* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The root cause lies in the patriarchal mindsets which see women as inferior, as people you can exploit and use for domestic, sexual or financial gain.
After the massive outcry five years ago when a student was gang-raped on a bus in New Delhi, you would think that things could only have improved in India. Far from it, India is now the most dangerous country for women to live in, according to a perception poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which had previously ranked it the 4th most dangerous country seven years ago. So, why are things getting worse in the world’s largest democracy?
India is the world’s fastest growing economy according to the IMF, and by 2028, experts say it is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation.
This is not a nation stricken by war, nor the poorest in the world by a long shot. But when it comes to addressing the risks faced by women who live there, it is seen by experts as being worse than Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo – all of which are countries ravaged by conflict, corruption, poverty and disease. This perception is backed by statistics from India’s National Crime Records Bureau, which records that there is a rape almost every 20 minutes in India, and a crime against women every three minutes.
What a terrible paradox, that a country which has done much over the past few decades towards empowering women through economic progress, education, social mobility and employment opportunity, is at the same time perceived as a country where women risk their health and their lives daily, and where gender-based violence has reached pandemic proportions.
Although new laws have been introduced since the Delhi gang-rape, this has not had much impact – with the exception that women dare to go to the police more often now than before. Statistics show a huge increase on reported rapes: 83% between 2007 and 2016.
In the same period, India’s economic boom has helped empower women with job opportunities that have allowed the poor to pull themselves out of poverty and join a growing middle class, where more women are going out to work - making them an asset to their families rather than a “burden”.
But discrimination and abuse against women is not caused by poverty; poverty only exacerbates the situation for women. The root cause lies in the patriarchal mindsets which see women as inferior, as people you can exploit and use for domestic, sexual or financial gain.
In India, the basic right to life is denied to millions of girls even before they are born: foeticide is rampant because families want a boy rather than a girl to avoid the burden of a dowry and having to look after a girl who could choose the wrong kind of man or be raped - which would bring shame on the family. In India today there are 37 million more men than women. Abortions of girls still happen by the millions, even though ultrasounds have been forbidden by law to try to stop this practice. And the curse of the dowry continues even after marriage: one bride was murdered every hour over dowry demands in 2010.
Even when women have rights over land and inheritance, they cannot always assert them. In some cases, widows are branded witches and killed or ostracised so that families can keep hold of the land.
Violations against women take place all over the world of course, but the level they reach in India is unparalleled. And, as India is a democracy, all these facts are in the public domain, thanks also to a vibrant media sector.
For more proof that wealth doesn’t necessarily equate to equal rights, look at Saudi Arabia, which ranked fifth in our poll of most dangerous countries for women. Here is a country where the guardianship system requires women to ask for the authorisation of a man - father, husband, even a 12-year-old son - before being able to travel, apply for a passport, or even undergo certain medical procedures. The global headlines on the end of the public ban on driving for women were tempered by the arrest of women’s rights activists, in a show that liberalisation is at the discretion of the Crown Prince and not the result of activists’ actions.
Imagine the difficulty female victims of sexual abuse face in seeking justice given that they must first ask their male guardian’s permission before filing a complaint with police. No wonder Saudi Arabia is perceived as the second worst country in the world in terms of economic access and discrimination, and fifth overall in terms of the risks faced by women from cultural practices.
An amazing result of this perception poll is that the United States has become the tenth most dangerous country for women. This startling result comes eight months after the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment went viral, and hundreds of women made their own experiences of sexual abuse public.
In fact, the US ranked joint third with Syria when experts were asked about threat to women of sexual violence, demonstrating just how radically a high-profile campaign can impact perception. But this is no less of a valid result – and the shockwaves of the Harvey Weinstein case are far from receding. Just look at last week’s story of how Netflix reportedly banned employees from staring at each other for longer than five seconds as part of its new anti-harassment rules to see the ripple effects from this tidal wave of change.
In January 2016, world leaders committed to ending all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls by 2030, in a bid towards ending gender inequality – a basic human right. But without widespread education to change cultural perceptions of women as “minors” or burdens, robust cross-sector partnerships to create initiatives that would empower women socially and economically, and following up legislation with prosecutions to clamp down on gender-based violence and discrimination, we are still a very long way from attaining this goal.
Just imagine what India’s potential would be if women were given the same rights and opportunities as men.
Read the full results of the perception poll here.
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