalling or none existent sanitation. It is a world apart from democratic Delhi, or multi-westernized Mumbai: water, electricity, democracy and the rule of law are yet to reach into the lives of the women in India’s villages – home, Mahatma Gandhi famously declared, to the soul of the country.
After two decades of economic growth, India finds itself languishing 136th (of 186 countries) in the (gender equality adjusted) United Nations Human Development Index. Development, and let us add democracy, (for under the corporate state system of contemporary democratic governance the two are interwoven) confined to and defined by economic data, infrastructure projects and ‘inward investment’ packages; development which celebrates the billionaires billions and is intent on commercializing every aspect of life whilst allowing cruelty, sex slavery, trafficking, forced labour and ritualized prostitution to flourish amongst some of the world’s poorest, most vulnerable women, is a model of development and a type of democracy that should be confined to the smouldering, stinking rubbish heaps that litter India’s cities and towns.
Repressive Ideas of Gender Inequality
Indian society is segregated in multiple ways: caste and class, gender, wealth and poverty, and religion. Entrenched patriarchy and gender divisions, which value boys over girls and keep men and women, boys and girls, apart, combine with child marriage to contribute to the creation of a society in which sexual abuse and exploitation of women, particularly Dalit women, is an acceptable part of everyday life. Sociologically and psychologically conditioned into division, schoolchildren separate themselves along gender lines; in many areas women sit on one side of buses, men another; special women-only carriages have been installed on the Delhi and Mumbai metro, introduced to protect women from sexual harassment or ‘eve teasing’ as it is colloquially known. Such safety measures whilst being welcomed by women and women’s groups, do not of course deal with the underlying causes of abuse, and in a sense may further inflame them. “In India, the age-old code of conduct has been to keep men and women separate. So women are only viewed as sex objects.” (Vibhuti Patel, Times of India)
Rape, sexual violence, molestation and harassment are rife, but, with the exception, perhaps, of the Bollywood Mumbai set, sex is a taboo subject. A poll by India Today conducted in 2011, found 25 per cent of people had no objection to sex before marriage, providing it was not in their family. (Foreign Policy) Sociological separation fuels gender divisions, supports prejudicial stereotypes and stokes sexual repression, which many women’s organisations (logically), believe “accounts for the high rate of sexual violence.” (FP) A 2011 study by the International Center for Research on Women of men’s attitudes in India towards women produced some startling statistics: One in four admitted having “used sexual violence (against a partner or against any woman),” one in five reported using “ sexual violence against a stable (female) partner.” Half of men don’t want to see gender equality, Eighty per cent regard changing nappies, feeding and bathing children to be ‘women’s work’, and a mere 16 per cent play any part in household duties. Added to these inhibiting attitudes of mind, Homophobia is the norm, with 92 per cent confessing they would be ashamed to have a gay friend, or even be in the vicinity of a gay man.
A catalogue of Victorian gender stereotypes, fuelled by a caste system designed to subjugate, which trap both men and women into conditioned cells of isolation where destructive ideas of gender are allowed to ferment, causing explosions of sexual violence, exploitation and abuse.
-the writer is the director of The Create Trust, running education and social development programmes, supporting fundamental social change and the human rights of individuals in acute need
-by arrangement with countercurrents.org