The last word on the molestation case involving a popular actress from Kerala is far from over as the saga undergoes various twists and turns. But what is clear is that this is part of a worrying trend in crime against women in the state. Last year, there was a brutal rape and murder of a law student reminiscent of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape but which evoked nowhere near the attention that the latter did. In the latest case, the insidious theories doing the rounds in many local media vehicles reveal the extent of prejudice about the acting profession and the stereotypical assumption that women in it are of dubious character.
The extent of atrocities on women in Kerala is surprising since this is a state with superb social development indicators and very high literacy levels. In fact, women’s literacy is 92% and there is a healthy sex ratio of 966. But none of these has translated into more progressive attitudes towards women — to the contrary, things have got worse. From 2005-2014, incidents of rape grew by an astounding 436%, assaults on women by 246% and sexual harassment by 980%. This puts Kerala among the worst in rankings among states when it comes to crimes against women. There are 63 crimes against women per lakh as opposed to the national average of 56.3 with neighbouring Tamil Nadu registering 18.4. The cavalier attitude towards violence against women is very much ingrained both in the political system and the police in the state. With the actress’s case making national headlines, the state government has slowly swung into action but much of this has been fiery rhetoric about smoking out all those responsible. With a huge proportion of men working outside the state due to the lack of employment, women are often left alone to manage households. This makes them vulnerable to predatory advances. The other problem is that lack of employment has left too many young men idle and frustrated, a contributory factor in crimes. There is a generally permissive attitude to sexual harassment of women, the usual theory being that they asked for it. Since a large proportion of women are in the workforce, the number of cases has skyrocketed.
While the increase in reporting explains the number of cases, it also suggests the prevalence of violence. The only bit of good news is that there is a very strong women’s movement building in the state in the form of the Kudumbashree programme. If it takes the lead in the battle against violence against women, the state might see some progress on this front.