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Social prejudice root of violence against Indian women

Despite strong laws, poor policing and a patriarchal society are making females more vulnerable to sexual assault

Social prejudice root of violence against Indian women

Schoolgirls hold placards during a silent protest on May 8 against rape cases involving two teenage girls in India's eastern state of Jharkhand. (Photo by AFP)

Umar Manzoor Shah, New Delhi
India

June 4, 2018

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Renuka Chawla has been driving her 9-year-old daughter to and from school instead of letting her take the school bus. The safety of her daughter is her greatest concern. 

She says times are changing in India and the country is becoming more dangerous for women, regardless of their age. 

"You don't know who will do what with your child on the bus or at the bus stop or while she walks down the lane to her home," said Chawla, a civil engineer from south Delhi.

She told ucanews.com that she and her husband decided to take extra precautions after a series of reports about sexual attacks on girls.

Chawla's concerns cannot be dismissed when surveys paint a grim picture regarding women's safety in India.

A survey by non-profit organization Save the Children showed that one in three adolescent girls in India is concerned about sexual harassment in public places while one in five fears physical assault, even rape. 

The study, made public in New Delhi on May 15, comprised interviews with more than 4,000 adolescent girls and boys as well as 800 parents of adolescent girls. It was conducted in 30 cities and 84 villages of six selected Indian states. 

"These findings reveal the danger and fear faced by millions of Indian girls every day when they go outside their homes, and the harmful impact this can have on their self-confidence and ability to move around freely," said Bidisha Pillai, head of Save the Children in India. 

"This harmful phenomenon is also putting girls' futures at risk, encouraging child marriage and making it more difficult to get an education, pursue meaningful employment and engage with the world." 

One reason for the increase in attacks on children is the inability of law enforcement agencies to take complaints seriously, according to Ashima Bhardwaj, a social activist from Uttar Pradesh.

"Even if complaints are made, the culprits know how to get out of the crime and its punishment," she told ucanews.com.

Bhardwaj said most such crimes do not get reported because victims and their guardians know how "the process would get derailed and they would be made to move from the pillar to post, and nothing will happen in the end."

She said a survey last year by the Bar Council of India revealed that 69 percent of women who faced sexual assault or harassment did not lodge a complaint. Fear, embarrassment, lack of faith in the legal system and lack of awareness were some reasons. "It was also found that victims fear repercussions or retaliation if they complain," Bhardwaj said. 

According to Oxfam, 17 percent of women in both the formal and informal sector have faced sexual harassment at work in India.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Indian police reported a 2.9 percent increase in crimes against women in 2016 over 2015. Major crimes were cruelty by a husband or his relatives, assaults with intent to outrage modesty, kidnapping and abduction.

Rape cases also increased 12.4 per cent from 34,651 in 2015 to 38,947 in 2016.

The figures show that an average of 39 crimes against women are reported every hour in India, up from 21 in 2007. 

The federal data, collected from police and court records, show that the conviction rate for crimes against women has been around 18 percent, one of the poorest, affirming the fears of rights activists.

"The situation could probably be worse than what the government data show … because the majority of women in both urban and rural areas do not report harassment," said Ankita Sharma, a columnist who writes on women's issues. 

India has several laws to ensure justice and freedom for women but a lax police system and a patriarchal society prejudiced against women increase their vulnerability, Sharma said.

Women's lack of awareness about their rights and the hostile system of justice also scare them away from reporting crimes. 

India has 1.2 billion people but a gender imbalance means there are 37 million more men more than its 586 million women. India's social preference for men leads to female feticide and female infanticide.

Government statistics show that India has at least 63 million fewer women than it should have, with the skewed gender ratio seen as one reason for increasing violence against women.

Psychiatrist Mir Adil Ahmad, based in Kashmir, said sexual harassment can contribute to trauma that affects women's physical, emotional, interpersonal and career development. 

"Additionally, harassment victims often experience a type of secondary victimization when attempting to deal with the situation through legal or institutional means," he said. 

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