TW: Rape, sexual assault.
A few weeks back, a Hindu girl was stabbed to death for rejecting the advances of her Muslim stalker. Hathras had upper-class attackers raping, maiming, and killing a lower caste woman of the same religion. End of November, news came of a six-year-old girl raped and her organs removed, and the perpetrators and victim belonged to the same religion. In close succession, news broke of a Muslim girl being molested and burnt alive by Hindu attackers. Hashtags floated in each case. Social media outrage, fatigued a bit by the close successions, tried, but had to give up ultimately.
Now, yes, the pandemic has worsened the condition of women globally. There are quite a few points to be noted on this matter, the most important ones being:
But global trends put aside and speaking mostly qualitatively (quantitative non-con-founding data isn’t available yet), India seems to be faring significantly worse – especially for aggravated assaults. Our androcentric and patriarchal conditioning causes us to objectify and lessen women (men and women are equally guilty of this devaluation of females in our society). Our obsession with honour makes subjugation and humiliation of women through rape and assault a valid and potent mechanism of control.
These two factors result in causing most of the crimes against women (barring crimes of opportunity – which are driven by different motivation but are made possible also because of the first factor). More the angst (because of the pandemic-driven economic issues as some eminent personalities have claimed, or because of increased ideological polarization and propping of segments against each other), higher the violence and aggravation in the assaults.
So if the root causes can be simplified and grouped (and I really believe they can be as I have done above), what are the primary solutions?
Well, understanding reduction of gender violence as an economic goal – not just social, and making the fight for gender justice a unified statement – not a sub cause divided and slotted secondary to other identities (caste, class, colour), I believe will get us there.
It is not just for social justice and human rights that we need to make the case of curbing of gender violence in India our job one. Yes, that in itself should be motivation enough. Sadly, it has never been. But the thing is, it is not the only motivation. If India wants growth and a better life for all, the economic case for gender parity needs to be brought to the forefront and gender violence is a key modulator in limiting gender parity.
I will give some summaries to make the economic case.
The cost of violence against women (gender-based violence) is estimated to be around 2% of the Global GDP ($1.5 trillion). The projection for the COVID pandemic (which is considered a deep recession) is a 4.4-5.2% GDP shrinkage (reference). So, in other words, eliminating gender-based violence saves the world half a severe recession. Since the top twenty economies (which includes the US and the UK, key European nations, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Mexico) contribute almost 80% to the global GDP (reference), eliminating gender-based violence in nations like the United States, India, China, and Australia is expected to have a significant impact. According to a McKinsey study, India could increase its GDP by $770 billion by 2025 by getting more women to work and increasing gender equality.
In my second recommendation, I am not being toned deaf. Neither am I trying to minimize the differentiated experiences. Yes, I understand how a victim gets treated by law enforcement (and the entire infrastructure) depends on who they are and yes, coming from a place of privilege, I might lack rights to speak for those who aren’t. There are multitudes of studies that show lower caste and minority women to be victimized in higher numbers. And we know wealth buys power universally. But, despite all this, it is important to realize that when it comes to aggravated assault NO ONE IS REALLY PRIVILEGED. No one is safe. India needs to recognize the real matter here – we have a gender problem!
If we stop slicing the gender statement into class, caste, and colour (which, historically and to date remain a major roadblock in making gender a priority in India) and outrage for every woman instead, the hashtags can unite. India needs to understand that the reason why severe incidents (from Aruna Shahbaug to custody rapes, to Bhanwari devi, to Nirbhaya) have driven revolutions and policies but minimal change, is because gender has been consistently made secondary to other identities we would rather unify for religion, caste, class.
So, instead of justice for Nikita vs. justice for Gulnaaz, or pointing out rapes on Kashmiri pundits in response to Godhra riot atrocities, we need to protest gender violence as a tactic for oppression and suppression of women broadly – understanding that it’s the same national theme. Yes, there are underlying themes, but the overarching one is violence against women and its normalisation through years of conditioning and legalization. “Women are considered insignificant, disposable. Women are lesser and objects. They are ok to be done with. They are the perfect tools for teaching society a lesson.” India needs to fight this. Our economic future depends on this, as does our humanity.