Two weeks ago, a woman’s body was found near my neighborhood. She was brutalized and remains unidentified. Police shared photos of her body, in case someone recognized her clothing. Her body lay for two days after she was discovered because a forensics team had to travel from another part of our state to collect her remains.
I’ve long stopped reading the daily newspaper. Rape, femicide, and abuse of women scattered throughout the pages provokes in me both fear and rage. “Save Girl Child!” is painted on walls and murals in our city, yet when a woman gives birth to a girl the child is already seen as a disappointment. A burden. She will be given away to live with her husband’s family, and is forbidden to participate in certain religious rites as they are for only for the “family” (meaning men, boys, and women who marry into the family).
Women in India are tired. The burden of being female and therefore second-class weighs heavily on their shoulders. I’ve spoken to women married off at the tender age of 13, women abused by their husbands with nowhere to go, women afraid to speak for themselves or leave their homes without permission. While some girls of the younger generation are beginning to defy expectations and enjoy more freedom, prioritizing education and career, they seem to be a minority.
This article is is not an attack on India, Indian culture, or Hinduism. The beauty and rich heritage of India is unquestionable. Indians are kind-hearted, socially minded, and friendly people. The incredible warmth and generosity ingrained within Indian culture cannot be understated.
However, the horror of existing as a woman in India can be soul-crushing.
Too many women and girls are considered as chattel, live-in servants for their in-laws, or worse: killed for merely existing as female.
Indian culture has a complex social hierarchy. Elders are revered, especially elders on the father’s side of the family. Elders and men are served first at meal-time, and women eat last (despite having done all the work). All household chores and childcare fall to women; a man is considered a laughingstock if he so much as washes laundry. Useful household appliances like dishwashers and laundry machines are rare, so women do everything by hand, laboring for hours to maintain their homes.
Often, young women are discouraged from pursuing higher education and are married off as quickly as possible. Should a woman be so unlucky to have married into an abusive situation (abused by her in-laws/husband), she is shamed into staying; her family will not accept the shame of a broken marriage. Without proper education and means to support herself, an abused woman is left with no other choice than to stay with her abuser(s).
Most marriages are “arranged,” meaning the parents of the prospective brides and grooms meet with multiple families and decide on a good partner for their child. Modern families may allow the engaged couple to go on dates before marriage, but often the couple meet twice before getting married: at the initial meeting, and at their engagement party. Once the wedding is over, the bride is sent to live with her in-laws.
Dating is strictly forbidden by most Indian parents. There have been cases of couples publicly beaten for kissing, hugging, or holding hands in public. Bollywood movies often portray a “romantic” trope in which a man stalks the object of his affection until she coyly falls in love with him, after repeatedly dismissing his advances. Social condemnation of romantic relationships paired with the romanticization of behaviors like stalking create extremely unhealthy attitudes toward sex and women.
It is illegal to determine the sex of a fetus, due to the prevalence of female foeticide in India. When a baby girl is born, she is generally greeted with open disappointment. She may end up a victim of infanticide. Horrifyingly, there are frequent cases of infant and child rape, often by a male family member.
A combination of these cultural practices, ideas, and attitudes contribute to the perpetuation of abuse, rape, and murder of women and girls in India.
DNA testing is a rarity in India, as most cities do not have a forensics team and must call on forensics teams from larger cities to come to their aid if necessary. Considering the massive population (over 1.4 billion people) and the result is many rapists and perpetrators of femicide easily escape justice.
Additionally, many rape cases go unreported due to the shame and fear of victims. Stigma of being a rape victim can cost a woman her future marriage prospects and will have social ramifications that follow her for life. A woman or girl may even be cast out of her family if she comes forward.
Last week The Hitavada published a story about a 13 year old girl was sexually assaulted by her teacher. When she came to her parents and told them, they blamed her for accepting the advances of an older man. She attempted suicide. It is unclear whether she will survive.
One of the most notorious gang-rapes in India happened in 2012. A woman, named Jyoti Singh got on a bus with her male friend after seeing a movie.
Six men raped Jyoti in the moving bus, taking turns driving. The men brutally inserted an iron rod into her vaginal cavity. Her injuries were so severe 95% of her intestines had to be removed. Jyoti Singh succumbed to injuries, but not before bravely making a statement to police identifying the men and describing the horrors she endured.
Before her name was released to the public, she was called “Nirbhaya,” meaning “the fearless one.” She was known as “India’s daughter,” and her case sparked nationwide protests, decrying the treatment of women in India.
In a BBC interview with the bus driver, Mukesh Singh, his despicable idea that women are second class, and therefore subject to such acts of barbarity is made clear:
“Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20% of girls are good. When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape.”
Mukesh Singh and 3 other men who took part in the torture and rape of Jyoti Singh were sentenced to death in 2019.
Although the “2012 Delhi Gang Rape” case shook the nation, gang rape is still a common occurrence in India. Last week a member of the legislative assembly in Rajastan made a statement after his son was implicated in the gang rape of a minor girl, denying the accusation and claiming the accusations are a “political conspiracy“.
Lives of women and girls in India are unquestionably affected by fear and trauma. Women have self-imposed nightly curfews, for their own safety. Many people still blame victims of rape, and though there has been a significant shift in how women and girls are viewed, there is still much work to be done in order to ensure the safety of the female sex.
How you can help:
Consider donating to charities that empower or educate women and girls in India. The Invisible Girl Project prevents girls from being sold into human trafficking and provides them with educational opportunities. Hope India Welfare Trust provides a multitude of services to empower and protect women and girls, including legal services, counseling, menstrual products, and nutritional aid. Above all, listen to the stories of Indian women. Share their plight. If you live in India, please be an advocate for women and girls by starting (perhaps difficult) conversations surrounding women’s safety and right to equality.
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Photo: Frederic Barriol via Unsplash