01 August, 2011

India: Unsafe for Women

One of the major news stories during our trip was that TrustLaw released a survey of experts that found that India was the 4th most unsafe country for women. While everyone recognizes women's rights is a major issue in the country, it was jarring news to hear that only Afghanistan, Congo, and Pakistan were less safe for women, as judged by 213 experts in the field. For a country that is trying so hard to be first world, it's a pretty damning judgement of how half the country is treated. And perhaps more troubling is that India is home to about 1/7 of the world's population. Which means roughly 1/7 of the world's women live in conditions less safe than Somalia. When the world's largest democracy comes up so short in basic welfare, there are a lot of questions to answer.

The main reasons for the low ranking are human trafficking, female foeticide, and child marriage. It is estimated that 100 million people in India are involved in human trafficking, mainly women and girls. Perhaps even more troubling is that most of that occurs within India's borders, which is a departure from our usual notion of trafficking. And perhaps the saddest element is the trafficking leads to approximately 3 million prostitutes, 40 percent of which are children. Other forms of trafficking include forced labor and forced marriage.

Female foeticide is the practice of aborting fetuses once they are found to be female. While in India I did notice that a law was being debated to outlaw abortions after a certain point of pregnancy. At first it seemed counter-intuitive in the fight for women's rights, but that point in pregnancy (which I have since forgotten) was when couples can find out the gender of their baby. Regardless, people are trying not to have girls, which has caused there to be only 914 girls under age six for every 1000 boys, the lowest ratio in a long time.

Forced marriage, and dowry related problems, comprise the other biggest safety concern for women. Roughly 40 percent of women in India are married before the age of 18, and obviously many are not by choice. And despite dowries being illegal, they still persist, and often lead to physical and mental torture of women that too often end in suicide or murder.

All of these depressing statistics seemed to be proved by the local media, as the major news story virtually every day of our first week in India was rape. Whether it was police suspected of raping and killing a girl, or a father being accused of allowing hundreds of men to rape his daughter, there were gruesome tales of mistreatment of young women. But more alarming was that these stories invoked outrage only because they received so much media attention, reminding us all that there must be countless situations that don't get reported.

But for all the damning numbers, this perception of India didn't exactly match what we experienced. In the city I saw more young women expressing themselves and their independence than ever before. Whether through clothing, career choice, or marrying later in life, the youth in India seems to be moving in the right direction. And yet for India to turn up so poor in the world's eyes illustrates the huge disconnect between the cities and the rural areas we were trying to explore.

All that said, I don't think any of my female cousins or family members feel particularly unsafe. And I don't believe Jess or Kat experienced safety related fears. The closest we came to a questionable situation is when we stopped to buy some alcohol, and Kat and I remained in the car because the store was deemed "not a decent place for girl."

To tie this back to our project, one would think education would be one way of combatting the issue. Particularly education in rural areas. If women are in fact getting married so young, there is a limited window to expose them to the ideas and concepts that can lead to empowerment and social change. Many of the stories we heard about communities addressing their problems centered around women coming together. In short, it seemed clear that the best avenue to change was by assisting women, because that in turn leads to better lives for their children and husbands. In villages and farms, women often bear the brunt of caring and providing for the rest of the family. And yet for those women, so essential to their community's well-being, to face such safety concerns raises questions about how progress can occur.

This issue pertains to our trip mostly in the timing of the news, but it definitely shaped the lens through which we viewed certain problems. For example, one school we visited cited teacher turnover as a major problem. The reason was that most of the teachers were women, and their career is always secondary in the household. So if the husband lost his job or was transferred, the women had to follow, even if teaching was the better opportunity.

So the direction we are moving in (to be explained in much more detail in future posts) is teacher training. And a large driving force behind that is trying to address some of the root causes behind the treatment of women, albeit in a small way.

Over the past 10 years, India has made major strides in their global perception. But the idea that there are only three countries that are more dangerous for women shook up our perspective.

For more information on efforts geared at fighting prostitution, please visit ASSET India Foundation, an organization started by a friend of ours that seeks to end the cycle of sex trafficking through education and technology.

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