Focus

Beyond rape trial, a bigger question about women's status in India

Court proceedings began today for five of the men accused in the deadly gang rape of a young woman in Delhi that led to her recent death. 

By , Correspondents

In a slum colony in one corner of Delhi, a heated debate is taking place near the home of Vinay Sharma, one of the six accused in the rape of a 23-year-old student last month that shook the capital and prompted a national discussion. Court proceedings in the case opened today.

The women of Ravi Das Camp gathered to listen to Mr. Sharma's mother defending her son to a reporter but were soon arguing over whom to blame for sexual violence.

"Have you seen how women in Delhi wear short skirts and sit so tight with their boyfriends on motorcycles as though they are going to devour them?" asks one woman, adding, "Men will be men; women should know how not to attract attention."

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A high school girl in jeans disagrees. "Why should boys have all the freedom?" she asks. A middle-aged woman, dressed in a sari, supports her. "Nobody rapes a man who comes home at 2 a.m.," she says.

"That is how it is," someone else replies. "Even if a woman becomes a top bureaucrat in our society she is still seen as a woman."

The Delhi gang rape, and the consequent flood of reports on rampant sexual harassment and violence in India, has brought global attention to an issue that has been largely overshadowed by the country's "growth story": Despite prominent female leaders and important strides in education, many Indian women continue to face discrimination and violence daily, especially if they are from marginal communities.

Crimes against women are high, illegal child marriage and payment of dowries persist, and some gender gaps are widening.

The World Economic Forum ranked India 105 on the Gender Gap Index in 2012, up from the year before, but below its 2006 ranking, and far below countries like Ghana and Bangladesh. It scored highest on political empowerment and lowest in women's health and survival.

There is "great resilience in the basic features of gender inequality in India," says well-known development economist Jean Dreze, "in contrast with many other countries – including Bangladesh – where there are significant signs of social change."

The challenges faced by Indian women reflect broader contradictions: Two decades of economic growth and globalization have brought improved opportunities but also greater inequality. That paradox was captured in a July survey that ranked India as the worst place to be a woman among the Group of 20 countries that make up the world's biggest economies, based on parameters like health services, threat of violence, and property rights.

Slight gains, stronger inequalities

Ravi Das Camp, where four of the men accused of the gang rape lived, is not unlike the victim's neighborhood in the opposite corner of New Delhi.

Both are full of poor families reaching for a better life, including through the education of their daughters. Sharma worked in a gym and waited tables to help his father, a balloon seller, put his two younger sisters through school.

The young woman who stepped onto a private bus in Delhi one late evening in December before she was gang-raped, brutally beaten, and then left for dead was training to be a physiotherapist – the pride and hope of her father, a baggage handler at Delhi's new airport.

Over the past two decades, India has almost closed its gender gap in primary education and considerably improved the secondary school gap: For every 100 boys who attend school, 98 girls now attend primary school and 85 girls attend secondary school.

Political participation has increased, and some health indicators are also up: More pregnant women get hospital care and fewer die during childbirth.

On other fronts, however, the picture is murkier. Of most concern are low sex ratios, which reflect a persistent preference for sons across South Asia, and unabated violence against women.

India's birth sex ratio has continued to drop, falling from 927 female babies per 1,000 male ones in 2001 to 914 in 2011. The trend is attributed to an increase in sex-selective abortions.

One 2011 study estimated that the skewed ratio would result in India having 20 percent more men than women in the next two decades. Imbalanced sex ratios may be associated with an increase in violence, which some worry is already happening.

At the very least, "inequalities may keep getting reinforced," says Priya Nanda, director of the social and economic development group for the International Center for Research on Women in New Delhi. She points to Haryana, a northern state with the worst gender imbalance, which is seeing "marriage trafficking" because of a shortage of women.

Recorded crimes against women have risen in recent decades. Rapes have doubled since 1991, with police registering 24,206 cases in 2011. Dowry-related deaths (women killed for bringing inadequate dowries to their husbands' families) and molestation have also increased, with almost 43,000 cases of molestation registered in 2011.

The increase may be due to improved documentation, Ms. Nanda says, but sexual crimes are also vastly underreported in India. (The United States recorded 80,000 rapes in 2008.)

Studies by University of British Columbia professor Siwan Anderson on the Asian "missing women" phenomenon first identified by Amartya Sen in 1990 – women who, if they had had the same care as men should still be alive – found that most "missing women" in India had died as adults, not as infants or in utero as previously thought. Cardiovascular disease was a common reason for early death. Another was the vague designation "injuries."

Separate surveys have found high proportions of domestic violence across India. At Ravi Das Camp, women insisted that the local men, including the accused, were respectful – but none denied facing violence at home.

'A line between men and women'

Most experts blame this litany of mistreatment on deep-seated patriarchal norms, especially in the more agrarian northern parts of the country – a cultural explanation for why higher income and educated segments also practice sex selection and why some regions in this diverse country are worse for women.

Some see sexual violence as a result of traditional norms colliding with Western lifestyles, especially in cities. The conversation at Ravi Das Camp seems to reflect this. When one woman suggested that men should stay at home and women go out to work, Sharma's mother was outraged.

"There is a line between men and women, and it should be respected like the India-Pakistan border," she said.

Such attitudes also pervade the police and judiciary. In a society in which virginity is regarded as a serious matter of morality, the sexual history of a rape victim can influence how her case is handled – from whether it will be registered at all to the severity of punishment meted out to the rapist.

Explanations that pit modernity against tradition are only one part of the picture. India also has matrilineal traditions that were erased by colonialism, notes women's activist Madhu Kishwar. Northeastern states and tribal populations with that legacy have better sex ratios.

Ms. Kishwar blames increased violence against women on "dysfunctional government machinery" and a general uptick in crime. Whenever there is more violence, women suffer, she says.

Most rapes occur in rural areas, in keeping with population distribution, and in the context of broader caste violence.

A recent legal amendment in the state of Madhya Pradesh penalizes any attempt to strip a woman in public, a "humiliating form of sexual violence [that] is routinely inflicted, particularly on women belonging to disadvantaged groups or transgressing social norms," says women's rights lawyer Kamayani Bali Mahabal.

Part of a broader picture

Gender inequality is part of broader inequalities "in caste, class, religion," notes Nanda.

Uneven job growth, for instance, helps explain India's dismal female labor force participation rate, which has declined in recent years and is among the lowest in South Asia.

Indian women tend to stay at home as incomes rise, partly because of social factors but also because of a lack of appropriate jobs, says Sonalde Desai, a senior fellow at the National Council of Applied Economic Research in New Delhi.

That's why their absence is greatest in the middle stage of the income scale, especially in rural areas.

"[O]nce women have enough education to want to do something besides farm labor but don't have enough education to hold an office job, they have very few opportunities," Dr. Desai says.

The 23-year-old student who was raped skipped that middle stage by training to become a physiotherapist, and might have eventually joined India's new middle classes.

Instead, she died 12 days after an assault on a moving bus in the nation's capital, following an evening out watching a Hollywood movie with a friend. Her story now seems like another emblem of the apparent contradictions of modern India.

"There is a superficial impression of change in India," Mr. Dreze says. "[B]ut for the vast majority of Indian women, it's more of the same." In recent years, he and Mr. Sen have argued that India has focused too narrowly on economic growth and not enough on social progress.

They have pointed to the example of Bangladesh, a much poorer country that has overtaken India in life expectancy, fertility rates, and female literacy rates – in part, Sen emphasized recently, because of its strong efforts to improve gender equality.

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