24 October 2013

Violence against women and girls in India

Guest blog by Lilli Loveday. 

Lilli Loveday is a research volunteer for 28 Too Many and is currently working on preparing the Country Profile of FGM in The Gambia. She lived and worked in The Gambia for almost two years, working for an organisation that focused on women’s health and women’s rights. Lilli now works in Oxford for an international development consultancy. Her focus is on the processes which lead to norm change at the institutional and community level, with a particular interest in gender norms.

UN Women talk – Violence against women and girls in India

Once a month, the UN Women United Kingdom National Committee (UKNC) organises a Saturday morning talk which members are invited to attend. On September 21, I was fortunate enough to represent 28 Too Many at a talk given by Kimberley Green – former volunteer for UN Women – about her recent experience supervising the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme in India as well as her observations on what the reality facing many women and girls in India is.

The ICS programme is a DFID-funded scheme placing 18-25 year olds in 12-week-long overseas volunteer placements. Volunteers from the UK are partnered with volunteers in the host developing country to work together on projects which broadly aim to reduce poverty. The programme is managed by Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), with a number of programme partners taking responsibility for implementation in different countries. The ICS programme in India is overseen by Restless Development, whose core areas of focus are livelihoods and employment, sexual and reproductive health, and civic participation. Kimberley spent a total of 8 months in India, working in the north-eastern states of Jharkhand and Bihar. North-eastern Indian states have high reported rates of violence against women, with a study indicating that 25% of women have been subject to sexual violence, 52% to psychological violence and 16% to physical violence.

Kimberley shared accounts of the work undertaken by volunteers during their placements, which included facilitating educational sessions on reproductive health for girls. These sessions addressed issues related to maternal and child rights as well as providing practical information on topics such as how to wash cloth sanitary pads in order to minimise the risk of infection. Volunteers were also involved in organising groups to support women establish microenterprise schemes and they organised a major public event to educate young people on safe sexual practices. Kimberley spoke of the many inspiring Indian women she met during her time in Jharkhand and Bihar – of a nun who stood up for women’s rights, of a female Indian ICS volunteer who, despite being bullied by Indian male counterparts because they felt her involvement was ‘improper’ of a married female, thrived on the programme, and of the many young girls who approached sessions with nervousness but were soon pledging their commitment to share their newly acquired knowledge. However, Kimberley also noted that men often intervened in sessions, opposing decisions made by the women when they didn’t agree, that women were unable to walk home alone after dark and that one Indian female volunteer had dropped out because her family didn’t approve of her participation. Kimberley also shared the account of a lady who confided that she had been the victim of sex-selective abortion at the hands of her uncle when her family discovered she was pregnant with a girl-child and how, as a result, she could not bear to once again experience pregnancy despite pressure from her husband’s family to produce a child. Kimberley’s observations are indicative of a culture in which a widespread perception of women as ‘secondary’ routinely reinforces their unequal treatment; their exposure to both psychological and physical violence, the silencing of voices and their restricted freedom.

The extent of violence against women and girls in India came to the world’s attention following the rape and murder of a 23-year-old female in a neighbourhood of New Delhi in December 2012. The case provoked both national and international outrage and sparked widespread debate about a so-called ‘rape-culture’ which exists in the country. Rape statistics for India are shocking and would, undoubtedly, be even more shocking if all rapes were reported. A BBC report highlights that rape cases rose between 2010 and 2011 by 9.2%, with over 24,000 incidents reported in 2011. In response to protracted protests which spread across the country following the Delhi rape, bringing both men and women onto the streets, the Indian government introduced tougher anti-rape laws as well as laws to address issues which are likely to undermine a woman’s bodily integrity (such as voyeurism)  and cause intimidation (such as stalking). Furthermore, since the rape, the country has seen a rise in ‘women only’ areas on buses and in hotels and parks. The government has plans to establish a women-only bank.

But India’s reaction to violence against women is problematic. In a society entrenched with patriarchy and misogyny, the creation of safe spaces does little to challenge the underlying drivers of inequality. Certainly, safe spaces have led many women to feel less threatened in a very immediate sense – but others, such as Nilanjana Roy, have spoken out that the creation of ‘safe zones’ is regressive and, once again, curbs women’s freedom. Furthermore, the revised laws do nothing to address rape within marriage – a highly concerning failure given that reports indicate 94% of reported rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. Rape within a marriage of a child aged between 15 and 18 also remains permissible under Indian law. Violence against women in India goes well beyond the high rates of rape incidents, beginning before a girl is even born with the threat of sex-selective abortion, following her into her childhood as she faces the prospect of early/forced marriage and perpetuating throughout her adulthood as she comes up against restricted access to education, jobs and even health care.

So, returning to the work of the ICS programme and Kimberley’s talk. What does this setting present for a programme like ICS? One of the key objectives of the ICS programme in India is to ‘enable young people to make responsible decisions regarding their basic health and sexual health, supported by their communities and government.’ The challenge of enabling young people to make responsible decisions precludes that there is an element of choice and - in a society like India’s, which remains so restrictive of women and girls’ ability to choose - it is certainly great. As Kimberley shared, it is the grassroots nature of the programme and the community focus that is its strongest asset. Enabling choice requires an environment which is responsive to what young people – girls and boys have to say and which begins to see reforms that hold males and females in equal regard. Indeed, this can only be brought about if people’s attitudes and behaviours begin to change. By continuing to reach boys and girls, men and women, and by continuing to build knowledge, awareness and capacity of young people from both India and the UK – ICS can contribute to creating a truly enabling environment for generational reform and a renewed understanding of the equal rights of males and females.

Check http://www.unwomenuk.org/ for details of UN Women UKNC work and upcoming events. 

As well as our work to end FGM, 28 Too Many supports other campaigns for the elimination of all forms of gender based violence and the promotion of human rights and equality. If you would like to support our work please donate, like our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter.