Last week, a fast track court found four men guilty of the brutal gang rape and killing of a young woman last December in India’s capital of Delhi. Pending an appeal, the four men now face death by hanging as a result of a changes in Indian law that were made in direct response to a case that, in the words of Judge Yogesh Khanna, “shocked the collective conscience” of India.
Aggravated rape is now punishable by death In India and sexual offense cases are to be fast-tracked through the courts. Women’s rights advocates say that, while such changes are welcome, they overlook the need for structural changes in Indian society that would give women “equal and safe” place in cities.
“Invisible Women” Report About Women in India
Intense media attention, in India and around the globe, has been focused on the Delhi gang rape case. As academics Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan write in a report fittingly entitled “Invisible Women” (to appear in the next issue of Index on Censorship magazine), public transportation, restrooms, lighting and other facilities, are all designed for an “invariably male” user:
As a result, women’s toilets “are dark and unfriendly” and often close at 9pm, “sending the clear message that women are not expected to — and not supposed to — be out in public at night.” This means women “have to learn extreme bladder control and to negotiate dark streets and unfriendly parks.”
The link between access to toilets and rape is an issue in rural areas as well. In May it was reported that most rapes in the state of Bihar occurred when women went outside to the toilet at night. The authors claimed shopping malls were the only places in India’s cities where women felt safe.
As the report’s authors point out, the assault of the woman in the Delhi case “was facilitated in part by the lack of adequate public transport, which meant that she was traveling in a private bus.”
Food Security Bills Empower Women (Unintentionally)
One change to empower women in Indian society was not actually meant to do so. Last August, the country’s parliament passed a historic Food Security Bill, to provide for a wide-scale expansion of India’s subsidized grain program. A clause in the bill requires that ration cards must bear the name of the “women head of the beneficiary family.”
The change gives women the psychological boost of being considered the head of a household. As Sakuntala Narasimhan writes in Women News Network, it also gives them much-needed control over the use of the card:
[32-year-old] Mohana’s husband, a daily wage earner, regularly pawns the family’s ration card to pay for liquor so his wife and children often go hungry until the card is redeemed (with money she earns by taking on additional work as a cleaning maid).
If the ration card were in her name, she could ensure that the family’s food needs took precedence over her husband’s weakness for stopping at the local arrack shop to buy liquor.
Given the traditions in India of women eating last (and least) after feeding the men and children first, this change to the grain subsidy system could be huge for women’s health and food security.
Currently, only those earning less than $28 a month quality as BPL (below poverty line). Under the Food Security Bill, 670 million citizens will qualify for the food program.
General elections in India are scheduled for early 2014. The ruling Congress Party, under Sonia Gandhi, introduced the Food Security Bill; with an eye on the country’s 350 million women, other politicians seem to be crafting measures to empower women.
Narasimhan points to an August 30 directive from a parliamentary committee under which all state governments must provide employees who are single women with positions that are “closest to their home towns or places of their choice.” The directive also says that “the needs of mothers with small children, the directive adds, have also to be addressed ‘with empathy’” and encourages flexible work hours. These are small changes, but women and mothers around the world know that such seemingly meager innovations can make a big difference.
Emphasizing that the discussion of women’s rights in India must move away from the “struggle against violence,” the authors of the “Invisible Women” report write that “changing attitudes may take time but the provision of infrastructure … reinforces the point that women belong in public space.”
Yes, they do and that space needs to be remade with their needs and lives in mind, to ensure that women can do just what one young woman was doing on a December night last year, going to the cinema with a friend in her country’s capital city.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons