Editor’s Note: This is the third in the five-part series analysing why the rich, powerful men – from politicians to spiritual leaders – across the world are victimising themselves upon being accused of sexual harassment.
The suffering of the Kerala nun and the responses of religious and political figures exemplifies the situation of Indian women in the 21st century. While the West has become all too familiar with issues of abuse in Europe and the Americas, far less attention is paid to the East. India, in particular, is the site of not only some of the most extreme examples of abuse of females but also of the most pervasive impunity for abuser.
In June 2018, the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked India as the most dangerous country in the world for women. In February, the Indian government released a National Family Health Survey in which not only did 31% of married women report experiencing abuse by their husbands, but 52% of all women agreed that violence by their spouse was sometimes justifiable. Last year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, which evaluates women’s equality by examining their access to health, education, economy, and politics, ranked India 108th out of 144 countries. According to their report, India’s severe gender gap is actually widening.
“A girl or woman, within the Indian cultural context is regarded as a family’s property,” reports Indian feminist Rita Banerji. “She does not have the ownership of her own body.” In her writings on the relationship between sex and power, Banerji collates data on, in her words, “systemic and mass-scale violence on Indian women and girls.” She is especially known for founding the “50 Million Missing” campaign to raise awareness about the results of sex selective abortion and female infanticide. Describing a “virulent patriarchy,” she says Indian society “essentially views women as sexual commodities to be used and discarded at will.” Consequently, she explains, “daughters are routinely discarded before or soon after birth.”
Females who survive beyond birth often face cradle to grave harassment. India has been claimed as the country with the lowest number of rapes per capita, yet even the nation’s own National Crime Records Bureau admits that perhaps 70% of rapes go unreported. Tolerance for rape extends deep into the political system as, according to a 2017 study by the Association for Democratic Reform, major political parties fielded at least 26 rape-accused candidates in the previous five years.
Meanwhile, huge numbers of Indian women are taking their own lives. A Lancet study released in September reported that nearly 40% of female suicides in the world occur in India. Researchers linked the statistics to an entrenched patriarchal culture and the prevalence of male violence against women.
Many of India’s female victims of violence are found within the flocks of spiritual leaders and in the halls of churches, convents, ashrams, and temples. They face unique challenges in holding their abuser accountable. More so than a great many other countries, religion and politics are deeply intertwined in India. When weighing whether or not to reveal their abuse, victims often must not only consider the repercussions from the religious community but also the possibility that the State apparatus will side with their abuser. Furthermore, religious leaders are often deified as “godmen,” and charges or even convictions rarely impact the popularity or reputations of the accused.
In short, India is the location of one of the most uphill battles in the struggle for women who are exploited by powerful men to achieve justice.