Women’s Safety: Why it Matters
A report last year named India as the fourth most dangerous place for women in the world. Afghanistan, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Somalia made up the rest of the ‘top’ five. Other than Pakistan and India, the top five are countries that have endured years of conflict and instability. Part of the reason they have scored so highly is the use of rape as weapon of war. Why is it that countries in the Indian sub-continent should be such dangerous places to be female?
The survey, carried out by TrustLaw asked 213 gender experts to rate each country on six factors: health threats, sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural or religious factors, lack of access to resources and trafficking. India fared badly in the survey because of its high levels of trafficking and female infanticide. Sex trafficking, forced marriage, forced female labour, abortion of female foetuses and the killing of female babies are all disturbingly common in India. Rape and other attacks on women are also much too common in India. The recent expose of the views on rape held by New Delhi policemen served to highlight the problem. They said, among other things, that rape was ‘consensual most of the time’. If law-enforcers do not believe that rape really exists, then it is likely that many other Indian men feel the same.
Safety and Society
Issues over women’s safety cannot be divorced from wider issues about women’s place in Indian society. Women in India are not treated as equals, despite legislation designed to improve their status. Poorer education and lack of employment opportunities mean that women have less economic power than men — it is the men who take out mortgage deals and have careers in Indian families. Despite equality for women being enshrined in the constitution, women face discrimination when they deal with government and corporate bodies. If boys grow up seeing their mothers and sisters always being treated as inferior, it is not surprising that they grow up to see women as inferior themselves.
That does not, of course, mean that boys who see their mothers as less powerful than their fathers will grow up to be rapists. There is, though, a clear link between the safety of women and the wider culture in which they live. When people are taught not to value women’s contribution to society, they are more likely to see them as somehow ‘less human’ than men. It is easier to justify attacking someone who you see as inferior, than someone you see as an equal.
This is not just an Indian problem: a World Health Organisation study shows that women across the world suffer gender-based violence at the hands of their partners. The same study showed a close link between culture and violence against women. Risk factors included exposure to violence between parents, cultural acceptance of violence against women, belief in female sexual purity, belief in male sexual entitlement and weak legal sanctions. This brings us back to those Delhi policemen again. As well as being unwilling to enforce the law against rape, they believed that the blame for rape lies with the victim. They believed that women who were raped were to blame, if they wore fashionable clothes, or they visited pubs, or they had boyfriends. Women who attempted to live independent lives deserved, in their eyes, to be the victims of violence.
Making Change Happen
To reduce the levels of violence against women, we need to try and enact real social change. We need to alter attitudes so that boys and girls both grow up seeing women as equals. The response to violence against women from politicians is very often to suggest that women should not be out late at night, or that they should not visit bars. These kinds of attitudes perpetuate the problem, as they keep women inferior. Programmes that encourage women to come out and make the places they live their own are important, such as this women only park in Delhi. If we can help women to gain more economic and social status, then men will be less likely to see them as inferior. Men will benefit from this too, as society as a whole will be healthier. In the area of land rights, for example, there is evidence that the food security of the whole community increases when rural women are given greater rights to land, rather than being marginalised. It will take time, but if we can raise women’s status across the board, then we can hope that both women and men will be able to live safer and happier lives.