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Q&A: Ending Violence Against Women and Girls in India

Today—November 25—is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the start of the United Nations’ 16 Days of Activism. Worldwide, nearly one in three women will experience sexual assault or violence in their lifetime. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only made matters worse. Emerging data show a sharp uptick in calls to domestic abuse hotlines last year.

We spoke with Vinayak Pawar, a program consultant for the Fund, to learn more the way violence impacts women in India and what grassroots human rights groups are doing to support survivors and overthrow patriarchal systems.

How common is violence against women and girls in India?

Violence against women is deeply rooted. Unjust and unequal power and gender relations transcend social and economic boundaries, affecting women and girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Women and girls in India are born into a social and cultural system that is steeped in inequity and discrimination. From the moment of their conception, they receive an unfair share of opportunities, attention, and resources.

According to the National Family Health Survey, every third woman In India suffers sexual or physical violence at home. Domestic violence cases are more common in rural areas than cities—29 percent of women in rural areas reported physical abuse compared to 23 percent of woman in urban areas.

In 2019, according to national level data on crimes against women available largely through the National Crime Records Bureau, an average of 87 rape cases were registered daily in India. Overall, in 2019, India registered 405,326 cases of crime against women—over 7 percent more than in 2018. Nearly a third of these cases involved a woman’s husband or his relatives. And 7.3 percent of all crimes against women in 2019 were rape cases.

What are the drivers of violence against women and girls in India?

There are several compounding reasons why violence against women remains a huge problem in India. The main drivers are:

  • Recognized social and cultural practices of patriarchy deeply rooted in caste and religion resulting in an unequal balance of power.
  • Unequal child-rearing and caring practices.
  • Gender biased education system and lack of education opportunities for girls
  • Inaccessible justice and protection system
  • Under representation of women in governance and politics
  • Lack of economic opportunities (e.g., unequal wages to women and unrecognized care work).
  • Denial or lack of health rights.

Has the pandemic made the situation worse?

Yes, absolutely. During the first four phases of India’s lockdown, Indian women filed more domestic violence complaints than during any similar period in the last decade. According to one study, domestic violence complaints increased by 131 percent in May 2020 in districts with the strictest lockdown rules. Unwanted pregnancies have increased massively during the pandemic in India. According to reports, the number of abortion cases has gone up as well.

Women victims of violence have also had increased difficulty receiving their day in court. With court proceedings being done virtually, the courts are able to decide which cases to prioritize. Crimes against women have been made an especially low priority.

In 2018, more than 5,000 survivors marched over 6,000 miles across India to challenge the stigma that survivors of sexual assault face.

What are local human rights groups doing to end violence against women and girls in India?

For decades, predominantly women’s rights organizations have worked to strengthen the response of the criminal justice system and access to justice for women in India. One of the most successful examples is the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, passed in 2005, which provides guaranteed justice and provisions of social and economic justice. This legislation is a milestone in the Indian women’s rights movement.

After a 23-year-old woman in Delhi was raped and killed by a group of men in 2012—known as the Nirbhaya case—civil society groups organized nationwide protests. As a result, the Indian government has changed several laws related to sexual offense cases in India, including a tougher new anti-rape law and controversial changes to juvenile justice.

Human rights organizations have also been sharing preventive strategies aimed at ending violence against women in long term. They work with young boys and men in their local communities to change behaviors and perspectives. They also work with educational institutions to make syllabi less gender biased. And they work with local leaders—like religious figures, government institutions, and law enforcement—to ensure that spaces are free of violence.

What are the main barriers to ending violence against women and girls in India?

 The biggest barriers to ending violence against women have been deeply rooted cultural and patriarchal practices promoted through the institute of religion and caste. Other major challenges include:

  • Rise of orthodox and restrictive environment in the country.
  • Lack of budgetary provisions for the support services to survival of violence.
  • Gender-biased education systems.
  • Socialization and parenting of children.
  • Non-sensitive service providers and law enforcement institutions.
  • Lack of economic opportunities for women.
  • Lack of system to collect crime surveillance data.

What can people do to support efforts to end violence against women?

First, we can start at home. The family is one of the core institutions that can promote gender equity and equality—starting from a young age. Parenting and socialization of children can have a huge impact on the values and perspectives of the next generation. Rather than looking outward for solutions, it is important to understand the pervasive influence of patriarchy and to begin changing our own behaviors. Instead of just raising the issue of violence against women, we can take a stand every time we see it.

Second, we can support the civil society groups working to transform unjust systems. Human rights defenders require consistent financial support to carry out their work. We also need to cultivate the intersectional alliances necessary to address violence against women collectively. Creating those spaces for solidarity and meaningful learning is essential.

Check out our Women’s Rights page to see how the Fund supports grassroots activists end violence against women.

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