It is difficult to reconcile India’s rapid economic and technological development with brutal practices that, in many cases, lead to the death of women and girls. Repeated incidents of gang rape in India are not isolated but reflect widespread gender and caste discrimination in the country. Today, rape is the fourth most common crime against women in India.
Two recent gang rapes resulting in the deaths of Dalit women have shocked people around the world. Both women were young, one 19 and the other 22-years-old. In India, 200 million Dalits face discrimination and abuse. According to women rights activists, this is a situation that has increased during the coronavirus pandemic. There are no signs that crimes against women and girls are abating.
One of the earliest and most brutal manifestation of violence against women is female feticide, where female fetuses are selectively aborted after pre-natal sex determination. Researchers for The Lancet estimate that more than 500,000 girls are lost annually through sex selective abortions. Sometimes, the elimination of girls occurs after they are born, a situation of female infanticide that has existed for centuries in India.
One of the consequences of female feticide is the increase in human trafficking. According to some estimates, in 15,000 Indian women were sold as bribes in 2011 to regions such as Haryana and Punjab to compensate for the lack of women as a result of feticide. While women in the Vedic age (1500-1000 BC), and some even now, were worshipped as gods, in modern times some are negated the basic right to life.
Feticide began in the early 1990s, when ultrasound techniques became widely used in India. Many families continue to have children until a male child is born, since boys are valued more than girls. Religious practices for their parent’s afterlife can only be performed by males, which makes them an additional status symbol for their families.
The Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, passed in 1994, making selective abortion illegal, has been poorly enforced. In 2003, the PCPNDT was modified holding medical professionals legally responsible for abuse of the test. These provisions, however, have not significantly deterred their abuse.
Although gender-based discrimination against women and girls is pervasive in developing countries, India is one of the worst culprits. Female discrimination, which starts in the womb, continues throughout women’s lives. A survey by the Thomas Reuters Foundation found that India is the fourth most dangerous place in the world for women.
In India, violence against women can take several forms. Women of any class or religion can be victims of acid-throwing, a cruel form of punishment that can disfigure women for life and even kill them. According to perpetrators’ testimonies, they do it to put women in their place for defying cultural norms. The U.N. Population Fund reports that up to 70 percent of married women aged 15-49 in India are victims of beatings or coerced sex.
Dowry traditions, in which parents must often pay large sums of money to marry off their daughters is claimed as one of the reasons why parents prefer boys to girls. In 1961, the Government of India passed the Dowry Prohibition Act, which makes dowry demands in wedding arrangements illegal. Although some kinds of abuse such as “bride burning” have diminished among educated urban populations, many cases of dowry-related domestic violence, suicide and murders are still occurring.
Women’s rapes in India are not isolated incidents. They are actually symptoms of a discrimination that starts in the womb, in a society that persists in treating women as second-class citizens. Abuse of women in India will only be solved by changing entrenched cultural norms that continue to condone the abuse and degradation of women. Until the rights of all women and girls, regardless of caste, are accepted by Indian society, and appropriate laws are enforced, any measures to overcome this situation will only be palliative, and will not solve this most serious problem.
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and author of “Child Health”, “Health of Adolescents” and “Maternal Health”, all of them publications of the Pan American Health Organization.