The issue of women’s safety in India has become impossible to ignore since the 2012 Delhi gang rape case. The fatal sexual assault of the 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey shocked the nation because of the degree of its brutality. Despite the massive protests that followed and the promise of change, women’s safety remains an issue.
‘Delhi Crime’, a Netflix Original docu-series based on the Nirbhaya rape case, is a terrific simulation of the state of the country. In the last scene, when the Deputy Police Commissioner, played by Shefali Shah, celebrates after tracking down and arresting all six rapists, you feel a moment of relief, of hope, of accomplishment.
Then, in the last moments of the scene, she is told that one of the arrested men has died by suicide in jail; and Shah sighs. A sigh pregnant with disappointment she knew was inevitable, an all-knowing sigh about systemic corruption and lax law enforcement, and a sigh that doesn’t seem shocked at all that a man would try to escape consequences.
Unfortunately, this is the reality of the Indian woman—aspiring to live in a progressive society that is concerned about her safety, but being disappointed at every turn and ceasing to be surprised.
Indian women, especially those from the poorer sections, deal with various forms of violence such as acid attacks, domestic abuse, and sexual assault on an almost daily basis.
Yet, the issue of women’s safety has largely been missing from the campaign discourse of all major parties as they appeal for votes ahead of the Lok Sabha election. But it is time this changes.
All too common acid attacks
In 2014, Reuters reported that a 21-year-old women from Kolkata was force fed a bottle of acid by her boyfriend’s family who also threw the chemical all over her body. This was hardly the first time for such an attack and it is already not the last.
Whether love quarrels or family conflict, the reason for acid attacks are plenty.
In a Buzzfeed India explaining why acid attacks are so common in India, Pia Sharma from Make Love Not Scars, a rehabilitation organisation for acid attack survivors, said that these attacks originate from the desire to possess women.
“Acid attacks stem from a mentality that says, ‘If I can’t have her, no one can’,” said Sharma.
The video also interviews acid attack survivors who explain that they were targeted because their attacker was envious and jealous of them in some way.
In an Oscar-winning documentary, Saving Face, acid violence survivors say that they were attacked by strangers, husbands, school teachers simply for rejecting their unsolicited sexual advances.
Additionally, the open access to cheap, harmful chemicals makes attacking women simply a matter of whim.
“With acids – something as ubiquitous as toilet-cleaning liquids readily available at the corner store and as cheap as 30 cents [Rs. 20] a litre, these assaults have emerged as a preferred weapon of violence against women”, said Reuters.
Medical expenses for acid victims don’t end at healing their burns alone. The deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset of India makes them doubly conscious of their appearance, forcing them to consider painful and expensive cosmetic surgery.
“The government should make the treatment cashless. Hell falls on the survivor and the family when this happens. To add to the misery, there is a long list of bills to pay”, said President for Haryana’s All India Democratic Women’s Association Jagmati Sangwan.
Livemint reports that most survivors believe their face will be reconstructed as the original after five or six surgeries. However, they’re soon met with expensive and long medical treatments. Some reports put the cost of reconstructive surgery at Rs. 45 lakh.
Monica Singh went through 43 reconstruction procedures after five men attacked her face and torso with acid for rejecting a marriage proposal.
As of 2014, two of Monica’s attackers are in custody but the remaining three managed to secure bail. She also could not benefit from a new law passed in 2013 that entitles acid attack survivors to compensation from the government.
Monica also talks about another aspect of women’s safety- a tedious remedial process that does not end in justice.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ordered that acid attack survivors will be paid Rs. 1 lakh within 15 days of the attack to “facilitate medical attention”. However, activists have said that the government has failed to follow through.
“For me and my family, my career was the most important thing. I can go for a hearing once more if I was assured justice but not more than that”, she says.
Women aren’t safe even in the house
A common narrative is that women should not venture out alone, at night, or at all. However, statistics show that the Indian family and home is often a site of violence.
The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) found that 90% of rapes were committed by relatives, neighbours, and employers- people women know and trust.
Women also find themselves in cases of domestic abuse, especially spousal violence. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16 found that over half of women and 42% of men believe that wife beating is appropriate.
Ray Rice, an American football player who was fired from his team after evidence emerged of him punching his fiancé, said that one of the underlying causes of his violence was his inability to ask for help. He also said that cyclical domestic abuse conditioned him into normalising violence against women.
Domestic violence is common in India, even among the educated and wealthy, because we’re conditioned into the idea of nuclear family. Problems like alcohol and drug abuse also make domestic violence more likely. But Indian women continue to suffer at the hands of the judiciary.
She said, “Domestic violence victims might overcome life-threatening physical, psychological, and financial obstacles to seek help, only to be revictimized by an unforgiving legal system”.
In 2016, of 1,52,165 cases of domestic abuse pending trial, only 4,739 ended in conviction. From delayed proceedings, expensive legal counsel, and mismanaged court rooms, the Indian judiciary is not perceived to be a resource for survivors of violence.
Bloomberg Businessweek found, “If the nation’s judges attacked their backlog nonstop-with no breaks for eating or sleeping-and closed 100 cases every hour, it would take more than 35 years to catch up”.
Even in law enforcement, where there are reservations for women inspectors and constables, the positions remain vacant. Moreover, in 2018, only 12% of Indian judges in the High Courts and Supreme Court were women.
The police and judiciary must reflect the communities they are pledging to serve. Failure to do so results in a lack of trust and increased insensitivity in cases that must be handled delicately.
Moreover, increased female representation will help equalise power dynamics in Indian society so women aren’t silenced by employers, relatives, and any else considered higher up in the social hierarchy.
We need change
Activist Dr. Sunitha Krishnan says that women’s safety depends on the attitude of the men who surround her, and she’s right. We need strong allies, especially those who enjoy privilege in society and already have space to speak.
Male allies also include empathetic male politicians who dominate Indian political discourse and positions in the government.
Raya Sarkar kicked off India’s #MeToo movement by circulating LoSHA, a list of sexual harassers in academia. Since then, the movement has taken firm footing. Recently, dozens of Indian women are taking to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to name their harassers in the hope that public outcry will help ensure the men face consequences.
However, this activism must also be supported by action that dismantles systems of oppression.
Commons themes that emerge in each sphere of gender-based violence are these: violent men, limited access to education and legal counsel, and complacent and inefficient law enforcement.
Despite women’s safety being one of the most important issues of our time, it will continue to persist long after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, which is disappointing, but comes as no surprise at all.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius