Tuesday, 31 March 2015

“India’s Daughter”: Are we getting “message”?

Dr. Devendra Kothari
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action

Need to make society safer for women.
Happy Women Day!

We have all seen excerpts from the Nirbhaya rape case Documentary – “India’s Daughter” doing the rounds of the Internet over the past few weeks. Heated debate took place in the Indian Parliament over the Documentary. Needless to say, it has now been banned in the country.

Is it a conspiracy to tarnish India's image, particularly when it is inching towards an eight percent growth? Or does the documentary attempt to look at the bigger picture – growing gender-based disparities? We have to agree that men of this country are scared to face the real truth about their attitudes towards women conveyed through this documentary.It shows nothing more than what has been said a thousand times before. The only difference, perhaps, is that the rape convict and his lawyers are speaking on camera for the first time, but what they are mouthing is the same anti-women attitude that researchers have found among Indian men time and again.

The documentary opens with an eerie reconstruction of the fatal night on December 16, 2012 when the 23-year-old physiotherapy student boarded a bus with her male companion at a major intersection in South Delhi. In the documentary, Mukesh Singh - one of the four men sentenced to death for the brutal gang-rape and killing of the young woman - has been interviewed by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin, who obtained legal permission to speak to the convict at Delhi's Tihar Jail.

Perched on a stool in a prison cell, Singh lays the blame for that night on the victim, and makes derogatory comments about women and their place in Indian society. He does not flinch when filmmakers describe her horrific injuries to him. Further, the denigrating comments of the defence lawyers on the Nirbhaya case reveal these abhorrent ideas transcend social, economic backgrounds. In other words, what Mukesh Singh and his lawyers said is part of a much larger system of belief: “that women need to be contained in a social order under the protection of men and that if they step out of line in any way, then they are fair game- and men cannot really be blamed for whatever they do” and this is a view that has been articulated by many, including some leading politicians and religious leaders in the public.

It is no secret that India has a horrible record of crime against women and that the country is the fourth most dangerous place for women in the world. Rape is one of the most common crimes against women in India and the UN human rights chief had called it a national problem. A woman is raped in India every 20 minutes. The Delhi Police has registered 300 FIRs of rape in the first two months of 2015 in the capital city of India. If molestation cases are added, this year's figure will be double.

In all probability, the decline in sex ratios in India will further push violence against women. In a ‘normal world’, the female population slightly surpasses the number of males. Except in India, that is, where the situation is just the opposite, where the gender ratio — or the number of females to males — is known to be among the most imbalanced in the world. The sex ratio in the country had always remained unfavorable to females; barring some hiccups, it has shown a long term declining trend to reach all time low of 927 females per 1000 males in 1991 from 972 in 1901. It was 940 as per Census of India 2011. The drastic   improvement in overall sex ratio in coming years largely depends how we value our girl child. Available data, however, indicate India has the most severe shortage of girls compared to boys of any country in the world today. India continues to experience a drastic fall in the child sex ratio (CSR), calculated as the number of girls per 1000 boys in the 0-6 age group. CSR declined from 945 girls per 1000 boys in 1991, to 927 in 2001 and further to 919 in 2011. The decline is widespread across the country, and has expanded to rural and tribal areas as well. This means around 35 million fewer females than males were registered in India over 2001-11 decade.  Hence, it is important to address the root causes of gender discrimination manifested through son-preference and daughter-neglect.

Yes, RAPE occurs in every country but the reasons are different. It is the retarded mindset of patriarchal males and patriarchal females who perpetuate gender inequality in the family - the fundamental unit of the society - that causes Indian men to think of women as objects - whether in movies or in offices or on the street or at home or in advertisement world. The fact that woman is not equal to man as an independent individual is deeply ingrained in the Indian man's mind. It is a fact that most of the men in India do not respect women. We talk about women empowerment, women safety and equality. But are we really interested in making a move to reduce gender gap?


