Being a woman in India – To Live or To Survive?

More than half a century ago, India was one of the first countries in the world to elect a woman as its prime minister. Nowadays the country has several highly influential women politicians, including Sonia Gandhi, who is the head of one of the major national parties. How is it possible that women can become this influential, and be respected for their achievements by the vast majority of Indians when women in all levels of society are often treated so poorly? Why has gender equality and respect towards women improved little over the past decades, regardless of all the crimes against women that have shocked the country? 

While the national government is currently speaking of raising the legal age for marriage from 18 years old to 21 to better protect women and provide them with more time to remain at home with their own family, to study, or even establish a career, there is much more that has to change before Indian women can walk around with no fear and enjoy the same rights as Indian men do [i]. 

Among the fear and inequality that exists now, however, some women fight and manage to rise above their original standing. An example of such a woman can now be seen in the movie Writing with Fire, about the emergence of the first and only newspaper run by Dalit women in India [ii]. With their smartphones, these female journalists break traditions on the frontlines of India’s biggest issues and from within their own homes, redefining what it means to be powerful. 

Serving as an inspiration to other Indian women: Can this example become the new norm for women from any level in society? To answer this question, we must first understand the situation of women today.

Violence against women

The 3D Program for Girls and Women is an organization that works in India and focuses on the situation of girls and women in India. This organization wants to increase economic opportunities for girls and women and improve their health, education, and safety needs. In a 3D Program document [1], all the laws and policies regarding girls and women are collected. For example, the Constitution of India – Part III (Article 12 to 35) Fundamental Rights: ‘The constitution guarantees that all citizens of India (including women) have the fundamental right to live in peace and harmony, a right to equality, freedom, freedom of religion, right against exploitation, and a right to constitutional remedies’’. Moreover, there is an overview of all the international agreements India signed. These international agreements are the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and Sustainable Development Goals with targets addressing the public safety of girls and women, to name a few. All these laws, policies, and international agreements must protect girls and women in India, and yet, girls and women are in constant danger of violence.

Several articles on the internet about violence against girls and women start with a brutal attack on a young girl that once again highlights India’s ongoing problem and track record on violence towards girls and women. According to Ramachandran [2], a 19-year-old Dalit woman was ‘’tortured and allegedly gang-raped by four upper-caste men in Hathras district’’. ‘’Her body was severely brutalized; her tongue was torn, limbs fractured, and spinal cord damaged’’. The young woman died a fortnight later in a New Delhi hospital. Of course, what happened to this particular woman, is beyond words. But it gets worse, the local police were reluctant to start a fair legal process. The police accused the victim of lying, refused to register a complaint of rape, and took a very long time before taking the woman to a hospital for medical treatment. Furthermore, a police official denied rape took place because no semen was found on the victim’s body and the woman was cremated so quickly that her family could not even say goodbye to her. They were not allowed to see her body and were not present at the woman’s cremation. There are countless examples to be named. 

This, unfortunately, shows India’s terrible track record of violence towards girls and women in India. When looking at sexual violence, in 2019, India recorded 88 rape cases each day according to the National Crime Records Bureau [3]. To be clear, these are only the filed cases. In the state of Rajasthan, almost 6.000 cases of rape happened and in Uttar Pradesh, 3.065 cases were filed. However, around 99% of Indian women do not report violence, especially when it is their husbands. Other forms of violence are physical and psychological. Domestic violence against girls and women, carried out by family members and/or a spouse (30,9%), is the most common form. Furthermore, some statistics indicate that violence against girls and women affects around 28 million women in India [4].

Why is there so much violence?

It is a very big problem that includes a lot of factors and it cannot be reduced to one reason, however, one does stand out. India has a deeply patriarchal society. This means that importance is given to men instead of women. In this society, women are basically treated as second-class citizens. Children are being taught that the opinions, needs, and wishes of a boy are more important than a girl. This is what boys and girls both learn at a very young age. Furthermore, Ramachandran also mentions that India is a very patriarchal society. With masculinity comes sexual aggression and encouragement to bully, harass and even rape women to ‘tame’ them and ‘point them their place’. Unfortunately, this is ’normal’ for women in India.

