Live statics of domestic violence in India via foreign researchers

Violence against women in India is an issue rooted in societal norms and economic dependence. Discriminatory practices are underlined by laws favoring men. Inadequate policing and judicial practices deny female victims proper protection and justice. Although female participation in public life is increasing and laws have been amended, India still has a long way to go to make Indian women equal citizens in their own country.

Live statics of domestic violence in India via foreign researchers 

[ N.B: This project is taken from Dona John and Omair Ahmad are FNF Programme Executives. Maria Schneider is the Project Assistant South Asia. All three are based at FNF’s Regional Office for South Asia in New Delhi.]


The issue of violence against women in India was brought to the forefront after the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi on 16 December 2012. The December incident led to a sudden outpouring of anger and frustration about the situation that allowed such attacks to take place. People took to the streets in large numbers calling for change. But the issues involved are complex and deeply rooted. The challenges Indian women face include an often misogynistic society outdated and sometimes repressive governance structures, an inefficient legal justice system, a weak rule of law and social and political structures that are heavily male-centric. 

Violence against Women Begins at Home

Copyright by FNFIt is difficult and potentially misleading to make a culture-based argument about the problems that women face in India because of the size and diversity of the country. There is no one culture that is either exclusively Indian, or covers the whole population residing within its borders. Generalizations that ignore even one percent of the population leave more than ten million people out of the calculation. Thus the situation of women varies within India. Especially women from the north-eastern provinces as well as in the south tend to be in a better position. Their share of the female work force, especially in the service sector seems to be quite high. Moreover, they are considered to be more visible and active in the public sphere. Moreover regressive social codes that disproportionately penalize women are not unique to India, and have been a social hurdle in all countries when it came to extending political, legal, and economic rights to women. 

Nevertheless some numbers clearly indicate a large problem in Indian society’s attitude of women at the macro level. According to the 2011 census the sex ratio between men and women indicates 940 women to a 1000 men which is a definite improvement over the 2001 census where the ratio was 933:1000. However, India still has one of the lowest sex ratios on the world with approximately 35 million women "missing". The highest number of missing women at birth is in the north-western states of Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana, etc. Research indicates that 12% of this gap is found at birth which increased to 25% in childhood1. 

Some of the widely regarded key explanations for this missing number are sex-selective abortion and possible neglect of young girls during infancy indicating a high preference for male children rather than female children2.

This preference for boys is also evident in the gender gap in the literacy rate in the 2011 census which shows that 82% of males and 65% of females are literate. The difference of 17% indicates that many Indian parents still believe that educating the sons takes precedence over daughters while allocating family resources. Nevertheless, it is considerable improvement over previous census data where the gap was 27% (1981), 25% (1991), and 22% (2001). 

Much of the violence against Indian women is in the form of domestic violence, dowry deaths, acid attacks, honor killings, rape, abduction, and cruelty by husbands and in-laws. One of the key challenges is dowry – a practice of the bride’s family giving gifts of cash and kind to the groom and his family. In some cases the groom’s family mistreats the bride if such demands are not met. To protect women against this threat the Indian government had enacted the Dowry Prohibition Act and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act and cruelty under Sec 498A of the Indian Penal Code. In 2012, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), dowry deaths – or murders of women by the groom or in-laws because of unmet high dowry expectations – constituted 3.4% of all crimes against women. In other words, last year in India on average 22 women were killed per day because their families could not meet dowry demands.

The NCRB statistics indicate that an Indian woman is most unsafe in her marital home with 43.6% of all crimes against women being "cruelty" inflicted by her husband and relatives. These numbers do not include incidences of marital rape, as India does not recognize marital rape as an offence3. Of the 24,923 rape incidences in India in 2012, 98% of the offenders were known to the victim4, which is higher than the global average of approximately 90%. This may also mean that children – boys and girls – in India grow up in a situation where they see violence against women as the norm.

An Upsurge in Crime or Upsurge in Reporting on Crime?

The distribution pattern of crimes against women has not changed much in the last few years, but between 2001 and 2011 the overall number of incidents of crime against women rose steadily, and was 59% higher than in 2001. 

Copyright by FNFThese figures are, at best, indicative. Rape and violence against women are among the most under-reported crimes worldwide because of the social stigma attached to the nature of the crime. The UN Office on Drugs and Crimes records that in 2010 there were only 1.8 cases of rape5reported per thousand people in India; in Germany it was 9.4, in Norway the figure was 19.2, in the United States it was 27.3 and in Sweden it was 63.5 per thousand. It is legitimate to question whether these figures represent the number of crimes, or how easy it is for women in these countries to report them to the police.

In India, where the culprits are largely known to the victim, the social and economic "costs" of reporting such crimes are high. General economic dependence on their families and fear of social ostracization act as significant disincentives for a woman to report any kind of sexual violence or abuse. Therefore the actual incidence of violence against women in India is probably much higher than the data suggests.

