I was born in the India of late 1960s when the West was burning bras to garner attention for women's liberation. But that was such a non-issue in our home and homes of a lot of our family and friends. We had the freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom to exercise our will, freedom of leading the lives as we designed and desired them.
But yes, India is the worst country for women in the world 40-50 years down the line, as a group of 550 experts of apparently feeble experience will have us believe.
In the most recent Thomson Reuters survey comprising these 550 experts, India is clubbed with Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Congo, Yemen and Nigeria and put on the top for being the worst country for women in the world.
Those of us, who have even the slightest experience with psychometrics and field and sample studies, automatically know that it is such an insignificant number for the sample size. The survey dangerously bases its reportage on the opinions of the handful of people who rate India the worst on a clutch of parameters ignoring all other parameters and the ground reality.
So now, every time you talk about women's safety, SEO will throw up this study labelling India the most unsafe country for women. And with several voices and media from around the world, citing this survey, the spin machine will ensure that this becomes the overriding opinion against India.
Having grown up in an equalitarian environment and having studied social psychology during my research years, I am an expert too in my area and on the subject under study, from the point of view of both sizeable experience and education. I have also been a woman who has grown up in India and has noted the journey of scores of women around in my household, in my society, in the lives of people around, in different strata of society.
So reporting from ground zero, let me tell you why India is not the worst country in the world for women. I promise to not air brush, or gloss over, or shove under the carpet anything that is factual, anything that happens in reality as against textbooks, studies, fake and biased news.
Yes, India is one of the countries in the world where female foeticide and infanticide continue to happen. Yet the census tells us that there are 940 females per 1,000 males and there has been an upward trend over the past few years. Demographical studies will also show us that there are more literate girls, that more women are joining the workforce, that there is an appreciable number of women in white collar jobs, that a percentage of women - though not as big as we'd like it to be - have access to health and personal hygiene benefits, that it is not unusual to find women in decision making roles - within their homes, districts, panchayats and the wider world. But India is the worst country in the world for women.
India is one of the top 10 countries in the world for rape, among United States, South Africa, Sweden, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Canada, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia. If we look back, we will note that more cases of rape (including marital rape) are beginning to get reported now, there is lesser stigma and society shaming of the victim, women are increasingly being able to talk about rape and other crimes against them without losing their self-respect and respect from others, yet India is the worst country for women.
Domestic abuse is a harsh fact of realism for women of India, like in most parts of the world. But if I look around myself and the quality of existence of women I come across, then I see that we have not been victims of domestic abuse. So, that includes women from my family — mother, sister, self, niece, a couple of female domestic helps who work for us (however, there have been a few other who have suffered terrible domestic abuse at the hands of their husband and his family members so much so that we have wished to get them police and judicial support), many of my colleagues and my niece's, several friends and their networks.
If we were to extrapolate the number from this sample and compare it with the ones who face heinous domestic abuse, we will get a fairer picture that will not be so lopsided as to rush to label India the worst country.
Because this is India too — my India and India of other women like me.
My mother came from a family given to domestic abuse, where hitting women was as easy as chiding them. But she married a man who shunned abuse and patriarchal prejudices like the plague, ensuring mutual respect, a sense of personal space, a place for personality differences to exist, a home where opinions and ideologies and principles were debated, thrashed and honed. That set the tone for my mother, then the next generation and the next. Ma encouraged us to study in co-educational schools, enjoy healthy friendship with the boys, made sure that we understood our own relevance in the society and the importance of our opinion in a dialogue.
As we know, the society is a mirror image of us. By being brought up in a sound and wholesome environment, this is what I and so many other women like me have encountered both in our personal and professional spaces. This is what our expectation is and this is what we will always endeavour to make our lives to be. We always endeavour to recreate the good values and virtues we have known and learned, wiping out all that is not right and conducive.
This, then, has been our reality and that of scores of women like us. To wash out this co-existence with the negative and give a blanket statement bracketing India as the most dangerous and unsafe for women is such a misguiding, ill-informing and wrongly intentioned exercise that must be put under the scanner and viewed through the lens of rationality and reason. Besides, it must be corrected and supplemented with a larger, more composite study and bonafide information based more on knowledge than perception.
I have been mapping the changes that have occurred in one of the tiniest villages in the heart of Jharkhand - considered to be one of the poorest states of India - where our main domestic staff member hails from.
I have been doing this for almost two decades and I have been noticing positive changes and developments including healthcare and education, both for men and women. My niece, who works in the social development sector, shares similar heartening stories from Orissa, West Bengal and Bihar - considered India's weakest links on most issues. It is nowhere near what things should optimally be. But it has improved. It is also far better than "two steps forward and 10 opinions backward".
