Sexual Abuse in India

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A mother cradles her newborn daughter at the Gateway of India in Mumbai. Photo credits: Niyati Shah

This past December, I travelled to India with the intention of sipping homemade chai, conversing about Indian freedom fighters with my Mumbai pen pals, and immersing myself in multilingual situations to update my rusty Hindi. I realized that my purpose for this trip wasn’t just to enjoy chai, learn hindi from Indian millenials, and attempt conversations in grammatically incorrect Hindi. It was to identify the global public health issues that plague the lives of Indian women in their private and public lives, both in urban areas and rural communities.

I noticed that a common issue was the prevalence of violence towards women. Sexual abuse is at the forefront of domestic and international issues. In recent news, sexual assault stories have surfaced in public view, such as Nassar’s harassment towards young gymnasts and the #MeToo movement’s evolution. In India, 80% of women have experienced some type of sexual harassment.1 Walking through the streets of Mumbai and entering the households of family and friends, I saw that women exposed to demeaning rhetoric were defenseless against the patriarchal system, prevalent in their own homes and workplaces. My mother’s friends told me stories about their attempts to build strength and resilience while riding trains from Borivali to Kandivali; on the trains, they were mostly surrounded by men who, without inhibition, stared at, remarked about, and groped their bodies. Male sexual entitlement is rampant in India. The causes of this problem relate to the massive pro-male culture prevalent in Indian communities, the acceptance of domestic violence as a norm, and the lack of educational and vocational opportunities for women seeking to escape threatening situations.

This brings me to my next point: the gender disparity associated with sex-selective abortion. When visiting rural communities, I noticed the lack of female presence in the shops, rickshaws and roads. The reason behind this is the traditional preference for male babies; males carry the family name, bring money to the family, and maintain the responsibility of taking care of his parents. Giving birth to a daughter is costly and inconvenient for an Indian family, especially if they are traditionalists, and follow the norm of paying a dowry to the groom’s family at the time of marriage. Mothers who don’t understand that gender cannot be changed in the womb go as far as taking “sex-selective drugs,” or illicit medication that is supposed to ensure a boy is born from her womb.2 A lucrative business for the underground sellers, the drug continues to perpetuate the idea that having a male is more superior than having a female, and has the detrimental effect of killing the baby within the womb and harming the mother’s health. Despite Prime Minister Modi’s campaign,“Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” (Save the Daughter, Teach the Daughter), to increase the ratio of women to men in India, there are 63 million women “missing” from the Indian population today.4 Missing women “refers to the shortfall of the actual number of women from the number we would expect to see,” given the sex ratio that could be possible if males and females were treated similarly.5 Thus, with sex-selective abortion in favor of male children, the patriarchal system of India continues without reservation, and women receive the greatest threats of violence, abuse, and misinformation.

This issue is far more profound than how this blog post portrays it as. I have barely skimmed the surface of the cultural, economic, and biological determinants of sexual abuse and sex-selective abortion in India. I encourage you to think about this issue and take the initiative to research on your own accord. We can never allow sexual harassment to become normalized, domestically or globally. Society must continue to catalyze the education and empowerment of women. Converse on these matters. Find ways you can advocate and support reproductive health. Organizations like “Set Her Free” help mitigate the issue in Uganda, but there is certainly a need to spread the motives, values, and structure of “Set Her Free” to rural and urban Indian communities. Until this dire issue is resolved, we cannot stop thinking, discussing, and acting.

–Niyati Shah, GW GlobeMed, Communications Committee

1Meera Senthilingam, “Sexual harassment: how it stands around the globe,” CNN, last modified November 29, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/25/health/sexual-harassment-violence-abuse-global-levels/index.html.

2Sophie Cousins, “India’s war on the sex selection drugs linked to stillbirths,” The Guardian, last modified October 27, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/oct/27/india-war-sex-selection-drugs-linked-to-stillbirths-haryana-pregnant-women.

3Krista Mahr, “Modi launches campaign to tackle India’s dwindling number of girls,” Reuters, last modified January 22, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-girls/modi-launches-campaign-to-tackle-indias-dwindling-number-of-girls-idUSKBN0KV10320150122.

4Annie Gowen, “India has 63 million ‘missing’ women and 21 million unwanted girls, government says,” The Washington Post, last modified January 29 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/01/29/india-has-63-million-missing-women-and-21-million-unwanted-girls-government-says/?utm_term=.062e45faa60a.

5Amartya Sen, “India’s Women: The Mixed Truth,” The New York Review of Books, last modified October 10, 2013, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2013/10/10/indias-women-mixed-truth/.

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