Friday, April 12, 2013

Risks to Women

A few weeks ago, FICCI organized a round table discussion on risks to women in India. I was invited to moderate the discussion. This is what I said...


Two observations: One, it is indeed progress that an industrial federation has found it worth its while to organise a discussion on risks to women. Given that industry is notorious for living by the balance sheet, it is very heartening to see attention being given to a subject which has traditionally been low-priority.

My second observation is that despite this initiative, women’s security is still considered a woman’s matter. Not for a moment I want to undermine the eminence of this panel, but the very fact that it overwhelmingly comprises women suggests that men still consider this a bit of a non-issue. This is not only undermines woman’s safety in the public spheres, but also underlines the primary reason why they are unsafe.

Why this undermines woman’s safety? Simply because our public spaces are overpopulated by men. Hence, no matter what we do at our end, to a very large extent, women will always have to depend upon a male guarantee to their security. Right from her workplace to a public park, women have to bargain space and security with men. A woman’s security is not a woman’s issue, it is a societal issue which has to be addressed by both men and women.

And why this underlines the reasons for women insecurity? Because by putting the responsibility of their security on women, the men willy-nilly apportion the blame on women, should anything happen to them. By holding the victim responsible for the fate that befells her, they showcase the mental make-up which discriminates against women, and not just in public spaces. Even at home, women are vulnerable, and most often this vulnerability is reinforced by women themselves, whether their mothers or mothers in law.

Coming to the specifics, what are the risks to women’s safety? At home, it can be an abusive or exploitative childhood, violent marriage and dowry harassment. Or something as invisible as undermining of her personality and spirit by constant emotional and psychological battering: by isolating her from decision-making; by not allowing her to spend her earnings, if at all, in the manner she wishes to; by isolating her from her family and friends; by running down her abilities and so on.

At workplace, sexual harassment is the most obvious threat. But that apart, a lot of threats that exist at home exist at the workplace too. For instance, women workers are mocked for their inability to put in certain number of hours; they are arbitrarily considered less efficient for certain jobs or conversely are considered more efficient for certain jobs, like public relations which is a not so subtle reference to their sexuality.

In public places, from verbal assault (which we delicately put as eve-teasing) to physical assault, it’s an open field.

The irony is, even in the so-called safe environs, the gender and cultural insensitivity leads to further violations of a woman, whether it is the police stations, the hospitals or the court rooms.

So where do we begin? After all these years, it is clear that our deterrence against the predators who stake women out has not worked. In fact, punishment has not been a deterrence at all. It is some kind of unfathomable vileness that leads men to commit sexual crimes against women. It just cannot be the over-confidence that they won’t get caught. What explains the behaviour of the hotel owner in Agra? How did he imagine he would get away with whatever he intended to do?

After the gruesome December incident, all kinds of mind-numbing and blood-curling statistics appeared in the press underlying how unsafe women are. Figures don’t really register in my mind. But what did, was a traditional lunch that I and a group of my girlfriends have once in two months. We have known each other on an average for about 10-12 years. But somehow personal incidents of sexual harassment or abuse never really figured in our conversations.

However, such was the impact of the December rape and murder case that we started sharing our personal histories. Shockingly, each one of us had an incident or two to narrate; ranging from every day verbal assault to more invidious instances of stalking and indecent propositioning at workplace. One had even suffered persistent molestation by her tutor as a child. Ironically, the shame of it was reinforced in all our cases by the women in our lives, our mothers, aunts and older sisters.

So really, where do we begin?

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