Communal violence against religious minorities reflect deep sense of insecurity, trauma of women living in those communities

rashidaThe United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Rashida Manjoo, conducted an official visit to India from April 22 to May 1, 2013. Excerpts the Manjoo submitted to the UN:

Violence against women in India is systematic and occurs in the public and private spheres. It is underpinned by the persistence of patriarchal social norms and inter- and intra-gender hierarchies. Women are discriminated against and subordinated not only on the basis of sex, but on other grounds, such as caste, class, ability, sexual orientation, tradition and other realities. That exposes many to a continuum of violence throughout the life cycle, commonly referred to as existing “from the womb to the tomb”. The manifestations of violence against women are a reflection of the structural and institutional inequality that is a reality for most women in India.

Violence against women in the family

According to numerous interlocutors, the physical, sexual and psychological abuse of women in the private sphere is widely tolerated by the State and the community. The perpetrators include husbands, in-laws and other family members. Many victims live in family settings that are rooted in deeply entrenched patriarchal and customary practices that are sometimes harmful to women. The widespread socioeconomic dependency of women subordinates them to their husbands and other family members. The fear of social exclusion and marginalization, and the lack of effective responses to violence, keeps them in a context of continuous violence and intimidation.

Violence and killings linked to dowry payments are alarming across the country. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau reflect an increasing trend of crimes reported under the Dowry Prohibition Act since 2008, and a significant increase in such crimes since 2010.1 Marriage is often used by the husband and/or his family to obtain property or other assets from the wife and/or her family, either directly or indirectly. While its practice has evolved through time, the payment of dowry today is based on the idea that women are a burden. It is also commonly considered to be crucial to ensure the safety of the bride, especially within poor communities. Despite the payment of dowry, many women and girls find themselves forced into a life of servitude and experience repeated acts of harassment, intimidation, sexual abuse and violence by their husbands and other family members as part of demands for more dowry.

“Honour crimes” are usually perpetrated by family members, often with the complicity of community leaders. Reasons range from a woman’s refusal to be forced into marriage and retaliation for marrying the man of her choice, to refusal to follow prescribed and expected dress codes. Women and girls suffer a wide range of physical and psychological abuse and the denial of basic freedom of movement and expression, and are sometimes killed in the name of “honour”.

Customary practices in the family and community point to a pattern of daughter aversion and son preference. Research has documented a trend of declining girl-child sex ratio from 962 per 1,000 males in 1981, to 945 in 1991, to 927 in 2001, to 914 in 2011. Patriarchal norms and socioeconomic factors have reportedly fuelled the decline. The desire for sons has led to a “policing” of pregnancies by spouses and families through prenatal monitoring systems. The results can lead to sex-selective abortions, which are often forced on women in violation of their sexual and reproductive rights. Despite specific legislation to address this problem, including stringent measures in case of contravention, there is a continuing prevalence of sex-selection practices in some states. Furthermore, some of those measures are perceived as the State policing pregnancies broadly and violating women’s sexual and reproductive choices.

Violence against women in the community

Sexual violence, including rape and sexual harassment, is widespread across the country and perpetrated in public and private spaces. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2012, 2.84 cases of rape were reported every hour. Many interlocutors stated that there was a general sense of insecurity for women in public spaces, especially in urban settings. Women are easy targets of attacks, including sexual violence, whether while using public transportation or sanitation facilities or on the way to collect wood and water. Many victims of sexual violence carry a deep sense of shame, which is further exacerbated by the stigma and exclusion they experience, especially from family members and the community, and which may result in suicide.

With regard to early and/or forced marriages, the implementation of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 has resulted in some reduction in the overall percentage of early marriages. However, the high prevalence of such marriages continues to endanger the lives of girls, whether in respect of domestic violence, marital rape or early pregnancies. It also deprives them of numerous human rights, including the right to education and the enjoyment of their childhood.

The Special Rapporteur was informed about the high incidence of acid attacks on women in the country, despite the development of new legislative measures. Victims of acid attacks are predominantly women who challenge patriarchal norms, including by opposing a marriage or partner proposal. The disfiguring of the victim’s face and body forces the survivors to live in stigma, shame and exclusion. It also creates a climate of fear for other women as regards the consequences of failing to abide by and respect traditional practices and roles.

Violence against various groups is also of concern. Dalit and Adivasi women and women from other scheduled castes and tribes and other “backward classes” are frequent victims of multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, as well as violence. Castebased discrimination, which also includes intra-caste hierarchies, continues to be pervasive and widespread. The intergenerational nature of caste-based discrimination condemns women to a life of exclusion, marginalization and disadvantage in every sphere of life. Many of those women are denied an education and economic opportunities, and perform dangerous and unprotected work, including bonded labour (debt bondage) and manual scavenging, which are both widely regarded as forms of forced labour and modern forms of slavery. Women represent the vast majority of manual scavengers in the country, and are commonly from scheduled castes and minority groups. While legislation has been adopted to eradicate bonded labour and manual scavenging, reports and interlocutors indicate that there is a consistent failure in the implementation of such laws9 and a tendency to minimize the significance of the problem.

