#VAWIP Blog Symposium: India

India:  Strength—And Safety—In Numbers

by Vibhuti Patel

How safe are women activists in the public sphere?

In the public sphere, wherever and whenever, the women activists are backed by organisational strength and are a part of collective, they have been effect in their efforts and have a safety net. But if the women activist is isolated, there is threat of backlash, she is verbally abused, socially boycotted and physically-emotionally-psychologically harmed and faces continuous witch-hunting from the community. Women’s movement’s slogan, “Women United Will Never be defeated” and “There is Strength in Numbers”. Hence we must promote “cluster approach” in fighting for women’s rights.

How significant is the presence of women in formal politics in your country?

If women’s agenda has to be centre-stage, women’s presence is a MUST in formal politics. All important laws, government rulings, policies, programmes, schemes, translations of gender commitments into financial commitments is not possible without formal representations of women who have proved themselves by working for women’s causes. Activists of the women’s movement have just remained foot-soldiers of the formal politics and those with ornamental/token presence are projected as the figure-heads. This is harming women’s concerns. Moreover, one or two women in powerful position can be easily bypassed, silenced and marginalised. Hence we need “critical minimum” of at least 1/3 representation of women in the formal politics, though our goal must be 50: 50 in the long run.

Is the threat of violence against women candidates and voters significant enough to affect women’s participation?

It’s threat of money and muscle power that discourage committed women from participating in the mainstream politics. Historically, women’s voices have been suppressed, women have been confined to domesticity and women’s concerns have been neglected. Most of the women face tremendous opposition from family, community and the male political leaders if they decide to enter electoral politics or public life. The present political leadership of any hue, in spite of its populist rhetoric, wants to keep women out of the political arena. Indian women’s lower educational level, inferior social status and lack of autonomy are reflected in their lower participation in politics. Increasing criminalisation, corruption and compromises required to sustain one’s political career also deter women from entering mainstream politics. To provide level playing field to women against this historical neglect and adverse socio-political and cultural forces, reservation of seats for women in legislature and parliament is a MUST to ensure a more participate and inclusive, a more egalitarian and sensitive citizenship for all.

What about other forms of violence faced by women in the public sphere–for instance, journalists or writers?

Women in public spheres face three types of violence: First and the most prevalent form of psychological violence is character assassination through whisper campaign, blank calls, scary SMSes and MMSes, cyber-stalking and IT-based torture, morphed images used to tarnish her personality. Second type of violence is threatening her family members to pressurize her to withdraw her article, book, film and to stop her from her future work as a writer or journalist or film maker. Third is physical harm- killing or acid attack or maiming her set an example so that fear-psychosis prevents other journalists/writers/film makers not to speak out on sensitive/uncomfortable issues to the political vested interests.

What has been the experience of women human rights defenders in your country?

Women human rights defenders have been at the receiving end of the communities in case of “honour-related crimes”, accused rapists, accused dowry murderers, accused child sexual abusers and accused members of domestic violence in all parts of the country. Individual whistle blowers have been silence using the above mentioned 3 tactics. Women human rights defenders who are part of women’s groups, national and global networks have been able to save themselves as a result of safety nets provided by their colleagues locally and globally and also due to timely media coverage. They do not have to die an anonymous deaths or are not silenced. Hence, the need for women’s rights movement.

Dr. Vibhuti Patel, feminist economist, SNDT University, Mumbai, India, co-authored Political Feminism in India, 2016.

Sexual harassment at the workplace: Lessons learned about how to do things right

This week, everyone’s talking about workplace sexual harassment. And we’re also talking about compliance with the law—both the Vishaka guidelines and the new April 2013 law, which are similar but quite different from each other.

We have had the privilege of working with organizations in the private and the public sector on this question and while we have a very realistic sense of the levels of awareness about this issue and the law, and how rare compliance is, we are also able to be very optimistic because of the people we work with.

About a year ago, the HR person at a firm that does aeronautical design got in touch with us to inquire about gender sensitization workshops. We were drowning in campaign work and as we tried to coordinate schedules more than six months slipped away. When we had all but forgotten about this exchange, the MD of the company got in touch. From there, things moved quickly because the timing was much better for all concerned.

