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A feminist approach to gender-based violence policymaking in India

Feb 26, 2024 02:45 PM IST

This paper is authored by Farheen Nahvi, ORF.

India’s social structure, with enduring gender inequalities rooted in patriarchal norms, plays a significant role in perpetuating gender-based violence (GBV). Women in India have been victims of infanticide, selective abortions, sex trafficking, stalking, dowry demands, child marriages, acid attacks, and honour killings. This brief explores the social dimension of GBV in India and assesses how gaps in legislation help to perpetuate them. It also recommends a re-evaluation of GBV-related policymaking through a feminist approach that considers the social nuances of gender in India to drive long-term changes.

Gender Equality.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

During the 2002 Gujarat riots, 21-year-old Bilkis Bano and her family were attacked by an armed and angry mob, in an incident of brutal sexual violence and murder. Following a long-drawn legal battle, 11 people were convicted and sentenced to life by the Supreme Court on the counts of rape, murder, and assault in 2008. However, in August 2022, all 11 convicts were released on remission after serving only 14 years of their sentences. This case is representative of the state of India’s policy and legal frameworks to combat GBV, and raises many questions about the future of women’s rights and safety in India.

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines GBV as “Harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender,” and says “It is rooted in gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful norms…[and] is a serious violation of human rights and a life-threatening health and protection issue.” Such acts can be of a physical, sexual, psychological, and/or economic nature. Other forms of GBV include workplace harassment, abuse in online digital spaces, social ostracisation, and financial dependence. The most widespread form of GBV against women is intimate partner violence, with an estimated one in three women having experienced sexual or physical intimate partner violence across their lifetime.

Importantly, while gender is a critical aspect of determining GBV, it intersects with other factors defining a person’s identity and affects their experience of violence. These factors can be race, age, social class, religion, or sexuality. Some minorities are particularly vulnerable to GBV.

The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women were the first international treaties to recognise GBV against women as a major global issue. Still, it is primarily local and national feminist movements that have been instrumental in highlighting the issue of violence against women and advocating for legal and social reform. In India, for example, feminist activism played a significant role in bringing about reforms in the workplace, resulting in the promulgation of the Vishakha Guidelines in 1997, which was later superseded by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act in 2013.

In the context of this brief, GBV refers to acts of abuse of a sexual, physical, psychological, or financial nature committed against women in India. A 2018 poll ranked India as the most unsafe country in the world for women. The National Crime Records Bureau recorded an 87% increase in reported cases of crimes against women between 2011 (228,650) and 2021 (4,28,278), with a majority (31.8%) of these being cases of domestic violence.

Most often, the perpetrators of GBV in India are men known to the women. India’s social structure, with long-standing gender inequalities rooted in patriarchal norms and gender roles, plays a significant role in perpetuating GBV. Traditional gender roles prescribe a docile nature and an inferior position for women. Women are perceived to be better suited for housework and childcare, and are expected to serve the husband and family, giving impetus to other factors that legitimise and perpetuate violence against women, such as male entitlement and the sexual objectification of women. While the common forms of GBV against women in India are acts of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and murder, there exists a broad spectrum of violence. Women in India have been victims of infanticide, selective abortions, sex trafficking, stalking, dowry demands, child marriages, acid attacks, and honour killings.

While the Indian constitution guarantees the protection of life and liberty (Article 21) and prohibits discrimination based on gender (Article 15), policymaking in this field is stymied by several problems. This brief analyses the legal and social dimensions that define GBV in India through primary and secondary data analysis and research. It recommends re-evaluating GBV-related policymaking through a feminist approach that takes into account the particular social nuances of gender to drive long-term changes.

The paper can be accessed by clicking here.

This paper is authored by Farheen Nahvi, ORF.

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