The Global Gender Gap Index, introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2006 as a framework for capturing the magnitude of gender-based disparities and tracking their progress over time, seeks to measure the relative gaps between women and men across four key areas: health, education, economy and politics. In 2014, India ranked pathetically at 114 among the 142 countries considered; indicating India is simply not doing enough for its women. It was ranked 105th in 2012. But its best position so far was in 2006 - when it stood 98th. The 114th position makes India the lowest ranked BRICS nations (Brazil 71, Russia 75, China 87, South Africa 111, and India 114).  That is a shameful reflection of the condition of the women in a country that is on a growth song.

The situation is really worst in India's heavily populated Hindi belt, where, in parts, there is a deep-rooted mindset that women are inferior and must be restricted to being homemakers and child bearers. There is an urgent need to rethink as how to reduce gender gap with innumerable obstacles. It is important that we face the challenge rather than ignore it. We can not ignore anymore. Every Indian has to accept that such mentality, as shown by the Mukesh Singh, is prevalent in Indian society. That should be the starting point! "It's good this documentary has been made. If any one finds it objectionable, they should change their mindset," said renowned lyricist and a Member of Parliament - Javed Akhtar.

In a paper - “Empowering women in India: Need for a Feminist Agenda” – I argued that “crimes against women are not just a law and order issue. It is also a social issue as how we look at women”.[1] Unfortunately, everyone only speaks of stricter laws which are a post factor remedy to the victim. Strict laws and punishment is required but to reduce gender gap, however, one has to create an environment where sons and daughters are equally valued.  For this, one has to change society’s mindset which is negatively disposed towards the girl child—as unwanted, neglected and discriminated, both, within and outside her home. Only marching with candles will not help. Ostrich like approach is not going to work. Member of Parliament  and popular actress Kirron Kher brought out the irony of the system trying to introduce schemes like 'Beti Bachao' (save daughter) while narrow minded gender discrimination continues at the grassroots levels. Now question arises as to how to change the mindset.

In addition to the measures like: Pushing Girls’ Education, Improving Physical Living Conditions, Insuring Reproductive Rights and Curbing the Crimes, as have been discussed in the paper, I strongly feel that  Promoting Gender Sensitization could be most effective step  to change the   mindset. Gender sensitivity is not about pitting women against men; on the contrary, it refers to the modification of behaviour by raising awareness of gender equality concerns. In other words, gender sensitizing "is about changing behavior and instilling empathy into the views that we hold about our own and the other gender." [2] It helps people in examining their personal attitudes and beliefs and questioning the 'realities' they thought they know.  Some specific measures to promote gender sensitization could be as follows:

1. Promoting Co education: Co education means the teaching of both boys and girls in the same school and under the same roof. It also means imparting the same education to both the sexes without any distinction. This system of education aims at bringing boys and girls together. It allows free mixing of sexes without any inhibition. In the modern times, co educational system is prevalent in the developed world. In India also, now-a-days more and more co-educational schools and colleges are being established. However, most of these are located in cities. 

There are many advantages in the co educational system of education. First, boys and girls have to live together in the society in their later lives and if they are taught together from the very beginning, they can understand each other well. The girls will not feel shy in the presence of boys. The boys will also not tease the girls. Similarly, the girls will also lose their fear of the boys if they are taught with them. On the other hand, if boys and girls are taught in separate schools, boys always have a curiosity to know about opposite sex. But when they study together, their curiosity is satisfied and they do not consider girls as strange creatures. Further, nowadays, a sizable proportion of families have only one child and this trend is gaining momentum. When the child does not have any sibling it would not know about the behavior of the other gender. Co education gives the boys and girls a good chance for interaction.

Of course, some may criticize the system of co education by arguing that it is against our tradition. We have to recognize that the world is changing fast today and women are being given an equal status with men in the society. Let us, therefore accept the changing order and open more and more co educational institutions in future and say good bye to separate institutions.

