Rain Today, Monsoon Tomorrow? A Wind of Change for Women’s Rights in India

The infamous gang rape of a young medical student in India last month has outraged not only her Indian compatriots, but has also gained worldwide notoriety. This case has unprecedentedly brought the world’s attention to a much wider problem persistent in the Indian society: the feminization of violence and poverty.

The term “feminization of poverty” was coined by Diana Pearce in the late 70s to describe the expansively growing phenomenon of women’s deprivation from economic resources, starkly marked by the widening wage gap between men and women. UNIFEM reports that approximately 70% of people living below the poverty line are women.

In the case of India, poverty and sexual violence have seemed to align against women. The World Economic Forum ranked the country 123rd in terms of women’s economic participation. Furthermore, 700 cases of rape were reported in Delhi in the last year alone. On the surface, the reported number of victims might seem small in comparison to Delhi’s total population of 16 million, but it is important to remember that it only represents those women who were brave enough to report their horrendous assault. As the Washington Post recently noted, most victims of sexual violence are afraid of filing suit against their perpetrators for numerous reasons, including uncooperative and disrespectful treatment by the Indian police officers.

Sexual violence, however, is not a separate enclave and represents only a fraction of violence against women in India. Approximately two million women  die from violence and inflicted discrimination cases, in which:

25,000 to 100,000 women a year are killed over dowry disputes. Many are burned alive in a particularly grisly form of retribution.”

All these numbers elucidate the deeply entrenched discrimination against women in a misogynistic and patriarchal society.

The economic backlash

Source: World Resource Simulations Center

Such perpetuation of the feminization of poverty and violence has dire consequences on India’s economy. Women constitute more than half of India’s total population, approximately 600 million. However, only 25% of them are involved in the productive sector. Simply put, India has struggled to capitalize half of its labor strength. The country lags behind its regional competitor, China, which has managed to surpass India’s female labor participation with a comparatively staggering rate of 70%.

According to a paper published by the UN, there are four types of the aforementioned economic consequences: direct tangible costs, indirect tangible costs, direct intangible costs and indirect intangible costs.

  • Direct tangible costs are monetary expenses directly related to an occurrence of violence and poverty, such as hospital treatment. Included in this type are also the cost of psychological rehabilitation and justice provided for the victims wanting the perpetrators to be prosecuted.
  • Indirect tangible costs are “a loss in potential monetary value.” For instance, in the aftermath of the rape, India was faced with direct economic implications when a survey revealed that approximately 82% of the women surveyed in several cities left their offices earlier, to arrive home before dark. This means that there is a significant reduction in total working hours, which inevitably affects total productivity.
  • Meanwhile, direct intangible costs can be measured as non-monetary implications that are directly felt by the victims, such as emotional disturbance and physical pain.
  • Lastly, indirect intangible costs are the ramifications with no monetary value which are felt by other individuals, often psychologically.

Wind of change

Delhi women chant slogans as they brace against police water canons during a protest against government handling of the recent rape. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
A woman protesting in Delhi in the aftermath of the rape case (Daniel Berehulak/Washington Post)

The anonymous victim of the infamous rape case has been hailed as an inspiration in strides of protests across India. Thousands of women with grievances have joined together in the protests and vigils to demand justice, not only for the unfortunate victim and her family, but for all women in India. This is resonated in a statement by one of the protestors, “That girl could be one of us.” Interestingly, they have been joined by concerned Indian men, who are similarly coveting for changes to come.

For many, this agitation is seen as a wind of change. It has united the growing Indian middle class to echo their voices on women’s rights. Women’s safety, in turn, has become the ultimate concern for Delhi Police and the holistic justice system. Finally, women’s rights have gained two of its most valuable proponents: critical mass and a possibility of positive change within law enforcement.

Moving forward, women’s political representation is the crucial next step. It is particularly important to augment the aspiration of women at the grassroots level. There have been numerous renowned female politicians in India, such as Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Meira Kumar , the speaker of the Indian Parliament. However, most of these female politicians rarely advocate for women’s rights. One possible explanation is that many of them are usually byproducts of legacy politics, coming from elite families. It is thus an impetus for future female politicians to engage more with women at the grassroots level and the women’s rights movement. Concurrently, we should also tread warily as the three aforementioned elements are still not enough to guarantee a sustainable outcome.

As mentioned earlier, violence against women is only the surface, while the biggest problem is deeply rooted in selective treatment that benefits men. This notion has to be counteracted with re-education campaigns in the public sphere focused on the important role that women play in society. Such rigorous campaigns were proven to be crucially effective in China, whose government’s attempts in eliminating discrimination against women can be modeled by the Indian government.

The wind is blowing strong in India, and it might be a long season of hardship and struggle before the crops of equality can be harvested. But as more and more women join the thriving middle class, and as the movement finally reaches out to more men instead of just preaching to a huge choir full of women, that change is seen on the horizon .

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One thought on “Rain Today, Monsoon Tomorrow? A Wind of Change for Women’s Rights in India

  1. George Gorman January 28, 2013 / 6:38 pm

    Ruri Syailendra presents a poignant breakdown of the key obstacles confronting women’s gender equality in India. With recommendations grounded in the reality of incremental changes for women’s rights that are characteristic of an ancient and storied culture, India must overcome its lesser elements to arise to its role as a responsible and progressive power on the upswing. An important thought-provoking and well-articulated publication on gender rights in the developing world. I look forward to your future publications.

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