In 2018, India was rocked by a revelation made in a survey conducted by the Thomas Reuters Foundation, that the nation happens to be the most dangerous country in the world for women. The results of the survey were heavily disputed; the debate lay in the question that how could India have ranked number one in the world, ahead of a war-ridden nation like Syria and a country like Afghanistan with a history of gender brutality?
While we have now moved on from that debate, the fact remains that the bulk of the Indian female population has been staring down a dismal abyss for decades now, and no amount of development, capacity-building, and governmental programmes have managed to reach out to all the women who have been silently suffering in dire circumstances.
One of the primary areas that continues to stun the nation, and which as a young Indian woman, I find frankly outrageous, is the unabated progression of domestic violence against women.
The conversation on domestic abuse is an old one, yet, it remains as vital towards achieving equal opportunities for men and women, as it was a decade ago, if not more. Verbal, emotional, financial and physical coercion, dowry deaths, including bride burning, sexual abuse of women, have been common practices at home, despite the enactment of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, which recognised domestic abuse as a criminally punishable act for the first time under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 2005. However, today, in 2019, there is still ambiguity, for the Indian judiciary refuses to criminalise one of the fundamental forms of abuse a woman faces at home, i.e. marital rape.
The 2018 survey by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) revealed that about 31% women in India experience physical, emotional or sexual trauma at the hands of their spouses. What was more disturbing was that a staggering 83% of married women within the 15-49 years age-group, claimed to have experienced sexual assault at the hands of their present husband; not surprisingly, the most common form of violence reported turned out to be forced sexual intercourse involving physical coercion, perpetrated by the husband against the wife’s will.
At present, Section 375 of the IPC, that outlaws rape, includes an exceptional provision stating, “sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.” While this exception claims to offer protection to the girl child against sexual violation in marriage, the government, in a laughable statement in 2017, declared that criminalizing marital rape of adult married women could ‘destabilize the institution of marriage’, and also lead to the harassment of men.
This is where I demand that the government wake up to the truth! For I believe that it is the duty of the government to protect the nation’s women, to create opportunities that would respect the woman’s standing in society, and not turn a blind eye to their harassment, simply to preserve the sanctity of marriage.
Curiously enough, one may ask, what sanctity is preserved in a marriage where the wife is violated on a daily basis? What stability does the marriage have if one spouse is robbed of any voice, and the other is enabled by law to exploit, and torture? Does it make sense that one partner should get scarred for life, and should not be able to seek protection from law since doing so would apparently pollute the institution of marriage? And as far as harassment of men is concerned, to prevent a handful of fake cases, is it fair to deprive the millions of women in the grassroots who are in no position to exploit the law, of their fundamental rights?
Ahead of the 2019 elections, I consider it my duty as an Indian citizen, and a woman, to raise my voice against the misguided and highly distorted notions of right and wrong that continue to form the fabric of our society.
The Supreme Court of India has given some landmark verdicts in the past two or three years. But in my opinion, it has also made some supreme blunders, such as refusing to recognize marital rape as a criminal offence. As the nation prepares itself for what might turn out to be a nail-biting conclusion to the general elections, can we hope for a better outcome for women, irrespective of whatever is the outcome in the Centre?
With Indian women represented at an almost negligible 12% in the Parliament, women’s role in the political process still borders on insignificant; various factors like political ignorance, lack of awareness regarding voting rights, and dependence on the male head of the family in decision-making processes, play pivotal roles in women’s political participation. Not only the rural, illiterate women, but even educated women residing in urban areas seem to keep themselves actively away from politics. With such glaring gaps in political education, it is of little wonder that women continue to feature very marginally when it comes to important decisions regarding their lives.
A nation’s development depends on how empowered its women are, and on whether or not they are accorded the same respect and opportunity as their male counterparts. So, with the elections only a few months away, I demand that women be made more politically aware, with greater representation in the Parliament, and that the violence that threatens them every day, starting right at home, be recognized and prohibited legally.