Though not anything to be proud of even now with so much ground still to be covered, there have been inroads in wellness and preventive care even in the remote hills and villages for man, mother and child. The situation is far better than what it used to be even a decade back, but let's go ahead and call India the worst country for women.
In their 2017 'Trafficking in Persons' Report, the US puts Russia, China, Iran, Belarus and Venezuela as top five countries for human trafficking. Trafficking - of men, women and children - as a malaise is increasing globally despite more stringent laws and steps being defined by governments. The problem is so big that the more steps that are taken towards raising awareness and putting legal frameworks in place, more the smaller the initiatives appear to be.
In the January 2018 updated report by the US State Department's office to monitor and combat trafficking in people, three segments - Tier 1, 2 and 3 - were defined to categorise countries on the volume and extent of trafficking and the inability of their governments to contain the issue.
The Tier 3 list was the worst identified and features places like North Africa (Algeria, Libya), Sub-Saharan Africa (Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Congo), Middle East (Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Yemen), Asia (Thailand, The Marshall Islands, North Korea), Europe and Eurasia (Belarus, Russia).
As expected, India appears on that list too. But it appears among Tier 2 nations, given some significant steps taken in this direction by the government and non-government sector. But let's disregard all that and state India to be the worst because 550 illogical, out of their mind and depth "experts" from an insignificantly small sample size opined so.
Of late, there has been a spike in media reportage of abysmal sexual crimes against women in India; which is such a big step forward. Cases like Nirbhaya, Asifa, Unnao and so many others have been so horrendous and spirit-breaking that they continue to be in our top-of-the-mind recall.
There are several more unreported ones too or those that have not gathered the same number of eyeballs. Still, we will have to be in the right frame of minds to not club India with those countries where an Unnao or Asifa happens every day, several times a day.
Eve-teasing and harassment is one of the most sordid in India and this crown of thorns can be put on the uneasy head of India without even blinking. The problem is age-old, yet as a corrective measure, women are far more equipped to handle it than before - through physical training, social acceptance, removal of societal taboos, better psychological handling of subsequent trauma, shaming of the perpetrators as against the victims.
With that women are more aware, more aided and able to tackle the situation and the criminals are that much more weakened so it would be wise as to not jump to classify India as the worst country.
It is not at all close to even the permissible levels but it is a huge work in progress with each tiny step making just that little difference to better the status quo.
We have been warned in London, we were asked to look over our shoulder in Venice, we were told to watch out on the streets of Paris and we have felt quite uncomfortable and scared walking the lone stretch in the sleepy Engelberg in Switzerland. News reports tell us that high-in-safety bastions like Sydney, San Francisco, San Antonio are not that immune either. The same applies to tourist hot spots like Mexico and Morocco. Yes, the streets of India are not safe but I would also be careful in most other parts of the world when venturing alone at night and in thinly populated areas. So isolating India or putting it on top of the heap would be telling only the half-truth.
The other heartening change, in the pulsating and mindful times of #MeToo, is that, not just our awareness but our notion towards eve-teasing and women subjugation is changing too. As are the levels and threshold of intolerance in women against these atrocities and villainy! Today, leave alone touch or catcall, I would be affronted if even a professional handshake was not right or somebody commented flippantly on my attire or my piece of presentation.
At my niece's NGO, an administration person was pulled up because he joined in a seemingly light banter when a woman colleague told another lady that she was looking "hot". Even the erring woman colleague was spoken to. What is also promising is that there exist cells within HR in some offices and boxes to collect anonymous feedback or grievance at a few schools where women and girls are encouraged to speak out and share. These may appear as too little, but they reflect the larger shift in mindscape. Would this be admissible in a country black-marked as the worst for women?
The Thomson Reuters Survey has been an abnormally slanted exercise in mismanagement of information. It also must be accused for dispersing misinformation. For two days now, in national and international media, I am seeing India top the list for women unsafety, all because of a half-baked survey and the dangerously skewed opinions of a set of 550 who chose to ignore the larger reality, who were asked to sit as judges on three or four factors and who miserably failed to weigh-in in a logical and balanced manner.
In that, the survey has harmed the image of India far more than attempting to do good by brining into open women-related issues.
To correct this wrong and to contain the false propagation, which is tentacled and is spreading like fire, I implore the Government to shunt the pack of 550 (548 to be precise) on a Thomson Reuters Foundation funded one year stay in Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Afghanistan.
And to drive the point home, let us also give them a free but extended trip to Saudi Arabia, where women have just begun to drive!
Meanwhile, let us not belittle the intrinsic value of India. Let us not take away from all the strides made in the right direction; with help or no help from the government, bureaucracy and policy makers.
It may not be exactly India shining and we are right in demanding and expecting more.
But we must also stay duty-bound towards what we can do, starting with being honest about the dichotomous reality and complexity of a country like India and by not letting botched up, unprofessional, poorly conducted Surveys to damage and malign the perception about India!