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Concrete Steps, Not Proselytizing Will Bring Gender Equality To India

13/06/2016 8:30 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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We Indians pride ourselves on our deep-rooted traditions and moral values, often going out of our way to defend and uphold our cultural identity. Women form a very important part of this culture and many of the deities we worship and revere are female. Women execute a myriad of roles in our social structure as well. Despite all of this, we witness brutal and sadistic crimes against women on a routine basis. Genital mutilation (yes, it exists in India too), rape, street sexual harassment of women are just some of the things that have become the norm in the world's largest democracy.

Feminist activists within the country are continually advocating for a more progressive society, along with a gradual loosening of the shackles of patriarchy. While it might sound extremely easy theoretically, the fruition of the objective seems almost utopic. Some argue that the solution is possible once the mindset of society is changed, but that too is easier said than done. A more achievable and realistic solution to the problem lies in a combination of individual effort, stringent legislation and efficient protection of the statutory rights of women.

Any delay in the government's declaration of marital rape as illegal will simply strengthen the patriarchal and orthodox practices followed by the majority of men...

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made efforts to improve the status and condition of women in India with the introduction of various policies and yojanas. However, there still remains a huge mountain to climb and a simple analysis of the status quo shows how far we have to go.

Marital rape

The issue of marital rape has confounded and angered various women's rights groups across the country. The reason for their anger is that despite continual recommendations, the prevailing view of the government is that marital rape, as it is understood internationally, cannot be applied to India.

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In the view of the honourable Minister of Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi, the government is not entirely convinced that criminalizing marital rape is the best way forward as "various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs" etc render the concept moot and not viable in a country like India.

The aforementioned statement reflects an orthodox, myopic and regressive view. A view which condemns women to a life of subjugation and oppression once they enter the "sacred institution" of marriage. This hesitance of the BJP Government to criminalize marital rape gives husbands a free pass to sexually intimidate and violate their wives without fear of legal reprimand.

According to a FICCI-EY November 2015 report, 36% of Indian companies and 25% of MNCs are not compliant with the Sexual Harassment Act, 2013.

Rape, by definition, is a criminal offence and the institution of marriage must not be used to create an exception to the general rule. Any delay in the government's declaration of marital rape as illegal will simply strengthen the patriarchal and orthodox practices followed by the majority of men in Indian society. More importantly, it will guarantee a further disillusionment of women, who will eventually lose all faith in the system which is supposed to protect their rights and ensure them a life of dignity.

Sexual harassment at the workplace

A commonly overlooked but serious problem is that of sexual harassment of women at the workplace. After the Vishaka case, the Indian Government passed The Sexual Harassment Of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act in 2013. The Act was supposed to serve as a beacon of hope for women who were facing sexual harassment by employers or colleagues at the workplace. While the Act mandated for strict regulations to be followed by companies across India, the implementation of its provisions has been poor.

According to a FICCI-EY November 2015 report, 36% of Indian companies and 25% of MNCs are not compliant with the Sexual Harassment Act, 2013. This has led to dismal conditions for many women, who continue to suffer despite the existence of legislation designed to protect them. In Uttar Pradesh, the situation is particularly dire . While it is not feasible to expect a 100% success rate with the execution of any legislation, the minimal efforts put in by the government are disheartening to see.

While it is not feasible to expect a 100% success rate with the execution of any legislation, the minimal efforts put in by the government are disheartening to see.

One would think that the inhuman 2012 rape of "Nirbhaya", which sent shock waves through the country, had taught us a lesson. However, we clearly have a long way to go. The Criminal (Amendment) Act, 2013 passed in light of the incident was criticized for not heeding the Justice T.S. Verma Committee on issues of reduction of age of consent and amending the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to hold military personnel more accountable for their crimes against women. The recent rape committed against a woman (known only as "Jisha" to the media) in Kerala has been described as "one of the most horrendous incidents ever witnessed" in the country by the Director of Centre of Social Research, Ranjana Kumari. However, the delayed reporting of the case and aspersions cast on her social status have ensured that we are already mishandling the situation.

Looking ahead

While the statistics and analyses paint a gloomy picture, there is still some hope. The decision of the Bombay High Court to overturn a 400-year-old practice and allow women to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani Shingnapur Temple has been well received. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao' scheme has seen reasonably successful, with the sex ratio at birth in states like Haryana improving. The number of girls attending school in rural areas has also seen improvement, pointing to scope for awareness and education of women with respect to their constitutional and civil rights, along with remedies available to them.

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It is time that we normalize the issue at hand. Women being granted equal rights should be a basic pre-requisite of our society. When prominent political figures in our country allege that crimes against women will increase if they are allowed entry to temples, it's a sign that we need progressive, visionary thinking, especially from our leaders.

[Promoting gender equality] needs a holistic approach; top to bottom (strict legislation and effective control) and bottom to top (grass-root awareness and education programs, breaking stereotypes among men).

A prime example to learn from would be Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has been a major advocate for gender equality, even saying that men should start being feminists too and that there isn't anything wrong with men identifying themselves as feminists ), given that we are in the 21st century. Such normalization and a liberal approach to this issue will ensure progress of our society.

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In 2012, India was ranked as the worst G20 country in which to be a woman. India is a country where 93 women are sexually assaulted every day. There is no magic solution to India's gender inequality problems. It needs a holistic approach; top to bottom (strict legislation and effective control) and bottom to top (grass-root awareness and education programs, breaking stereotypes among men).

Rights and liberties are constitutionally (or otherwise) granted to all citizens of a nation, and are meant to be enjoyed by all of them, without any exceptions. The time has now come to stop differentiating between man and woman when protection of these rights is in question. We must be progressive, more liberal and less myopic in our approach to societal integration, if we truly are to develop as a country.

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