Luckily, some organizations are fighting this useless violence. For example, the Population Council [5] is doing projects in India to test strategies that need to reduce violence against women. These organizations have strategies with using women-only economic self-help groups, training elected local government representatives, training health workers, working with boys’ sports clubs, and assessing the perspectives and experiences of women seeking help. Furthermore, the United Nations [6] published a 10-step action plan to end violence against women. The number one step in the action plan of the United Nations is to listen and to believe survivors. This is the first step to breaking the wheel of violence against women. When a girl or woman shares her story of violence, she needs to be heard, understood and supported. 

Abandoned women

Besides violence against women in Indian society, which is bad enough on its own, there is the issue of being abandoned – by their husbands, by their family, or as a baby.

divorce

The issue of being abandoned by their husbands affects millions of women in India across religions and communities [7]. Men simply walk out of the marriage without telling their wife or uttering any other formalities – legal or otherwise. In 2018, there were 2.3 million separated and abandoned women in India – of which 2 million were Hindu – and no concrete steps have been taken to support these indigent women.

The problem has its roots in cities as well as rural India. Girls are often married before the legal age of 18, hence the marriage will not be registered by the parents. This makes it worse if later there are any issues in the marriage. With the lack of a legally binding document, money, and awareness there are no legal proceedings possible. In villages, it is often believed that any woman who marries outside her cast should be immediately shunned and not allowed to stay in the village. The same rule does not apply to men. Led by these rules, women face even higher levels of marginalization – a social process where a population group is funneled to the edge of society and thus only gets limited access to the economic, cultural, and political life. Additionally, the inheritance rights of a female child hold no meaning here – any property or land-related restrictions aren’t adequately defined, which makes them much more vulnerable.

Another case is the NRI marriage, in which an Indian man living in a foreign country marries an Indian woman. Either the woman comes to this foreign country and then is (1) divorced without her knowledge, or (2) the man promises the wife to take her abroad with him, however, as soon as he receives the dowry he leaves her stranded in an unfamiliar environment with no understanding of the local legal system [8]. The fundamental issue for NRI women is jurisdiction: because the spouses live in different countries, all judicial decisions made by a foreign court are invalid.

One uplifting point could be that the Supreme Court of India “felt that the solution to reducing the amount of deserted brides in the country, was by making marriage registration compulsory.” It just needs to happen.

mental illness

Research shows that many mentally ill women are seen as being not of any use to the household, becoming a burden to their families [9]. Families who voluntarily abandon mentally ill women do so for a variety of reasons, the most common of which is social stigma. Because it is considered that women require protection, they are sometimes compelled to enter a shelter house – and this perception is occasionally correct. In 2017, India passed the Mental Healthcare Act, which allows for involuntary hospitalization in certain instances, such as if the individual in question poses a risk of harming himself or others. Women may be harmed by such a clause. Many women recover with long-term medicine and care, but some are unable to leave the shelter due to a lack of funds and relatives.

baby girls

New-born girl found in dustbin, second in a week. – headline in the Hindustan Times

rural Indian woman cries over the birth of her eighth daughter – The Atlantic

Thousands of infant girls are abandoned each year as a result of sex selection procedures that include half a million abortions in India yearly, according to a 2011 report published in The Lancet [10]. The number of newborns killed or abandoned after birth is appalling, and the vast majority of these cases go unreported. Babies have been discovered in a variety of locations, including construction sites and alleyways, outside temples and churches, shopping malls and public restrooms, and garbage cans. One can only imagine the dire circumstances under which a parent might abandon their child. Possible reasons could be:

  • an unwed mother facing intense social stigma
  • parents unable to look after their child, often because it is mentally or physically ill
  • simply not wanting a girl (often the case in India)