We were in for a wonderful surprise. The team we were working with had a much bigger vision than just writing a policy, forming a committee and checking off the compliance box. As the MD kept saying, they wanted to make the committee redundant and the way to do this was to create and sustain a work culture based on equality and mutual respect.

Together, we created an action plan. We would start with short training workshops on workplace sexual harassment—what it is, how the law defines it, how to respond to it and responsibilities at the corporate and individual level. We would help the company put together a policy in conformity with Indian law and to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee. We would also work with a self-selected group of employees who wanted to do awareness work on gender issues. But that was not enough—they also asked us to facilitate the beginnings of a conversation on interpersonal relations in a time of diversity and rapid change. Moreover, the company plans on refresher activities and ways to get everyone to rededicate themselves to these values every year.

We really admire the commitment this company is making to creating a more gender-equitable workplace. Their efforts pre-dated the new law; even pre-dated the Delhi gang-rape which for so many was the first time they had given gender violence any thought. Their efforts excluded no one—the MD and the newest employee attended training on an equal footing. And every single person in the company was required to attend. There is active interest in going further and following up, and willingness to take ownership of the ideas and the process.

The good news is that just as we were working with this company, another one from a completely different industry called us to talk about the same things. When we mentioned the kinds of work we were doing here, they became more expansive and talked about broader issues. Most people think it is enough to train the HR people in a company, but what the management teams in both these companies understand instinctively is that for an idea, a new value system, to take root and be shared, everyone–every single person–needs to be a part of (and party to) the change.

When organizations invite NGOs in, they graciously keep referring to our domain expertise. The truth is, and we try to say it as much as we can, that we are all learning and learning from each other. No one enters into any work with domain expertise, just with a will to do one’s best and a promise to learn as much as one can towards that end. We have reflected on what we have learned before, but if I were now to update this list it would include the following.

  1. It is not enough to set up a policy and committee, although setting them up is a vast improvement on not setting them up.
  2. While the law mandates a policy, a committee and awareness training now, that training has to go beyond a perfunctory session with HR people and it has to be ongoing.
  3. The most important component might well be the management and owners’ commitment to the issue—which becomes evident in their willingness to put time and resources into this work; which becomes evident in their willingness to cooperate with and support the work of the Internal Complaints Committee without diminishing their autonomy. This commitment and support should also extend to situations where the Committee and/or its members are personally attacked for their work.

In many ways, the new law is harder to implement than the Vishaka Guidelines, whose clarity and simplicity meant that compliance was first and foremost about the spirit of their provisions rather than their letter. It becomes all the more important that those working on workplace sexual harassment approach the process of change holistically—looking at attitudes, manners and relationships as much as anything else. Given our work experience in the last year, we now believe this is actually a feasible action plan. For this learning and the hope that it gives us, we are very grateful to the partners that we have in this work.

What the numbers mean: Data on Violence against Women

There’s been a lot of discussion in the print media over the last couple of weeks about data and statistics on different forms of gender and sexual violence. What numbers are there in India? What do they mean? How can we interpret them? What do they tell us and what do they hide?

In 2011, we organised a seminar to discuss exactly this, inviting representatives from the police, service provider organisations, lawyers, journalists, academics and students, among others. Much has changed in the two years since in terms of public awareness and attitudes towards violence – however, it does appear that little has changed in terms of data-related challenges.

Do read the excerpt from the seminar report below. You can access the full report here.

