Essay: Women — Vulnerable to violence

At a time when a shocked India is dealing with the allegations of rape against a high-profile writer and editor of Tehelka magazine, Tarun Tejpal, Dr. Usha Bande throws some light on an ugly reality: the rampant violence against women in the Indian sub-continent.

sea-of-innocenceViolence is a lived reality of a woman’s life that she alone experiences, suffers and endures. No amount of words can explain the pain and terror it causes because it is an experience that is personal. In a short story entitled “It was Dark” by Shashi Deshpande, a nine year old raped girl is in shock and when asked about the incident she can only repeat “it was dark”. This darkness is the subjective experience of every traumatized woman who falls a victim to violence be it sexual, domestic or social.

Violence against women is a hydra-headed monster that refuses to listen to reason; it is not intimidated by law; it refuses to make a retreat and that is why we need multi-pronged approaches to eliminate it. Violence, aggression and cruelty, wife bashing, rapes, acid attacks, murders and torture – indeed, this surfeit of violence is becoming more complex and manifest day by day. What reaches us is far less than what actually takes place and goes unreported.

Violence starts in the womb when a girl child is eliminated as a foetus. If she stays on to be born, she falls a prey to infanticide. Amartya Sen’s words “missing women” explains much more than the mere horror of it. Nothing can be more shameful than such acts of cruelty. Looking at the gravity of the situation, the central and state governments have started campaigns like “Beti bacho,” “beti anmol hai” and “save the girl child”. These campaigns have started showing positive results in improving the male-female ratio in many states including Himachal Pradesh.

Domestic violence which happens in the “private sphere” is difficult to track unless reported by the aggrieved party. “The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005” addresses most of the concerns relating to gender based violence. Domestic violence has been defined as any act that causes harm, injury or threat to the life, safety and well-being of a person. Under it physical, verbal, emotional, economic or sexual violence are covered and take into cognisance physical injury, psychological problems and economic inconveniences. The Act has provisions for quick and easy remedy, compensation and other relief measures.

One of the most saddening and frightening violence against women is of sexual nature under which rape, acid attacks, molestation and stalking are included. We hear disturbing stories like: an acid attack victim fights for life; another loses her eye sight; a tiny tot of just five raped and tortured; a three year old girl hurt badly with bites and wounds all over the body; a twenty-three year old gang-raped, and so on. Granted that these are abnormal acts and call for psychological treatment of the man but one cannot just let go such inhuman acts under the excuse of psychological aberrations. These are social ills and need to be corrected if we want a healthy society.

Women are vulnerable, yes! But that does not mean they should be treated shabbily for their gender. The fear generated by sexual attacks has been summed up by a writer thus, “Every time I close my eyes the nightmares come, they attack me over and over and over again until dawn. He is strong, I am weak, he has all the power, I have none. I am like a puppet in his hands.” This feeling of utter helplessness leads to depression, fear and trauma.

Justice Verma Committee constituted after the December Delhi gang rape took into account various aspects of violence against women like rape, sexual assault, verbal attack, harassment, acid attacks, trafficking, child sexual abuse and other offenses; the Committee defined them and suggested amendment to criminal law of the country so as to provide quick trial and enhanced punishment for criminals. The committee also suggested electoral and educational reforms, police reforms, gender sensitization and setting up of special cells for legal aid.

Despite stringent laws on paper, crimes against women are on the increase. The reasons should be searched in the society and community. Statements like “zero tolerance”, “nation is shamed”, or comments on women’s dressing-up are meaningless and cannot solve this multi-faceted problem which needs an over-all shake-up of the social psyche.

Patriarchal mind-set which sees woman as an object of desire, as man’s possession, as a weakling who can be treated as per one’s will is the first cause to continue violence. Intensive training and exposure to gender sensitization and the fear of severe punishment are needed.

Secondly, globalization and consumer values have tilted our basic value system, and pleasures of the flesh have gained an upper hand over the values of propriety and impropriety. Woman who comes out of the home is belittled as “easily available.” The male members must understand that women are human too and have right to freedom of choice.

Thirdly, the fear of law has diminished, the law enforcing machinery having lost their credibility in the wake of corruption rampant in the society. The new mind set seems to say, “oh, chalta hai. Kar lenge manage.”

Girls and women need to be alert too; they must break their silence. As feminist Paula Fordham asserts, “We have been silenced by shame and fear. We have been silenced by those who are supposed to protect us. It is time that we are heard.” So far, violence against women was a hush-hush affair for fear of shame and social stigma but if we want remedy, we must speak out. The woman need not hide; it is the criminal who should hide for shame. Bhanwari Devi spoke out and her famous “Vishakha case” became instrumental in framing law against work place harassment. Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan came out with her story of gang rape despite threats and brought in major changes.

Violence against women is pervasive and needs concentrated efforts to eliminate it. Law can act as a deterrent but awareness can lead towards amelioration. The media can play a powerful role to sensitize the society. Men must know that women’s equality does not snatch away men’s rights, nor is it meant to start a battle between man and woman. It simply means giving women their due, to recognize their special potentials and qualities and ensure respect for them.

Dr. Usha Bande is an Indian writer and critic. She writes in Marathi, Hindi and English and translates short stories from Marathi into Hindi. She has several research papers and more than a dozen books to her credit including Writing Resistance: A Comparative Study of Women Novelists.