Another barrier to reporting is the unwillingness of police officials to register complaints. If the case is lodged, sub-standard investigative procedures and low conviction rates strengthen the impression that there is little benefit in reporting the crime. Moreover, most police in India function within the framework of the Police Act of 1861 which emphasizes enforcing order rather than upholding rights. Therefore, if a police station registers many crimes within its jurisdiction, it is considered to be incapable of enforcing law and order. This perception is a severe disincentive for a police officer to record a crime in his jurisdiction, especially if the crime is seen as "less important". 

The presence of more women police officers might help in dealing with the problems most women encounter in reporting cases of rape, violence or harassment. Unfortunately there are only 84,479 women police personnel in India, constituting only 5.33% of the total police force. Nevertheless the one positive note is that the NCRB noted that 72.2% of the total registered cases of crimes against women in 2010 were investigated by 2011, making for a strong argument that if a case is registered by the police it is likely to be investigated and disposed of. 

The Nirbhaya6 effect

On 23 December 2011 the Indian Government set up the Justice Verma Committee to propose amendments to criminal law dealing with sexual offences. A month later, Justice Verma submitted its report recommending wider inclusion to the definition of rape, changes to the medico-legal examination procedures of the rape victim and the prosecution of members of armed forces/uniformed personnel under ordinary criminal law in the case of rape. 

In response the Parliament passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013 which provides for amendment of the Indian Penal Code, Indian Evidence Act and the Code of Criminal Procedure. It also enacted the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prohibition, Prevention and Redressal) Act 2013, 16 years after the Supreme Court directed the Indian Government to provide legal framework to deal with the issue of sexual harassment.7 

Some of the positive measures in these amendments included recognizing acid attacks, sexual harassment, voyeurism, stalking and trafficking of persons as criminal acts under the amendments to the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Five exclusive fast track courts were set up to deal with cases of sexual violence against women. Additionally a women’s distress helpline number, 1091 was launched in various Indian cities. 

Unfortunately the incorporation of the majority of Justice Verma recommendations into the criminal law amendments is not enough to change the fundamentals that drive anti-women discrimination. Stories of harassment, the rape of women – including of children as young as five or six years of age – and governmental incompetence or apathy continue to make their way into the front pages of Indian newspapers on a regular basis. 

Laws on paper give little protection, if they are not enforced effectively.

1The Age Distribution of Missing Women in India; S. Anderson & D. Ray; Economics & Political Weekly; Dec 2012 Issue 
3The Verma Committee suggested that marital rape should be recognized as a criminal offence but the suggestion was opposed by all major Indian political parties.
4Rapists known to the victims were parents/close family members (1.6%), relatives (6.4%), neighbours (34.7%) and other known persons (57.2%) 
5The UNODC does not differentiate by how rape is defined in each country. These are merely the number of cases recorded in the police records on 2010.

6The victim of the brutal gang rape in December was named Nirbhaya by the national media. Nirbhaya means fearless. 

7In the 1997 landmark judgment of Vishaka vs. State of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court directed the Indian Government to promulgate legislation on prevention of sexual harassment and issued guidelines which would take the force of law until legislation is passed.

Crisis in Law Enforcement

Without an independent, efficient, adequately staffed and technically well-equipped police force, rule of law is weakened in a democratic society. The number of police personnel, and the resources at their disposal, are currently woefully inadequate to deal with the challenges they face – both related to crimes against women and for other crimes. India deploys approximately 130 police per 100,000 people on par with Haiti (in the US the figure is above 250, and in Germany it is about 300), most of them equipped with little more than their uniform and a baton, and without a means of transportation or communication. At the same time the demands on the police to investigate the "more important" crimes such as murder and armed robbery take precedence. Crimes against women account for less than 10% of the crimes reported in India and even if they receive disproportionate attention that may not be enough in the difficult law & order situation of India.

An over-stretched and politically controlled police force will have different priorities than what is required for the protection of its citizens. Police excess and abuse affect the weakest the most – women and the under-privileged sections of the society. Redressal mechanisms against police abuse are either slow or dysfunctional. A recent incident of police misbehavior occurred in November 2012 when an 18 year old girl who was gang-raped ended her life after being tormented by police officials in Punjab.8 In another case, in which a 5- year old child was raped and left to die, a policeman offered two thousand Indian rupees (€26) to the father to withdraw the case.9

Student protests the rising violence against women in New Delhi, Copyright by Nilroy (Nilanjana Roy)Sexual violence by the Armed Forces in insurgency-hit areas of North-East India, Jharkhand and Kashmir has been heavily criticized because the human rights violators enjoy impunity under criminal law. The suggestion made by the Justice Verma Committee for soldiers to be subjected to criminal prosecution in cases of rape was rejected by all major Indian political parties. 

The judiciary is working at its limit as well. Of all the positions of judges in the Supreme Court of India and the High Courts, more than one quarter are currently vacant.10 Court cases often last for ten, twenty or more years.11 Such delayed court decisions fuel the perception of impunity and lack of justice among perpetrators and victims alike.

