The dramatic increase in violence against women in India in the past decades has been all too well reported in domestic and international newspapers. Although the statistics speak for themselves, it's nevertheless important to understand that the issue is more global than local. Crimes against women in India will serve here as merely case studies for this persistent social plague which afflicts nearly half of the population of the world.
About the Poverties Project

This article is part of what was originally the 'Poverties project' which we ran from 2011-2016. It aimed to make social and economic research on poverty accessible to everyone. It focused on presenting evidence-based causes and solutions as much as possible, although with a pinch of sarcasm, cynicism or dark humour at times. Hopefully, it helps make the description of certain (horrible) situations more bearable.

EDIT: We have launched our first-ever children's book on the Sustainable Development Goals. A pretty unique way to educate both kids and parents on the best ways to care for the human and natural worlds!

Nationality has pretty much zero stakes in the story. We'll aim here to provide a thorough understanding of the issue in its global dimensions while at the same time attempting to bring into perspective the situation as it stands in India.

Defining crimes as violence

When one thinks of “crime”, the natural tendency is to link it to physical harm or abuse afflicted on another with malicious motives, sometimes leading to fatalities. In other words, people are adopting violence as a means to an end. Definitions by multilateral institutions like the United Nations or the World Health Organization (WHO) are consonant with this inclination to equate crime with a form of violence. 

A cursory look at the definition of violence can thus be helpful in this context to better understand what type of violence is regarded as criminal in international law.

 The WHO’s definition of violence (2002) emphasises on “intentionality” and defines violence as

“The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person or against a group or community that results in, or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation”. 

For the scope of this discussion, the victims of violence (whether physical, sexual or psychological) are taken to be women here.

Zooming in: violence against women in the Indian context

artistic representation of crimes against women in India
An artistic illustration - photo courtesy of Margolove

India is party to the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which it ratified in 1993. According to the convention, violence against women refers to both violence that is directed towards women as well as violence that tends to affect women disproportionately (e.g. crimes such as sexual aggression, female infanticide, domestic violence).

Traditions of discrimination: society vs the law

Indian society, to provide an overview, is largely a traditional society which still holds on to the vestiges of the past in terms of age old beliefs and customs. The political set up of the country on the other hand is quite a contrast on paper. 

The Constitution of independent India boasts of being one of the first documents envisioning a political structure, historically situated in the 20th century world that offered equal political, social and economic alongside men. This was a marvel at that point in time as many advanced nations of the First World had then yet to come to terms with the demand and need for gender equality.

So what happens when a country is governed with the help of new age laws while traditional society resists the new legislative requirements of practicing gender equality,
guided by the discriminatory customary laws? The situation that arises appears almost like a cosmetic surgery on a wound that has malignant properties. Social indicators such as female infanticide rates, maternal mortality rate and overall child sex ratio besides the obvious statistics found in crime reports are telling signs of this misfit beneath the image of a new age democracy.

Laws protecting women's rights in India

Defining and listing crimes against women in India

These crimes, listed under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) serves to provide us with a bird’s eye view of the legal stance on violence against women in the country.  The list is as follows:

  1. Rape (Sec. 376 IPC)
  2. Attempt to commit rape (Sec 376/511 IPC)
  3. Kidnapping & abduction of women (K&A) (Section 363,364,364A, 366 IPC) - in order to murder, for ransom, to compel her for marriage and other purposes
  4. Dowry deaths (Section 304B IPC)
  5. Assault on woman with intent to outrage her modesty (Sex. 354 IPC) - including sexual harrassment, voyeurism and other forms of sexual violence
  6. Insult to the modesty of women (Sec. 509 IPC) - including at work and in public transport
  7. Cruelty by husband or his relatives (Sec. 498A IPC)
  8. Importation of girl from foreign country
    (up to 21 years of age) (Sec. 366 B IPC)
  9. Abetment of suicide of women (Sec. 306

Having listed out the provisions in the Indian Penal Code, it is now time to take a look at the gender specific laws in the country for which data is available as per records:

  • The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961
  • The Indecent Representation of Women
    (Prohibition) Act, 1986
  • The Commission of Sati Prevention
    Act, 1987
  • The Protection of Women from Domestic
    Violence Act, 2005*
  • The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956

Statistics on violence against women in India

is violence against women in india declining
Is violence against women declining in India? Photo courtesy of ILRI

The National Crime Records Bureau publishes an annual report entitled “Crime in India”. The report for 2015 provides us with the latest status update of crime records in tune with the above provisions on women-related violence.

A brief overview has been provided as follows:

  • A total of 327,394 cases of crime against women have been reported in 2015. The present statistics show a 3.1% decline from 2014. 

After a long spell of 4 years (2011-2014) when the crime cases were continuously increasing, the sudden decline in overall crime cases reported makes one wonder whether things have really improved - or is it that there have been fewer cases of reporting this year?

  •  A total of 157,249 cases under violence against women in India has been reported as pending for investigation by the end of the year 2015 while 1,080,144 cases have remained pending for trial by the end of the year.
  • The highest conviction rate has been reported under the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (49%) followed by the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (47.8%) while the lowest conviction rate has been reported under Abetment to suicide and Cruelty by Husband and his Relatives.

Understanding the causes of violence

In order to better understand Indian society’s attitudes towards the treatment of women and the types of crimes most commonly witnessed, we can try and look at the issue through the lens of 'relational vulnerability' (Naila Kabeer, 2014).

In her paper on the subject, Professor Naila Kabeer talks about the ‘relational vulnerability’ of women as a reflection of women’s subordinate status within hierarchial gender relations in society. In India, where women are mostly treated as liabilities and identified socially only as someone’s

  • Daughter
  • Wife
  • Mother
  • Sister

... so one can understand how the dependencies and relationships are spelt out in the identification itself. They barely have an identity of their own. They are merely identified by their relation (or subordination) to their male counterpart(s). This status of women in Indian society where their identity is overwhelmingly defined by their role in their families brings us to the next point of our analysis.

Where do women face violence the most?

The answer that can be derived from the NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) report seconds the derivation that Professor Kabeer has drawn from her study. Women face violence mostly in the private sphere and from the very relations that seek to define her identity.

Professor Kabeer’s study observes that men mostly face violence in public sphere and that too in street fights, brawls, riots, homicides and other forms of violence, largely at the hands of casual acquaintances and sometimes complete strangers. Women, on the other hand mostly face violence in the private sphere (e.g. domestic violence, marital rape), within their families and at the hands of intimate partners or relatives of their partners.

Is life really getting better for women?

(and possible causes for the drop in 2015 crime rate)

We have so far understood that women face most of the violence at home, at the hands of intimate partners or family members. One can go so far as to say that violence and abuse, negligence and indifference to her needs are an everyday reality for women across the country. 

Against the given backdrop of “normalised violence”, let us now take a look at a few debilitating traits that may help us understand the reasons behind the possible drop in crime reports in India - or why the statistics may not tell the full story:

  1. Preserving the family's reputation

In India, a woman is brought up to look upon herself as a natural dependent. Her choices are limited, governed by social pressure. She is brought up to believe in the “necessity” of marriage irrespective of her educated opinion on the same and coached to assume the sole responsibility to make the marriage work. 

The emphasis on this responsibility leads her to often keep silent as a mark of respect for the accountability issue that she feels she owes to the society in case the marriage does not work. 

As the crime report showcases, the lowest conviction rate has been reported under Abetment to suicide and Cruelty by husband and his relatives. She might very well not dare to speak up against the family whose “honour” she represents but who she is made “dependent” on through her relationship with the unit for her own identity.

  1. Beefed up security in cities

In urban areas, between 2011 and 2014 there was a rising trend in outdoor crimes against women. This contributed to the overall rise in crime rates. The Delhi gang-rape case of 2012 led to an outpouring of anger across the country like none seen before. 

Political bosses had to sit up and take notice or risk losing face in front of a significant section of the voting population. Security was beefed up in the major mega cities, particularly Delhi and a popular narrative was woven of how women were safe on the streets, in the workplace, in universities, etc as per updated law. 

Nothing was said about the women in rural spaces. Nothing was done to guarantee their security. In a village on the outskirts of Bengal, right about the same time, a school girl was heinously raped and murdered and the issue was barely discussed for a week. 