Making numbers count: The gender violence tally
16 September 2011: Seminar Report
The lack of accurate, accessible, updated and relevant data on gender violence remains a real stumbling block for the many non-profit organisations and governments that grapple with this issue. Why is it so important to have this data, to understand it and to use itproperly? Given that gender and sexual violence get little attention, numbers become essential for ‘flag-waving’, for holding up as evidence, proof, to backup anecdotal evidence. Most of all, good data conveys the urgency of the problem in ways that nothing else can.
For these and other reasons, data on gender violence was the focus of Prajnya’s first full-day research seminar.‘Making numbers count: The gender violence tally” was organised on 16 September 2011 to discuss four dimensions of data collection on gender violence: What are the available sources of data on gender violence in Tamil Nadu? Is all available data good data; indeed, what is good data? What challenges do we face in collecting data on certain specific forms of violence? How can we, through our work as activists, researchers or service providers, help gather high quality data on gender violence?
Also read:
Albeena Shakil in EPW on what the most recent data on rape and honour crimes in India tells us. Rape and Honour Crimes: The NCRB Report 2012, 3 August 2013, EPW.
A comprehensive and accessible infographic on NCRB data from The Hindu. Data busts some myths on sexual violence, 3 September 2013, The Hindu.
Rukmini S in The Hindu on how and why the NCRB undercounts crimes against women. India officially undercounts all crimes including rape, 13 September 2013, The Hindu.
Dilip D’Souza in Livemint on the many questions that official data on sexual violence raises. Report a rape today, 12 September 2013, Livemint.
And finally, Meena Menon in The Hindu on similar data-related challenges that Pakistan faces, in terms of violence against women. Women grapple with violence in Pakistan, 16 September 2013, The Hindu.

What do you do if you have been raped?

Nisha Susan takes a ‘comprehensive look at how Indian women can navigate the first few days after rape’. Read the excerpt below and the full story here (Yahoo India, 2 July 2013).

What do you do if you have been raped?

Despite being warned to expect it all your life, despite all the chatter of the last few months, you probably still don’t know how to deal with sexual assault. A comprehensive look at how Indian women can navigate the first few days after rape.

For many women there comes that odd, jolting moment when you realize you have structured your life around avoiding being raped.

That moment sneaks up on you. Perhaps it’s because you caught yourself thinking twice about sitting down on the footpath. You were tired while waiting for the bus but you thought twice and continued standing, holding your heavy bag. And suddenly it occurred to you that you didn’t want to sit on the footpath because you didn’t want to attract attention, and you didn’t want to attract attention because you didn’t want to be raped. And in that moment the absurdity hit you. It’s as if you had been a man and every sentient particle of your life had been arranged around avoiding being mugged or murdered.

That moment sneaks up on you. The moment passes and you go back to unconsciously arranging your life around avoiding this one crime. Every time you hear footsteps behind you, every time you open your front door, every time you walk through a basement parking lot, every time you turn into a dark street, you wonder – Is this the one? Is this how it’s going to happen? As comedian Ever Mainard says, “The problem is that every woman has that one moment when you think, here’s my rape! This is it. OK, 11:47 pm, how old am I? 25? All right, here’s my rape! It’s like we wait for it, like, what took you so long?”

For some of us – for at least 24,923 documented Indian women in 2012 alone – there has come that other unfortunate, jolting moment when you have been raped.

Three out of four times, you are likely to have been raped by someone familiar, someone familial: your uncle comes to drop off a tiffin box and stays to chase you round the house, breaking everything you try to hide behind, pulling the landline wire out of the wall. Your brother-in-law tries to rape you when you are five months pregnant. Your former husband decides that divorce isn’t quite enough. The sarpanch of your village. Your nephew. Your brother’s friend. Your brother. Your father.

Here is your rape. It has come. And here comes that epiphany. The realization that you have been warned about this moment your whole life but still don’t know what you are supposed to do afterwards.

After December 16, after the gang rape in Delhi, parents across India have clutched harder at their restless daughters. Well-meaning men and women have recited the gruesome details of that gang rape to each other, asking, “Can you imagine anything worse?” Women talk to their friends about how much more scared they are of strangers. A warm fug of paranoia has enveloped us, binding us closer to the homes and neighbourhoods where we apparently need not fear anything.

But here is that moment in that familiar place. You have been raped. Six months of paranoia later – are you kidding me, a lifetime of paranoia later – you still don’t know what you are supposed to do.If you are the kind of person who thinks buying insurance is inviting death or illness, you may not want to read any further. Crippling your life with the fear of rape – you’ve got plenty of that already.

