Sunday, April 5, 2009

That could be me

Swarna Rajagopalan, What it means to be a woman in India, New Indian Express, November 25, 2008.

What it means to be a woman in India

The most chilling news items remind you that you had a narrow escape. “That could be me.” India’s declining juvenile sex ratio is a good example. Take the decade I was born. According to the 1961 Census of India, there were 941 girls per 1000 boys and by 1971, this figure had declined to 930. What good fortune made me part of the 941 and 930 rather than the 59 and 70 girls who did not survive? Most rapists are known to be the victim, and a horrendous number (around 75 per cent) are members of the family or its inner circle. Most middle class Indians grow up in large extended families, open households where family and friends come and go. If we did not experience this devastating combination of violence and betrayal of trust, to what do we owe our good fortune? Marriage is all-important in our society; how many parents of brides are able to resist last minute demands for dowry? According to official records, the number of dowry deaths is actually growing from year to year. If we have not been charred by kerosene burns, what did we do to deserve that escape? “That could be me” comes with two imperatives: a debt to repay and the duty of empathy.

Our lucky escapes create a debt to society.

How do we make the world as safe for others as it has been for us? How do we show the less fortunate in our circle that we are not blind to their trauma? In a society that cloaks family violence as shame and codes violence against women in the public arena as “provoked”, what is the opportunity we make to end our silence? The second imperative is to acknowledge that there is no difference between those who have become victims and survivors of violence and those who have escaped this fate. Most women anywhere can recall some day, some time, some place, some person, and some trigger that makes them shudder inwardly at what might have been.

“That could be me.” And if there is no difference, then your trauma is my trauma and my strength should be yours.

Among activists and scholars in this area, it is a truism to say that violence follows women through their life-cycle.

With pre-natal sex selection becoming more and more popular in spite of all the legal measures against it, even birth is a chancy affair. Sexual violence, structural violence and violence in the name of the community haunt their lives, making life a series of traumas or lucky escapes.

Unfortunately, as a society, we trivialise this violence. We are beginning to code sex selection as reproductive choice or family planning. We euphemistically refer to street sexual harassment as eve teasing. We are unflagging in our efforts to reunite battered wives with their abusive spouses and in-laws because we tag their attempt to survive as family dishonour.

We have an endless encyclopaedia of excuses for abuse deficiencies in the wife, failure to deliver dowry, frustration at work that are trotted out in our entertainment media uncritically as reflections of our culture.

The fact however is: Violence against women is violence. It is not passion. It is not lust. Not provocation. Neither catharsis, nor punishment. Just brute force, coercion, violence.

And once we open our minds to this, we know that violence against women is one strand in a larger story. It is related to other forms of violence against those who are powerless children and sexual minorities, for instance. The term “gender violence” recognises this interconnectedness. By “gender violence” we mean violence that is experienced by anyone by virtue of their being a woman, man, girl, boy or aravani. It includes sexual violence of all sorts as well as socially sanctioned practices like dowry-death, honour killings or sati.

Because women and sexuality are the most sensitive markers of a community’s identity, the inclusion of these practices in such a list is contentious than the practice itself.

Further, gender violence is related to other forms of violence in society. Although it gives the impression of being personal, with individual victim and perpetrator, it connects easily to other fault lines of violence, such as class, caste and community. It is easier to perpetrate across these fault lines and even stands in for these, almost as if thereby limiting collateral damage! That is, it would seem easier in a riot to rape women than to stage street fights. It would seem easier to abduct girls from refugee camps than to sit at a negotiating table. Certainly, those who would rape or molest or harass would be more likely to pick victims with less social power than they domestic workers, poor relatives, orphans.

Crises exaggerate existing vulnerabilities.

Thus, intimate partner violence and family violence rise with levels of militarization in a society. In times of disaster or conflict, levels of violence within the household and in the neighbourhood go up.

Now recognised as a public health crisis, because gender violence routinely affects those with the least power, it does not attract attention. Nevertheless, the cost to society of providing health care and counselling to victims and the cost to the economy of their lost working days mount, as do levels of violence. Children are brutalised by experiencing and witnessing violence; we are raising a generation prone to violence, desensitised to it and accepting of it as one language of interpersonal and social relationships.

November 25 is the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women. This year in Chennai, Prajnya and partner organizations, including The New Indian Express, have put together a full schedule of public education events and activities as part of the Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence. A popular strategy worldwide, the 16 Days Campaign begins on November 25 and culminates on Human Rights Day, December 10.

Remember, this too could be you. Do your part. Speak out against this pervasive social malaise. Because gender violence hurts us all.

© Copyright 2008 ExpressBuzz

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