The Indian society is male dominated and characterised by traditional patriarchal values. Various crimes against women exist in our society. Our legal system has various shortcomings and it has definitely not been able to address the issues of gender inequality. It hasn’t been able to provide adequate security to womenfolk. In majority cases, justice is denied to women who are survivors of heinous crimes.
To bring a bit of perspective into achievability of women empowerment, I would like to highlight Amartya Sen’s capability approach as an alternative approach to the conventional prevailing theories of justice. This approach urges us to think in a very different way which might guide us to trace out the roots of the problems which are faced by Indian women and the main reason why true empowerment has not been achieved yet.
Sen is probably one of the greatest thinkers of our era. The capability approach was pioneered by him and was then further developed by various philosophers like Martha Nussbaum. It was first proposed by Sen in a lecture titled “Equality of What?” in 1979. Sen mainly wanted to go beyond the Rawlsian theory of justice that solely focused on primary goods as a relevant space to access inequality. The capability approach is a theoretical and normative framework concerned with well-being. The term capability is used to denote potential that is the ability to achieve something.
Capabilities are the freedoms that people have to achieve the lifestyle that they have reason to value, while functioning refers to achievements. Sen’s main concern is to focus on opportunities and not achievements. Sen illustrates the difference by using the example of a person who starves as a result of fasting versus one who starves because of lack of access to food. In terms of functioning, both persons would be at the same level of deprivation, while a focus on opportunity would portray a more realistic vision of people’s ability to achieve the things they value. Thus, Sen distinguishes between ‘doing x’ and ‘choosing to do x and doing it’.
If you go by what Sen says, the focus should be on the cause of a problem than the solutions. We have mechanisms to punish the victim after the crime has been committed but we do not have any mechanisms to stop the crime from taking place.
If we take the example of acid attack survivors we see that their freedom to choose is being severely restricted, because of our conservative Indian society. South Asia has the highest number of acid attacks. Acid attacks are one of the most heinous crimes against women in India. The year 2014 saw 309 cases of acid attack cases being reported. Despite the amendments in Section 326 of the IPC (Indian Penal Code) in 2013, acid attacks has been on the rise in India.
We cannot say that laws have not been helpful, but at the same time, there has been an increase in the number of acid attacks despite changes in the IPC which urges us to think that maybe the solution to the problem lies somewhere else. According to the Supreme Court rulings the sale of acid over the counter should be regulated, it should not be sold to anyone who is below the age of 18 years and also without government issued photo ID with residential address and the seller must note down the quantity of acid bought and the reason for buying with punishment of fine of up to ₹50,000 for violation. Thus, we see that state has taken up adequate steps but the crux of the problem lies in implementation. The sale of acid still goes unabated in several states.
It would be right to point out that in order to curb this crime a strict law enforcement is needed along with a strict vigilant society which demands accountability and until the patriarchal society like ours learns to teach their men to respect women’s decisions, true empowerment of women cannot be achieved.
The Supreme Court in December 2015 directed the states to take steps to include the acid attack survivors into the disability list so that they can get the benefits of several government schemes like 3 per cent reservation in government jobs. But once again, Laxmi, the acid attack survivor, mentioned that Supreme Court has time and again done a lot for them but there is often no real implementation of the rulings. This shows how utterly ineffective our police and bureaucracy is. It also shows how deep-rooted patriarchy is in the ruling structure of our society.
Sen illustrates another problem whereby one needs to determine which of the three children Anne, Bob and Carla should get a flute about which they were quarrelling. Anne claims the flute on the ground that she is the only one who knows how to play it (the others agree to this). Bob defends his case by stating that he is so poor that he has no toys and that the flute would give him something to play with (the other two agree that they are richer and more supplied with engaging amenities). Clara claims the flute with the argument that she has been working hard to make the flute with her own labour and (the others agree to this) so she should be given the flute. It is very obvious that Bob, the poorest would get the support of the economic egalitarians. On the other hand, Carla would get the immediate sympathy from the libertarian while Annie would get the support of the utilitarians. The basic point Sen tries to make here is that it is not easy to reject any of the claims as foundation-less as all the different resolutions have serious arguments in support of them. The main focus of Sen is that what should be the principle of allocation of resources.
Sen is trying to emphasize on the fact that there may not indeed exist any identifiable perfectly just social arrangement on which impartial agreement would emerge. If we examine Nirbhaya’s gang rape case through this example, it brings us to a very disturbing question.
