On the 16th of December 2012, what seemed like a normal busy day of meetings, classes and assessments in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, India where I was well into my fantastic placement with Restless Development on the International Citizen Service programme, things took an unimaginable turn for the worse. ‘Gang rape….23 year-old girl…Delhi…hospitalised’. Yemi writes about the advances in women’s rights in India, and the work still to do.
These were the headlines that began to flood the cyber-world. Once news of the young female student’s death was confirmed due to injuries sustained from her five male attackers, there was public outcry and protest in India’s Capital which led to clashes with police. BBC News and the Hindustan Times reported thousands of women and men protesting across India by lighting candles, peaceful sit-ins and marches, some even going as far as a hunger strike. Internationally, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon condemned the attack and offered support to India on addressing gender issues through UN agencies. UN Women also released a statement condemning the incident and highlighted the human rights aspects of violence against women.
So when I was trying to decide what to discuss in my ICS article, I couldn’t ignore gender equality issues in India as violence is a product of the inequality that exists there.
Institutional Mechanisms for promoting Women’s Rights
International human rights law has made ground-breaking strides in the advancement of women’s rights in society and combating violence (including sexual violence) against women. If we glance into the past we can recognise much has been achieved including, but not limited to, the first UN Conference on Women held in 1975 which later led to the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979 created to ensure governments take progressive steps towards promoting socio-economic, civil and political equality between men and women in their countries. States such as India, who ratified the convention in July 1993 are supposedly bound by its Articles.
Violence against women is specifically defined and elaborated upon in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women adopted by the General Assembly in 1993. The declaration is there to be read alongside CEDAW, to ‘strengthen and complement’ each other as the declaration states. Article 1 defines violence against women to include ‘physical, sexual and psychological harm or suffering’ reflecting the various harms that women are subject to. The declaration reaffirms protection of over-arching human rights for women such as the ‘right to life’ and the ‘right to be free from all forms of discrimination’. The declaration also lists actions that states must take to realise the rights of women such as developing laws, national policy plans and budgets. It explicitly mentions that ‘states should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations’. This is crucial when talking about violence against women in India as many see this as an extension of culture and tradition; something that director of Women under Siege, Lauren Wolfe believes cannot be ignored as the “culture of rape imbues whatever space we inhabit”.
We have also seen a Special Rapporteur on violence against women appointed in 1994, who operates in a more practical way undertaking fact finding country visits, transmitting urgent appeals to states on alleged cases of violence against women, and submitting thematic annual reports to the UN Human Rights Council. More recently, we have seen these issues integrated into international development frameworks particularly the Millennium Development Goals that contain a specific goal to ‘promote gender equality and empower women’ (MDG 3).
Challenging Social Norms
However, with all these advances, of which only a few are mentioned here, we must ask ourselves are we actually reaching the women, girls, boys and men in the urbanised and rural areas across the globe to sit up and take notice?
Sexual assault is still one of the most under-reported crimes with 54% of rapes going unreported according to the US Justice Department National Crime Victimization Survey (2006-2010) concluding that only 3 out of 100 rapists will spend even a day in prison. The fact that many women do not report instances of rape or violence is often a result of social stigma, fear of reprisal and a self-blame complex perpetuated by social norms. The reaction of Bosta Satyanarayana, the Andhra Pradesh Congress Chief, is a good example this, where in his statement on the Delhi Gang Rape he seemed to blame the victim for venturing out late, and taking an unsafe private bus which sparked outrage and calls for his resignation.
The stigma young women face in India is encapsulated by the case of a 16 year-old girl who was raped in the state of Haryana by eight men and video recorded last year and didn’t tell her mother until 10 days after her ordeal. Her mother also remained silent taking the advice of community members that her daughter’s reputation and ability to marry would be severely affected. News of the video recording of his daughter’s rape drove her father to suicide because of the fear of social exclusion and shunning their family would receive from the community.
It is obvious that laws and policies have a part to play in the elimination of violence against women, however it is equally apparent that this is only half the task. The road ahead needs to be paved with open discussions between governments, NGOs, Women’s groups, specialised agencies, community leaders and most importantly general citizens to understand the misconceptions of violence against women, challenge cultural norms, take women’s rights seriously and advocate for equality between men and women across all areas of society.
There is still a lot to do…
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-20863640 ; http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/DelhiGangrape/New-Year-celebrations-sobered-down-protests-against-gangrape-continue/Article1-982943.aspx
Featured Image Credit: Council on Foreign Relations
Yemi Oladejo is an ex-ICS volunteer, Human rights postgraduate and advocate. His interests are mainly social, economic and cultural rights and international development.