Saturday, June 18, 2011

Girl's murder a sign of the plight of India's women

Sonia Gandhi is one of four powerful women in India who lead political parties, but there is still no gender equality within their party ranks

Frightening inequities persist despite modernisation

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 earlier this month 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 last week named one of the most dangerous countries 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. 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 June 10, Sonam was herding the family cattle which had strayed into a police station. She and her brother went into the station's 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 more than a metre off the ground. The police said she had committed suicide. A post-mortem was conducted which corroborated the police version. However, thanks to media and political pressure the hastily buried body was exhumed 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 politicians fussed with righteousness. But Sonam's horrific death is just another symptom of a country which does not allow most women to live, flourish or be independent. And though laws have been created to protect them, few are implemented.

But why, despite economic growth and modernity, does India still have a spiralling rate of honour killings, dowry deaths, acid attacks and trafficking? Why do these crimes go unpunished, including the horrific crime of female infanticide? In a society in which 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 marriage, an often ill-affordable dowry will have to be gathered for her.

While researching my novel Witness the Night, about an abused young girl in India, I came across cases where newborn baby girls had been thrown on to rubbish heaps to be gnawed by rats; or given an overdose of drugs, sometimes opium.

Perhaps things may have been different if women had united in a pan-Indian women's liberation movement (as in the West). But most women are divided by caste, class, region, language, religion, even dress, and by illiteracy and poverty. And while strong Indian women 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.

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, including Sonia Gandhi, 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.

The Guardian
By Kishwar Desai who won the 2010 Costa first novel award with Witness the Night.

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