Is 2021 the year India finally works to end gender-based violence?

Gender-based violence is a public health, economic and developmental issue.

 |  4-minute read |   08-03-2021
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Nirbhaya, Unnao, Hathras, Unnao again — these have become shorthand references to crimes of rape and murder committed against girls and women in India. When such incidences are reported and we express our disgust about how poorly women and girls in India are treated by men, police, the state and society, in general. Little changes on the ground and this cycle is repeated when the next crime occurs. These individual stories, horrific as each case is, mask the widespread prevalence in India of violence against women at the hands of a spouse or intimate partner or a non-partner.

Population-level surveys based on reports from victims provide the most accurate estimates of the prevalence of intimate partner violence and sexual violence. In India, the National Family Health Survey-4, conducted in 2015-16, revealed that 33 per cent of married women in the age group of 15-49 experienced physical, sexual, or emotional spousal violence. Of these women, only 14 per cent sought help and 77 per cent never spoke about it. Among those who sought help, 65 per cent reported to the natal family and only 3 per cent reported to the police.

main_domestic-violen_030821041910.jpgGender-based violence is a public health, economic and developmental issue. (Photo: Reuters)

According to on-the-ground reporting, the Covid-19 crisis increased women’s vulnerability to domestic violence, even as few cases were reported due to restricted mobility and communication, decreased contact with the natal family and lack of access to the formal support system.

Young women and girls are subjected to violence in many spheres of their lives. In rural areas, the absence of toilets within homes increases women and girls’ vulnerability to gender-based violence. The act of going to school, college or work is often daunting for girls and young women, exposing them to harassment and stalking. While schools are considered a safe space for girls, they are not always so. The hierarchical structure of education settings provides numerous opportunities for sexual and physical abuse. School is the most common place where children and adolescents experience sexual coercion and harassment. In some cases, perpetrators of sexual coercion may be older students.

Studies have shown that only a minuscule proportion of incidents of violence are reported to the police. Even so, data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reveals that a total of 4,05,861 cases of crimes against women were registered during 2019, an increase of 7.3 per cent over those reported in 2018. In 2019, most cases under crime against women were registered under ‘Cruelty by Husband or His Relatives’ (30.9 per cent). This was followed by ‘Assault on Women with Intent to Outrage her Modesty’ (21.8 per cent), ‘Kidnapping & Abduction of Women’ (17.9 per cent) and ‘Rape’ (7.9 per cent).

Gender inequality and norms on the acceptability of violence are a root cause of violence against women. Factors associated with intimate partner and sexual violence occur at the individual, family, community, and wider society levels. Attitudes that condone violence, community norms that privilege or ascribe higher status to men and lower status to women and male controlling behaviours towards their partners create conditions for violence to be perpetrated against women and girls. Weak implementation of laws enacted to protect against gender-based violence does little to deter perpetrators.

What can be done to decrease the incidence of gender-based violence in India? According to the World Health Organization, low levels of women’s education and low levels of access to paid employment increase women’s vulnerability to gender-based violence. Increased investments in girl’s secondary and higher education and skilling for employment and livelihoods are necessary to make women more resilient.

The importance of working on changing social norms and attitudes through targeted social and behaviour change communication programs cannot be understated. Community norms that endorse patriarchal attitude, condone violence and uphold beliefs in family honour and sexual purity normalise the perpetration and experience of gender-based violence. Research by the International Center for Research on Women has shown that regressive notions regarding gender are formed as early as 12 years. Attempts to instil gender-equitable norms and attitudes must focus on programmes in school and in the community with girls, boys and young men and women that through reflection and discussion can reverse these attitudes and create change toward questioning violence and inequality.

The Indian state must also take more robust steps to protect survivors of violence. Strengthened implementation of laws related to harassment, rape, domestic violence, acid attacks and other forms of emotional, physical, and sexual violence is critical to building women's confidence so that they can come forward to report violence.

Current budgetary allocations for programmes that address women’s safety and empowerment are woefully inadequate. After the 2013 Nirbhaya incidence, the Indian government established the Nirbhaya Fund for schemes meant to enhance women’s safety. However, the fund has utilised only about 36 per cent of the allocated funds during the seven years since its inception. Budget allocations women’s empowerment schemes administered by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, such as the One Stop Crisis Centre, Mahila Police Volunteer, Women's Helpline, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Mahila Shakti Kendra etc. are lower for FY 2021-22 as compared with allocations in the previous year.

Gender-based violence is public health, economic and developmental issue. As we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, we must not forget that gender-based violence is an epidemic that warrants urgent policy and programmatic attention.

Also read: What India must to do to save women from domestic violence under lockdown


Dipa Nag Chowdhury Dipa Nag Chowdhury

The author is the Director Programmes at Population Foundation of India where she leads the delivery of the foundation's strategic programme objectives related to sexual and reproductive health, gender development and family planning.

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