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Rediff.com  » News » India's women can't live in constant fear, Mr Prime Minister

India's women can't live in constant fear, Mr Prime Minister

July 07, 2014 10:32 IST

Enrich a woman and you can enrich a nation. Hurt women, deny women equitable rights, and a nation’s death sentence will soon commence, says Dr Krishan Jeyarajasingham.

Literally days before India’s latest election results that heralded a new government rising to power, a Delhi court gave a ruling that reinforced how norms governing women’s rights in the country still had hurdles to clear. 

The court ruled that marital rape is not a crime. 

The ruling says that if a man and a woman are married, yet separated and living apart, and a man sexually assaults the woman, he is not committing a crime. 

Furthermore, if a woman simply says no to intercourse with her husband, and her husband forces himself on her, no crime has been committed.

This specific case was brought by an unidentified woman who said that a marriage had been performed unknowingly, after she was drugged. 

She says that after the ceremony, for which she was intoxicated, her new husband sexually assaulted her against and then fled. 

The Delhi court’s ruling said, ‘The sexual intercourse between the two, even if forcible, is not rape and no culpability can be fastened upon the accused.’

The women of India simply cannot continue to reside in a country where they fear for their lives on a constant basis.

Rural or urban, their safety is under threat all the time.

In which civilised nation would two teenage sisters be brutally gang-raped and hanged from a tree, while the police not only looked on, but even perpetrated the crime?

In which other nation do we continue to see female babies and foetuses killed at alarming rates?

We know what has happened at a university in Santa Barbara, California, in which a gunman extracted revenge on those females who ‘rejected’ him.

These misogynistic views and beliefs of entitlement have existed for far too long, and the true way to change that will not only require political action at the level of government to institute stricter gun laws and related penalties for such crimes committed but also a coordinated effort from parents and other non-governmental organisations to instil this awareness in the tender minds of young males.

India is sadly no exception to this social disease.

Far too long have India’s laws and officials not done enough to promote and protect women’s rights.

Patriarchal notions of male entitlement are repeatedly reinforced through lawmaker’s attitudes and judgments.

While there are many progressive laws that seek to empower women and protect their rights, weak implementation of these laws mean that they’re little more than words on pieces of paper.

That, coupled with court rulings like the one in Delhi, tells Indian women that they do not possess the same rights that men have and are subject to second-class status.

This ruling is an affront to women’s rights.

It arrests any discourse of equality, legitimising the right of a man over a woman’s body when married and gives a man complete control and right over a woman’s body after marriage.

The ruling tells women or girls who are married or who will soon enter into marriage, that once they are legally married, they lose the right to decide if, when, and how often they will have sex with their husbands.

Ironically, according to The New York Times, the Delhi ruling was issued under a new fast-track court, created after the brutal gang-rape and murder of a woman on a Delhi bus less than two years ago, to help address problems associated with violence against women.

The aftermath of that Delhi incident included several changes made in criminal acts related to various forms of violence, as recommended by the Justice Verma report, but the recommendation to criminalise marital rape was rejected.

While Parliament has taken several steps to enact stricter penalties for crimes against women, this most recent ruling underlines the fact that women are still not viewed as equals.

And while this ruling affects any married woman, it reminds us that many of the women this ruling affects are still girls.

According to UNICEF, as of 2013, nearly 48 per cent of Indian women are married by age 18, many of whom are forced into an early marriage by their family to a spouse they did not themselves choose.

It has been noted in various studies that girls who are married early experience higher rates of gender-based violence experience, are at greater risk to die during child birth, and have reported higher rates of depression.

The Delhi court’s ruling now tells girls who are -- or who may have been -- child brides in India, that they have no legal right to challenge their husband if they are sexually assaulted.

As the newly-elected government sets its political priorities, it is of utmost importance that Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks to ensure that all of the country’s women are safe and that new laws grounded in the protection of women from all forms of violence must indubitably become the norm.

Throughout the hotly-contested election, Modi has made strong efforts to draw the support of women voters.

He must understand that women’s empowerment is a critical aspect of his political agenda, and address the cornucopia of social, political, economic, and cultural concerns that preoccupy Indian women.

During the election campaign, on his widely-watched Chai Pe Charcha, Modi opened his discussion on women by highlighting their political power.

He insisted that a women’s vote bank in India would supersede all voting blocs in the country, including those formed on the basis of caste, religion, and region.

He strongly emphasised that women are missing in the elections and advocated their greater political participation.

Modi also referred to women to as nation-makers and nation-builders. He stated that while women were home-makers that contributed to the nation, they needed to become nation-builders by contributing to the economic development of the country.

One way to do that is to provide equal education and opportunity to women.

Enrich a woman and you can enrich a nation. Hurt women, deny women equitable rights, and a nation’s death sentence will soon commence.

Placing strong, capable, highly intelligent women in positions of cabinet power can do wonders in realizing Modi’s goals.

Thus far, he is off to a good start by creating a gender inclusive cabinet consisting of 25 per cent of women, which is more than the 11 per cent prior.

This sends a resounding message that it will take cooperative efforts from both genders to help establish true change that is sorely needed for a country that is the world’s largest democracy.

This is a chance to push the reset button and to ensure that gains in women’s rights, not reductions, are par for the course under the new government.

Dr Krishna Jeyarajasingham, affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, US, is doing research in nuclear medicine.

Dr Krishan Jeyarajasingham