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June 1, 2010

Ending gender violence

A commonly cited statistic states that one in three women experience violence in the course of their lifetime and most of them keep this experience to themselves. Women, men and transgendered persons of all ages, cultures, classes, castes and communities experience violence directed at them by virtue of their gender. The term is often used to describe not just physical and sexual violence, but also emotional and economic abuse, as also traditional practices that hurt women. Piecemeal policy-making is not the solution to this problem.

Intervention instruments
“If women are educated, there will not be a gender violence problem.” “Give women jobs. Make them independent. Then, see how much violence is there.”

The middle-class faith that education and economic empowerment will eliminate gender violence is, unfortunately, not based on reality. If it were, domestic violence, rape and female foeticide would not be prevalent among educated women. If it were, construction workers would not be as vulnerable to workplace sexual harassment as management trainees.

The point is: the government’s work in promoting the girl child’s health, education and livelihood prospects is essential but not enough. There are however three important and interrelated instruments governments can use to tackle violence.

Laws. In India, we too often legislate social change, hoping in vain that our problems will go away. Nonetheless, thoughtful legislation, drafted in consultation with legal experts and experienced social
workers and debated prior to adoption, is the most visible sign that a government means business.India does have laws addressing particular forms of violence against women-dowry, sati, child marriage, domestic violence, rape and female foeticide. However, a combination of factors including lack of social consensus on the issue, implementation challenges and the shortcomings of the judicial system conspire to limit the efficacy of these laws. Moreover, communication problems abound on either side of the law-making process. Absence of broad-based consultation and outreach in the formulation of the law leaves to the news media not only to ‘break the news’ but also to frame the debate so that it is a critique rather than a public engagement with the problem. At the other end, after a law is enacted, there also seems to be a problem informing people of the legal remedies available to them.

Empowered, autonomous state commissions for women. State commissions for women have been set up, but have limited autonomy. Members are often political appointees, rather than career administrators, social workers or experts. The commissions are resource-strapped and limited to making recommendations. Beyond receiving petitions and investigating incidents, they should be able to serve as advocacy centres, networking government and civil society and holding government accountable on gender violence questions.

Data collection. Better data collection makes for better public debate, better civil society initiatives and finely tuned policy implementation. Police and court records provide the bulk of the data available about violence against women in India; these are compiled into the annual National Crime Records Bureau reports. However, there are three problems with this data. First, only those forms of gender violence that are covered by laws and the Indian Penal Code can be registered as complaints. Second, how a particular incident or complaint is registered depends on how the registering officer or constable interprets or records it at a given moment. Finally, this discretionary factor is magnified when you consider that complaints are registered (data coded) locally, but compiled and aggregated nationally. The result: India’s most important resource on gender violence is an indicative snapshot at best.

Approaches that make a difference
Research and experience suggest four approaches to tackling gender violence that do work.

Gender sensitivity and gender violence awareness within the government. Government is constituted from society; it will reflect social attitudes. During campaigns against gender violence by Prajnya, an organisation headed by the author that works on issues relating to peace, justice and security, we find people unaware of the extent of the problem. They are also unable to see violence as such, attributing their experiences to temperament, natural behaviour, punishment, duty or lust. The culture of ‘adjustment’ is pervasive, and men and women ‘adjust’ to inequity and violence as a sign of virtue. If government is to be a lead actor in the campaign to eliminate gender violence, then gender sensitisation and gender violence awareness need to be promoted within administrative and police circles.

Beyond a ‘law and order’ perspective. The government’s ability to tackle gender violence is also limited because it is not merely a law and order issue. Gender violence is structural violence, a social malaise. It is a public health issue. It is a human rights issue. “Diagnose legal problem, apply police, slap on sentencing,” treats the symptom. Gender violence awareness in government circles should include recognition of this broader perspective. A cross-cutting problem can be solved only by cross-cutting measures and coalitions.

Partnerships with civil society. What laws alone cannot achieve, civil society efforts can when backed by the access and resources of a motivated administration. Government-civil society partnerships working to tackle gender violence have generally been effective. In the Tamil Nadu campaign against female infanticide, while state-run programmes like the Girl Child Protection Scheme and the Cradle Baby Scheme have mostly had dubious consequences, state and civil society have worked in partnership to create awareness and mobilize local support around the campaign, with more lasting success.

Developing ‘early warning’ systems. There are certain situations where people can perpetrate acts of gender-based violence invisibly and with impunity. Often governments can anticipate, prevent and provide remedies for these incidents, if they want. Police custody and communal riots are two examples. Gender violence sensitisation could and should be a part of human rights training imparted to police and paramilitary forces. Similarly, knowing that gender violence occurs as much as arson, looting and murder during communal riots should ensure preparedness to prevent and provide victim assistance in these circumstances.

Ending gender violence begins with acknowledging that there is a problem, and it is not a “ladies’ problem.”
Zero-tolerance for violence is the true mark of civilisation, especially when backed by initiatives to create awareness and change attitudes, in government and society.


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