A rising India, a shining India but a perverted India pinning everyday. The past 2-3 months probably has been the most depressing months for most of us. Every morning, flipping through the pages of the newspaper flooded with news of rape, murder or dowry deaths has, for me, been a daily predicament.
It is saddening to witness the ubiquitous feature of rising cases of violence against women and girls and how it reflects the normalisation of control over their agencies. These instances of violence reek of social norms in our communities that underpin such violent nature. A systematic study of these instances of violence indicates that these are not one-off or sporadic cases but are indicative of an underlying culture of subordination and violence against women supported by traditional social norms that favour male dominance over women. These stem right from language, cultural practices and male dominance in public and private spaces. The subjugation of female reproductive organs in everyday discourses (abusive slangs or non-abusive lingua franca), runs rampant in most communities around us. It perpetuates dehumanisation and engendered violent fantasies.
While we boast of being the world’s largest democracy, the bigger question we need to collectively seek answers to is, how we allow the inequalities of sex, gender, caste, language, religion to subjugate women’s agencies.
For example, in many parts of India, boys are not allowed to play with girls; boys and girls are not allowed to sit next to each other or spend time together as consensual adults. Besides, in many communities, girls are openly discriminated by the family when it comes to household work, education or even mobility. The protectionist approach to women and girls further dehumanises and contains women’s and girls’ agencies through cultural practices like child marriage, celebrating when girls attain puberty, female genital mutilation, customs and rituals in social marriages and many more that women go through in their everyday lives.
The social norms that expect women and girls to perform in certain specific ways of playing the role of a mother, caretaker/caregiver, wife have been the normal practice for generations. These social norms directly influence how power gets divided amongst the sexes and results in rising inequalities and oppression. The infusion of sexuality in the narratives of social relationships, experiences and practices needs to be confronted if we want to demolish violence and inequality from its root.
Probably we will never have answers to these complexities. But the state and civil society in India need to work together to relentlessly unpack these narratives to bring normative change in communities. This shall only be possible if, instead of introducing schemes like Kanya Vivah Yojana, Rupashree, or amendments to laws, the stress is on addressing the root cause of social norms and engaging with stakeholders who can influence these norms.
A strand of Oxfam India’s gender justice work has been to actively work with men and boys to bring positive norms. Through intensive programme activities in the five focus states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, Oxfam has made some great strides in creating support spaces for women and girls. For example in parts of Chhattisgarh where Oxfam works, men have started sharing household chores, girls who dropped out of schools are now readmitted to schools, women who have experienced violence are reaching out to one-stop centres to register complaints and many such leading examples from across the country.
The end goal we envision for gender equality might be a long journey, but every tiny change that enables one girl to continue her education or one woman who decides for herself is a million dollar achievement for all of us.
Let’s keep counting till we are one billion strong one day.