Gender Equality is ranked as one of the primary goals in the United Nations’ agenda for Vision 2030. But even with just 10 years to go till the deadline, the world is nowhere near achieving this goal.
According to the inaugural Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Gender Index, which assessed the state of gender equality across 129 countries, about 1.4 billion women and girls are still victims of discrimination, violence, and sexism. In fact, the UN maintains that no country is on course to meet gender equality targets by 2030, which requires the elimination of discrimination and violence against women across all areas of society.
In India, violence against women take many forms. These include domestic violence, rape, marital rape, and other forms of sexual violence. In fact, 25 percent of all recorded cases under crimes against women in India are related to sexual assault, noted the Indian Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.
To be clear, ‘violence’ is a key mechanism used to subjugate women and as such, the widespread prevalence of gender-based violence hinders the very achievement of gender equality, say experts.
According to Shaonli Chakraborty, associate director at Swasti Health Catalyst, the fear and execution of violence prevents women from achieving their full potential.
“Gender-based violence cannot be attributed to any single factor. Strategies to prevent gender-based violence must be grounded in programmes and interventions that promote gender equality as the goal,” she says.
UN Women clearly states that gender equality is not only a basic human right, but that its achievement has enormous socio-economic ramifications.
“Empowering women fuels thriving economies, spurring productivity and growth. Yet gender inequalities remain deeply entrenched in every society. Women lack access to decent work and face occupational segregation and gender wage gaps. They are too often denied access to basic education and health care. Women in all parts of the world suffer violence and discrimination. They are under-represented in political and economic decision-making processes,” it says.
In June this year, India scored 56.2 out of 100 in a global study on gender equality, and was ranked 95th out of 129 countries, as per the The Sustainable Development Goals Gender Index developed by UK-based Equal Measures 2030. Shrirupa Sengupta, associate director at Swasti, adds that a more gender equal country will mean a reduction in violence rates and an increase in access to opportunities and resources for women and girls in India.
Lack of opportunities and domestic violence
Experts emphasise the need to end the multiple forms of gender violence in order to achieve gender equality. Only then will countries and communities be able to ensure equal access to quality education, employment, healthcare, economic resources, and participation in political life for both women and men, they add. The same is true for ensuring equal opportunities in the workforce, particularly to positions of leadership and decision-making levels.
Still, with poverty affecting 2.3% more women than men in India, the former struggle with lack of basic amenities such as access to toilets, water connection, and electricity. In fact, Shaonli of Swasti points out that women spend a major portion of their meagre income purchasing water.
In addition, home, idealised as a place of safety and security, often sets the stage for violence. With men regarded as the ‘protectors’ in the private realm and women, as the ‘protected,’ a large majority of women across classes have shown a willingness to accept domestic violence.
According to US-based scholars Dorothy Q. Thomas and Michele E. Beasley, domestic violence violates the inherent dignity and worth of all members of the human family, the inalienable right to freedom from fear and want, and the equal rights of men and women.
State’s role in defending women from violence
Beasley and Thomas wrote in 1993, “Men exist as public, legal entities in all countries, and, barring an overt abuse by the state, participate in public life and enjoy the full extent of whatever civil and political rights exist. Women, however, are in every country socially and economically disadvantaged in practice and in fact and in many places by law. Therefore, their capacity to participate in public life is routinely circumscribed.”
The duo adds that if unchallenged, this gender bias will become so embedded in the social structure that it shall assume the form of a social or cultural norm beyond the purview of the state's responsibility, rather than a violation of women's human rights for which the state is accountable.
Less than three decades later, these statements ring true.
In India, the vast majority of crimes against women occur in the home, states the NCRB. Usually, domestic violence is committed by a spouse or relative in the form of murder, battery, or rape. To be sure, marital rape is not illegal in India, even today, the criminalisation of this act still remains a distant dream in the country.
Different legislative acts enable safety, security, and justice such as POSH, or the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005), and Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, among others.
Regardless, the State’s failure to prosecute violence against women equal to other similar crimes has led to the denial of the fundamental right to equal protection.
As such, the role of civil society becomes critical in calling for and ensuring the implementation of these Acts and policies, experts add.
Economic inclusion to stop violence
In the late 1990s, the then-US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright had stated that working with agencies and forward-looking NGOs had helped the US make tremendous gains in curbing violence against women in the country and fostering their participation in the global economy.
In India too, such partnerships between the State and various NGOs can be forged to eliminate violence against women and achieve the shared goal of gender equality.
But as Shrirupa of Swasti says, it is essential to not only free women and girls from violence but also ensure that they have the agency, autonomy, and self-determination to reach their potential and lead lives they value.
She elaborates, “Gender equality cannot be achieved with a single solution. It needs to address the complex interplay of factors that operate at the individual, relationship, community, and greater societal level, and look at intersecting social identities such as sexual orientation, gender identity, caste and socio-economic status that render some women even more vulnerable to violence.”