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A silent Church is a dead one

Why has it not spoken out on the Delhi gang rape?

  • John Dayal, Delhi
  • India
  • January 8, 2013
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The Church in India, and in particular the Catholic Church, have made themselves all but invisible in the current national debate on gender violence, ceding space to authoritarian voices that confuse revenge for justice, and shift focus from a change in mindsets and civilized values.

Perhaps an opportunity has been lost once again to intervene in and change the national discourse on issues of grave concern to the country, its democracy and its people.

As in the discussion on national corruption that hogged media attention and parliamentary time through much of 2012, the Church was uniquely placed to make a difference.

Among religious and social groups in India, the Catholic Church probably stands alone in articulating a gender policy for itself and the community after several years of a crushing internal discussion in which its more than 100,000 women took an active part.

It remains a moot question why the Church leadership chose to maintain a deafening silence over the brutal gang rape and murder of a young medical student.

I hope it was not because of a want of information, of which there was plenty in the carpet bombing by the electronic media, or a lack of sensitivity, which would weigh heavy on its conscience for a long time to come.

One possible explanation could be that it was afraid it would be seen as confronting the state, a bitter lesson it learned after it was “punished” for challenging the government in the controversial Koodankulum nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu.

After siding with the common people whose lives and livelihoods would have been severely impaired, the local bishop suffered a curtailment of his permits to receive foreign funding for diocesan development activities.

Such “lessons” leave a deep mark on the collective psyche of the institutional Church.

No bishops with their silver crosses on their bosoms, no nuns in habits – barring a few exceptions – and no priests in cassocks were therefore seen in the massive crowds that laid siege to the national capital and its governance institutions.

For almost two weeks in December 2012 and the first week of January 2013, thousands of outraged protesters called for justice for the 23-year-old victim, gang raped by six men in a moving bus one fateful evening in New Delhi.

Jyoti Singh Pandey's male companion, who sought to defend her, was also beaten then both were dumped on a roadside.  The severity of her wounds spoke of the brutality of the sexual attack on her and moved the people into a frenzy.

Even doctors who attended her at one of Delhi’s premier government hospitals said they had in their careers never seen wounds such as these. Jyoti was later transferred to a hospital in Singapore, where she died of her injuries.

She was cremated in secrecy in New Delhi to prevent further confrontation between police and the people, mostly young men and women.

The assailants have been arrested and their trial has begun, in a fast-track court created specially under the orders of the Supreme Court of India. Judgment is expected within weeks. The police have sought the death penalty for the rapacious killers.

The trial, judgment and punishment however are not likely to quench the national demand for comprehensive laws to ensure the security of women in metropolitan cities and the 400,000 villages of the country.

The debate has been extended to include violence against women of the tribals and the Dalits, the former untouchables, and religious minorities such as the Muslims whose women are victims of targeted sexual violence in times of strife or even of confrontation with industry, rich landlords and violent religious and upper caste bigots in battles over land, forest rights and ethnic space.

The Catholic community has itself been a victim of gender violence, with religious nuns being victims of gang rape in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa in the last 20 years.

Wives, sisters and daughters of evangelical and Pentecostal pastors have also been subjected to targeted violence in an emerging trend in Madhya Pradesh and some other states in recent years.

These horrendous incidents quite correctly come under the national spotlight, but the gender debate itself remains subterranean other than when some political group or other takes up a position in parliament whenever there is talk of giving women some sort of a statutory representation in legislative institutions, or in the matter of equal opportunity in employment.

The vicious debates in parliament on the Reservations for Women Bill show perhaps even better than statistics that patriarchal India has still not come to terms with how to nurture and respect women, a little less than 50 percent of the population.

That they are not an exact half of the population, as nature designed them to be, is because of the hazards they run from the moment of conception all the way till they marry – pre-natal deaths in sex-determined abortions, infant mortality, girl child bias, and dowry deaths apart from selective malnourishment and labor.

The data on the “invisible lives” of Indian women remains terrible as it is for their sisters in some countries of Africa and South Asia. Three out of five women in South Asia and an estimated 50 percent of all women in Africa and in the Arab region are still illiterate. Close to 245 million Indian women lack the basic capability to read.

