By Arushi Sharma
A cursory glance at any Indian newspaper or news website would surely reveal the renewed discourse on women’s empowerment and safety in India. Recent steps—from the enlarged scope of the ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ scheme to the Smart Cities initiative—envisage an India with greater gender equality. Justifiably, for a country with a deep-rooted patriarchal set-up and stark gender parity, such issues need to be at the forefront. However, a lot seems to be missing from the present dialogue.
Bridging the divide
On November 22, 2017, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved the expansion of the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP) Scheme to all 640 districts, a jump from the 161 districts presently covered under the scheme. The scheme, which was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015, will now have pan-India reach with a total outlay of Rs 1132.5 crore.
BBBP addresses the twin issues of the declining child-sex ratio and women empowerment through education and participation. It had come after observing the sharp plunge of child sex ratio from 976 in 1961 to 918 in 2011 Census. The census data had also revealed a vast difference between female literacy rate (65.46%) and male literacy rate (82.14%).
According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the expansion is aimed at a “deeper positive impact.” The scheme also monitors the successful enforcement of the ‘Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act‘.
Safer and ‘smarter’ cities
In addition, the Centre has chosen 8 Indian cities to initiate projects for improving women’s public safety. These cities, selected under the Smart Cities mission, include Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, and Lucknow. As per a release issued by the home ministry, “Various issues reviewed included 33% reservation of women in police, installation of CCTV cameras, deployment of women in police stations, emergency response system, police verified public transport etc.” Financed using the Nirbhaya fund, the projects will have an implementation deadline of 18 months.
The idea of smart cities springs from the ability of technology to enrich the society and citizens’ life from a practical viewpoint. In order to make urban public places safer for women, some of the existing policy measures undertaken by the government comprise GPS tracking, CCTV monitoring, and WiFi connectivity with the police. A slew of such measures commenced across the country following the Nirbhaya rape incident on December 16, 2012, in Delhi. In 2015, Delhi Police also launched ‘Himmat’, an app that turns the phone into a panic button.
Women’s safety in Indian cities
According to the National Crime Records Bureau data released in 2015, the crime against women in India has more than doubled over the last decade. The reality of the big, vibrant cities is that their women population faces a constant threat of sexual violence, along with unwanted sexual remarks and touching. Take, for example, the mass molestation and public groping of women in Bengaluru on New Year’s Eve–an incident that also brought to light the gross apathy and inefficiency of the city’s police in stopping such assaults.
A large number of crimes go unreported due to the widespread culture of victim blaming and moral policing. Moreover, the grave safety issues faced by women inside homes remain vastly unaddressed. Marital rape is still not considered a crime in India. Statements made by politicians in public spheres certainly do not help the situation, like the words of Women and Child Development Minister, Maneka Gandhi in 2015. She had commented that the concept of marital rape could not be applied in the Indian context, owing to illiteracy, poverty, social customs and values, and religious beliefs, etc.
Just like the launch of the BBBP scheme followed Sakshi Malik’s bronze medal win at the Rio Olympics, its extension approval coincided with Manushi Chillar claiming the Miss World title. One could argue that ministers tend to invoke “Beti Bachao” to give an impression of changing gender realities in the country. While the slogan has opened up a dialogue on equal access to education, the conversation around women empowerment remains strictly confined.
The pressure to marry after a certain age continues to lurk for women even today, no matter how educated or accomplished they may be. Girls and women are not ‘allowed‘ to go out alone at night. The lack of safety is habitually used as an excuse for restricting women’s freedom and movement in urban areas. Delhi’s ‘Pinjra Tod’ movement launched in 2015 highlighted this problem by calling out the stakeholders setting different hostel timings for men and women. As regards safety measures, merely surveillance and technological initiatives are not enough; there is a clear need for shifting the discussion towards truer gender equality by dismantling the patriarchal norms.
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