You may choose not to seek justice, to never report the crime, to not discuss it. But if you wish to make a recovery, if you intend to seek justice, if you want to punish the man or men who have raped you, the first 24 hours are the most crucial. Coping with that first day’s procedures will shape the way rape affects your life.

Another dimension to male/son preference

That a preference for sons is at the heart of India’s related problems of female foeticide/infanticide and sex selective abortion is a well-documented fact.

In the Economics Journal, Rupa Subramanya Dehejia discusses another dimension to this – a gender gap in breastfeeding. She refers to a recent paper by economists Seema Jayachandran and Ilyana Kuziemko that suggests that parents often inadvertently discriminate against a daughter by breastfeeding her for a shorter duration. While this may not be a deliberate act – unlike choosing to abort a female foetus or killing a new born girl – it can result in early deaths – due to lack of nutrition or contaminated drinking water or other substitutes for breast milk – and eventually contributes to India’s large tally of ‘missing women’.

Read Rupa’s column here.

Read the paper by Seema Jayachandran and Ilyana Kiziemko here.


Peacekeeping and Sexual Exploitation

This week’s Outlook Magazing has as its cover story the scandal that we would rather ignore–sexual exploitation by Indian soldiers posted as peacekeepers in the Congo.

Bally Mutumayi , Ashish Kumar Sen and Saikat Datta, The Peacekeeper’s Child, outlookindia.com, August 8, 2011.

On the bank of Lake Kivu, in the southern quarters of Goma—the capital of the forested North Kivu province—is theNyiragongo camp of Indian FPU-2, home to some of the 3,871 soldiers from India who are deployed as United Nations peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They are famously known as the formidable soldiers of Monusco, a French acronym for the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC, which was called Monuc till June 30, 2010….

The reprehensible phenomenon of sexual misconduct in Congo envelops not only the lowly jawan, but also includes Indian army officers who, because of their lavish salaries, violate the UN code of conduct with wily sophistication, in greater secrecy…

… No doubt, the sexual misconduct of Indian soldiers have sullied India’s exemplary record in UN peacekeeping missions. Nearly 50 years ago, Maj Gurbachan Singh Salaria was posthumously awarded the country’s highest gallantry award—the Param Vir Chakra—for his role in the peacekeeping operation in Congo in 1961. The charges against the Indian soldiers today insult his memory and the country he so gallantly served.

Saikat Datta, Under The Microscope, A Stain,  outlookindia.com, August 8, 2011.

For more than two months now, an army court of inquiry (CoI) has been poring over documents and cross-examining 12 officers and 39 soldiers to verify whether they were guilty of sexual misconduct during their year-long stint, beginning January 2008, in Congo. These men belong to a unit of the Sikh Regiment and face charges ranging from rape to fraternising with the local population, all expressly forbidden by Indian military law and the UN code of conduct governing peacekeepers. The CoI, under the Meerut-based 9th Infantry Division of the army, is headed by Brig M.M. Masru assisted by two colonels…

…The army is determined to punish the guilty. As the army spokesperson told Outlook, “The Indian army is a disciplined force with zero tolerance for indiscipline. Even though the case pertains to 2008, and an independent inquiry was conducted by the unit, as also by the UN’s OIOS in the same year, the army has taken a serious view of the allegation. Yet another inquiry is being conducted to further look into the matter.”

Why ‘mental cruelty’ is clearly a form of violence

In The Hindustan Times (16 July 2011), Shalini Singh discusses what the phrase ‘mental cruelty’ includes. Is it depriving your spouse of affection? Or food? Or attention? Or refusing to have a child?  As she points out, mental cruelty is no longer an ‘also’ charge, clubbed along with physical, sexual or economic violence, but a credible manifestation of gender violence on its own terms.

Last week, Justice Kailash Gambhir of the Delhi High Court overturned a lower court’s ruling and granted divorce to a woman and ruled that doubting a spouse’s character could amount to mental cruelty and that it could be reason enough for divorce.  This is yet another step in acknowledging psychological torture within a marriage — a form of violence which legal and mental health experts say we are getting more sensitised to as a society.According to legal experts, earlier, ‘mental cruelty’ was clubbed along with physical, financial or economic forms of cruelty to make a case. Says Pinky Anand, Supreme Court lawyer. “Cruelty as a ground for divorce under the Hindu Marriage Act was more about physical violence. Down the line, mental cruelty has become a plain ground for divorce and is no longer about just stray instances.”

Mental cruelty is described as psychological aggression resulting in verbal, dominant or jealous behaviour that causes trauma to the victim.

According to the Hindu Marriage Act, mental cruelty has been broadly defined as conduct that inflicts such mental pain that the sufferer cannot live any more with the perpetrator. It goes on to note that the cruelty may be mental or physical, intentional or unintentional. It states: “If it’s physical, it’s a question of fact and degree. If it’s mental, the enquiry must begin as to the nature of the cruel treatment and then as to the impact of such treatment on the mind of the spouse.”

The Protection of Women From Domestic Violence Act 2005 broadened the definition. It includes “verbal and emotional abuse” — insults, ridicule, humiliation and name-calling, specially on inability to bear a child. It also brings within its ambit “repeated threats to cause physical pain to any person in whom the aggrieved person is interested”.

On the rise
Of late, cases of mental abuse have become frequent and more complex. As says Supreme Court lawyer Meenakshi Lekhi: “We are getting more cases that include a mix of, say, adultery and watching pornography — leading to mental agony for the spouse.”

For those who have suffered mental cruelty, the emerging nuances in the understanding of it are welcome. “It’s torturous if you use emotions to your advantage and hurt your partner,” says Delhi-born Amrita Jain, 29, who recently got a divorce. “When my ex-husband would pretend that he was depressed in order to get away with whatever he did, it was cruel. I felt drained and completely stopped thinking about myself.”

Such not-so-straightforward cases are on the rise, Jain feels, ascribing it to the fact that “people have started living complex lives”. Lekhi says such cases are increasing because “people in India are getting more individualistic.” Whatever the reason, the courts are taking note of the change.

Defining the term
Experts say that mental cruelty is behaviour over a period of time that dehumanises another person, causing them trauma — or, as Dr Harish Shetty, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist, puts it, “that which can cause emotional distress in a person who has had a normal state”.

For example, says Lekhi: “A person refusing to speak to the spouse: he or she is not abusive or violent, but if this leads to depression, mental ill-health, not being acknowledged, then it amounts to mental cruelty.”

In the landmark Samar Ghosh vs Jaya Ghosh case in 2007, the Supreme Court, focussing on “sustained behaviour”, held that “that a few isolated incidents over a period of years will not amount to cruelty” . It said that “mere coldness or lack of affection cannot amount to cruelty” but made allowance for the fact that “frequent rudeness of language, petulance of manner, indifference and neglect may reach such a degree that it makes the married life for the other spouse absolutely intolerable”.

More recently, earlier this year, the Delhi High Court said that “mental cruelty is not as easy to establish as physical cruelty, the impact of it has to be deliberated upon” while ruling on a case recently where a husband got divorce from his wife in a trial court on the grounds that she used to taunt him for being a clerk and quarrelled with him over petty issues. The Delhi High Court ruled that “an angry look, a random quarrel, a sugar coated insult or a taunt cannot lead the court to grant a decree of divorce.”

On the other hand, in May, the Bombay High Court ruled that keeping a mistress amounts to inflicting mental cruelty on the wife — 16 years after Chandrakala committed suicide, the six month jail term awarded to her husband Ratan Jagzap wazs upheld on grounds of subjecting her to cruelty.

Mental cruelty continues to be not so easily definable and can be interpreted differently. But as sociologist Shiv Visvanathan points out: “While earlier, mental cruelty was part of any cruelty, that’s changing as women’s rights become more open and women’s stresses are being professionally recognised. So it’ll get easier for people to win a case.”

Women’s rights activist Ranjana Kumari, director of Centre for Social Research, calls mental cruelty the most “gruesome form of cruelty” because it “damages a person’s personality which could lead to depression or insanity”. She says: “Any form of deprivation, like troubling the kids to teach the wife a lesson, showing her family in a bad light, and of course the age-old badgering for dowry are forms of mental cruelty where the woman starts feeling depressed… Unlike mental cruelty, physical and economic cruelty is identifiable more easily.”

