The disproportionate level of violence faced by women and sexual minorities is not a recent phenomenon. Its pervasive nature escapes even the most sophisticated systems of legislation and policy action designed to control it. Gender-Based Violence (GBV) has increased exponentially in the past-decade despite significant measures being undertaken for redressal at international and national levels. GBV is not only symptomatic of a deeply unequal patriarchal social order, but it also highlights the inability to accord basic security and safety to individuals as expressed by the global discourse on Human Rights.
The UNHCR defines Gender-Based Violence as “harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender. It is rooted in gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful norms. Gender-Based violence (GBV) is a serious violation of human rights and a life-threatening health and protection issue.” The repercussions of such forms of violence which include intimate partner violence, sexual violence, child marriage, female genital mutilations and honour crimes – are severe and long-lasting. The impact of GVB is unequally felt by women and girls, however people not adhering to heteronormative codes of sexual behaviour and those who identify as other genders are increasingly affected by GVB as well.
Human Rights and Gender-Based Violence:
The International Human Rights regimes rests on the assumption that human beings enjoy certain rights simply on the condition of them being human. These rights codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed in 1948, are considered to be universal, unalienable, indivisible, equal and non-discriminatory. They are protected by a series of treaties and covenants signed by most states of the world. Despite being beyond legal legislation for national governments, each state is obligated to upkeep and implement human rights with help from the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. A vast network of Humanitarian Aid Organisations and International Organisations function to ensure the basic application of these rights in most states.
The right to equality and dignity as enshrined within the human rights discourse is grossly violated by the occurrence of gender-based violence. It threatens the autonomy and dignity of the individual affected by it. It comes with great economic, social, physiological, psychological and behavioural consequences which are navigated by survivors across time. The acceptance of gender being an important factor in the violence that is perpetrated globally came in the 1990’s despite legislation and policy being introduced as early as the 1970s.
The Convention on all Form of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) focused on mainstreaming women and their access to human rights for the first time while it was only with the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) in 1993 that GVB was accepted as a major issue pertaining to gender justice globally. Following this regional and national governments have worked to address human rights violations while focusing on gender-based violence in particular – this includes the European Union, the African Charter and the Dhaka Declaration.
GBV is a complex phenomenon that intersects at various levels of society – economic, social, cultural and political. The characterisation of it simply being violence against a biological sex by one biological sex is oversimplistic and causes room for error. GVB requires greater attention to be paid to the structural inequality and access to power that pervades social, economic, cultural and political spheres in most societies.
GVB then becomes a consequence of the non-compliance of the gendered ideals and norms as expected to be performed by a patriarchal social order rather than simply being violence on the basis on of one’s sex.
Gender-Based Violence in India:
India posits a highly alarming case when confronted with gender-based violence. The deeply patriarchal structures that characterise it and the inadequate response of the state in countering its presence within the country is disquieting. India’s engagement with GBV is often whimsical and disproportionate. The cultural and social forces of the country outweigh the legislative and policy framework existing in the country to address the disproportionate level of violence faced by women. This violence is further proliferated along markers of class, caste, religion and ethnicity.
Gender-based violence in India takes myriad forms which include high levels of domestic violence, dowry death, human trafficking, sexual violence, acid attacks, unnatural offences and honour killings. These crimes are a direct result of the hierarchies that underpin the cultural and social milieu in India based on the ascriptive norms of gender. These crimes stem from the disparity in power and the resultant inaccessibility to social, cultural, political resources that are embodied in patriarchal societies.
The National Crime Records Bureau in its Crimes in India Report 2019 has recorded a 7.3% increase in crimes against women when compared to 2018. A staggering 30.9% cases recorded were of domestic violence and 7.9% were of rape. The report clearly indicates that the crime rate per lakh of the women population was 33.2% – a significant figure, corroborated by a global narrative where 35% of women have faced physical/sexual intimate and non-intimate partner violence. 1 in every 3 women is a victim of Gender-based violence. However, when using these figures as evidence one must also note that these cases are representative of only those sections of women who access mechanisms of redressal – there exists a large section of unreported cases of Gender-based violence largely under wraps. The Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a two-fold increase in GBV cases across the country.
The severity and intensity with which the violence occurs is disparate between women of marginal and minority communities. Women of minority status including Dalit and Muslim women face higher and more severe threats of violence. The inability of the state to protect the interests of minorities whether caste, ethnic or religious is an open secret.
Honour killing, acid attacks and dowry related deaths and violence are some instances of GBV which is characteristic of South Asian societies. The Indian legislative framework while addressing some aspects of GVB fails to address other. To explain, while domestic violence and dowry related crimes have substantial laws in place to prevent it, instances of honour killing, and acid attacks finds no considerable laws being enacted to serve justice. Legislative measures become a means of imagining accessibility to human rights.
The absence of policies and laws makes it difficult for survivors to attain justice or for people to even be able to attain acknowledgment of violations. The Domestic Violence Act 2005 and the Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) pertaining to dowry are effectual mechanism which can at minimum be used by women to demand justice. Similar laws for honour killing do not exist, this allows for arbitrary justice to prevail which often falls into the trap of patriarchal norms and ideals – the very area these crimes need to be recovered from. The non
acceptance marital rape under section 375 of the IPC with a Chhattisgarh court passing a judgement where a husband can have forced sexual intercourse with his wife and it will not deemed rape as late as 2021 proves the importance of legislation in fighting for human rights. However, legal recourse alone cannot be the sole basis for addressing gender-based violence and its aftermath. Article Section 377 pertaining to sexual minorities even after decriminalising sexual intercourse between people of the same sex did not result in the inclusion and acceptance of sexual minorities. Crimes against homosexual women and men, transgender men and women persist with police officers acting with impunity in such matters. The cultural stigma associated with homosexuality and gender-deviance remains a major hinderance to the actualisation of human rights in India. Thus, while legal measures are important safeguards, they remain ineffectual if societal attitudes and norms cannot supplement them.
The Indian state, Human Rights and Gender-Based Violence:
The Indian State has a grievous relationship when it comes to implementing national and international legislation pertaining to human rights. Despite the prevalence of sophisticated laws to address gender-based violence and violence against women it is noted that the Indian state is plagued by non-implementation and the absence of political will to implement these laws and norms. Political prowess entrenched in misguided notions of culture influence the state mechanism which in turn causes discrepancies, variations and outright denial of most cased of GBV justice.
The right-wing Hindu nationalist government in power has systematically worked to undermine the political, economic and social rights accorded to minorities in the country. Arbitrary arrests of human rights activists, crackdowns of non-governmental organisation funding, blatantly communal and sexist media campaigns as well rampant curbing of free speech and press has left Indian minorities in a state of great insecurity. There has been a significant increase in the number of attacks faced by Dalit, tribal and religious minority women. Nine prominent human rights activists were jailed under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA) and rape cases filed against the ruling party leaders were arbitrarily dismissed with no consequences in 2020 alone, pushing access to justice for gender-based violence back.
In conclusion, addressing gender-based violence was a difficult task to begin with, it took years of legislation to acknowledge the severity and damage that violence against ascriptive gender roles causes and to create mechanisms to address it. The condition remains dire and alarming with respect to the social and cultural normalisation that persists with respect to violence against women and women’s rights in India. The present political milieu does nothing to challenge these dominant ideas, in fact it would seem the entrenched patriarchal ideologies undermining the present ruling party provides certain impunities when addressing issue that do not fit the Hindu nationalist image of India that is highly publicised and advertised in today’s times.
Image – Outlook India