Numerous testimonies shared on recurrent episodes of communal violence against religious minorities, including Muslims and Christians, reflect a deep sense of insecurity and trauma of women living in those communities. Experiences included women being stripped, burned, attacked with objects inserted into their vaginas and sexually assaulted in myriad ways because of their religious identity. It was reported that perpetrators of those crimes usually held positions of authority and often went unpunished. Further, those minorities are allegedly excluded from access to education, employment and adequate housing on equal terms with other citizens, despite the existence of affirmative action schemes and measures by the Ministry of Minority Affairs and the National Commission for Minorities aimed at empowering minority women through the provision of knowledge, tools and training.

Women employed as domestic workers are often irregular migrants and unregistered women who operate in a poorly regulated labour market and who are usually considered as belonging to the bottom of a social class. They become easy targets for abusive employers, who force them to work long hours in return for low salaries and often deduct amounts for leave days taken. Many are prevented from using the employer’s sanitary facilities and are forced to defecate and bathe in public, and are subjected to various forms of harassment and violence. Many women are primary breadwinners, either as a result of widowhood or unemployed spouses, and their low pay makes it difficult to assume financial responsibility, including for their children’s health and education needs. Alcohol abuse by husbands was also reported to be a contributing factor to the violence many of those women experienced.

Women with disabilities face multiple challenges, including, for example, the lack of adequate access to public spaces, utilities and buildings, and often experience harassment in public. The Special Rapporteur was informed of a troubling practice whereby a payment incentive was offered, either as a State scheme or a dowry from the family, in exchange for marriage to a woman with disabilities. She was also informed of violence perpetrated against women with disabilities in State-sponsored shelters.

Women in same-sex relationships and transgender women also confront violence and exclusion. Section 377 of the Penal Code criminalizes sexual activities “against the order of nature”. This particularly affects the protection rights of lesbian and transgender women and has been used by parents as an excuse to prevent homosexuality in their families. The mere perception of different sexual orientation is sufficient to put people at risk of violence and is a contributory factor to the inability of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community to report cases of violence.10 20. Sex workers are exposed to a range of abuse, including physical attacks, and harassment by clients, family members, the community and State authorities. Many sex workers are forcibly detained and rehabilitated, and they also face a consistent lack of legal protection. Many face challenges in gaining access to essential health services, including for treatment for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. A recent order of the Supreme Court of India took the position that a sex worker engaged in such work to survive and was “not leading a life of dignity”.

In her discussions with interlocutors, the Special Rapporteur noted a tendency to conflate sex work with trafficking in persons, and when sex workers are identified as victims of trafficking, the assistance that is provided to them is not targeted to their specific needs.

Widows also face particular vulnerabilities, as they are often denied and dispossessed of property by their in-laws following the death of a spouse. In addition, social exclusion and poverty lead some widows to engage in sex work and prostitution, and their children to perform hazardous labour or beg on the streets.

The Special Rapporteur was also informed of brutal acts of violence against women, including executions, commonly referred to as “witch-hunting”. The stigma that is attached to women who are labelled a “witch”, and the rejection they experience within their communities, leads to various violations and is an obstacle to gaining access to justice. Such labelling affects family members across generations. There is reportedly little or no official investigation into such violations.

Violence against women condoned or perpetrated by the State

Women living in militarized regions, such as Jammu and Kashmir and the northeastern states, live in a constant state of siege and surveillance, whether in their homes or in public. Information received through both written and oral testimonies highlighted the use of mass rape, allegedly by members of the State security forces, as well as acts of enforced disappearance, killings and acts of torture and ill-treatment, which were used to intimidate and to counteract political opposition and insurgency. Testimonies also highlight the impact of that situation on women’s health, including psychological disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder, fear psychosis and severe anxiety, with such conditions having a negative impact on women’s physical well-being. Additionally, the freedoms of movement, association and peaceful assembly are frequently restricted. The specific legal framework that governs those areas, namely, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and its variations, allows for the overriding of due process rights and nurtures a climate of impunity and a culture of both fear and resistance by citizens.

Violence against women in custodial settings remains a concern. In 2012 there were 20 women’s prisons and 21 centres for the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. 12 Furthermore there are rehabilitation centres for sex workers. Women account for 4.4 per cent of all inmates in the country. Women prisoners are scattered across the country, often in violation of international standards aimed at ensuring that those wishing to maintain family relationships during custody can do so. Concerns were raised about a lack of adequate protective measures to ensure the safety of inmates, including from gender-related killings. In 2012, 55 deaths of female inmates were registered, of which eight were suicides. There was also a reported lack of access to essential services, including medical care, for inmates due to limited resources.

