The country can boast of a decade of reforms. But of what consequence? Most of these programmes remain limited to the urban population. The rural belts as well as the unskilled urban wage workers go unnoticed and unaffected. The government has proposed and launched a number of programmes for the empowerment of women, including the observance of the year 2001 as the year of women’s empowerment. It was said,"Our vision in the new century is of a nation where women are equal partners with men." Many new projects were launched like Swa Shakti and Stree Shakti for women's empowerment; Swayamsidha to benefit 100,000 women through micro-credit programmes and Balika Samridhi Yojana for the girl child. However, apart from a lot of hoopla and the accompanying verbal diarrhoea, not much was registered. There are those who point to an unfounded development in the social position of women through the achievements of the likes of Indra Nooyi. However, one swallow alone doesn’t make a summer. We cannot deny that there have been changes. These changes have been limited to the upper crust of the social order. What we need to realise is that any new programme has to overcome the centuries-old hold of subjugation and marginalisation of women.
There has been an alarming rise in the atrocities committed against women. While the constitution guarantees equal opportunity, patriarchy asserts itself through legal loopholes to consolidate the age-old domination. India has a long history of activism for women's welfare and rights. A range of government programmes have been launched to increase economic opportunity for women, although there appear to be no existing programmes to address the cultural and traditional discrimination against women. Be it education, health care, nutrition, property rights, acknowledgment of labour or life security, women find themselves at the lower rungs of the ladder.
Gender-based violence in the form of rape, domestic violence, honour killing and trafficking in exacts a heavy toll on the mental and physical health of affected women. Increasingly, gender-based violence is being recognised as a major public health concern and a serious violation of basic human rights. According to a UN report, on an average, one rape happens every hour in India. Delhi is the sexual-crime capital. The reason for such statistics, according to many is the inefficacy of India’s rape laws. Women’s rights groups allege that the narrow and conservative outlook of Indian society is responsible for the lackadaisical attitude of authorities and the confidence of wrong doers. Indian families are closed to the concept of sex as a topic of discussion and hence avoid highlighting it in any way and rendering steps towards justice ineffectual. Around 60 to 70 per cent of cases of rape go unreported. The reasons are well known. To get a conviction, the victim has to prove in front of an open court that she was sexually penetrated by the rapist. Add to this the social stigma of the whole incident. In many cases, such girls/women are even unable to get husbands. They are shunned and ostracised by the society and if already married, even deserted. Of the few reported cases, convictions are rare.
A 2005 United Nations report said that around two-thirds of married women in India were victims of domestic violence and one incident of violence translates into women losing seven working days in the country. “Discrimination against girl child is so strong in the Punjab State of India that girl child aged two to four die at twice the rate of boys,” quotes a 2002 UNIFEM document.
The problem is not only external but intrinsic too. The socio-psychological makeup of most rural and many urban women has been shaped and moulded by more than a century of patriarchal beliefs and a family system where the man (in form of father or husband) is the equivalent of God. The feeling of inferiority has been embedded in their psyche so much so that far from condemning acts of violence against them they are more likely to throttle the voices in favour of them. This is part of the clichéd vicious circle of illiteracy and social backwardness that accounts for all the resultant backwardness of the gender.
Unless social activism groups take these factors into consideration and delve deeper into the social realm of this problem, there is little that can be done. The government, police and the related authorities need to understand the poignancy of their role. Most of all, men and women need to be aware of the much hyped equality of sexes and need to respect the same. Since ours is not a gender-stratified society in the literal sense, both sexes need to learn how to live in co-operation and harmony. The patriarchal heads of society need to answer what the poet PB Shelley asked centuries ago - “Can man be free if woman be a slave?”