By Pooja Parvati:
Daughter: Ma (mother), can I go out and play? All my friends are going too.
Mother: Did your father not tell you that you are not to go out in the afternoon? Your brother is also not home. It is best you stay at home now.
Daughter: But that is not fair, Bhaiya (elder brother) always gets to go out whenever he wants. Papa never says anything to him. Why is it only like this for me? (Saying this, she starts crying)
Mother: Beti (daughter), don’t cry! That’s how it is. Don’t question things you don’t understand. Don’t you know, all this discussion will only anger your father again?
This conversation could well be from any household in the country today. Women and girls in India are the most vulnerable to violence, and this fundamentally affects their right to life with dignity. As in the illustration earlier, the most common solution has been to keep women and girls confined within their homes and limit their mobility and basic freedoms. However, research has shown that among the many forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG), domestic violence is the most common form experienced by women globally. A 2014 study by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) reveals that six out of 10 Indian men rationalised violence against women. A bigger surprise is that nearly 70 percent of married women justify gender-based violence (based on data from round 3 of National Family Health Survey in 2005-06).
India has one of the lowest sex ratios worldwide, pegged at 940 girls per 1000 boys in 2011. This only points to the systemic violence characterising gender relations in the country. Dominant social norms dictate son preference and sanction violence as a means to control women and girls. Additionally, inequalities derived from gender norms and lack of agency affects perceptions of power and freedom. This is compounded by fierce resistance from traditional forces to maintain status quo in gender roles and relations.
10 years ago, in 2005, the government of India enacted the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) that came into force in 2006. The PWDVA is a civil law that complements existing criminal laws. The law provides immediate relief ranging from medical aid, shelter, monetary support and legal assistance. All this is done through the creation of facilitating structures to access justice along with earmarked staff and infrastructure. Nine years hence, progress in its implementation is insignificant as it remains plagued by challenges such as inadequate funds and human resources, poor coordination across implementing agencies and ineffective monitoring mechanisms. Addressing these would go a long way in strengthening the Act and making it effective.
To begin with, lack of reliable and timely datasets constraints scrutiny in the implementation of such legislations. Periodic surveys by the Union Government to monitor VAWG as well as making available timely, reliable data, disaggregated by social categories and up to the district level is needed. In a recent news report, Melinda Gates called for a national level survey to assess the actual burden of violence on women, even in their households. Last year, the Lancet had published a series of articles on VAW. Another news report suggests that the reputed journal plans to bring out a landmark paper to assess the burden of VAW.
Challenges in implementation of the Act also include lack of adequate, earmarked financial allocations and release of funds in a timely manner. Following the brutal gang-rape of a student in Delhi, the government set up the Nirbhaya Fund in 2013-14 with Rs. 1,000 crore. As on 2015-16, the fund has a total of Rs. 3,000 crore but information reveals that as much as Rs. 1,273 crore of this remains unspent.
A related point is that the state governments should put in place requisite dedicated staff backed by adequate infrastructure to guarantee effective implementation. Further, governments both at the Union and state levels should have in place effective convergence mechanisms among various stakeholders, such as the police, judiciary, hospital, shelter home and so on. In this regard, a critical must-have is ensuring regular monitoring and documentation of cases of domestic violence by state level Women and Child Development Departments to track progress.
This is also reiterated by the Lancet. In its last year’s series, it recommended the need to allocate resources to prioritise protecting victims, change structures and policies that discriminate against women, promote support for survivors, strengthen health and education sectors to prevent and respond to violence, and invest in more research into ways to address the problem.
A few days ago, UK-based feminists wrote to the Indian Prime Minister pressing him for a statement against rising incidences of VAWG as, it is felt, his silence might mistakenly be seen as condoning such heinous crimes. Given the situation where women and girls are no longer safe in the confines of their homes, Kalpana Sharma in her rousing piece questions whether locking them up is going to solve this problem. She rightly notes that the problem can only be addressed when the underlying social norms defining the absolute sense of entitlement held by men and boys are questioned and rejected. This however, needs much more than merely demanding State control over Central police forces or seeking moral education for boys. Until that time, there is no consoling the crying girls.
In this regard, Oxfam India will soon be launching a public influencing campaign to address the social norms that perpetuate VAWG. Take this quiz to know how close you are to rejecting some of these deeply ingrained norms. For more details, read Oxfam India’s Policy Brief No. 14 on ‘Implementing the PWDVA: Safeguarding Women from Domestic Violence.’