Authors: Devika Oberai and Ujval Mohan
Published: 13th December 2023 in The Mint
UN data over the past decade has maintained that as many as one in three women globally have experienced physical and/or sexual violence. Indian women too reel from exposure to risks of gender based violence (GBV), exacerbated by deeply entrenched patriarchy and limited state capacity to intervene.
To its credit, India has enacted strong legislative frameworks to instil deterrence against GBV and provide protective support to survivors. Aside from stringent penalties under the Indian Penal Code for sexual assault and harassment, dedicated gender-responsive laws address intimate partner and familial violence (PWDVA 2005), workplace sexual harassment (PoSH 2013), and female foeticide (PCPNDT 1994). Going further, the government has proactively conceptualised policies that set up one stop crisis centres (OSCs), fund safety upgrades in public spaces (Nirbhaya Fund) and set-up women’s shelter homes (Swadhar Greh).
Multi-pronged efforts and rising public awareness has helped India dent the under-reporting problem to a certain extent, with recent trends indicating more survivors coming forth to report GBV. However, even accounting for this, GBV casts an ominous shadow on India’s aspirations to foster women-led development. The International day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, observed on 25th November, and the ensuing 16 Days of Activism are thus an opportune time to reflect on what India can do better to prevent GBV and protect survivors.
First, we need to re-examine how resources to combat GBV are allocated. Today, state functionaries who respond and enforce anti-GBV laws often have to overcome inadequate resources, limited bandwidth, and a lack of meaningful supervision and coordination. For instance, laws related to domestic violence, female foeticide, and sexual violence are administered by different officials, who typically undertake these functions as ‘additional charges’ over and above their existing revenue/administration functions.
Re-imagining the administrative machinery with an eye on allocative efficiencies can optimise the use of available funding. Clubbing resources in the hands of a single motivated agency tasked solely with GBV response is likely to be more effective than thinly spreading resources out amongst a number of uncoordinated officials. This would unlock the potential to enable closer monitoring of GBV data and response efforts, prioritisation of more vulnerable groups or areas, and meaningful oversight and training for protection officers, police, and other functionaries. As an example, the US noted increased efficiency in combating GBV when it concentrated resources under the Office on Violence Against Women.
Second, we must take stock of the deep trust deficit that has taken root between the state and her citizens in enabling justice. Despite continuous and appreciable efforts, survivors are still met with reluctance and scepticism when filing complaints, advised to ‘reconcile’ with aggressors, or find themselves in understaffed or ill-equipped Crisis Centres or shelter homes.
Turning the tide on these trends requires us to double down on gender sensitization training to augment responders’ capacity, which a vast civil society network is already engaged in.
At the same time, there is a need to strengthen the functionaries’ incentive to act in the best interests of the victim. Equipping survivors and watchdog organisations with a cause of action against officials for failing to discharge their duties can be an empowering tool for survivors to demand that the officials act as the law promises. The ‘carrot’ of meaningful capacity building, coupled with the ‘stick’ of consequences for inaction, can signal a reset in the relationship between survivors and the state.
Investing in Social Norm Change
Finally, it is imperative to acknowledge that, at its core, GBV is driven by deep-seated patriarchal norms that have been resilient against decades of state counter-efforts. Thus far, GBV response has largely remained reactive, and has even involved heightened surveillance on women. Without targeted interventions, the legacy of gender inequality is inherited by each next generation. India therefore needs to operationalise the equality objective of the National Education Policy, 2020 by implementing comprehensive gender-norm corrective interventions at all levels of school education.
There is now emerging evidence that early-age interventions reduce propensity towards GBV, thus preventing a problem well before it takes root. It is encouraging that states like Odisha (in partnership with UNICEF) are using gender-responsive modules to strengthen inclusive learning outcomes in students. Such initiatives recognise that while investing in social norm change is a long game that demands commitment and patience, it could by far be the most effective in protecting Indian women.
India correctly identified women-led development as a priority during its G20 presidency. However, preventing GBV and acting against it is an absolute prerequisite for women to realise their full potential.
Ujval Mohan and Devika Oberai are, respectively, Senior Analyst and Public Policy Associate at The Quantum Hub (TQH Consulting).