from Asia Unbound

Women in India: Much More Than Recent Headlines

November 26, 2013

All four men convicted of raping and murdering a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi were sentenced to death on Friday, a decision ... message to society that there can be no tolerance for such a savage crime September 13, 2013, (Adnan Abidi/Courtesy Reuters).
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Over the past week, the Indian media and social media have been seized with an unfolding scandal involving a news magazine, Tehelka, that made its reputation ferreting out truth and exposing wrongdoing. This time, it’s founding editor Tarun Tejpal who’s exposed. He has been accused, and a criminal investigation is now underway, of sexually assaulting a junior reporter at his own magazine. The story is unusual not only because of the profile of the accused, but also for the victim’s decision to step forward and not allow the assault to be forgotten or buried as a “misunderstanding.” And judging by the media coverage in recent days, both women and men in India are overwhelmingly supportive of that decision.

The past year has been a particularly difficult one for cases of violence against women in India. From the gang rape and gross mutilation of victim “Nirbhaya” in Delhi in December 2012, to the March gang-rape of a Swiss tourist in Madhya Pradesh, the April kidnapping and rape of a 5-year old girl in Delhi, a July molestation of a teenage girl in Assam by a crowd of men, to the September gang rape of a young reporter in Mumbai,  women have been subjected to unspeakably shocking acts of violence. But women, and men, are standing up against this kind of violence now, with women refusing to accept shame for harm done to them, and families supporting the pursuit of justice under the law. And as a result of the shock of the Nirbhaya case, India has stronger laws on rape and new fast-track courts to handle rape trials quickly. Nirbhaya’s rapists and the rapists of the Swiss tourist have already been convicted, and in the former case, sentenced to death.

It is hard to know whether the uptick in stories about violence against women represents an increase in the crime or a heightened attention and willingness to report and mobilize against it. One result internationally, however, has been a growing worry outside India, even wariness, about whether women are safe in India. This sentiment is captured in the particular by the personal narrative of a young American just returned from a semester in India, but also in the aggregate by a downturn in women travelers to India and reports of increased concerns about safety when studying abroad in India (in the absence of data by gender on study abroad, it’s hard to draw any specific conclusions, however). But over the past year, the prevalence of articles internationally about rape in India has certainly increased, resulting in a recent Time magazine corrective to this narrative: “Why Rape Seems Worse in India Than Everywhere Else (but Actually Isn’t)."

Against these challenges of gender-based violence, which have made headlines around the world—seemingly relentlessly so this year—it’s also the case that Indian women have had important successes, and made significant advances in political participation and in high-profile segments of the workplace. Many people know that Indira Gandhi was the second woman elected head of government in the world. (We in the United States still await the end of that glass ceiling). And while the percentage of women elected to Parliament hovers between 10 and 11 percent, Indians have regularly elected women to lead their states.

At present three states (Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Delhi) are headed by women, and for a period during 2011–2012, when Mayawati was chief minister of the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, some 300 million Indian citizens overall were represented by women chief ministers. The panchayat level of governance (local bodies) by law reserves one-third of its seats for women, and some states have amended that to 50 percent. An amendment to the constitution has been cleared by the Indian cabinet but not yet passed, which would extend that 50 percent reservation at the panchayat level to the entire country. Newer research on the effects of reserving seats for women at the panchayat level has found that the presence of women leaders has led to greater participation of women attending village meetings, and marks an effective policy avenue for correcting gender imbalance in political participation over time. The Women’s Reservation Bill, still pending, would reserve one-third of the seats in Parliament as well as in the state legislative assemblies for women, and though it has been stalled, its scope is ambitious.

Outside of government, a report earlier this month noted that eight of the major banks in India are headed by women. There is nothing remotely comparable in the U.S. financial services sector. And also quite unlike the United States, where tech and education specialists are focused on encouraging women to enter the science, technology, engineering, and math fields, Indian women are already there. To give just one example, according to IT industry body NASSCOM, India’s IT industry overall is around 30 percent female, and that figure is higher in the business process outsourcing segment, as well as at entry levels. (Of course, this is against the backdrop of a larger gap in women’s workforce participation across sectors broadly in India).

Noting where India has made some real accomplishments of course does not diminish the gravity of violence against women that shocks and preoccupies international attention. But it is fair to recognize that while Indian women face big hurdles, some of those have been overcome, and the picture is far more complex than recent headlines suggest.