What perpetuates the rise in violence against women
While we focus on tackling violence against women, we should not believe that women are safe indoors and are at risk outdoors
The data on violence against women (VAW) reveals a grim picture. Reported incidents of rape, assault, abductions, domestic violence, acid attacks, dowry deaths, trafficking, murder and other crimes against women have risen over the last six years, according to numbers released by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). This deadly cocktail of the multiple ways in which women are attacked imposes huge costs on their lives. In addition to the actual physical harm, it diminishes women’s psychological self-worth, their ability and right to a life free of fear and terror, and makes daily decisions difficult. Women often take the longer route when they are out, instinctively protect their chest with their hands or a bag in a crowded bus or train, develop an uncanny ability to distinguish between an unwelcome touch or stare from a benign one. And unfortunately, this starts from childhood. Let’s call this stylised fact number 1.
Stylised fact number 2 is that Indian women’s recorded labour force participation rate (LFPR) –which was low at the best of times – has been declining since 2004. Prima facie, it appears highly likely that both these stylised facts are related. Indeed, there is a very widespread belief that rising VAW has been one of the reasons behind declining LFPR.
To what extent might this be true? Consider these additional elements. One, the decline in female LFPR is a rural phenomenon, not an urban one. Urban LFPRs were always lower than rural and have remained stable (and low). Two, within rural India, Scheduled Tribe (ST) or Adivasi women have seen the largest decline in recorded LFPR. Is there evidence that violence against rural ST women has increased over 2004-2021? No.
Three, the word “recorded” (reported) in both crime and LFPR data is important. An increase in crime numbers can reflect an increase in incidence or an increase in reporting or both. The numbers we see are the net effect of both incidence and reporting. If there is pervasive violence, which is not reported by women, and/or not recorded by the police, the numbers will be low. High and increasing numbers could also be a result of greater reporting, rather than only greater incidence.
The premise that high VAW causes low female LFPR focuses on street safety and violence by strangers. Of course, streets should be safer, well-lit, with pavements, there should be plenty of public transportation, women (and everyone else) should be able to walk on the streets at any time of day or night without fear of being assaulted. Streets bustling with pedestrians are safer than empty ones.
But does the lack of all these features imply that women are safer indoors than outdoors? Do women fear street violence so much that they would rather not step out unless accompanied by a man? Is this why they are refusing to work even when there is work available, work that they would have done had they not been so afraid of street violence?
The short answer to these questions is no.
LFPR has been declining in rural India. There is evidence that shows that while agriculture remains the biggest employer of women, the share of women employed in agriculture has declined. Technological change in agriculture has displaced female labour by substituting for tasks that women specialise in. In rural India, paid work opportunities for women are few: Agriculture, school teachers, accredited social health activists, Anganwadi workers or auxiliary nurse midwives, or on construction sites. There are very few avenues for paid, gainful employment, nowhere near the scale that is needed to absorb and utilise the productive potential of the vast reservoir of human labour power in India.
Do women, in fact, prefer staying indoors? The biggest source of VAW is from the circle of acquaintances well known to them, not from strangers. This is the element of VAW that systematically gets underreported: Domestic violence and intimate partner violence (DV/IPV). This is a global phenomenon, and India is no exception. Women find it very difficult to report their abusers, who are people in their close intimate circle: Fathers, husbands, partners, uncles and often even women – mothers and sisters-in-law.
Even if there is no physical violence, many women face emotional abuse. Being at work, sharing stories with co-workers and friends, provides crucial support to women, in addition to the economic independence and higher self-worth that comes from being in a paid job. Exploitative and poorly paid jobs can add a level of stress of their own – for women just as they do for men.
A decade after the December 2012 gangrape case in Delhi ignited a firestorm and a movement, the bottom line remains the same – while we focus on tackling VAW, as we must, we should not believe that women are safe indoors and are at risk outdoors. Women’s declining LFPR is a problem that needs to be tackled equally urgently, but the link between VAW and female labour force participation is a tenuous one globally. Countries with high VAW do not necessarily have low female LFPRs.
Indian women should be able to lead a life of self-respect and dignity and this includes the right to be free of violence and the right to gainful work.
Ashwini Deshpande is professor of economics and director, CEDA, Ashoka University
The views expressed are personal