There is a need to link violence against women with issues of class and caste, not patriarchy alone, argue women’s groups

Discussing violence against women has become de rigueur since the December 16 gang rape. However, for many in the women’s movement, dealing with the unprecedented media glare and public outrage over the brutality of the incident as well as the accompanying shrill demands for death penalty, has been rather challenging. What about the rapes of poor, low-caste women that seldom make news, or get registered by the police, they have been asking. How should one counter the stereotyping and targeting of poor men in name of fighting violence? Shouldn’t the issue of violence against women be linked with structural adjustment policies?

Some of these questions were raised at a session on violence and inequality at the seminar titled “Winning Women: A dialogue between India, France and Germany”, organised jointly by the French and German embassies and women’s publishing house, Zubaan Books, at Delhi’s India International Centre recently.

Panelists at the session discussed legal reforms, constraints faced by activists working on the issue as well as incorporating the agenda of women’s rights within the broader framework of human rights. Noted lawyer Vrinda Grover, one of the panelists in the session, pointed out that while there were a plethora of conferences on this issue, certain positions that were being pushed were problematic. “There have been demands for establishment of more fast track courts. But then, only certain cases get priority. To ensure speedy trial of the gang rape case, over a hundred serious cases at the Saket court had to be pushed aside,” she said. Grover added that already, the demands for raising the legal age of consent from 16 to 18 years had resulted in the youth losing control over their sexual agency.

In the course of the discussion, the challenge for women’s groups to be both feminists and anti-racists, particularly in countries such as France, also came up. Journalist and essayist Caroline Fourest, who edits the French feminist, anti-racist magazine Prochoice, said that there was a need for “universal feminism”. Men from poor, immigrant communities in France were routinely demonized as violent and the feminists had to be mindful of that, she said. The current political environment in France had led to a conflict amongst those such as herself in being feminist or anti-racist. “In universal feminism, we highlight that crimes against women are not specific to a country or culture. The root cause is the universal system of patriarchy,” she said.

Reflecting on the issue in the Indian context, activist and researcher Kalyani Menon Sen said that patriarchy was being used as a cause to negate discrimination on the basis of class and caste. “In Haryana, the police refuse to recognise and register rapes when they are committed by the upper castes. In fact, they counter that activists were spoiling the values of bhaichara (brotherhood) in the community. They reasoned that such crimes were because of patriarchy and not related to caste,” said Ms. Sen, also the moderator of the session.

The session that lasted for an hour and a half also saw panelists discussing strategies to address the issue. German political scientist Brigitte Triems said that in the European Union (EU), violence was hardly spoken about at international forums. “We are faced with a serious lack of data and need to have more documentation on this subject.” However, she pointed out that even when there were comprehensive documents such as the Istanbul Convention on ‘Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women, 2011’, the EU members were reluctant to ratify it.

To identify the causes of violence and develop adequate legal responses, there was a need to link violence to larger structural issues such as policies based on the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), said Ms. Grover. “It’s easy to find allies if one wants to work on the issues of a skewed sex ratio or maternal mortality, but if one tries to link land acquisition and violence, it is very difficult,” she said.

The seminar ended with a speech by Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the French Minister for Women’s Rights, who spoke about several initiatives that her socialist government was taking to address “women’s issues”. Speaking to a group of reporters after the seminar, Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem said that “prostitution was a form of violence” against women, a position which is in line with her government’s definitive anti-prostitution stand. Several sex workers’ rights groups — worldwide — have been protesting this position on grounds of their agency and issues of livelihood, but the minister insisted that over 80 per cent of “prostitutes” in France were victims of “trafficking” because they “didn't have a choice” in the matter.

(The writer is a Fulbright scholar and an independent journalist)