Luckily, India has jumped on the baby hatches train and some of them are operating already in the state of Tamil Nadu. Baby hatches are a crib or a room, often attached to a health center, where a parent can leave their child without fear of prosecution. Since the program´s start in Tamil Nadu in 1992, about 390 boys and 2,400 girls have been safely left there.

widows

a widow abandoned by her family, living on the street – Aljazeera

Once a woman has survived her husband she becomes a widow – while you might think the woman can now live freely the exact opposite is the case. Widows are disowned and abandoned by their families, and their communities avoid them [11]. For many, this leaves the street as the only place to go. Because they received no education and don´t have any source of income, widows are forced to beg on the streets, and many turn to prostitution. The background is superstition – it is believed that even the shadow of a widow can wreak havoc and bring bad luck. Manu Gosh, a 85-year-old widow who lives on the street because she was abandoned by her family after her 29 years older husband died, says “I am just waiting to die so that I can be out of this misery.”

A woman should die before her husband´s death so that she doesn´t have to live through hell like this.” – Manu Gosh

There is a light at the end of this tunnel: Sulab International, a non-profit organization, has been providing education, health care, vocational training, and stipends to 1,780-plus widows living in government shelters in Vrindavan, India.

The Untouchable Woman – At the Bottom but not in the Shadows

Every woman in India lives with the high risk of becoming a victim of mistreatment of any kind, there is one group more exposed than all the others. 

As you may have heard about in the media, from your secondary school teacher, or have read about in a book or seen in a movie some years ago, India’s society is divided into hierarchical groups, referred to as ‘’castes’’. This divide is based upon religious Hindu texts that speak of four levels, forming a pyramid in society. On top are the Brahmins or the priestly caste. Then comes the Kshatriyas or warrior class, followed by the Vaisyas or merchant class, with the Shudras or laboring caste as the last ‘‘official caste’’. Everyone who does not fit into any one of these groups, because of their profession, is the so-called ‘’Untouchables’’ and belongs to a group called the Dalit.

You may be able to imagine that being born into a Dalit family and coming to this world as a girl, is not the most promising or the safest environment for a woman to live in. It is because they are women, Dalits, and poor that these women are faced with the most violence and mistreatment.  

There is no one to help or speak for us. We face more sexual violence because we don’t have any power.–Anonymous Dalit women 

Income and education 

In other words, Dalit women are placed at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy in India as they face systemic and structural discrimination. Based on last year’s insights, we speak of 100 million Dalits of which at least one-third are still disproportionately poor. Women and girls are lagging behind, while far too many do not have the chance to study and are forced out of education because of poverty. Many women receive as little as six years of education, when they live under the right circumstances to receive any at all. Here it is important to know that, if an Untouchable girl can go to school, it is not to the same school as any of the girls from the higher castes. With the Dalit being seen as dirty, any contact between the Untouchables and other castes must be prevented, so also at school. 

They brutalize and intimidate Dalits so that our community knows their place and feel too intimidated to seek better wages and rights that should be guaranteed. – Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit rights activist

Dalit girls all dressed up for their first day at school – THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Outlawed but not unpractised

Officially, even though untouchability was outlawed in 1947, discrimination of the Dalit by the upper-class castes is still common nowadays. Discrimination based on one’s caste is still practiced in many parts of the Indian society, keeping apart Dalits from the rest of the population in everyday activities such as eating, entering places of worship, and even homes of so-called upper-caste Hindus. 

When it comes to living in a village where everyone knows each other, Dalit families often find themselves being isolated. Many of us can hardly even imagine it, but for these families where women carry the responsibility of taking care of children and preparing the food, it is the woman who is confronted with the limitations placed on her freedom because of her family’s social standing, other rather the lack of it. 

When going to the river to bathe her child or to find another water source to collect water necessary to drink or to prepare a meal, she is kept well away from water used by other families from the higher castes. She and her children are perceived as ‘‘dirty’’ and should therefore be kept away from any drink or food that the others touch and eat, but that is not all. Her entire family is banned from practicing her religion, which is often the same as that of the other families in the village, at the place used for prayer as this prevents anybody else from being able to enter the building. Their presence is believed to leave a stain on the sacred ground as well as pollute the air the others would have to breathe. 