It has been reported that the brother of that young girl is still out there, running from office to office in search of posthumous justice for his sister. Clearly, crime reporting has something to do with location. Rural and semi urban spaces barely feature in reports which talk about crime rates increasing or declining in absolute figures.

Gulabi gang fighting for women's rights and against violence
Fed up with abusive husbands and corrupt officials, the women of Bundelkhand are banding together and armed with pink lathis (sticks) they are fighting back. The Gulabi "Pink" Gang fights for the rights of women and other marginalized people in rural India.- Photo courtesy of Akhsay Mahajan
  1. Painful crime reporting

Improving the reporting of report crimes is a big step forward in fighting violence against women in India. When a few brave-hearts seek to take that step while fighting social sanctions of various kinds, the next difficulty that they face is that of dealing with the insensitivity of the authorities. 

Policing authorities in rural spaces particularly, are seldom sensitive to the needs of the victims of gender violence. The training required to handle such cases are often overlooked. This results in women who would have otherwise reported cases, preferring to keep away from the entire procedure of seeking justice legally.

  1. The law vs the weight of social customs

Careful studies of the Indian laws to penalise crimes against women display another interesting trend. The laws seem to be designed to look at the crimes as almost a factor divorced from social customs and gender biased attitude. A simple example for instance is the fact that “rape” is penalised but “marital rape” is not. 

So before one is married, rape is a crime, after marriage she becomes vulnerable to rape as it is not criminalised. The law is silent on the issue and so are women who find no law to protect them and thus have no option but to not report the act. 

Although domestic abuse can be reported as “cruelty by Husband and his Relatives”, “marital rape” can still be passed off in Indian society as some kind of a “right” of the husband on his wife. It all boils down to “wife-beating” and sexual abuse behind the bedroom doors, the “cruelty” element of which as per law remains very debatable.

  1. Better off in the city

In rural spaces, crimes against women are normalised to a greater extent than in urban spaces. “Family honour”, “clan or community honour”, “caste honour” sometimes serve as related factors and variables guiding the politics behind choosing targets even as women in general suffer.

Lower class women, Dalit women, tribal women are the ones who not only suffer such abuses to a greater extent because of these factors but also are more oppressed in terms of exposure to the probability of seeking justice. 

Village units (particularly tribal ones) are given a certain degree of autonomy as per the law of the land, to carry on life as per their customary laws. This leads to lack of uniform laws to rein in violent and aggressive customary practices which vary across regions. Crime reporting is thus not very popular a measure in the hinterlands as a response to empowering women.

What can we do to stop these crimes?

indian child marriage survivor victim
Despite being married at the age of 8 years old, Shobha finished her education - photo courtesy of BBC World Service

Gender based crimes require a new approach altogether, in the manner in which they are seen, studied and understood.

The crimes which have been listed in laws and in the penal code and even those that require future deliberation can hardly be addressed by concentrating only on punitive measures and security measures.

Punitive and security measures can at the most bring the present situation under a certain amount of control.

However, rooting out violence against women in India as a whole requires sustained effort on the part of the actors of society. We need to factor in the costs of gender driven violence and attempt to sensitize those segments of the society that we have the power to influence.

Changing how we treat one another

Educating women and empowering them will be essential, but it won't be enough. We need to provide all children from different backgrounds in schools scope to grow in a way that respects every one from every gender in order to ensure that the next generation turns out more respectful of one another (and of how women are treated).

It has been observed that children coming from homes where the father beats up the mother or abuses her, grow up with violence being registered subconsciously as a normal part of their lives. 

It affects their behaviour and attitude towards their counterparts in society. It is necessary to have counsellors in schools to guide children like these affected ones at influential stages of their lives so that they can grow independently of such home grown gender biased influences.

Law enforcement officials, people engaged in public transportation services and other services in the public spaces should be sensitised adequately in order to make sure women in public spaces feel more secure.

Most importantly, to conclude, women in India should be taught and encouraged to raise their voices against any form of discrimination that they may face, however small  due to gendered stereotypes operating in society. Assistance should be made available to those who raise their voices so that more women come out into the open to claim their deserved spaces in the development agenda of the state.