September 4, 2014

BARELY LEGAL: A Psychological Perspective of Crime Against Women in India

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By AMRAPALLI SATPATHY

Amid empty talk of empowerment of women, rapes have become a routine affair in India, with women being regularly targeted. 

If on the one hand it is “honor killing” against girls seeking to assert their independence in their personal lives, on the other it is the wanton outrage of modesty with no counter-action from the state or the society at large. Instances of women resisting rape and then getting disfigured with their nose, hands or other body parts chopped are not few and far between. Some are reported but a large majority goes unnoticed.

Women’s safety remains a pressing issue in India. Far from decreasing, reported rapes and physical violence against women is on the rise. Given the sheer number of sexual violence cases, there seems little point in denying that it has become a deep-rooted and pervasive problem.

A steep decline in the quality of governance, proportionate rise in public inertia and self-centered attitude or simple indifference of the public has made matters worse for women. But what is the reason behind such a significant increase? Most blame sexual repression, while others think rural-to-urban migration is the culprit. Both are equally significant reasons. India is in the middle of the largest migration in history from rural to urban. This rapid shift has led to a major cultural chaos.

India is undergoing the rapid breakdown of its age-old caste system and of traditional social mores. Interestingly, sociologists claim that the new India is undergoing a sexual revolution of sorts, where an entire generation of educated women now have a say in who they marry and what they choose to do with their lives. In the long run, this kind of social change is positive and welcomed; in the short run, it has led to uncertainty about the boundaries between class and gender and created the space for sexual violence, solely because the concept of what it means to be a man in India is also changing, bringing in its wake expressions of sexual violence wrapped with feelings of displacement and powerlessness.

To add the icing on the cake, India’s male-female ratio is one of the highest in the world. The systemic brutality against females has, over a period, led to an imbalance in the male-female ratio (877 women against 1,000 men). High male-to-female ratios have historically been correlated with an increase in the rate of violence. In China, a skewed male-female ratio led to higher rates of crime, including sexual crime, against women. The thinking is that young, unmarried males lack the stable social bonds that keep them from committing violent crimes. These low-status young adult males often play a crucial role in instigating violence within societies.

In India, too, sociologists have found a strong connection between male-female ratios and the increase in violent crime rates. Traditionally, whenever women outnumber men, there is a shift in the values towards liberalism. On the flipside, when there is an excess of men, marriage is generally revered and values remain conservative. Quite simply put, when men, who traditionally have had more power in society, have more women to choose from, they are more able to set the rules for women’s behavior. This trend is not new but can trace its roots to ancient times where Athens had a shortage of women due to female infanticide and neglect. By contrast, Sparta had a shortage of men, since boys were removed from their families at an early age to receive military training. It so occurred that girls in Spartan society were educated, and Spartan women could own and inherit property. By the fourth century, Spartan women controlled about 40 percent of their city-state’s land and property. In contrast, Athenian women controlled no property at all.

This is not good news for the modern Indian woman, for whom the biggest challenge today, is remaining safe in her own country. It is strange that, in a country where women have historically been exalted and portrayed in hyperbole terms in religious texts and literature, women should remain prisoners of time, traditions, political games and the rising consumerist tradition. There is no “safe haven” for the Indian woman even though she may be a city-based working woman or an uneducated village woman working in the fields. Across the country, female infanticide and sex-selective abortions continue to rise with daily news items of heinous sexual crimes taking place almost every other day.

Fortunately, new economic, educational and political opportunities have created the conditions for a growing number of women’s rights activists to raise the issues, either as part of the media, administration and political structures or as civil society activists. While this activism has led to some progress, and there is hope for more, the first step towards tackling such a large domestic problem like this is to acknowledge how big it really is.

Amrapalli Satpathy is an LLM student at Cornell Law School. She may be reached at ats222@cornell.edu. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

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