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OPINION | The Inconvenient Truth: Reuters Survey On India's Women Needs To Be Taken In The Right Spirit

The latest government data shows that reported cases of crimes against women in India rose by 83% between 2007 and 2016, when there were about hundred cases of rape reported every day. The next obvious question is how does it fare globally?

Shekhar Chandra |

Updated:July 3, 2018, 12:19 PM IST
OPINION | The Inconvenient Truth: Reuters Survey On India's Women Needs To Be Taken In The Right Spirit
Picture for representation.

A few days ago, the Thomas Reuters Foundation in its annual survey “The most dangerous countries for women-2018” termed India as the most unsafe country for women in the world due to the high risk of sexual violence and being forced into slave labour.

It invited sharp reactions. Some decried it to be a conspiracy against the government while others used it to censure the government. Unfortunately, rarely anyone—both from the civil society and the politicians—used it as an opportunity to unequivocally reflect upon the plight of women and issue a clarion call.

No wonder the debate was finally reduced to the questions about the methodology of the survey and whether India is indeed worse than Afghanistan, Syria, Congo, Nigeria, etc.

The answer to these questions may not be very different than what the Reuters survey says if you ask the families of Delhi 2011 rape victim, 7-year-old Kathua rape victim or most recently 7-year-old Mandsaur girl. Yet again, the issue of women safety was buried at the altar of ideological battles.

At the core of this debate is the question whether the survey says something we should not be discussing or doing something about. If one looks at the pages of newspaper and media reports, it is evident that India has a high incidence of rapes and sexual assaults. It is also plausible that majority of rapes go unreported.

Some even argue, and quite convincingly so, that the real incidence of rapes must be 4-5 times higher than what is recorded by the police. The latest government data shows that reported cases of crimes against women in India rose by 83% between 2007 and 2016, when there were about hundred cases of rape reported every day. The next obvious question is how does it fare globally?

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports the incidence of rape in India for 2010 to be 1.8 per 100,000 people, compared with, for example, 27.3 in the US, 28.8 in the UK, 63.5 in Sweden, and 120.0 in South Africa.

Even if we take occurrence of rapes in India to be 4-5 times or even 10 times higher to account for the under-reporting and assume that these statistics in other countries are close to the truth, India still has lower cases of rapes as compared to these countries. But the moot question is, whether it’s the right approach to talk about and address the issue?

Public anger at such crimes is an important development for bringing about much needed social change to promote gender equality. The safety of women is merely a part of it. The discrimination starts even before the birth. To measure such discrimination, Amartya Sen in 1990s, coined the term, “missing women” to explain the deaths of 100 million girl children globally due to sex-selective abortions, female infanticides, lack of health facilities and nutrition of which 40 million were in India.

The term “missing women,” refers to the shortfall of the actual number of women from the number we would expect to see, given the size of the male population and the female–male ratios that could be expected if there were bias in the treatment of women and men. Since then this has only worsened as there are now 63 million missing women, shows this year’s economic survey.

Further, even beyond these well-being concerns, there is no denying to the fact that the role of women in society remains underrepresented due to fewer economic options available to them and limited freedom to take independent decisions.

India, the world’s largest democracy, has made big economic strides, had women at senior leadership positions, a woman prime minister, many state chief ministers, and is currently the fastest growing major economy in the world. It’s then puzzling why it fails to treat its women better. However, after each gruesome incident catches national attention, specific patterns emerge in the national discourse. Maybe therein lies the answer to our inability to check such incidents.

First, unequivocal condemnation remains absent across political ideologies. There are 'more important rapes and less important rapes' depending on one’s ideological inclinations. While, it is indeed a healthy sign to see media taking interest in reporting rape and other incidents which concern women, it needs to be supported by all of us without going into the caste, religion and class of the victim and the culprits.

Second, hardly anyone talks about the institutions and how they have been rendered ineffective over the years to tackle women-related crimes. We fail to ponder why law enforcing agencies swing to action only after the news is all over the media.

Just a few days ago, a helpless young girl had to come out on street and cry all over even to get a case registered against the station house master in whose custody her father allegedly died. Imagine those whose cries get unnoticed.

Third, India lacks effective, clear and efficient standard operating procedures, which does not serve the courts well in prosecuting the perpetrators. From what we know, India’s problem may well lie not so much in a particularly high incidence of rapes, but in its inefficient policing, bad security arrangements, slow-moving judicial system, and ultimately the collective callousness of the society.

Finally, there is this surprising lack of awareness about the problems in reasoning to think women as inferior to men especially how women have been driving positive socioeconomic changes where such discrimination is absent. Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments in response to the willingness of Greek intellectuals to accept female infanticide says that the tentacle of parochial values and customs could be broken by the knowledge of what happens elsewhere and how people at a certain distance perceive of such values and customs.

So, if the participants of the Reuters Survey perceive India to be the most dangerous place of women—even if one disagrees with the ranking—it ought to be taken in the spirit that necessary corrective measures are taken so that it convinces the 'impartial spectator'.

(Author is a Ph.D. Scholar at MIT. Views are personal.)

(The story is part of News18 series #BeingAWoman. This edition of the series focuses on the safety of women in both private and public spaces.)

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| Edited by: Sana Fazili
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