As the election juggernaut powers on in Uttar Pradesh, on the wheels of various raths, we can expect to see the issue of the “surgical strikes” and the stepped up drive against black money take pride of place in campaign speeches. So it comes as a welcome development that BJP president Amit Shah has asked his partymen to make the respect of women, besides development, an issue in next year’s assembly poll in the state.
Of course in attacking the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Congress for not speaking up on the issue of triple talaq, he is seeking to score a political point. And certainly, the BJP must go beyond just talking about respect for women.
Many Hindutva organisations feel that the best way to show respect for women is to extend protection for them under a patriarchal system and confine them to traditional roles at home. UP, which the BJP is hoping to capture electorally, is among the worst when it comes to crimes against women. In the four years leading to 2015, violent crimes against women increased by a staggering 34% across India , with UP, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Rajasthan at the bottom of the heap.
Mr Shah is right when he raises the issue of triple talaq being against women’s rights. But at the same time, his party should lead from the front in seeking a change in all personal laws that discriminate against women as well as traditional practices that have inbuilt gender biases.
Few political parties have taken up the issue of women’s rights and violence against them. States ruled by the BJP, like Rajasthan and Haryana, have among the worst sex ratios. This is largely the result of female foeticide, a horrific form of violence against women. The figures for all crimes, including trafficking, rape, domestic violence and stalking have gone up.
At the same time, the criminal justice system is so difficult for women to negotiate that many cases just fall by the wayside. There are strong and adequate laws to protect women but awareness is still very patchy.
If the BJP takes up this issue, other parties will have to follow suit.
The issue of gender rights goes far beyond just respect and personal laws. The one thing that the states should do is to make it easier for women to report crimes at the police stations. This is what women find most difficult thanks to the indifference on the part of the police or downright hostility.
These are issues which should be taken up by political parties during elections. If Mr Shah is serious, hopefully we will see a difference in political discourse on gender rights.