Gender violence in the Global South has unfortunately been an enduring issue, leaving an indelible mark of fear in the lives of many women. However, 2018 arguably prompted a shift not only in social attitudes, but in the sense of courage and solidarity, which encouraged many women to step forward with their harrowing stories of assault. This movement began in Hollywood, with the start of the TimesUp and #MeToo movement but made a transatlantic move to Bollywood by the end of the year. The rise of the #MeToo movement in Bollywood thus invites a need for a greater conversation about the treatment of women in India, especially those who cannot vocalise their struggles.
India’s #MeToo movement has acted as a catalyst for the discussion of issues surrounding rape culture and sexual harassment. In light of Tanushree Dutta’s accusation of sexual assault against Bollywood actor Nana Patekar, many women were inspired to come forward with their own stories of sexual harassment, and it opened up a necessary dialogue about the many cases which go unreported. The actress recalled how ten years ago, she was assaulted on set by the actor Nana Patekar, and decided to leave the country as a consequence of this. She admitted that ‘the stories that have been told are just a tip of the ice-berg’. Many actresses were dissuaded about speaking out, as they were unsure about the consequences of it. She herself was ‘subjected to slut shaming, legal notices and a vicious smear campaign.’ She is not the only actress to have endured this, as many other women have made accusations against other prominent figures in Bollywood, such as Alok Nath and Sajid Khan.
The #MeToo movement in India acted as a catalyst for a discussion surrounding gender-based violence.
However, whilst it is absolutely empowering that these women have had the courage to come forward to vocalise their struggles, it simultaneously illustrates the antithetical situation of women in rural India, or working-class women, who do not have the means to enunciate their accounts of violence. A recent interview conducted by the media blog ‘Feminism in India’ sought to clarify the way in which this issue is often overlooked in rural communities. Certainly, it is important for us to gain individual perspectives in order to avoid tokenising these struggles as ‘mass issues’. The account gave a poignant example of how India is still failing its women, and implicitly opened up a dialogue about the ways in which we need to do more.
The patriarchal culture entrenched in India perpetuates a cycle of violence against women from birth. In particular, the problem is severe in impoverished rural India, as women’s families face social pressure not to report rapes. These areas also see the highest rates of unreported rape cases therefore, as well as a plethora of other issues, from dowry-deaths, to honour killings, to female infanticide. Unfortunately, these issues do not seem to be receding, the Thomson Reuters:
‘released a study that ranked India as the most dangerous place for women because of its high incidences of sexual violence, lack of access to justice in rape cases, child marriage, female foeticide and human trafficking’,
— reports the Washington Post.
What are the issues that affect women, particularly in rural locations?
Whilst it is easy to dismiss these statistics as merely descriptive, quantitative figures which underline the unfortunate experiences of many Indian women, we need to contextualise them to understand their gravity. Especially as a woman living in a somewhat sheltered, Western environment, it can be hard to understand the significance of these crimes. These include dowry deaths — which are ‘the murders or suicides of married women caused by a dispute over her dowry’. Especially in rural communities, husbands and in-laws can continuously harass and torture the wife as a means of extorting a larger sum of money. In some cases, this has led to the wife committing suicide.
Further issues which are of an alarming relevance to Indian society, include female infanticide. ‘Female infanticide is the elected killing of a new-born female child or the termination of a female foetus through sex-selective abortion’. In India, many believe that there is a greater incentive to have a son, because daughters are considered to be a greater burden upon their families. This connects to the issue of the dowry, which can pose as a financial burden on the family. The fear of not being able to pay thus results in a fear of becoming ostracised. Therefore, these instances are more common in rural, working-class families.
Such cases of gender violence highlight the ways in which a patriarchal culture has been perpetuated through the generational oppression of women in India. Unsurprisingly, sexual harassment also came at the top of the list, with India’s crime records showing that ‘reported rapes of minor children had more than doubled between 2012 and 2016′.
Changing legislations is not enough — we need to change mindsets.
We need to challenge the system in place by ensuring that these structures, which enable these incidents to happen, are dismantled. There is no easy solution. This problem is systematic and pervasive, and cannot be tackled overnight. Legislative change, whilst being an effective measure, will not avail by itself because violence against women is a deep-rooted social problem. Instead, there are many other measures which society would need to undertake cohesively in order to ensure that the root cause of the problem is eradicated. In particular, the model of ‘empowerment through education’ is beneficial to both sides, as it is crucial in changing mindsets.
The work of UN Women, in their programme for ‘Partners for Prevention (P4P)’, is constructive to tackling gender violence at its root, because its long-term goal is to:
‘reduce the prevalence of gender-based violence in the region through behaviour and attitudinal change among boys and men, increase institutional capacity and facilitate policy enhancements’.
The underlying idea is that social attitudes need to change first, in order for the structures in society to reflect permanent change.
The rise of the #MeToo movement in India was a pivotal point for women across the country, as they understood that their voices mattered, and that they did not have to stay silenced. More importantly, this opened a discussion about the many other (and largely unreported) acts of gender violence which take place, which disproportionately affect rural and working-class women. India’s fight against gender-based violence is an on-going battle, but one which offers hope for the future.