Women, Dalits losing war for equal rights in India

Calls demanding respect for neglected social groups cede ground amid patriarchal culture and unshaken Hindu dominance
Women, Dalits losing war for equal rights in India

In this photograph taken on May 5, Indian relatives mourn following the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl just days earlier in Chatra district of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. Police arrested 14 men over the crime. (Photo by AFP)

In India, a woman's life is marked by discrimination and injury almost from the day she is born until her death. But it is not only women who suffer.

A Thomson Reuters story on June 26 ranked India as the world's most dangerous country for women due to the high risk of sexual violence and slave labor — a report that has provoked anger and denial among officialdom.

When one lives in a fantasy world of one's own construction — which is the case for most of our politicians and public figures — anything that brings one rudely crashing down to earth must be vehemently denied, disputed as incorrect, or ridiculed as a malicious distortion of the truth.

Thomson Reuters surveyed a global panel of 550 experts on women's issues and zeroed-in on six areas: health care; access to economic resources; discrimination; customs and social practices; violence, both sexual and non-sexual; and human trafficking.

India "failed" on all counts, with the result being that it was ranked as being worse than Afghanistan (No. 2) and Somalia (No. 3).

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Yet as at least one women's rights activist has pointed out, this should be an occasion not for defensiveness and denial, but for reflection and collaboration regarding the quality for women.

But will it? Why are we so harsh and discriminatory against half of our population?

The main obstacle on the road to equality and respect for women is the patriarchal rule of men.

One of my colleagues, a social activist based in a rural area, described how whenever she asked the women she works with how their men serve them, they simply looked at her with a sense of astonishment and disbelief.

"Didi [elder sister], what do you mean? The men are not here to serve us. Oh no. We are there to serve them," would be their default reply.

Try as one might, it was impossible to remove this mindset, she said.

Any discussion about how to fight India's patriarchal system must factor in that the perpetrators are often "within," which is to say, they share the same home, they are a part of the family, and within the same religion.

For example, if one could argue that many women are more "religious" than men, they become the victims of god-men and priests whose opinions — usually patriarchal — indoctrinate them into obedience and subservience.

It's not just sexual assaults we are speaking about, but how women justify causing harm to themselves as being "the will of God," or karma. 

In fact, we have normalized the systematic abuse of women by telling them to ignore it or just "put up and shut up."

Perhaps nowhere are these patriarchal mindsets more brazenly flaunted than in the recent rise of the Hindu right under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which envisions the creation of a Hindu nation.

This is largely because the Hindu right has taken root in those parts of our society that are largely ignorant of scientific thinking, deeply controlled by caste, and wedded to a feudal mindset. That covers a large part of the country.

But discrimination and injury are not the fate of women alone. There are other groups that suffer equally, in spite of constitutional provisions for their uplift. I refer now to the socially and economically poor Dalit and tribal people, and today even more to religious minorities.

Dalit is a Sanskrit word that means "broken" or "scattered." They were formerly commonly referred to as "untouchables" and are denied many work opportunities.

A crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes in India. Every day, two people from this broad community are murdered, two of their homes are burned, six of their women are raped, and 11 Dalit people are beaten, according to the government's crime records.

Apart from the violence committed against them, there is constant social attrition. Over half of all Dalit children (54 percent) are undernourished, 45 percent are illiterate and 49 percent are denied access to water sources in their villages due to widespread segregation. The list of grievances goes on.   

If one has the bad luck to be born both a Dalit and a female, they can expect to feel this discrimination against them compounded as they have effectively "drawn the short straw" in terms of both gender and caste.

And now the hatred and the discrimination are spreading — to tribal people and religious minorities like Muslims and Christians. Muslims are denied accommodation in our big cities while rural-based Christians are chased out of their ancestral villages and homes.

Note that it is the impoverished minorities who are treated in this way, not the wealthy or the elite like the Parsis or the Jains. No politician has ever gone on record as saying that Zoroastrianism is a foreign religion, or that Parsis should return to Iran.

What kind of a country have we allowed ourselves to become?

The social activist Harsh Mander recently undertook a "love caravan" (karwan-e-mohabbat) across north India to reach out to victims of mob attacks and lynching cases made under the pretext of "cow protection."

Cows are considered a sacred animal in Hinduism. A movement has emerged to protect them and oppose their slaughter but many Dalits are still employed in this undesirable occupation.

The activist observes that many countries display trends similar to those of India in terms of rising hatred and bigotry cloaked in aggressive and militant nationalism.

But nowhere else has this resulted in mobs feeling encouraged and empowered by their governments to lynch minorities, to film these actions and proudly post the video clips on social media.

This highlights a level of moral degradation that is peculiarly ours.

India has indeed changed into a country where we elect leaders who display no compassion and even less remorse for hate crimes; a nation where officials are more than likely to side with the killers; where young people are taught to hate and stone others based purely on their religion, caste or sex. 

Indeed, what kind of a country have we allowed ourselves to become?

Years ago, that indefatigable crusader against the demands of the U.S. automobile industry, Ralph Nader, described American cars as "unsafe at any speed."

Tragically, we can say the same for women, Dalits, tribal people, children and minorities in today's India.

They are unsafe in any place.

Father Myron J. Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai.

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