In India, the child sex ratio dropped from 945 females per 1000 males in 1991 to 927 females per 1000 males in 2001; up to 50 million girls and women are ‘missing’ from India’s population because of termination of the female foetus or high mortality of the girl child. Female foeticide in India increased by 49.2 percent between 1999-2000.

The share of women in non-agricultural wage employment is only 17 percent. Participation of women in the workforce is only 13.9 percent in the urban sector and 29.9 percent in the rural sector.

Women’s wage rates are, on average, only 75 percent of men’s wage rates and constitute only 25 percent of the family income. In no Indian state do women and men earn equal wages in agriculture. 

Women occupy only 9 percent of parliamentary seats – less than 4 percent of seats in High Courts and in the Supreme Court less than 3 percent of administrators and managers are women.

The data on crimes against women is absolutely nauseating. Every 3.5 minutes, a crime is committed against women in India. In terms of daily statistics, 45 women were raped, 121 women were sexually harassed and 31 women and girls were trafficked in the last 24 hours.

As many as 40 women and girls are kidnapped every day, and 21 women are murdered every day over dowry issues. Domestic violence constitutes 33.3 percent of all crimes against women.

And finally, 110,424 housewives committed suicide between 1997-2001 and accounted for 52 percent of the total female suicide victims.

This is data from UNICEF, the National Crime Research Bureau and other official sources. In instances of sexual violence including rape, close relatives and acquaintances were the main assailants, and societal silence the main response.

The data should shock the nation, and specially the governance system – the ministries of the government, the bureaucrats who implement the decisions and the politicians, in parliament or state legislatures, who make the decisions. And it should shock the Church and the leaders of other religions.

The indices show that since 1950 when the constitution came into being giving every citizen, man and woman, equality under the law and the system, the effort has been at best half-hearted.

Just taking foeticide, education and wages as test cases, it is evident that a male-centric semi-feudal and semi-rural social structure has not yet reconciled the contemporary demands of equal treatment of the son and the daughter, for that is what every male and female is in the family structure.

It is all interconnected. One would feel that the decision for midday meals would help improve the health standards of all children, including girls. Not so.

To begin with, most of the girls are not in school anyway, and others as surrogate mothers to their young siblings at home often smuggle the food back for them.

This is of course true only when the midday meal scheme works, and there are serious doubts if it works as well in forest areas and in Dalit “bastis” or hamlets in the hinterland.

The issues of equal wages for equal work, better maternity health care and maternal nutrition are issues the government has not fully resolved, and may, in fact, not be able to resolve for a couple more decades going by the rate of progress at present.

But it is in the matter of sexual violence that one notices disturbing trends in governance and society.

A report compiled by the National Election Watch and the Association for Democratic Reforms has revealed that about 260 candidates facing charges such as rape, assault and outraging the modesty of a woman contested assembly elections on tickets of various parties in the last five years.

The Congress was leading the 'shame-list' with 26 such candidates followed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party), who had 24.

This does put a question mark on the intent of the political parties. Civil society has in recent years taken the initiative in persuading the government to draft a comprehensive law against communal and targeted violence, which focuses on gender violence and the traumatizing of women of all ages in times of ethnic or religious conflict.

Women’s associations have also been working on reforms of laws – some of which date back to the 19th century – concerning sexual violence, including changes in the definition of rape.

The country has also seen mounting anger against feudal rural society, popularly known as “khaps,” that run kangaroo courts to punish couples who defy caste norms, or young women who marry men they love.

Many such khaps are known to have forced rape survivors to marry their rapists. In fact sometimes police and magistrates, especially in states such as Madhya Pradesh, also recommend that rapists marry their victims.

It is such a feudal and anti-woman mindset that civil society activists are trying to change. Many social groups have joined them, especially youth from universities and the workforce. It is time to strengthen this civil society movement.

The Church, especially the Catholic hierarchy, religious and laity, have been in fact invited to join in this struggle at changing society and culture, introducing value-based education in schools and colleges, and working with rural and urban communities to ensure that India is safe and nurturing for its women citizens.

The Catholic Church cannot afford to keep aloof from the tectonic movement for a modern democratic India.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council

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