Was justice really served in the Nirbhaya case? A girl who was brutally gang raped by six men in December 2012 was a knee jerk incident which enraged the entire nation. All the accused were given the death sentence. However, a juvenile who was also involved was given maximum sentence of three years of imprisonment in a reform home but in December 2015 the juvenile was set free after he served his sentence. India’s juvenile law does not allow detention beyond three years; thus the Delhi government’s women and child development (WCD) gave him financial grant and a sewing machine for enabling him to open a tailor shop. There were huge protests due to this, with some of the opinion that rehabilitation should be the goal and a chance to reform him should be given but to others, the juvenile should be given the same punishment as his co-accusers. This shows that true justice has no easy answers. The bill in the Upper House which allows a juvenile between the ages of 16 to 18 to be treated as adults was passed after a lot of controversies. Since India is a liberal democratic country, some argue that the juvenile should be given a chance to reform himself. Many are of the opinion that it is easy to manipulate young people to commit a crime and that is why it is easier to reform them too. They should be given a chance to reform because they have a long life ahead of them. Moreover, on delving deeper into the crime, one finds that new reports have mentioned that the juvenile was the most brutal of the six in Nirbhaya’s rape case but the Delhi police in its charge sheet before the Juvenile Justice Board made no such claims. True justice, as Sen has rightly pointed out, is very difficult to describe.
The Supreme Court has implemented strict penalties for rape but still has failed to effectively safeguard the women. Despite the Supreme Court banning the sale of acids over the counter in shops across India, acid is still easily available. The main thing which needs to be done in order to put an end to these crimes is through addressing them from a different perspective. Civil society institutions like Non-Governmental organisations (NGOs), Civil Society organisations (CSOs), schools, churches, family need to step up and try to change the patriarchal mindset of people. Jurgen Habermas is of the opinion that public sphere is an area where individuals mostly the urban elites, meet and discuss societal problems and issues and through that discussion influence political decisions, similarly, the Indian public sphere needs to rise up and start improving the conditions of women. But it should also be acknowledged that Indian public sphere is very different from what Habermas described.
In this context, it is noteworthy to mention how Gandhi during the British Raj expanded the concept of public sphere beyond discursive exchanges of educated men. Gandhi’s version of public sphere was not based on literacy and he was well aware of the potentials of public deliberations and cultural performance It is indeed unfortunate that India currently has the largest population of illiterate adults in the world, thus we should adopt Gandhian methods to create awareness among people regarding women’s empowerment and rights. Gandhi used drama (travelling theatre), public oratory and domestic oral compositions to engage ordinary people in complex debates on matters of public concerns. Gandhi used the command of political theatre to reach the millions living in Indian villages and now, we must realise the potentials of using these methods to create awareness among the people of India. Indian cinema has a tremendous effect on the Indian society; through movies also issues of women empowerment can be addressed. Hard hitting movies like “Pink”, “Queen”, “Kahaani”, “English Vinglish”, “Piku”, “Mary Kom”, Neerja” can help to change the mindset of the people and how they perceive women and can also help to bring about gender sensitisation.
It would be an understatement to say that the civil society institutions have not done anything for the empowerment of women. Initiatives of NGOs like Stop Acid Attacks, ASFI (Acid Survivors Foundation India) have contributed a lot towards giving aid to acid attack survivors. Clothing brand Viva N Diva has signed acid attack victim, Laxmi as their ambassador in 2016; initiatives like these can only bring about a positive change. Similarly, various committees in universities can also help increase the protection – like the Committee against Sexual Harassment, which have been formed in many renowned universities. It would be significant to mention in this context that Sheroes hangout is a café in Agra which is run by acid attack victims. These kinds of steps help the survivors to become independent and empowered.
Even though civil society organizations need to step up it would be incorrect to say that government programmes are of no use because they have produced new solidarities among women. Nivedita Menon has rightly pointed out in her book “Seeing like a Feminist” that political activities surrounding sexuality have been produced by government funded initiatives to control HIV/AIDS. Another striking example is the rape of Bhanwari Devi. Her rape by upper-class men was in retaliation for her active involvement in a government programme to stop child marriage. But one must remember that the Indian Government has not always been very firm in addressing issues of women’s security.
The government has a very casual approach when it comes to the protection women. Only some watershed events make the government take adequate steps, issues like the Nirbhaya rape case, Bhanwari Devi case pushed the government to pass laws and take actions to protect the women. This easy going approach of the government further legitimises the need for the civil society institutions to come up and help solve the problems of the women.
It is extremely sad that cases of rape, acid attacks, domestic violence, are categorised into landmark cases, according to its degree of brutality. Every case of violence against women should be given adequate attention. Brutality is an integral attribute of rape. In most cases the victim is killed so as to destroy the evidence of the crime. The recent gang rape case and murder of a 12-year-old girl, in Kolkata, did not lead to nationwide protests. With this, we see a trend of giving excessive importance to a crime according to its level of brutality which should not be done because each crime is horrifying. Moreover this is not the first time that females living on the pavement have fallen victims to terrible crimes; it is the state’s responsibility to provide security to the marginalized deprived group of our society, which the state is terribly failing to tackle.
Another disturbing issue which is worth mentioning is that the government is always keen on paying a handsome amount of money to the victim or to the victims’ family in order to pacify the pain of the victim or her family not realising that money cannot be an answer to everything. This is not a correct way of dealing with the problem. Acid attack survivors are paid for their medical treatments. Moreover, the state needs to understand that financial aid is not the correct solution to these heinous crimes.
True empowerment of women can be brought about only by the collective collaboration of the Indian people and joint effort of the civil society as well as the political society can bring about genuine empowerment of women in the truest sense of the term.