Yet another case of a brutal assault on a girl has grabbed headlines in India. Sonam, a 14-year-old, was allegedly raped and murdered last week in Lakhimpur, an obscure village in Uttar Pradesh. The main reason it is in the news is that the state goes to the polls early next year. It is unlikely that the dead girl or her family will ever get justice – but a huge amount of din and photo opportunities will certainly be created for politicians, including those from the Congress party, which is in opposition in the state.
Sonam’s death only proves why India was this week named one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women. The issue of gender abuse and discrimination is exploited by political parties to appeal to their core vote, much like a travelling circus drums up an audience. After the media switches its attention away, the political circus will pitch its tent somewhere else. Gender is not a priority with a national government content with tokenism, such as installing a woman president, Pratibha Patil. Even genuinely well-meaning policies barely scratch the surface. The real issues, of literacy, health (including maternal mortality), empowerment and security are often lost in the rhetoric.
On 10 June, 14-year-old Sonam was herding the family cattle which had strayed into a police station. She and her brother went into the police courtyard – and moments later the young boy ran home to tell his mother that Sonam had been taken inside a room and was being raped. When her mother reached the station, she found the body of her daughter “hanging” from the branch of a tree which was barely four feet off the ground. The accused policemen said she had committed suicide. A postmortem was conducted which corroborated the police version. However, thanks to media and political pressure the hastily buried body was exhumed once again and this time the finding was of “murder” – though, still not rape. The family is requesting a proper investigation.
The human rights commission, the national commission for women – and indeed the chief minister (who happens to be a Dalit woman) fussed with righteousness. But Sonam’s horrific death is just another symptom of a country which does not allow a vast majority of women to live, flourish or be independent. And though many laws have been created to protect them, few are implemented.
But why, despite the growing GDP and modernity, does India still have a spiralling rate of honour killings, dowry deaths, acid attacks, and trafficking – and why do these crimes go unpunished, including the horrific crime of female infanticide? In a society where economics and hunger drive most decisions, the girl child becomes a dispensable commodity. In the long run, it is still believed, she will give the family little financial gain – not only will she go away and live with another family after her marriage, an often ill-affordable dowry will have to be gathered for her.
While researching my book, I came across cases where new born baby girls had been thrown into rubbish dumps to be gnawed by rats; or given an overdose of drugs, sometimes opium. Education and wealth has only meant that richer families now go in for in-vitro sex selection, and choose boys.
Perhaps things may have been different if women had united in a pan-Indian women’s liberation movement (as in the west). But the vast majority of women are divided by caste, class, region, language, religion, even dress, and by illiteracy and poverty. And while strong Indian women such as Medha Patkar have struggled to create a social consciousness about individual rights, India still needs a charismatic female civil leader or politician who will address these frightening inequities, and turn its women into a force to reckon with.
The political class does not recognise how much women can contribute to development. The women’s representation bill, which would ensure that one-third of parliamentarians are women, has been delayed for decades. Even though four powerful women lead their own parties – Sonia Gandhi, Jayalalitha Jayaram, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati Kumari – no gender equality exists within their party ranks either.
The breakdown of law and order from increasing corruption can only mean things will become even more difficult for women in India. The reality is that they are beginning to raise their voices. The tragedy is that no one is listening.
Kishwar Desai, the author of Witness the Night, which won the 2010 Costa first novel award.