Print edition : February 06, 2015

July 19, 2007: Residents of Kannabiran Koil Street, Pallavaram, Chennai, gathered around a newborn baby girl found abandoned in a gunny sack. Photo: A. Muralitharan

The recently released annual Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks India 114 in a list of 128 countries. The last 14 countries include Nepal and Pakistan, which are ranked 125 and 126. Not surprisingly, tiny Cuba ranks 22, and Sri Lanka has done better than its South Asian counterparts, ranking 15. The situation was no better in 2006, when India was ranked 98 out of 115 countries.

The data capture the magnitude of the gap between men and women in four critical areas, namely, economic participation and opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and survival. The last category includes the criteria of female life expectancy and sex ratio at birth. The report clarifies that its assessment was not about women’s empowerment but more about opportunities for women. The one important variable that dragged India down to 128 is its sex ratio at birth, which is 0.89.

Take agriculture. According to Census 2001, 42.95 per cent of the rural female population was working as agricultural labour. Women’s oppression has always constituted a major part of social oppression that is endemic to this sector, yet their demands have not been addressed. According to Quarterly Employment Review of the Ministry of Labour, of the total number of people employed in the organised sector in 2004 only 18.7 per cent were women. According to a report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS, August 2007), the social composition of agricultural labour was 46.7 per cent Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and 33.9 per cent Other Backward Classes, besides others. The Hindu “higher” castes, it said, were least likely to be agricultural labourers.

The report, “Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector”, said the work participation rates for women belonging to the S.C.s and the S.T.s was significantly higher than those for women in general. It said this was “more likely the result of economic hardships than the availability of work opportunities”.

The NCEUS report also observed that “working as agricultural labour seemed to be the last resort, given its low social status, low earnings, irregular employment often reinforced by social oppression in the event of assertion of rights or dignity”.

According to the National Sample Survey (NSS) 61st round (2004-05) and the 55th round (1999-2000), the percentage of rural women (regular) workers in the total workforce was 3.7, while that of S.Cs/S.Ts was 3.1 per cent.

The proportion of self-employed women as a percentage of the total workforce was 61.1 per cent; rural women constituted 63.7 per cent and rural S.C./S.T. women 51.1 per cent. This meant that regular employment opportunities were next to negligible and even more remote for Dalit and S.T. women.

In the urban areas, several studies show that in the past one decade, there has been a growth in subsidiary, self-employed, non-agricultural activity, particularly among women.

Crimes against women have seen a phenomenal rise in the past two decades. In the publication titled Women and Men in India, 2006, brought out by the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO), under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, there has been a continuous rise in the total incidence of crimes committed against women over the years. Crimes against women, it states, increased during 2004 by 9.8 per cent over 2003 and by 13.9 per cent over 1999.

Crimes punishable under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), namely, rape, kidnapping and abduction, homicide for dowry or dowry deaths, mental and physical torture, molestation, sexual harassment, and trafficking of girls under 16 years, accounted for 93 per cent of the cases reported, while the remainder came under special and local laws.

Cruelty by the husband and his relatives accounted for the highest number of crimes against women. This category saw an increase of 14.6 per cent in 2004 over 2003. While trafficking in girls as a percentage of the total crime figure is low, it recorded an increase of 93.5 per cent in 2004 when compared with 2003.

What is even more revealing is that 8.9 per cent of the rape victims in 2004 were under 15 years of age, while 11 per cent were teenaged girls in the 15- to 18-year age group. A most shocking case, in Lucknow in 2005, was that of a 14-year-old rag-picker who was dragged into a car and gang-raped by six young men, one of whom was the nephew of a legislator from the then ruling party.

The Uttar Pradesh unit of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) took up the case, and after a sustained struggle, two of the culprits were convicted. Similarly, the organisation took up the cause of two minor girls in January 2007, who were raped inside a madrassa by criminals in Allahabad. AIDWA’s presence ensured that no “compromise” was arrived at and the culprits were arrested.

Between January and July 2007, 11,453 cases of crimes against women were reported in Uttar Pradesh. Of the 3,782 recorded crimes committed against Dalits as a whole during this seven-month period, 158 were of rape of Dalit women. Attacks on minors and adolescent children, the increase in child rapes, the insignificant decline in child marriages and the increased trafficking in girls are trends that point to a connection between the declining child sex ratio and the increase in crimes against women and children. Young girls continue to be trafficked regularly from the poorer parts of several States to the “women deficit” States of Punjab and Haryana, where, in many cases, they live the life of sex slaves.

There is little doubt that dowry has been the driving force behind many crimes against women and girl children. In Delhi, which has been labelled the crime capital by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), H.P.S. Virk, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Crime (Women’s) Cell, told Frontline that Indian marriages had become economic transactions between families.

Among certain communities, he said, it was an “open auction”. There were fixed “rates” for prospective grooms depending on the area to which the boy’s family belonged. The rate, he said, declined as one moved away from the main city. For instance, a boy who had his family business in a business centre like Bagh attracted much more dowry than someone living on the nondescript outskirts of the capital. “The boy naturally makes more money and, therefore, the demand for dowry will be commensurate with the income he earns,” said the police officer.

The Delhi Crime Cell started a helpline in 2002, which is used quite often. The cell has so far received 13,061 calls; in 2006, it received approximately 15 calls a day. Of the 4,907 calls finally attended to by the cell, 71 per cent involved domestic violence, and only in about 4 per cent of the cases the police were able to broker a compromise. This suggests that increasingly women are speaking up against domestic violence. In 2007, the cell received 7,838 calls.