Under this social pressure, Dalit women are attacked by their upper-caste neighbors, intimidated, and told to leave their land. Where was the law enforcement after such incidents in the past? In September 2020, after a Dalit girl was assaulted by members of upper castes in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the local police refused to file a full report. With national media reporting situations like these, in which the government has failed to support women or has even worked against them to provide justice altogether and denying the crimes are caste-related, small yet significant changes are made.

 

It is safe to say that India cannot be considered a place where everyone is treated equally. For one, women face a lot of violence on a daily basis. Although there is a lot of policies put in place and international agreements signed to ensure the safety of women and girls this is certainly not the case. Indian women are raped – often by upper-caste men – without the possibility to start a fair legal process because the police won´t allow or deny it. When they are young everyone is taught that the opinions, needs, and wishes of a boy are more important than the ones of a girl.

Besides the violence against women, women are often also abandoned by their families. It can start when they get married, and the husband divorces his wife without her knowing or any legal documents to go against it. Many women are also left because of their mental illness, thus not being of any use to the household. It often also happens that girl babies are abandoned because parents cannot afford to have a girl. Lastly, widows are being abandoned because they are believed to bring bad luck, which leaves the widows living on the street with no possibility of income.

The caste system plays an important role in Indian society. The Dalit caste – those who don´t belong in any other – face systemic and structural discrimination. Women in this caste often don´t even get the possibility of education. With the Dalit being seen as dirty any contact to other castes must be prevented – that is why they are also called “the Untouchables”. Even though untouchability was outlawed it is still common. Dalit women are attacked by the upper-caste, intimidated, and told to leave their land.

India, like many other countries, is undergoing change. Hopefully, this change happens soon.

References

[i] Deutsche Welle. (2022, January 4). India considers raising marriage age for women | DW | 04.01.2022. DW.COM.

[ii] Press Trust of India. (2022, February 9). Indias Writing With Fire, documentary about Dalit women journalists, nominated for Oscars. Firstpost.

[1] 3D Program. (2018, September). Violence Against Women and Girls: Law and Policy Framework in India.

[2] Ramachandran, S. (2020, October 6). Violence Against Women in India Must End. Now. The Diplomat.

[3] Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com). (n.d.). What is behind India’s rape problem? DW.COM.

[4] Statista. (2021, September 23). Reported crimes against women in India 2020, by type.

[5] Population Council. (n.d.). Reducing Violence Against Women and Girls in India | Population Council.

[6] United Nations Women. (2020, November 17). Take action: 10 ways you can help end violence against women, even during a pandemic. UN Women Headquarters.

[7] Asthana, D. (2018). India´s Abandoned Women: One Hindu Family´s Experience.

[8] Krishnan, A. (2020). The NRI Wives: The Plight Of Abandoned Brides.

[9] BBC News. (2018). The Indian women abandoned because of mental illness.

[10] Mohanty, R. I. (2012). Trash Bin Babies: India´s Female Infanticide Crisis.

[11] Shafi, S. (2016). Widows in India: My children threw me out of the house.

[12] Biswas, S. (2020, October 6). Hathras case: Dalit women are among the most oppressed in the world. BBC News.

[13] Denis, T., Gupta, D., & Khan, S. (2021, January 19). Focus – Women of India’s Dalit caste overexposed to rape and other crimes. France 24.

[14] International Dalit Solidarity Network. (2021, November 23). UN report: One third of India’s Dalits remain poor.

[15] Keelery, S. (2020, November 17). Dalits and Adivasis in India – Statistics and Facts. Statista.

[16] Khullar, A. (2018, February 15). ‘Average Dalit Woman Dies 14.6 Years Younger Than Women From Higher Castes’. The Wire.

[17] Life as an “Untouchable” in India. (2020, December 21). [Video]. YouTube.

[18] The Economist. (2021, September 11). India’s caste system remains entrenched, 75 years after independence.

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