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Interrogating Patriarchy: Mechanisms Underlying Violence Against Women In South Asia

By Cynthia Stephen

09 October, 2015

Paper presented at the World Association of Christian Communicators Global Media Monitoring Programme, UTC ERC, Bangalore, September 2015.


Resistance of oppression is one of the most common objectives of all movements for justice. Feminism has, over the decades, provided much intellectual input to this endeavor. While acknowledging its key role in helping women and societies to understand the injustice done to women, it is also important to ask whether all the boxes have been ticked in the attempt to uncover and unpack the roles and responsibilities of societal structures and practices in upholding male power.

One of the most enduring questions in this process is the situation of women in India, which is one of the most diverse societies in the world. The world over, Patriarchy and its tentacles have worked to undermine women’s rights over their bodies, denied their contributions in the home, nation and society, undervalued their economic productivity, appropriated their offspring, subordinated their personalities, and undermined their citizenship and voice.

But what is it about South Asia that is different from the rest of the world?

In this paper, I assume the reader is already aware of the high level of social inequality which prevails in South Asia and of the situation in the area of gender inequalities.

KalpanaKochhar,[1] one of the senior-most Indian Americans at the World Bank, citing World Bank reports and field research, said: "South Asia has the highest gender inequality in the world."

She said, "The gender inequality index uses five indicators including maternal mortality, adolescent fertility, parliamentary representation, educational attainment, and labor force participation, and South Asia ranks the worst on these indicators, even compared with the Middle East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa."Zeroing in on one indicator - nutrition - Kochhar said the statistics in South Asia and India were "appalling."She said, "Forty-two percent of children in South Asia suffer from wasting defined as low weight for age," and the figure was even higher for India - 44 per cent.” Kochhar said, "Forty-seven per cent of children in South Asia suffer from stunting, defined as low height for age," and even here, the figure was higher for India - 50 per cent."She argued that this mattered because "we know that the human growth process is highly dependent on nutrients received in the early years of life”.

This clearly shows that there is structural discrimination against children particularly from the poorer sections – and girl children are the worst affected. Kochhar continues,"Social acceptance of violence against women is very high - 56 per cent of males and 51 per cent of female adolescents - 15-19 years - think that a husband is justified in beating his wife if she burns the food, argues with him, goes out without telling him, refuses sexual relations or neglects the children." She also stressed that "Sex selective abortions are a form of violence against women and dowry murder too."Thus, she reiterated that "educating men and targeting interventions to them holds the key to unlocking this vicious circle in India."

The labour of women is coopted into the domestic sphere and is not counted as economic productivity. In an article[2] by the well knowneconomistsDenis Drechslerand Johannes P. Jütting, the authors point to the “important influence of social institutions on the economic role of women. Female participation in the workforce is low in areas where discrimination through social institutions is high, for example. Add to this the fact that women ..are denied ownership rights”.

There are many other factors which characterize the discrimination faced by women in South Asia. The persistence of dowry, the low work participation rate, the severe and extreme forms of violence which is normalized in women’s lives from girlhood, denial of access to literacy and education, etc.

Beyond Patriarchy:

What could be the specific reason for these practices? One of the worst-kept secrets of our ancient civilisations is the fact that societies in South Asia tend to be not just patriarchal but also Misogynistic. The best illustration of this is our increasingly warped under-five sex ratio in India, which has continued to plunge, growing even among sections where sex-selective abortions were less prevalent in the past.

This misogyny, which Merriam-Webster most succinctly describes as ‘hatred of women’, and the Oxford has expanded to say” hatred of, or prejudice against women”, is quite evident. The wonder is that it has taken so long to recognize it and name the beast.

Thus, even when there are laws to protect women’s rights, it is difficult for them to access those rights, such as when husbands refuse to pay compensation for divorce, when property rights are denied to girls, or when the law fails to punish cruelty or rape in a reasonable time.

The worst affected: Traditional Social exclusion and caste inequality

Since the root of these practices in society – denial of access, discrimination, killings, appropriation of labour and sexuality, etc, are now seen to be not just Patriarchy but actually are due to a prevailing Misogyny, it is important to see how this is manifest in the very unequal society that is the Indian sub-continent.

In Pakistan, Nepal, and all over India, one sees that the social practices do discriminate against women, but it is a few categories of women who see the most brutal and enduring forms of structural violence and exclusion. The continued existence of the practices of discrimination and exclusion on the basis of caste is a grim reality in these communities, and affect roughly 25% of the population of the sub-continent. These, of course, are the Scheduled Castes and tribes, the SC/STs. Though SC is a legal term, the present usage in common parlance is Dalit, the former untouchable communities, some of whom used to ( and some still do) engage in ‘unclean’ occupations, mainly relating to sanitary work, ie, cleaning of lavatories and sewage pipes and tanks manually, and the handling of dead animals including disposal of carcasses and tanning the hide. Though Manual Scavenging has been outlawed for decades, the practice persists. Though the Constitution of India abolished untouchability, it flourishes in new and modern forms.