Kalpana Mehta of Saheli Women’s Resource Centre says our laws are “nuanced, given that psychological cruelty is a complex issue.” According to her, “What we need is more gender sensitisation and implementation.”

Applying the law
While there’s no one interpretation of the legal term, most experts see it as sustained behaviour which includes actions that have been repeated over a period of time. What is changing, however, is that more and more nuances are being added to what can be considered cruelty. For instance, Dr Shetty says: “If a woman by nature is an introvert, doesn’t like to dress up and party with her husband, he could see this as an act of omission — ‘denying the normal pleasures of life’ — while all this may be perfectly acceptable for a man who likes a shy wife. Then incompatibility or ‘anger of a depressed spouse’ may be seen as cruelty.”

Cultural differences may come into play while identifying pyschologically abusive behaviours. In western societies, experts say, the concepts of space, freedom and choice are strong. Even raising your voice at the spouse could be a legitimate reason, while in India anger is still widely tolerated.

Widening the application
While mental cruelty is largely seen in the matrimonial ambit, our laws cover it in other areas too. Lekhi says there are provisions within the Domestic Violence Act for issues such as sexual harassment at workplace as mental cruelty, too. Even ragging in institutional institutions is treated as systematised form of human rights abuse, as embodied in the Indian Constitution.

Delhi-based child rights activist Enakshi Ganguly says instances of a child being humiliated in class by his teacher, or a girl being discriminated by her family must also be treated as mental cruelty offences. In the US, for instance, mental cruelty is treated as ‘behavior that causes mental agony to another person’ and includes relationships such as employee-employer, master-servant too. Physical violence is not necessary.

There are also those who take the definition too far. “I’ve seen cases of people taking things to silly levels — such as ‘my husband hasn’t bought me a mobile phone’, ‘he got angry because I was talking to my mother for a long time’ says Anand. Our courts hold that divorce should be granted if the situation is intolerable, not on the basis of minor differences.”

Justice lies in the fine balance — and finding it is an ongoing quest.


Evaluating gender violence prevention programmes

To date, there have been few systematic evaluations of projects implemented by either governments or non-profit organizations to prevent various forms of gender violence. We therefore do not know what has worked, what hasn’t, why something has worked, why something hasn’t.

The International Center for Research on Women has recently undertaken an ambitious evaluation of one of India’s earliest schemes to reduce child marriage – Apni Beti, Apna Dhan in Haryana. This scheme was first implemented in the state in 1994, and next year, the first recipients will turn 18, the age at which, if all has gone well, they should still be unmarried.

This scheme is also unique for being what is called a conditional cash transfer or CCT, where a family receives a certain amount of money from the government in return for adopting or changing a specific practice. In this case, child marriage.

To read more about ICRW’s planned evaluation and about CCTs, see this article by Gillian Gaynair.

India’s contribution to UN Women

Jane Martinson writes in The Guardian on financial support, or the lack of it, for the (new) UN body, UN Women. The post is specifically about the UK’s slow response to UN Women’s call for support, with the country having made neither pledges nor contributions.

But what’s interesting is that India is, as of today, the 16th highest contributor to the UN Women’s Core Funds, having pledged (and released) USD 1,021,043. That’s approx 4.5 crores.

Take a look at the list of pledges here.

The Guardian post is available here.



Gender violence in India: A Prajnya Report

We’re happy to share with you the second edition of our annual report on Gender Violence in India, now accessible at http://www.prajnya.in/gvr10.pdf

This year’s report focuses on violence in public spaces – at work, on the streets, in cyberspace and in politically charged contexts. In addition, we’re delighted to have been able to include short opinion pieces by  four wonderful commentators – Ammu Joseph, Kalpana Sharma, Vibhuti Patel and Geeta Ramaseshan. Each of them draws attention to aspects of gender violence that demand and deserve public debate.

Please take a look at the report and please share it with anyone who may be interest. We’d be happy to receive any feedback, you can email us at anupamasrinivasan.prajnya@gmail.com