Women were also found to suffer violence in the context of forced evictions. The State’s efforts to foster economic growth and implement development projects are allegedly often conducted without adequate consultations with affected communities, with the sole objective being one of economic growth at any cost. The consequences for women include being forced to live in insecure environments, displacement, the degradation of their environment, the loss of land and livelihoods and forcible evictions. Many victims are left without adequate relocation alternatives, forcing them to live in slums or on the streets. The Government’s twelfth Five-Year Plan, 2012–2017 includes elements to improve housing conditions through a new slum rehabilitation programme and schemes to assist States to improve livelihood opportunities in urban areas.

The Special Rapporteur noted concerns with regard to profit-oriented microfinance institutions involving microfinance products for women, and the failure of the State to protect and prevent abuses. Vulnerable women reportedly receive multiple loans and are sold financial products with little or no information, and the unequal bargaining power between such institutions and clients is not addressed by regulation. Such practices result in over-indebtedness and the inability to pay back, which leads to harassment and threats and women being excluded from their families and communities. Some have reportedly committed suicide as a result of such abuse. It is unclear if the larger problem is a lack of, or inadequate, regulation of microfinance institutions. D. Violence against women in the transnational sphere

Many women refugees and asylum seekers are unskilled workers who often perform hazardous labour in urban and informal settings. While access to education and health care is provided for free by the Government, access to livelihoods is still a challenge, particularly in urban or semi-urban areas. Many of those women earn low wages and are forced to live in small and overcrowded apartments, with a lack of access to basic sanitation in less developed urban settings. Such factors contribute to poor health conditions and other vulnerabilities. Language barriers often impede their ability to gain access to health care, education and the justice system. Despite improvements in criminal law and police procedures, women refugees and asylum seekers continue to voice safety concerns, as they are frequent targets of attacks and harassment by employers, landlords and community members in public and private spheres.

The trafficking of women and girls from, and to, India was reported as widespread. Disadvantaged women from minority groups, scheduled castes and tribes and the “backward castes” are usually the main victims. Young unskilled women are allegedly given false work promises, resulting in forced domestic servitude in foreign countries. Women who are trafficked and forced into prostitution are left unable to defend their rights, and lack access to rehabilitation and compensation for such crimes. This lack of protection and prioritization of the problem by the State has intensified the violence perpetrated against them by criminals or those involved in trafficking practices. The complicity of State officials in human trafficking was also reported as a concern. The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 and its amendments are reportedly more directed at safeguarding public moral than combating trafficking in line with the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

Conclusions and recommendations

The Government of India has recognized the need to address violence against women as a human rights violation, and also as an issue that detracts from the country’s path to prosperity and inclusive development. It has taken legislative measures in that regard, including measures to address rape and sexual violence. However, significant gaps remain in the legislative framework as regards the failure to recognize all forms of violence against women and to adopt a holistic approach that addresses the root and structural causes of violence against women. Based on the idea of superiority of men over women, those manifestations exacerbate women’s position of dependence and subordination and significantly obstruct effective implementation of relevant legislative and policy measures. Without a comprehensive effort to address them, in schools or university, at work, in the family, in the community and in printed and electronic media, the elimination of violence against women remains a challenge.

The Special Rapporteur recommends that the Government:

(a) Ratify all outstanding international human rights instruments;

(b) Withdraw the declarations and reservation to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, in particular regarding articles 5 (a); 16, paragraphs 1 and 2; and 29, paragraph 1;

(c) Amend the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 and in particular review the provisions that provide for the death penalty in section 376A; include a definition of marital rape as a criminal offence; expand the scope of protection of the law and include other categories of women, including unmarried women, lesbian, transgender and intersex women, religious minorities and underage citizens; and define gang rape as multiple crimes requiring appropriate punishment (section 376D);

(d) Repeal section 377 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes consensual same-sex behaviour;

(e) Review the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 that de facto criminalizes sex work and ensure that measures to address trafficking in persons do not overshadow the need for effective measures to protect the human rights of sex workers;

(f) Repeal, as a matter of urgency, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act and ensure that criminal prosecution of members of the Armed Forces is free from legal barriers;

(g) Adopt the Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill, 2005 and ensure that the Bill incorporates the recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in that regard (CEDAW/C/IND/CO/3, para. 25);

(h) Adopt the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Bill, 2012, to ensure that gender stereotypes are also banned in electronic media;

(i) Ensure women’s participation in elected parliamentary bodies, through the adoption of legislation, including the Women’s Reservation Bill;

(j) Ensure a rights-based approach in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2012, in line with international standards;

(k) Strengthen the implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, by: (i) Allocating sufficient resources to ensure that an adequate proportion of protection officers are employed; (ii) Ensuring that protection officers are properly equipped to conduct their activities, in terms of administrative and logistical resources, and that funds are made available for their full-time employment; (iii) Ensuring that the systems and procedures established under the Act are adequately adapted to deal with violence against women with disabilities.

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