National shame

For women, there is always an uncanny sense of fear and uncertainty hanging in the backdrop. Inside their homes, workplaces, public transport. And in their own cars, especially on the streets

Tanu Sehgal Delhi

Of all the atrocities that grab newspaper headlines, a significant proportion is made up of crimes committed against women. Recently, for instance, a 26-year-old woman, six months pregnant, was found hanging from her ceiling fan at her residence in a posh south Delhi colony. After initial suspicion of suicide, the post-mortem report revealed that she was poisoned and strangled to death by her husband over a dowry dispute.
The Swiss diplomat, who was raped inside her car on October 14, 2003, after being forcibly abducted in her own Toyota Qualis by two men from the 'happening' Siri Fort complex in south Delhi, left India in abject despair never to come back. Her rapists have not been arrested and might be living happily next door in any part of Delhi, perhaps looking for more women victims. A documentary filmmaker, on the same day in the same Siri Fort complex, was also attacked - the men wanted to kidnap her. She resisted and escaped.
A northeast woman student was picked up by four men in May 2005 from outside the south campus of Delhi University and was gangraped in a moving car which travelled all over the city through the night. She, too, had to leave her education and Delhi, totally traumatised. Her rapists are roaming free and the case still remains unsolved. A medical student was raped in the 'Khooni Darwaza' near Delhi Gate in Old Delhi on November 15, 2002. She was on her way home from the Maulana Azad Medical College. Recently, some girls from Delhi University were molested and sexually assaulted en masse by police recruits in broad daylight. A driver killed an elderly woman at Gangotri Enclave in south Delhi on 15 January 2008, just because he wanted to steal Rs 13,000 from her purse, gold bangles, chain and earrings.
Indeed, for women, there is always an uncanny sense of fear and uncertainty hanging in the backdrop, even inside their homes, workplaces, public transport and in their own cars, especially on the streets, back-lanes, parking lots and marketplaces. In Bangalore, a BPO employee was raped and murdered by her driver as she was being dropped home from office. In Pune, sexual attacks on BPO female employees seem to have become routine. In Mumbai, known to be safe for working women even at midnight, two girls were sexually assaulted, dragged, stripped and beaten up by a male mob on New Year's night outside a hotel in full public view. A school girl was literally stripped and molested by a mob in Mumbai during the T-20 World Cub celebrations.
For women and girls, anything can happen anytime, including in broad daylight. No wonder, they don't travel in buses and autos late in the night in cities like Delhi, branded as the 'Rape Capital' by the capital's English dailies. The police routinely advise women not to walk through lonely stretches. Shamefully, northeast girls were recently given police guidelines about codes of dress and behaviour - as if they are the criminals on the brazenly 'anti-woman' public places of Delhi.
Despite the massive campaign since the last decade, 138 dowry deaths were reported in Delhi in 2007. According to data compiled by the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), a woman in India commits suicide every four hours over dowry disputes. It is likely that most of the crimes committed against women are not even reported and happen behind closed doors, such as domestic violence, emotional and physical assaults by husbands, partners and other men in the family. Dowry demands, 'illicit' relationships, erratic lifestyles and alcohol abuse are some major factors behind domestic violence directed against women.
Interestingly, unlike the stereotyped belief that only poor women get violently attacked at home and elsewhere, a report (http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/1591) declares that sexual violence in India is more prevalent among the educated and well-off sections of society. For instance, in December 2007, a chartered accountant with a top consulting firm killed his wife by ramming her against a wall and then strangling her. He dumped her body in the Sushant Lok area of Gurgaon, Haryana. In his defence, the man said it was an accidental death as he was drunk.
Anubha Rastogi, a lawyer with Human Rights Law Network, is not so sure. "Violence against women is prevalent across the board," she asserts. A United Nations report says, around two-third of married women in India are victims of domestic violence. One of them is Sharda, who earns Rs 135 a day working as a domestic help with six children to look after. Her husband is a chronic alcoholic and beats her brutally almost on a regular basis. He even takes away her savings which are meant to pay for her children's school fees to buy liquor. And she is totally helpless. "If I go to the police he might ask me to leave the house. Where will I take my children?" she says.
According to a Population Council survey, two out of five young married women face unwanted sex frequently. In urban areas, as women learn to assert their self identities as individuals and professionals, the definitions of 'mother' and 'wife' are also changing. The clichéd house-maker role is giving way to independent, educated women with a career, many of them single and living on their own. Women are carving their own niche, not only in the metros, but even in small towns. With better access to laws and courts, to women's, feminist and human rights groups, and greater awareness of their rights and self identity, women are learning to raise their voice against injustice, flying their own flights of imagination, carving their own realism of hope and creativity.
This causes 'social discord' in a typically male-dominated, top-heavy society obsessed with entrenched patriarchal values and prejudices. How can she? or, she was asking for it, is the clichéd response. This discord is also visible in closely-knit families; many men view their spouses/companions as rebels.
"An interesting trend in recent years is that many women, not only those who are working and economically well off, but even those who depend on their husbands and are residing in villages and re-settlement colonies, do not hesitate in going for divorce or separation. This shows that women, irrespective of their economic strata, are becoming increasingly conscious of their rights and want to live with dignity and self respect, rather than choose to tolerate the age-old excesses of male domination, hegemony and subjugation", says Joint Commissioner of Police Sudhir Yadav in a report. The government has introduced and implemented various laws to protect women against violence but it still needs to address the complex issue at the grassroots level. For instance, Bhanvri Devi's gangrape in feudal Rajasthan (because she campaigned against child marriage) is still a wound in the women's movement.
Women, mostly, do not report crimes. The police station still does not inspire confidence. This is not a place they would like to visit. Reasons vary from their state of dependence on husbands to the thought of bringing shame to their family name by taking personal/domestic issues to the police station. According to the deputy commissioner of police, Women Crime Cell, Delhi, HPS Virk, "It's 'lower-class' women who would rather stand up for their rights. We encourage women to report more often as it also makes the police sensitive towards the repeated crimes." He considers gender inequality and improper distribution of parental property as reasons behind the marginalisation of women. If any woman wants to stand up for herself, she has to be economically independent. The law states that parental property is to be distributed equally among all children but daughters, in most cases, are deprived of it or get less.
The nation witnessed a shameful New Year starting with molestation of two NRI girls in Mumbai. A 14-year-old girl was repeatedly raped by her father and is pregnant with his child. Six teachers raped a student for over six months in Patan, Gujarat. In India, 18 women are raped every hour. There has been an eight-fold increase in the number of rapes since 1971, the year from which data for rape cases has been collected by the NCRB. According to DCP Virk, "In most cases the offenders are in close proximity to the victims. The chances of a known person or family member being involved are much higher." Similar is the case of child molestation and kidnapping and abduction/trafficking of young girls. There has been a 20 per cent increase in crime against minors in 2007, with 1,688 cases registered in Delhi, a NCRB report says.
The Domestic Violence Act implemented in 2006 provides women with quick relief, maintenance, residence and custody of children. Their cases are dealt by magistrates and the judgement is expected in 60 days. Under Section 5, a girl can approach police officials at any time and they are bound to help her by taking quick action. She can also approach the magistrate and file a complaint. The 24-hour Police Control Room Helpline numbers are 100, 1091.
Despite such efforts, there hasn't been much difference in the crime rate. Anubha Rastogi makes the telling point , "The government has to do much, much more. A holistic approach is starkly missing."