Modi’s ‘10-point agenda’ in its current form would be significantly hampered if the government does not take a strong look at injustices against women

Riding on the aspirations of the electorate, of which women are a significant share, Narendra Modi’s victory is commonly seen as a vote for development. But the last few weeks’ horrific reminder of how India publically consumes violence against women, in conjunction with the Prime Minister’s ‘10-point agenda’ for the new government, demonstrates a disturbing lack of policy vision for women’s issues. More specifically, it is important to point out the glaring absences in Mr. Modi’s vision. While he has urged us to not engage in ‘psychological analysis’ of rapes but instead prioritise ‘respect’ for women, this rhetoric indicates a feeble understanding of the sustained gross neglect faced by women in India. Their dismal state at present is reflected in the Gender Inequality Index which ranks us at 132 out of 146 countries. How can any country develop while denying equal rights to life and liberty to half its population?

Expanding the discourse

We start by making a distinction between violence in public and private spaces — intra-household and extra-household injuries. While the two exist on a continuum, the rapes in Badaun demonstrate a disturbing need to publically shame, perform and consume acts of brutality against women. On the other hand, intra-household crime and neglect is socially normalised, and the two combined indicate a deeper, embedded psyche that cannot be addressed without a multifaceted policy approach. A political discourse on ‘empowering’ women must then become much more than it is now — a rhetoric of protection, justification of male urges and/or occasional lip-service. Indeed, to casually gloss over the structural nature of our entrenched hierarchical tendencies is only to give them a firmer hold.

In “The Subjection of Women(1869), John Stuart Mill compared marriage laws to slavery of women and argued, “there remain no legal slaves, save the mistress of every house.” Sadly, nearly 150 years later, this still rings true for Indian women. While crimes against women have more than doubled between 1990 and 2011, close to 40 per cent of these are injuries inflicted by husbands or family members. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-3 reports that 37 per cent of women who have ever been married have experienced spousal physical or sexual violence, and 40 per cent have experienced spousal physical, sexual or emotional violence. At present, married women and widowed women have a much higher prevalence of violence against them (37 and 38 per cent) than women who have never been married (16 per cent) or women whose gauna has not yet taken place (15 per cent). The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, which took effect in 2006, includes the prohibition of marital rape and the provision of protection and maintenance orders against husbands and partners who are emotionally, physically or economically abusive. However, a policy approach centred on female agency must also be developed to tackle crimes against women and, in order to do so, the intersection of crimes with intra-household and extra-household bargaining power must be understood.

While ‘empowerment’ often focusses on employment, it is worrying that the number of women in the workforce seems to have lowered and stagnated. According to data from the National Sample Survey Organisation, female labour force participation fell from above 40 per cent in the early-to-mid 1990s to 22.5 per cent in 2011-12. It is even more worrying that studies seem to indicate a link between women’s employment and domestic violence. NFHS-3 reports that there is a much higher prevalence of violence against women who were employed at any time in the past 12 months (39-40 per cent) than women who were not employed (29 per cent), contradicting the widely held assumption that women who contribute income are at a reduced risk of physical violence.

On the link between marital violence and property ownership, B. Agarwal and P. Panda find through a study in Kerala (World Development, 2005) that women owning immovable property are found to face a significantly lower risk of marital violence than propertyless women. This points us to another significant correlation — of worth with wealth, and not worth with quantity/amount of work. Control and ownership of land often defines (and is defined by) wider access to economic, social and political power.

Safety of women is development

The ‘male backlash’ theory suggests that a woman’s independence signifies a challenge to a culturally prescribed norm and hence results in physical aggression. This has been found to be problematic elsewhere as it denies possibilities of female agency and, indeed, presents a simplistic analysis of transitioning social structures. However, it seems to be partly consistent with results in India, leading us to the understanding that employment alone does not guarantee external agency. Gender ideology, as crystallised in social perspectives, norms and practices, affects women’s bargaining power, not just in the domestic space but in the market, community and the state as well. This does not, of course, imply that employment is not imperative — instead, it indicates that gender equality is a far more complex aspiration and requires the intervention of community organisations, policy-oriented efforts by the state, as well as non-governmental programmes. Indeed, the ‘10-point agenda’ in its current form would be significantly hampered if the government were not to take a strong look at injustices against women — investment, tourism and India’s global standing would suffer.

It is an understatement to say that violence against women is multidimensional — it is structural, brutal, and a part of everyday life. The new government’s conversation on women so far has been disheartening. A new conversation needs to focus not simply on protection but on equality of opportunity to unleash the full potential of women citizens of India.

(Shamika Ravi is fellow and Anuradha Sajjanhar is research assistant at The Brookings Institution, India Center.)

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