India: Women’s Plight Remains Grim

(Image source: Neil Palmer/CIAT/Wikimedia Commons)

Addressing an International Women's Day gathering in Varanasi on March 8, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed the “crucial role” that women play in his country's development.

Indian President Ram Nath Kovind echoed this sentiment on social media, tweeting:

“Women are the sheet-anchor of society, an inspiration for their families and for our nation. Let us strive to ensure equality of opportunity for every women [sic] and every girl child.”

Less than three months earlier, “women's empowerment” was also a theme at India's annual January 26 Republic Day parade.

In spite of the recurring lip service, however — as well as attempts at reform — the situation for women in India remains grim. Women face discrimination in every aspect of life. Before they are even born, their existence is under threat: mothers are pressured to abort female babies.

Girls not aborted are then denied the level of education their brothers receive. Not only is female illiteracy higher among girls than boys in India; it is significantly higher than the world female average.

In addition, women have little freedom to choose romantic partners: many are forced by their families and societal pressure to enter into arranged marriages.

Indian women also rarely enjoy the same property rights as their male counterparts, in spite of the 2005 amendment to the 1956 Hindu Succession Act, providing females with equal inheritance rights. Furthermore, even with the amendment, the law says that if a childless Hindu widow dies without a will, her property automatically goes to her husband's heirs.

In addition, there is the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act of 1956, according to which fathers are the “natural guardian” of Hindu children. Mothers are considered guardians only in cases where fathers are absent or where the children are under the age of five.

Bigamy is illegal, but permitted under certain conditions in a number of Hindu sectors. According to the Civil Code of Goa, for instance, a Hindu man is permitted to take a second wife if his wife fails to deliver a child by the time she is 25, or if she fails to deliver a male child by the time she is 30.

Children born to a Parsi woman and a non-Parsi man are not considered Parsi. A non-Parsi wife of a Parsi man can inherit only a part of his property.

A Christian woman cannot divorce her husband on the grounds of adultery, but that law does not include her husband. A divorced Christian woman is not entitled to property accumulated during the marriage, even if she contributed to acquiring it; she can only claim maintenance.

India's Muslim community is governed by the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937, which is archaic and discriminatory to women. This is in spite of the fact that the practice of “triple Talaq” divorce [a husband merely saying, “I divorce you ” three times] was recently outlawed.

Women continue to be underrepresented in Indian politics and civil service. In the country's crucial agricultural sector, women are paid 22% less than their male counterparts, and in the industrial sector, women earn 19% less than men.

Females in India also continue to be victims of various forms of violence, including being aborted, infanticide, genital mutilation, honor killings, acid attacks, sex-trafficking and rape. In fact, 99% of sexual assaults go unreported. Last year, two cases of child rape, allegedly perpetrated by police officers and a politician, led to mass protests demanding greater protection for women and children.

The sad irony of the plight of women in India is that gender equality is enshrined in the country's Constitution, which includes 13 clauses not only safeguarding women's rights, but allowing for affirmative action. There are also 23 pieces of legislation aimed specifically at protecting women's rights, both in the family and at the workplace.

Why, then, is India guilty of what the social scientist, Deepa Narayan — author of Chup: Breaking the Silence About India's Women — has called the “largest-scale human rights violation on Earth: the persistent degradation of the vast majority of its 650 million girls and women”?

The answer, according to Narayan, lies in the pervading culture:

“This everyday violence is the product of a culture that bestows all power on men, and that does not even want women to exist… even in wealthy families…

“Women whose sense of self has been worn down, by definition must depend on others… Over 50% of Indian men and women still believe that sometimes women deserve a beating… But dependency is still presented as a virtuous habit and independence as a bad characteristic…

“The right to assemble is a right taken away by dictators. In India it is the culture that subverts women's desire to organise. The cultural design of oppression is so clever, that it instils a habit of distrust and trains women to demean, dismiss and discount other women…

“The real genius of this system lies in the fact that oppression has been recast as a virtue. So erasure of self – the most treacherous human rights violation – hides in plain sight, sanctified by loving families, perfumed by our definitions of goodness. And the private sphere, the family, remains impenetrable and untouchable…”

The point is that legislation alone — even when backed by the Modi government — is no match for the traditions and social mechanisms that are so powerfully embedded in India's culture.

What is needed urgently, says Narayan, is a “national conversation about what it means to be a good woman and a good man in India today.”

To be sure, it is a discussion that must be engaged in seriously and repeatedly across the country — in all of India's religious, cultural and educational institutions — not merely highlighted once a year on International Women's Day.

Jagdish N. Singh is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.

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