2. Shedding the Ghoonghatrdah Pratha (custom): Ghoonghat/burqa/hijab etc (veil), is often criticized as oppression of women by limiting female autonomy, freedom of movement, and access to resources such as education, health, employment, and political participation.[3]  One can argue that "purdah is an accommodation to and a means of perpetuating the perceived differences between the sexes: the male being self-reliant and aggressive, the female weak, irresponsible, and in need of protection".[4] 

The ghoonghat was popular in India until at least the fifties, but its usage has steadily declined since. However, the ghoonghat is still in use in rural parts of northern India. It denies women mobility and visibility, two very crucial aspects of freedom and self expression. A survey conducted by the Search State Resource Centre and the Volunteers of Haryana Gyan Vigyan Samiti has found that 90 per cent women in the State living in Karnal, Jind, Hisar and Kaithal districts want to get rid of the veil, but wear it under societal and family pressure. On the contrary, more than 80 per cent men surveyed in 70 villages of these districts want women to observe "ghunghat".[5] It means most women do not want this humiliating tradition to continue.

Women in Ghoonghat

A socio-politcial movement to shed Purdah/Ghoonghat is a need of hour. Under the 73rd and 74th amendments the government has given 50 per cent reservation to rural women in panchayats. Should the same institution not raise a voice against this inhuman tradition which is a violation of human rights to spread awareness against its ill-effects? Panchayats must demand removal of veil. At the same time women should stand up and say no to this medieval practice.   Further, there should be a strict law against ghoonghat/parda pratha like dowry system and child marriage. 

3. Enhancing Gainful Employment: Contrary to common perception, a large percentage of women in India work, but most of them are not part of the paid workforce.  There are far fewer women than men in the paid workforce. In the organized sector, there were only 19 per cent women employees in 2008. Further, out of 3.11 million regular employees of the Government of India in 2008 only 0.31 million were women. The best and most widely used source of information on the number of workers, both male and female, and the type of work they do is the Employment and Unemployment Survey conducted every five years since 1972–1973 by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). When the results of the 2009–2010 Survey came out in late 2011, there was uproar among policymakers and women’s groups over the rates of female workforce participation.  It  revealed  a  nearly  10  percentage  point  decline  in  the  already  low number of women who reported that they were either employed or seeking employment.

While women are generally under-represented in the organized workforce, increasing their presence in the public offices is must to promote gender sensitization. However, achieving women’s economic empowerment is not a “quick fix”. Balancing maternity and family responsibilities with work is a daunting challenge. Women experience barriers in almost every aspect of work but employment opportunities need to be improved. It will take sound public policies, a holistic approach and long-term commitment from all development actors. To start with, one can take steps to increase employment opportunities in the public offices like banking, government, education, etc.

In conclusion, the Documentary highlights horrifying mindsets and also highlights the necessity of changing those mindsets. Simply shoving them under the carpet and pertaining they do not exist provides ideal conditions for them to foster and grow, provoking more crimes and violence against women in future, as noted by Times of India in its editorial – Let’s Talk About Rape.  Perhaps it is time to move beyond the documentary and try to change the society’s horrifying mindsets. Prof. Rajiv Kumar of Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi is right when he argued that “rather than ban Nirbhaya documentary, we must address issues raised by it. No amount of legislation, CCTV cameras, or banning cab services is going to really change things. We have to look deep inside, change our core attitudes, and bring up a whole new generation that can break free of medieval shackles.  There is an urgent need to take up a reform agenda to promote gender sensitization in earnest if we are serious about exorcising our society of abuses against women. Hope, policy makers are listening. 

[1] Kothari, Devendra. 2014. “Empowering women in India: Need for a Feminist Agenda”, Journal of Health Management, 16 (2), pp 233-43.

[2] For details, refer:  Chan Lean Heng.  2010. Gender Sensitizing , UNESCO Bangkok. 

[3] Engineer, Asghar Ali. 1980. The Origin and Development of Islam, Orient Longman, Bombay.

[4]  White, Elizabeth H. 1977. "Purdah" Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 2 (1), Pp 31–42.

[5] Cited in an article - "Female seclusion, Panchayats must demand removal of veil. 2014.  For details, see at: http://www.tatkalnews.com/news/26071-TRIBUNE-MARCH-8-Female-seclusi.aspx

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