The roots of the Caste system lie in the concept of ritual purity and pollution, ingrained in the socio-economic-religio-cultural practices promoted by the dominant sections in the society over the centuries. Thus, the justification for the discrimination still being experienced by the Dalit groups in India lie in the age-old understanding that they are polluted by the kind of unclean occupations forced upon them due to their birth in the caste, and outside of the four-level caste system of which the first three are considered to be ‘twice-born’, and thereby ritually relatively pure.

Though a detailed discussion of the system of caste and ritual impurity is outside the scope of this paper, the material result of all these centuries of systematic discrimination against women in general, and those of the vulnerable and marginalized sections has caused the social indicators for the women and girls in these sections to be at the lowest in the world, as the statistics shared above will illustrate. What I will now attempt to tease out is the unique nature of the discriminations faced by the women of these sections.

Manual Scavenging is one occupation which seems to be reserved for women. Even to this day there are tens of thousands of women and girls who are forced by social and economic pressures to work for a pittance to clean dry latrines by hand using nothing more than a bucket or basket and two small sheets of metal scrapers. Their conditions of work are such that their children will follow them into the field automatically, as they are not allowed to study, work, or mix with other people in the town or village.

‘Religiously sanctioned’ prostitution of girl children – comprising of dedicating girls as young as 8 or 9 to a local village temple by ‘marrying’ her to the deity – thereby ensuring that she will enter into the sex trade as a ‘devadasi’ – this practice still continues in some parts of the country and is the source of the majority of girls who are now forced into prostitution in the cities across the country. Apart from Dalit girls, a large number of tribal girls from the poverty-stricken tribal districts of central and East India are also trafficked into prostitution or domestic labour in far-away towns and cities by traffickers who bring them to the cities by paying their parents, or by deceiving the girl and her family into believing that she would be taking up a decent well-paid job in a city.

There is increased agrarian distress in the country caused by drought, the decimation of forests, the appropriation of land, water and forests for infrastructure and mining, causing distress migration of young men and women mostly from the tribal and north east regions. Unrest and violence in these areas are also a cause for the landless and the deprived to migrate to the southern or western parts of the country in search of work, but this often happens in the form of trafficking, which perpetuates poverty and inequality and causes the loss of freedom and total exploitation of those who are already displaced, dispossessed and impoverished by circumstances far outside their powers.

Research by Evidence, an NGO in South Tamil Nadu has shown that when Dalits attempt to farm land that is either given by the government as part of the development activity or bought by them from their own earnings, often it is grabbed by dominants and the record fraudulently created to deprive them of it. Often women who resist are killed. In the central and eastern part of India women from tribal or dalit groups who have some property to their names or inherit some land are often labelled witches and tortured to death to gain hold of their little property.

Further, across the nation there is the reality of impunity enjoyed by those who perpetrate violence against these vulnerable sections, including heinous crimes like gang rape of minors, kidnapping, killing, stripping in public and public verbal humiliation.


All this clearly shows how the society, already stratified on the basis of caste and class, continues to target the weakest in the power structures for severe violence and exclusion. This is further accentuated by the silence of the mainstream press to these huge violations of human rights, reinforcing the fact that society considers these people’s lives and rights as less than human. A case in point is that of the silence when a far more heinous crime was committed in Khairlanji against an entire Dalit family where the mother and daughter were gang-raped by an entire village and their bodies stripped and displayed in public, and the two boys were also killed. The issue was not reported till a week later, when dalit youths started to protest and violence began to spread. A few years later came the Nirbhaya case, which made headlines around the world for the brutality of the crime, and which the entire nation protested.

In December 2013, there were a series of 16 rapes of Dalit girls in Haryana – again in the backdrop of a mobilization by the community to assert their right to bid for common land to till – but the cases are lagging even though a national Dalit women’s group has been pursuing the cases both on the ground and nationally. What message does this convey about the value given to the issues of marginalized women and their struggles for rights and dignity by the state, the media, by the women’s movements, the church, the legal system, the political setup and so on?

The women of India - especially those who are invisible to the power-that-be, the media, the power structures - demand an answer.

Cynthia Stephen is an Independent Writer and Researcher

[1] http://www.rediff.com/business/slide-show/slide-show-1-world-bank-economist-slams-gender-inequality-in-india/20120718.htm#1

[2] http://www.voxeu.org/article/new-strategies-promote-gender-equality



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