Change in Legislation Needed

One of the reasons that these changes do not take place is that political will is absent. Most legislators – at the national and provincial levels – are men and are often unaware or unsympathetic to the need for more gender-just laws governing rules of marriage, divorce, inheritance and succession. They, or their principal electorate, shy away from confronting issues of marital rape, molestation and rape by the armed forces, and more so when it comes to confronting the difficult issue of misogyny in social structures. 

An example of such an issue is the Personal Laws in India. These were first put in place by the colonial administration in 1772, which decided that the rules of marriage, divorce and inheritance of Hindus and Muslims would be decided by their religious-legal traditions. This was incorporated into the Indian Constitution, with some changes, after Independence, effectively entrenching religious – and social – law within a Constitution that is based on individual rights and responsibilities. This means that the judiciary either interprets religious law, or accepts interpretations by clergy who are inevitably male-dominated and conservative. This was infamously demonstrated in the Shah Bano case in 1985, when the Supreme Court interpreted Muslim Personal Law to force a husband to provide maintenance to his divorced wife over and above the earlier (very limited) amount. In response factions of the Muslim clergy protested, and the government passed The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986 which basically overruled the Supreme Court decision. While piecemeal amendments to personal law do take place, the current legal system traps Indians, especially Indian women, into religious / group identities that are based on centuries-old ideas (which may have been progressive at their time but are regressive today) that are difficult to change.

Increasing political Participation of Women

Increasing women’s participation in politics is essential to make the political environment more gender-sensitive and democratic and bringing about legislative reform. In the 2009 general elections 58 women became Members of Parliament, the highest number ever elected. For the first time, the head of India’s biggest political party, Sonia Gandhi, and the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Sushma Swaraj, are women. Some of the regional political parties are headed by women as well. Nevertheless, these women are a small number of highly visible exceptions to the system, and account for less than 10 percent of elected legislators at the national and regional levels.

In this context the largest positive move was the 2009 decision to reserve 50% of the positions in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) - locally elected political institutions at the village level - for women. This reservation will mean that almost 1.5 million elected legislators in India will now be women. 

The New Media

The media is a powerful tool for social conditioning and can also be an agent of social change. While patriarchal mores and repressive social structures continue to be reinforced through Indian cinema and television serials, nevertheless new independent movies, aimed at the more affluent urban audience, are starting to make their presence felt. Moreover with the social reality of more and more women playing important roles in the legal, economic and other professions, their representation is also changing. The biggest change may be in the news media, where women journalists approach parity with their male counterparts, making it more unlikely that crimes against women will be dismissed as "minor topics".

With about 120 million active internet users in the country as of June 2013, social media has become a major source of instant information dissemination and catalyst of activism against any regressive idea or action. One such instance was of Nisha Susan, a reporter from Tehelka magazine organizing a Pink Chaddhi (Underwear) Campaign in 2009 against the announcement of Pramod Muthalik of the Sri Ram Sene – an organisation expounding regressive chauvinist ideas in the name of the defence of Hindu culture –that his organisation would "take action", including forcibly marrying off, couples found together on Valentine’s Day. The Sri Rama Sene had, in the past, also physically attacked couples at pubs to discourage the mingling of unmarried men and women. The campaign encouraged women to send pink underwear as a form of non-violent protest to Mutahlik, and received an overwhelming response both in India and overseas. While it was a one-off campaign, with limited goals (which it achieved by publicly shaming Muthalik, and forcing the government to put him and his group into protective custody on Valentine’s Day) it shows the possibilities of action open to a new generation of empowered, educated, media-savvy young Indian women. It is a new generation that increasingly takes their future in their own hands by making one of the most important decisions in their lives by themselves. They ignore the widespread tradition of arranged marriages and chose their husbands on their own.

The Future

Protesters in Bangalore, Copyright by Jim Ankan DekaIndia remains a country that presents deep challenges to women. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2012 published by the World Economic Forum, India ranked 105th out of 135 countries surveyed. In economic participation it ranked 123rd, in Educational Attainment it ranked 121st and in Health and Survival it ranked 134th. Only in political participation was there any good news, where it ranked 17th. These numbers highlight the grim social reality underlying the news stories that are now making it into the media. By all indicators India is amongst the worst countries in the world to be a woman, and despite some indications that these problems are slowly being addressed, this reality will continue to manifest itself as reporting on India increases, and until fundamental changes are made to make Indian women equal citizens in their own country.

Fortunately new economic, educational and political opportunities have created the conditions for a growing number of women rights activists – both men and women – to raise the issues and address the problems, either as part of the media, administration, political structures or as civil society activists. While these have led to some progress, and there is hope for more, the first step towards righting the situation will be in reporting and acknowledging how difficult it is. Therefore it is likely that bad news on the state of women in India will outweigh the good for a considerable time to come. 

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About Neha Nair

Despite being raised Hindu where parents enrolled in a Catholic school and proceeded to enroll in university to study medicine but become model cum entrepreneur.
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