The Other Half Kalpana Sharma

Crucial realities

Would women be safe if they become owners of economic assets like land?

This March 8 was not a very happy occasion. Despite the celebrations, lurking at the back was not just the unseemly controversy over the banning of the film India’s Daughter about the December 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder but also the public lynching of a man accused of rape in Dimapur, Nagaland. There is no connection between the two. Yet, the operative word was ‘rape’. It hung in the air even as we told ourselves that the day was all about women’s empowerment.

Although the film, watched extensively on the Internet despite the ban, produced mixed responses, the chilling image that lingered was that of the convict Mukesh Singh’s cold and unrepentant words as he spoke explicitly of what happened on the bus that dreadful night of December 16. It produced in all of us a mixture of revulsion and helplessness, the former to hear a man responsible for the death of an innocent speak so clinically and casually about it, and the latter because you knew that this was not an aberrant, a monster, speaking but that he could be Mr. Everyman or as someone pointed out, he was another of ‘India’s sons’.

And while we discussed and debated, and for a brief while turned our attention to that much neglected part of India, the Northeast, because of the ghastly lynching of Syed Sarif Uddin Khan in Dimapur, more young girls and women were molested, assaulted, raped. These statistics don't take a break for any special day for women.

The Dimapur killing was a reflection of the growing clamour for instant justice echoed by people elected to uphold the law.  On March 8, Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Madhya Pradesh, Usha Thakur said in response to the Dimapur lynching, “There is a need to make a stern law against men who rape minor girls. Such criminals should be hanged in full public view and their last rites should not be performed.” A recipe to make India safer for women? Surely not.

At a time when what happens today dominates and yesterday’s news is forgotten and buried, we also forgot that thousands of women had occupied the streets of Delhi just days before March 8. The march by farmers from 16 states to Delhi on February 23, to register their protest against amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, included hundreds of women. You can see them in the photographs, women of all ages, wearing colourful saris, determination writ clearly on their faces. They sat with the men and made the same demands. They were there as farmers, and as women.

Who were these women? Why had they travelled this long distance to Delhi? Why was land so important to them? Did any of us speak to them and ask? Apart from one TV channel that had two women farmers give their views on the budget — a blink and miss intervention — the voices of such women were never heard. And before we could find out what they were thinking, they had packed up and gone back. We had missed the crucial reality that farmers are not just men but also women, that agricultural losses and the takeover of farming lands hits women as much as men and that this gender dimension of the law needs to be heeded.

It needs to be heard not just because women constitute 48.5 per cent of the Indian population and therefore cannot be treated as invisible. But also because recent studies suggest that there is a link between women’s economic rights, their right to own land and business, and their ability to face physical and other forms of violence.

Govind Kelkar, Shantanu Gaikwad and Somdatta Mandal have recently published one such study titled ‘Women’s Asset Ownership and Reduction in Gender-based Violence’. The study is based on data from Karnataka and Telangana, both states with patriarchal structures in land ownership and Meghalaya, which has a matrilineal system.

Space does not permit a detailed analysis of the facts in this study. It makes the basic and important point that when women have control over land and income, they have greater control of their lives. Ownership of assets does not automatically add up to a reduction in violence as there are many other factors making women vulnerable, particularly in the home. Yet, this study and the women interviewed in the three states suggest that ownership of land gives women greater self-respect in the family and the courage to speak up.

Such studies are important. We talk about violence against women (and not just rape). There are no instant or easy solutions. Summary justice of the kind being demanded will make no difference. We emphasise that male mindsets must change if we want real and lasting change. Yet even as that happens, we can take several specific and concrete steps to strengthen women and equip them with the tools to counter violence. One of these steps is making women owners of economic assets like land.

sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com

The views expressed in this column are that of the author’s and do not represent those of the newspaper.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 4:04:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Kalpana_Sharma/crucial-realities/article6989722.ece

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