Changing times require changing laws. This week, as we write about the various spheres where changes are required in the Acts and Laws of our country, I choose to focus on laws pertaining to women in this article.
India is a largely male-dominated patriarchy, with a few matriarchal societies in the North-eastern, Southern and tribal belts. Going back in time to the days of the Indus Valley Civilization and the Vedic Age, we get to see women holding honourable positions in this part of the world. Though women were not accorded legal status, they were seldom caged within the four walls of their houses or subjected to inhuman treatment.
However in the later ages, the status of women deteriorated. Women were subjected to menial manual labour, were considered as objects of pleasure and lust (though they were deified at the same time) and were treated as cheap means of income augmentation. Over the years, the gender disparity has only widened.
Behind this widening disparity in this post-modern era, is the ever so skewed mindset of people (men and women). I was watching a documentary on Khap Panchayats (kangaroo courts that still exist in some of the North Indian states). The statement of one woman struck me. She said that ‘girls ought to learn to subject themselves to the diktats of men; if they don’t learn it the easy way and harbour vain desires of flying free, we know how to clip their wings.’ She was saying this in the context of a forceful separation of a couple who had eloped against the desires of the girl’s father and brothers. And mind you, she was no kin to that girl. What ultimately happens in such cases? Either the boy or the girl or both are subjected to public humiliation and/or killed. In instances where they succeed to escape, they continue to live in fear even after seeking legal help. Why have our laws failed to function in the true spirit of the letters of the legal provisions?
It was once thought by intellectuals that education is the answer to the ills meted out towards women. But, here are certain sections of people who have welcomed the literacy part of education without embracing the broader objectives and nuances of education. As a result, though today India’s literacy rate is decent enough for a still-developing country (74% as per Census 2011), the mindset of a hundred years before, still prevails.
There are two approaches to ensure that this mean treatment towards women changes. One is the preventive approach – change in attitude of society towards women, which would in turn prevent the injustices that they are subjected to. I’m not going to write about the change in attitude towards women in this article. That is a separate topic altogether. The other one that I will focus on is the punitive measures that our legal system fails to provide for the injustices meted out towards women.
Talking of laws favouring women, we have enough of them on paper. But the rate of their implementation is abysmal. The reasons are many – cumbersome unending legal procedures, politicization of cases, money power at work, lack of awareness and inaccessibility of the poor people to legal systems. It is of course extremely essential for the truth of events/cases to be ascertained before a verdict is pronounced; it is worse for an innocent to be implicated and convicted than for a guilty to be set free! But, it is also essential that the guilty be convicted and punished. Punitive measures not only ensure justice for victims, they also play their part in being deterrents to future possibilities of crimes of such nature.
I will give brief accounts of two incidents of injustices towards women which will drive home the need for punitive measures.
A young woman was brutally stabbed by her husband in front of her four-year old son. She suffered 232 stabs all over her body. The number is no exaggeration because I have personally seen both the woman and her medical reports. She battled for life for three months in the hospital. Her life was saved, thanks to the doctors and the caring support of her parents. Today this young woman in her mid-thirties, bears the visible scar of a huge gash on her otherwise beautiful face. She is now forever dependent on a walking stick, using which she walks with a lot of effort. With no finances and a least supportive society, she lives in a perpetual state of fear. Reason – her husband who is in the lock-up but has already been out on bail twice has the money power to turn the tables on her, get their son kidnapped from school (which he has already tried) and to get the case closed by falsifying all allegations against him. She shudders to think what would happen if the courts rule in his favour and he walks free.
This account is from a video which I came across in YouTube. The woman narrates how she was subjected to repeated sex-determination tests followed by termination of pregnancies against her will because her husband did not want another daughter (they had a daughter already). Unable to bear the torture, she took her daughter, started staying separately and filed for divorce. Well, sadly the story doesn’t end here. Even while the divorce proceedings were underway, the man visited her, pinned her to the wall and chewed off parts of her face including her nose. None came to her rescue hearing her shrieks! Her face is disfigured for life! The man roams around free, leaving her in a state of perpetual fear for herself and her daughter. Watching her story sent shivers down my spine.
These are not the only two stark incidents portraying injustices meted out to women in our country. Uncountable dowry harassment cases (many culminating in gory murders), marital rapes (which many of our political and self-ordained moral custodians think not to be made much hue and cry of), acid attacks, molest horrendous rapes/gangrapes followed by murders, slave brides, extreme domestic violence are some blots that many Indian women live with. Child marriages still continue to be societal practices in many villages. The dark business of trafficking girls/women to force them into the flesh trade thrives under the very noses of policemen. Men of certain remote villages have the practice of kidnapping or buying poor women from other parts of the country and marrying them so that these hapless women can be cheap sources of labour apart from satisfying their lust and tolerating extreme forms of abuse. (These women seldom escape, because they find themselves in different parts of the country – the terrain and language whereof they do not know much.)
All these persist, while we have ample constitutional and legal provisions in place, not to mention the National Commission for Women. Why haven’t our laws been deterrents to the ongoing injustices towards women? So many decades after independence, Indian women are still slaves to societal injustices. Few fight it out, others suffer silently – the poor being the worst sufferers. Why are there so many bottlenecks in the way of justice?
Preventive and punitive measures go hand in hand. While many of our NGOs, social activists and counsellors work towards preventive measures by ways of encouraging an attitude change, the punitive measures need to be stringent as well. The perpetrators of crimes against women need to get the message that they cannot go scot-free. Those with money and muscle power need to get the message that their support for brutes will not yield any result and that justice will ultimately prevail.
Violence against women is not restricted to India alone. It persists in all countries all over the world. However, the surety of justice, even if delayed is assured in many countries. The urgency with which investigations are carried out, evidence is sought for and the perpetrators taken to task is worthy of applause. The guilty know their fate once they are caught. In India on the other hand, various factors deter justice from being done. And this is what leads to the fearless propagation of crime against women.
Provisions for timely, stringent and sure actions against perpetrators of injustice towards women, coupled with increasing efforts towards changing the attitude of society at large, are the needs of the hour. We need strong investigative agencies – either public funded or private ones who would investigate atrocities against women, among other issues and go down to the very bottom of cases. Only then, dastardly cases like burning women for dowry would stop being notoriously euphemised as stove bursting burns. We need impartial police who would not be bought easily by the political masters to hush up cases.
As we head towards another celebration of India as a republic, let our women feel assured to breathe the air of fearless survival. A wish and a prayer that women be seen with the same crowning glory that God created them to be!