We need to interrogate the politics and policies that fuel the increasing violence against women
If a woman were to choose where she would travel to on a consideration of which country has a safe environment for women,where would she go?
Following a number of shocking and horrible incidents in which young foreign women were victims of sexual assault in different parts of India,some governments,such as those of the US and the UK,issued advisories warning women against travel to India. Others expressed concern about the state of womens safety in India. More recently,there has been international interest in whether there has been any change in safety conditions for women in India following the more stringent laws passed after the brutal December 16 gangrape in Delhi.
There is indeed reason for concern because,with an average of 66 registered rape cases a day,Indias newly acquired reputation as a country unsafe for women is not misplaced. But what are the benchmarks to rate a country?
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has collated crime rates against women,calculated on the basis of rape cases reported to the police per 1,00,000 population,from a number of countries and provided a comparative picture for 2010. Since the number of reported cases of rape does not show much change,it can be taken to represent a broad trend even today. The UN also issues a caveat that while looking at these figures,one must take into account the differences in the definitions of sexual assault in different countries.
The data show that the countries that most often express concern about what is happening to women in other countries have quite high rates of sexual crimes against women within their own borders. The crime rate in the US,for example,is 27.3; in the UK it is 28.8; and in France,it is 16.2. Among other developed countries,Sweden has a high rate at 63.
In such a comparison,the choice on a consideration of safety could well have been Lebanon,which has a (rape) crime rate of 0.5. But one rarely hears any voices using the example of Lebanon,or for that matter any other country in Asia,as a safer place for women. India,according to these comparative calculations,has a (rape) crime rate of 1.8.
Such comparisons are of little use to those in the struggle for womens freedom from sexual crimes,because it hardly matters,say,to a woman in Muzaffarnagar who has been the victim of a communally driven rape,or the courageous young woman journalist in Mumbai who was gangraped,to know that more women are victims of sexual crimes in the US or the UK than in Mumbai or UP. The point is not to compare so as to justify,nor to illustrate the obvious hypocrisy of Western governments towards womens security in their own countries. It is to raise a more fundamental,related issue: the politics and policies that feed into,and indeed in some cases are responsible for,the increasing violence against women. This is in turn linked to the concept of what constitutes democracy and democratic rights.
Women suffer,particularly women from the poorer sections,when models of democracy are not linked to equality. Power,including sexual power,is more easily exercised over unequals. The models of democracy in developed countries are,in the current jargon of international agencies,promoted as best practice democracies,to be emulated by the rest of the world. But gender justice and equality between the sexes have not been intrinsic building blocs for these Western-style democracies.
Economics has much to do with providing or depriving status to women,which in turn has a cascading impact on their social position,including their vulnerability to sexual violence. Some years ago,a leading womens organisation in the US calculated that unequal wages for American women was providing an extra $200 billion a year to US companies. More recently,a study conducted by the Institute for Womens Policy Research has shown that women are paid,on average,77 cents to every dollar earned by men,and it is worse for African-American women (68 cents) and Latina women (58 cents).
In truth,the so-called development paths of these societies,built on the plunder of much of the world,have actually utilised historically existing inequalities,whether of gender or race,to maximise profits a far cry from challenging patriarchy-driven actions of assertion of power over women.
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Another aspect is the gross consumerist cultures spawned by these developed market economies that seem to be centred on the sexualisation and commodification of womens bodies. The hegemony of these cultures over others is more easily established,promoted as they are by communication technologies,given that Western-based media companies control most of the worlds mass media. These have a transnational impact in shaping portrayals and perceptions of women in countries far removed from the control centres.
In India,the adoption of such concepts of democracy,of policies,politics and cultures,though,of course,with Indian characteristics,has added new layers to the dismal status of women. The trajectory of capitalist development has not only coexisted with,but actually strengthened,historical injustices of caste- and gender-based oppression.
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Women and men in each country outraged by the increasing violence against women within their borders must work out country specific strategies to fight these trends. But when the UN states that violence is universal,regardless of the societies women live in,it should not preclude,as it tends to,an analysis of the dominant cultures that engender violence,both social and gender-based. We need to resist offensive fundamentalisms that imprison women and deprive them of independent citizenship rights in the name of this or that religion,caste or culture. We need to resist abhorrent legal frameworks and practices that sanction cruelty towards women. But we also need to challenge the economic,social and cultural frameworks being imposed on the world by the West,which have much to do with making the world unsafe for women.
The writer is a member of the CPM politburo