The barbaric rape and setting fire to a 15-year-old girl in India is just the latest in a continuous series of rapes across the country. Repeated cases of gang rape in India are not isolated incidents, but rather a reflection of widespread gender discrimination in the country. It is difficult to equate India’s rapid economic and technological development with such brutal practices that, in many cases, result in the death of women.
Female feticide is the earliest and most brutal manifestation of violence against women. Female foetuses are selectively aborted after pre-natal sex determination; researchers for The Lancet estimate that more than 500,000 girls are lost annually through sex-selective abortions. Sometimes, the elimination of women occurs even after they are born; female infanticide has existed in for centuries in India.
Feticide began in the early 1990s, when ultrasound techniques were introduced in India, and therefore became widely used. Previously, it was the norm for many families to continuously produce children until a male child is born. Boys are deemed more useful than girls: boys have the exclusive right to inherit the family name and properties, boys have the advantage of being allowed to be more productive in agriculture, and religious practices for their parent’s afterlife can only be performed by males. A male child is a status symbol for their families.
The Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act was passed in 1994 with the aim of making selective abortion illegal, but it has been poorly enforced. In 2003, the PCPNDT was modified holding medical professionals legally responsible for abuse of the test. These provisions, however, have not significantly deterred their abuse.
Although gender-based discrimination against female children is pervasive in developing countries, India is one of the worst culprits. Female discrimination, which starts in the womb, continues throughout women’s lives. A survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that India is the fourth most dangerous place in the world for women.
In India, violence against women can take several forms. Women of any class or religion can be victims of acid attacks a cruel form of punishment that can disfigure women for life or even kill them. According to perpetrators, it is an action meant to put women in their place for defying cultural norms. The UN Population Fund reports that up to 70% of married women aged 15-49 in India are victims of physical or sexual assault.
Dowry traditions, according to which parents must often pay large sums of money to marry off their daughters, are claimed as yet another reason why parents prefer boys to girls. In 1961, the Indian government passed the Dowry Prohibition Act, which makes dowry demands in wedding arrangements illegal. Although some kinds of abuse, such as “bride burning”, have diminished among the educated urban populations, many cases of dowry-related domestic violence, suicide, and murders are still occurring.
Since the first census of 1871, India has shown an abnormal sex ratio, steadily increasing the number of boys compared to girls. According to the Decennial Indian Census, the sex ratio in the 0-6 age group went from 104 males per 100 females in 1981, to 105.8 in 1991, to 107.8 in 2001 to 109.4 in 2011. This ratio is even higher in certain states, such as Punjab and Haryana.
Among the consequences of female feticide is the increase in human trafficking. According to some estimates, 15,000 Indian women were sold as brides to areas like Haryana and Punjab in 2011 to compensate for the lack of women as a result of feticide. This shows a significant change in women’s social status.
Rape cases in India are not isolated incidents; they are manifestations of a discriminatory norm beginning in the womb, all the way through a society that persistently treats women as second class citizens. Abuse against woman in India will only be solved by changing entrenched cultural norms. Unless this fact is accepted by Indian society, and appropriate laws are enforced, any measures to overcome this situation will only be palliative, and will not solve this important problem facing the country.
Dr Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and author of “Children’s Health”, “Health of Adolescents” and “Maternal Health”, all of them publications of the Pan-American Health Organisation.