Complaints received at the CWC have shown a rising trend. In 2004, 2005, 2006 and until November 2007, the cell received 8,349, 8,629, 9,879 and 9,166 complaints respectively. As far as the disposal of complaints was concerned, even though the formula of “compromise” was deployed in the majority of the cases, the number of cases registered was gradually going up.

However, torture and cruelty accounted for the bulk of the crimes against women in the national capital. There were 1,330 (2005), 1,739 (2006) and 1,648 (up to November 30, 2007) cases registered under Section 498 A/ 406 of the IPC. There was an increase of almost 400 cases of torture between 2005 and 2006, the period prior to the enactment of the Protection of Women From Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA). An equally large number of kidnapping and abduction cases, more than thousand, were registered in the period 2005 to 2007.

Why is the Dowry Prohibition Act not working? Primarily it is because of the social acceptance of dowry. In the past one and a half decades of economic reform this situation has only got worse, permeating every section of society. H.P.S. Virk narrated the case of a maid who paid Rs.2 lakh as dowry for her daughter. The groom was an electrician. One day, the daughter came to the police station with burn marks all over her body.

In the majority of cases, the approach of the police is to “broker” a compromise and dissuade the complainant from carrying on. Often the lengthy legal process is used as a handle to “settle” the case. He said the implementation of even the PWDVA was tardy as the police themselves were unaware that they were empowered to help the victims who came to the police station. “Finally, it is the police who have to enforce the Act,” said a senior police officer.

“Staying alive”

In the very first monitoring and evaluation report on the implementation of the PWDVA, titled “Staying Alive” (October 2007) and brought out by Women’s Rights Initiative of Lawyers Collective, it was stated that 7,913 cases had been filed under the Act until July 31, 2007, and that most of the proceedings were pending in court.

All States, barring five, had appointed protection officers, the report said. The highest number of cases (3,440) was filed in Rajasthan, where no protection officer had been appointed. Kerala was next with 1,028 cases, while not a single case had been registered in Uttar Pradesh, the report said.

The wide variation in the number of cases registered in the States was attributed mainly to the degree of awareness about the law and did not reflect the lack of domestic violence in States that reported low figures. In Rajasthan, the study found that lawyers and civil society organisations took the initiative to help register cases. In Kerala, the reason could be the high degree of awareness among women.

Delhi reported only 607 cases registered under the PWDVA. Protection officers in Delhi and Andhra Pradesh, the study found, had not been appointed on a full-time basis. In fact, most protection officers in the country were found overburdened. Each district had one protection officer, who not only had to provide assistance to the complainant but also had to comply sometimes with the directions of more than one magistrate.

The primary users of the law, the report said, were married women, indicating perhaps that dowry did play a big role in domestic violence. However, only five States reported having registered service providers and only 12 had notified medical facilities and shelter homes. There was also a crucial need to train the police on informing women about the Act.

Such is the pressure of dowry today that a trend has emerged of “Sumangali jobs’ in certain parts of Tamil Nadu. In this, single women are offered jobs and assured that they will be given a sum of money for their dowry after a certain period of employment. The other condition is that they are totally bound to the employer in every manner.

According to NCRB data, the numbers of dowry deaths in the country during 2004, 2005 and 2006 were 7,026, 6,787 and 7,618 respectively. Amendments relating to the definition of dowry as also to increasing the penalty for dowry deaths under Section 304 B of the IPC are pending. In the years from 2002 to 2006, a total of 2,816, 2,684, 3,592, 3,204 and 4,504 cases respectively were registered under the Dowry Prohibition Act.

Data regarding dowry-linked suicides by women for the same period reveal that a total of 2,378, 2,347, 2,585, 2,305 and 2,276 women respectively committed suicide, with the largest numbers reported from Madhya Pradesh.

The NCRB report, “Crime in India - 2005”, observed that even though the share of violent crimes in the total number of crimes under the IPC had declined continuously over 2001-2005, the share of violent crimes affecting women had increased in this period, except for a slight decline in 2003.

If 1,157 cases of rape of Dalit women were reported in 2004, in 2005 the number was 1,172, with Madhya Pradesh accounting for 29 per cent of them. Madhya Pradesh also accounted for 45.9 per cent of the cases of rape of tribal women, the highest among the States. Nationally, in 2005, as many as 640 cases of rape of tribal women were reported, compared with 566 cases in 2004, that is, nearly a 13 per cent increase over the previous year.

A senior police office in Delhi said such was the insecurity among women in the capital that an experiment to have women constables of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) on night duty on VIP routes backfired when the women who were given SLRs (self-loading rifles) reported feeling insecure patrolling in the late hours of the night. Finally, a male CRPF constable was posted for every woman constable on the patrol beat.

“One would have assumed that given the constitutional framework, things would have changed in favour of women. That has not happened,” said Sudha Sundararaman, general secretary of AIDWA. She said the economic reforms currently under way had not created the conditions for the eradication of violence against women; if anything, it had generated more violence against women.

India is a signatory to many international conventions, including the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which it ratified in 1993. The principle of gender equality is enshrined in the Indian Constitution, which not only grants equality to women but empowers the state and makes it obligatory for it to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favour of women.

It is wrong on the part of the Ministry of Women and Child Development to assume that by merely spending more through gender budgeting to achieve gender equality it can get rid of the scourge of increasing crimes against women and girl children. The issue does not concern just women anymore. It has to be a national and a political priority.