As the second most populated country in the world (after China) with 1.3 billion inhabitants, India could overtake its Chinese neighbour by 2025. The Indian population, half of which is under 25 years old, has been booming for more than 20 years and is experiencing major changes in its culture and way of life. Social and technological modernisation brings new challenges and comes into conflict with the religious and cultural dogmas that have governed the country for centuries.
One of the visible and still enduring stigmas highlighted by India’s gradual modernisation is the gender inequality in the country. Even though the situation is slowly improving, women still have less access to care, employment or education than men. According to a 2018 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, India still ranks low on gender equality with an index of 0.501 out of 1, far behind most developing countries. But when you really look at the heart of gender inequality in India, it is violence against women that is of particular concern.
Violence with multiple aspects …
They are everywhere and concern all strata of Indian society. The violence suffered by women coming from men, institutions and society in general is so widespread that it is almost invisible. It begins even before birth with feminicides – the killing of a woman for her gender – which are made possible by prenatal tests that determine the gender of the foetus at a very early stage. Indian families wishing to have a boy to avoid paying a dowry to the parents of the future groom therefore decide to abort or kill the babies if the gender is female. This trend has a considerable demographic impact in the country, since there are now 940 women for every 1000 men. A study published in the journal PNAS estimates, among other things, that more than 10 million women have been prevented from living since 1970.
Another instrument of systemic violence against Indian women is the dowry tradition. This practice, which was supposed to be abolished since 1961, remains tenacious and consists of the payment by the bride’s family of a contribution to the parents of the future husband. According to the National Bureau of Criminal Records, every 90 minutes a woman is burned to death by her spouse or in-laws because the latter are unable to pay her dowry. It is also very common for the women concerned to commit suicide out of shame or fear of reprisals. Honour killings are also widespread and often result from women’s refusal to pay their dowry, to enter into an arranged marriage or because of alleged adultery.
Rape is another major issue that plagues Indian society.The Indian National Bureau of Criminal Records estimates that a woman is raped every 20 minutes in the country. In 2018, 32,033 cases of rape were recorded in India, slightly less than the previous year (33,215). Although this number has tended to decrease in recent years and denunciations are more numerous, the figures remain alarming and the authorities still seem to be far too cautious about taking strong measures that will make a real difference. For example, marital rape is not considered a crime in India unless the victim is under 15 years old, and complaints in these cases are not even dealt with by the authorities, who prefer to avoid conflicts with local castes.
…that intrude into the workplace
With the transformation of Indian society, other forms of violence are emerging, particularly in the workplace, where many Indian women face daily and systematic sexual harassment. In 2017, a survey of over 6,000 female employees by the National Bar Association of India showed that sexual harassment is pervasive in all sectors, especially those defined as informal. In particular, HumanRightsWatch estimates that 95 percent of Indian women workers are employed in such jobs as cleaners, childcare assistants, and cooks, and therefore have little protection under the corporate harassment laws.
For Mina Jadav, a union representative in the informal sector in the state of Gujarat, the problem lies more in the trivialisation of harassment of women in Indian society in general. For her, until a national plan for the whole society is launched, things will not change.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, passed by the government in 2013, is supposed to limit harassment by encouraging women to report abuse through a committee that is to be specific to each company. However, according to Sunieta Ojha, a women’s rights lawyer in Delhi, many companies have not made the effort to set up a committee on these issues. Moreover, for those that have followed the law, the members are not competent and voluntarily decide to avoid scandals by protecting the company and its members, rather than siding with the harassed women. For Mina Jadav, a union representative in the informal sector in the state of Gujarat, the problem lies more in the trivialisation of harassment of women in Indian society in general. For her, until a national plan for the whole society is launched, things will not change.
A government between timid actions and guilty immobility
If there is one entity that women’s rights advocates in India point to, it is the government. One of the criticisms of the government is that it acts too timidly and in reaction to violence against women. This was particularly the case in 2012 during the gang rape in New Delhi, which had unprecedented media and social repercussions in the country. This despicable act of barbarity committed by several men on a bus in the capital deeply shocked the Indian population, who openly attacked the government by marching in the streets.
At the time, the crowd demanded strong and lasting action to eradicate violence against women and the impunity of the aggressors. The government’s response was not long in coming, as the perpetrators were sentenced to death under popular pressure, and laws were passed to toughen the punishment of perpetrators.
Yet government positions have often been highly questionable on the issue of violence against women. In 2016, the former Minister of Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi stated that India ranks among the 4 countries with the lowest rates of sexual violence in the world. This statement provoked the ire of journalists who highlighted the strong prevalence of the culture of rape in the country and especially its constant invisibility by the authorities and a government still governed by patriarchy and religious dogmas.
Sex Education as a driver for change
In this seemingly inextricable reality, several paths are being explored to reduce this violence and change the Indian mentality on sex and gender. The one that seems the most promising is sex education. According to a report prepared by the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, a large majority of public and private schools do not provide sex education. This is due to religious pressure, which is still strong in some parts of India, or to the lack of teacher training on the subject. Most of the schools that provide Sex Education have chosen to focus on purely practical explanations of HIV risks or teenage pregnancy. The notions of “safe sex” and consent are never discussed and are therefore avoided in the education of Indian youth. It is from this observation that Anju Kish decided to create Untaboo in 2011, a company that offers Sex Education courses for families and teenagers in a much more pragmatic way.
For Anju Kish, with Untaboo, the aim is to adapt Sex Education to all ages in order to end the sex taboo in India and improve behaviour
The idea is to respond to the urgent need for sex education for young Indians and to remove the last remaining blockages to sexual dialogue in the country. For Anju Kish, the most important thing is first of all to explain to young Indians how their bodies work, how to take care of them and above all how to respect those of others. Following preliminary research on the subject, the Indian entrepreneur realised that no such education was being provided to young Indians, so she began by writing a book on the subject to fill this gap. It was by working more on the subject and perfecting her methods that she decided to create Untaboo and to provide sex education in the form of workshops and private lessons directly within families.
For Anju Kish, with Untaboo, the aim is to adapt Sex Education to all ages in order to end the sex taboo in India and improve behaviour. With nine years of experience, the Indian company and its trainers are already seeing that families are less reluctant to open up to sex education. Thanks to discourses based on consent, respect for each individual and the appropriation of one’s own body, Untaboo shows that prevention and education are powerful tools capable of changing mentalities.
The Indian government seems to have understood this as in 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of a new education programme in Indian schools. Even if the Ministry of Health refuses to describe this new programme as a sex education course, all its components will be present. For example, children will learn how to identify inappropriate gestures and adolescents will be taught about sexual identity, self-esteem, mutual consent and attraction to the opposite gender. All of these initiatives and the encouraging results they have produced so far show that India seems to be on the right track to change its society and reduce gender inequalities in the country.
Through these Stories, Azickia aims to highlight social impact initiatives, in France and around the world, while not necessarily adhering to all the opinions and actions implemented by them. It is and will remain in Azickia’s DNA to fight against all forms of discrimination and to promote equality for all.
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